Wednesday 26 January 2011
[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
The Army and RAF Lyneham
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Dunne.)
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to have this debate, and to sit under your able chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am sure that the debate will be orderly and sensible with you looking after it.
I am here to talk about an extraordinarily important event for the people of North Wiltshire. The influence of RAF Lyneham in the community is extremely great, and the proposed closure of the RAF element of the base would, if nothing else were to be done about it, have a devastating effect. I thank my hon. Friends who have attended, particularly those from the county of Wiltshire—my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury (John Glen) and for Chippenham (Duncan Hames). I also offer apologies from my hon. Friends the Members for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and for Devizes (Claire Perry), both of whom would have been here but unfortunately had to be elsewhere. We have, I think, unanimous support from Wiltshire Members, but I also see other hon. Friends with an interest in Wiltshire and am glad that they have taken the trouble to be here this morning.
I shall start by doing something one should never do, which is to disobey the Prime Minister. This time last week, Councillor Mary Champion, the mayor of Wootton Bassett, her deputy, Councillor Heaphy and Johnathan Bourne, the town clerk, had the great honour of being invited to No. 10 Downing street to see the Prime Minister, so that the Prime Minister could thank them and the people of Wootton Bassett for the efforts that they make in paying tribute to our fallen heroes as they come back down through Wootton Bassett high street. One of the things that the Prime Minister said to the mayor at that very pleasant meeting was, “Whatever you do, please don’t let James start banging on about Lyneham. He’s always banging on about Lyneham.” I am sorry to have to say to the Prime Minister that I intend to continue to bang on about Lyneham as long as I possibly can, to the boredom of all who will listen, until we find a satisfactory solution, to avoid the potential catastrophe that would occur for my constituency if Lyneham were to be closed and nothing else were to be done. The issue is a huge one and I have taken a keen interest in it, and campaigned long and hard on it, over five or six years. It is about 12 months ago that we had a debate in this Chamber to discuss whether it was right that the RAF should leave the base. I am afraid I intend to keep up that effort until we come up with the right solution.
Before I move on to the substance of the matter, it is perhaps right, as we face the beginning of the end of repatriation ceremonies through Wootton Bassett, to pay tribute to the people of Wootton Bassett and surrounding areas. The Royal British Legion in Malmesbury, Chippenham, Calne and other parts come into the town, often once or twice in a week, in all weathers without fail, to bow their heads for two seconds in tribute to the coffins of the fallen that come back through the town. I think, looking back to the first of those occasions, that I was the only person there. It was after the tragic downing of flight XV179, the Hercules that was brought down in Iraq. I and the TV crews saw the 10 coffins coming through the high street. I said to the crews, “Turn off your cameras and we will go and pay our respects on the pavement.” Ever since then, the people of Wootton Bassett have turned out in great numbers week by week. They do not want any thanks for it. They do it just because that is their civic duty and because they support the armed services, but none the less they stand proxy for the grief of the nation and it is right that we, here, should pay tribute to them. As we see the beginning of the end of those ceremonies, I hope that whichever place takes over the sad repatriation duties, whether that will be RAF Brize Norton or somewhere else, it will find some similar way of marking the occasion when the bodies are brought back to the nation.
This week there was a photograph in The Daily Telegraph of one of the last “Fat Albert” C-130s being carried by road past the iconic pillared town hall of Wootton Bassett. Seeing the end of RAF Lyneham coming down through the high street brought home a message to us all.
We in Wiltshire will say a sad farewell to the RAF. The nearby Yatesbury base still has the first world war officers’ mess and hangars of the RAF, which was founded there roughly 100 years ago. Ever since then the RAF has had a home in Wiltshire. Sadly, when it leaves Lyneham later this year a long and distinguished link with the RAF will end.
Many people in the area are retired from the RAF. We thank the RAF for what it has done and say goodbye with great sadness. We have fought long and hard against the suggestion that the Hercules fleet should be moved to Brize Norton. I continue to believe that that is the wrong decision, but sadly it was taken too long ago to be reversed and we have now come to accept the reality that the RAF will leave. The last flights will be in August and September, and the base will be finally vacated by December 2012. We regret that and think that it is a wrong decision but have come to accept it as a fait accompli; there is nothing else we can do about it. So we say a sad farewell to the RAF and look forward to what will happen in the future.
I am concerned about the possibility that nothing will happen in the future, which is something that we have seen elsewhere; my own Government foolishly closed RAF Wroughton nearby and left it vacant for many years. Vandals moved in and the value declined, and the economy was damaged as a result. The same happened only 15 or 20 years ago when the Army left Corsham. Again, it was left vacant for a long time, the economy went down and the result was catastrophic.
Whatever happens to RAF Lyneham when the RAF leaves, we must re-use the site swiftly and cleanly. We must not allow Defence Estates to sit on it, or the vandals to move in. We must find a quick and speedy solution. After all, the local economy depends to a significant degree on the base. Something like 3,400 jobs are directly or indirectly dependent on it, according to a recent survey by Wiltshire council. About £90 million within the local economy comes from Lyneham. If the site were to be left vacant and nothing were to happen there it would be a disaster for the local economy. I am glad to say that two or three commercial interests are taking a keen interest in the site. I am working closely with them and will be keen to encourage them in every possible way and try to find other uses for the site. There are difficulties with that, but there are some commercial possibilities for the site, and I welcome that.
By far the strongest sense of what one might call local unanimity is on the point that when the RAF leaves later this year we would like the Army to return to the site. We were therefore much encouraged by what the Prime Minister had to say during his statement on the strategic defence and security review. He told the House that there would be
“changes in the way in which some RAF bases are used, but some are likely to be required by the Army as forces return from Germany. We owe it to communities up and down the country who have supported our armed forces for many years to engage with them before final decisions are taken.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 798.]
Well, there is no community, up and down the land, that has supported our armed forces more than that of Lyneham, Wootton Bassett, Calne and the surrounding area. I hope that the vacated RAF Lyneham base will be one of the most attractive for the Army returning from Germany.
We believe that Lyneham, unlike one or two of the other bases around Britain that are similarly making bids for the Army, has some unique selling propositions. First, we have an immensely strong military connection. Half the British Army is in Wiltshire. Wiltshire is a military place. It is an agricultural place. It is a place of market towns and villages, a place of high-tech industries —we must not forget that—but it is predominantly, overwhelmingly, agricultural and military. The whole ethos of the place is military. Many of the people are ex-military and the people in the area support the military. I suspect that things would be quite different in some other bases where local people would, frankly, breathe a sigh of relief as they said goodbye to the military presence in their constituency. The people of North Wiltshire would very much welcome the Army.
The dossier that I presented to the Minister this morning included letters from Wiltshire council, Lyneham parish council, Wootton Bassett parish council, the chamber of commerce and a number of other people, all of whom are saying that they would like the Army to come to Lyneham. As nothing in this world is unanimous, I will no doubt be hearing from some people who do not agree with me. None the less, the overwhelming feeling in North Wiltshire is that we would like the Army to come to Lyneham. There is also a strong benefit of such a move for the Ministry of Defence itself.
Our first unique selling proposition is that we strongly support the military. As to who we would like to see coming in, I have a number of possible answers. The Prime Minister has announced that some 15,000 soldiers are returning from Germany, the details of which I will come back to in a second or two. We believe that a flexible brigade could fit into Lyneham. The base may be slightly too small, but there could be room for a multi-role brigade. Failing that, there are a number of smaller units located around the area. One thinks of Colerne in which the Signal Regiment is based. Nearby Hullavington houses one of the two Royal Logistics Corps Regiments in the area, the other one being in South Cerney. There are a number of other similar small units dotted around the area that could usefully be co-located at Lyneham, thereby saving a lot of money.
It has also been said that the university air squadrons, which are dotted around the place, could reuse the hardstanding at Lyneham. The base, therefore, could either house a multi-role brigade or be used for co-location. Someone else mentioned the Anglo-French rapid reaction corps. I know that the people of North Wiltshire would very much welcome French service personnel if indeed they were to form part of the rapid reaction corps. The fact that we have the RAF infrastructure on the base means that we can deploy people rapidly. There are thousands of square feet of hardstanding, hangars and an air traffic control building, which would be useful assets in the rapid deployment of forces, whether they be the Anglo-French rapid reaction corps, special forces or others.
Lyneham has a number of significant assets that could be offered to the Army. Without delaying the House too much, let me quickly run through them. Lyneham is a 1,359 acre site, which is much bigger than any other RAF or Army base. It is fully equipped and will be vacant by 2012 at the latest. The last flights are scheduled for August or September this year. However, if the Army wanted to move into the base sooner, I dare say that the RAF could hasten its exit.
Lyneham’s main asset is its location. It is 20 miles at most from Salisbury plain—just a few minutes’ flying time. It is close to all sorts of other training assets and to the M4, so Wales is not far away. There is a large number of training bases across the county, and the site is close to London, Berkshire and elsewhere. Therefore, it is ideally located for training.
Some other parts of the RAF are being located elsewhere. It would be wrong of me to mention any bases in particular. However, I must say that last night, I attended the Adjournment debate secured by the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). I support what he had to say, and he said it very well. None the less, Leuchars would be quite different in terms of training areas, as would Lossiemouth. Lyneham, on the other hand, is at the heart of the military and offers real training space.
Although I am not privy to the MOD’s sometimes arcane accounting procedures—one chap understood them, but he died some years ago—we all know, I think, that when the Army comes back in very large numbers from Germany, the MOD will not have vast sums of money to spend on it. Among other things, the Army will need substantial accommodation and training facilities for its military personnel.
At its peak, Lyneham housed 3,500 RAF personnel and their families. There is a married quarters estate of 610 houses for other ranks and 155 houses for officers, which will largely be vacated by 2014 at the latest, although I understand that a number are already occupied by soldiers from the 9 Supply Regiment Royal Logistics Corps.
There are 20 barrack blocks with 892 good-quality rooms. One block has multi-occupancy-rooms—two-man bedrooms—and four blocks have en-suite rooms, which is quite unusual. The sergeants’ mess has 210 rooms and the officers’ mess 135. Taking all the accommodation together, there are more than 2,000 bed spaces available, and they are available today, or as soon as the RAF leaves. The Army could literally march in as the RAF flies out.
The other ranks’ dining room has capacity for 1,000 people. There is a large Navy, Army and Air Force Institute building, a Spar shop and every kind of sports facility—fitness suites, sports hall, tennis courts, squash courts, trim trail, four rugby and football pitches, a cricket square and a bowling alley. There is just about everything that one could possibly want by way of sporting facilities. Moreover, there is ample space for building a new barrack block or other facilities if they were needed.
The whole site is secure. The fence has recently been redone. There is some 14 km of fence around the site. Inside the wire, there are training facilities that include a lecture theatre and conference room, a training centre with three classrooms, various small classrooms, a 25-metre rifle range, a respirator testing chamber and a four-lane dismounted combat trainer, all of which would be useful for an incoming Army unit. The camp has several headquarters buildings, an unlimited supply of office space—the RAF seems to need a large number of offices, but the Army needs rather fewer. The site has a total of 12 hangars, with 52,000 square metres of internal storage space. It has about 50 hectares of runways and parking areas, which could presumably be used as hardstanding for all sorts of things. For example, there could be helicopter or fixed-wing rapid deployments from the base. The extensive runways would also be useful.
The site has vast military transport facilities. I am told that it has an 81,000 litre diesel and 27,000 litre petrol kerbside facility, an air traffic control building, fire services, explosives stores and so on. There are also first-class, recently rebuilt medical and dental centres. The infrastructure is all there. Although some parts of it may be a little tired, the MOD has, none the less, recently spent £5 million on upgrading the base. As I understand it, the standards required by the Army are slightly lower than those required by the RAF. Although the RAF may think some of the facilities are a little tired, I suspect that the Army would say, “This is significantly better than some of the places that we have found elsewhere.”
I appreciate that the standard of accommodation in Germany is very high, as it should be, so if we are bringing soldiers back, we will have to offer them equivalent accommodation. In short, after a bit of rebuilding and tidying up, the site could be a most worthwhile base at a minimum cost to the MOD. If the MOD were to take over a less well supplied base, the cost would be considerable. There are, of course, many examples of RAF bases being reused by the Army across England. In my own constituency, RAF Hullavington is now home to the 9 Supply Regiment Royal Logistics Corps and Bassingbourn and Abingdon are both good examples of reusing RAF sites for the Army.
In addition to the military infrastructure that is readily available to the Army, there is good local infrastructure. Although Lyneham is predominantly a military village, the schools, roads, and shops are all in place. The Army could move in tomorrow and it would find that the civilian infrastructure was available. I was recently at a meeting with the head of the local primary school, who was very concerned that the RAF was leaving the area. The school is first class and was recently reopened by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cornwall. It could be available for use by the Army tomorrow. Very few places in the area could offer that kind of facility.
It seems that we in Lyneham are offering just what the Army needs. There is an additional, if not slightly negative, reason why the MOD should consider Lyneham’s facilities. There could be problems with regard to the base if the Army were not to use it. It appears that there is a Crichel Down problem. I think that some 60 owners are laying some claim to the base and it could take some time—potentially, although not necessarily—for the Crichel Down thing to go through. However, that issue certainly needs further examination. Furthermore, if the base were to be handed over to civilian use there would doubtless have to be a significant level of decontamination, which would obviously have to be done to remove explosives, oil and other materials from the site. If that were to happen and the site were left vacant for a time, there would be all the costs of maintaining the site during the period that it was vacant, so there would be a significant cost to the Treasury of not doing something with the site swiftly.
So, from the point of the view of the Army, RAF Lyneham is highly attractive and from the point of view of the MOD, RAF Lyneham is a useful solution to a problem that it has. The MOD has been instructed to bring 15,000 soldiers in total back from Germany and it is currently considering what to do with them. The use of the site is also a useful solution from the point of view of the local area, which will face economic catastrophe if the Army does not use the site or if there is no alternative commercial use for it. Actually, marching the Army in as the RAF flies out some time later this year—I suppose that now it would have to happen next year—seems to be an extremely neat solution to a variety of problems. We have what the Army needs; the Army needs us; the Treasury needs Lyneham, and the local area needs the Army and would welcome the Army, as local people have made very clear. Also, I think that the nation owes a little bit to RAF Lyneham and Wootton Bassett for all that they have done in recent years.
So I hope that the Minister will listen carefully to the debate this morning. I am glad that we have such a large number of people here supporting our efforts. I do not imagine that the Minister will do anything other than listen carefully and nod wisely. I am not asking him to answer my requests straight away. However, I hope that he will listen carefully to what I have said; that he and his officials will read the dossier that I have given them; and that we have at least been able to add some knowledge to the consideration that I know is currently going on among large numbers of people at the MOD. I believe that Lyneham would be ideal for the Army and I also believe that the Army needs Lyneham.
Thank you for calling me, Mr Betts. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today.
First, I want to congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on securing this excellent debate and on the way in which he has made his case so eloquently. He and I have attended a number of debates in the past few months, which were secured by the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and, as he has mentioned, the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell).
What is very clear is the deeply held affection that communities up and down the United Kingdom have for their military bases, which has been demonstrated by their Members of Parliament. I am sure that we all pay tribute to the community around RAF Lyneham for the way in which it, as the hon. Member for North Wiltshire has said, has conducted itself and supported our gallant and fallen service personnel on their return from overseas.
I simply wish to make a few observations to the Minister to tease out some answers, as the hon. Gentleman has already tried to do. The Minister will obviously be aware that a large number of troops are due to return from overseas in the next few years. Obviously, he will also be aware that when the Chief of the Defence Staff appeared before the Select Committee on Defence, of which I am a member, he introduced a note of caution about the timetabling for the return of the troops from Germany.
It will probably not surprise you, Mr Betts, or indeed the Chamber, that two issues in particular concerned the CDS, and it is fair to say that those concerns were shared by the Defence Committee—I say that as I look at the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen), who is also a member of that Committee. The first was the issue of the troops’ families. As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire has already said, it is not simply a case of bringing home 15,000 servicemen and women, because their families will obviously need to be accommodated. I remind the Minister that, according to his own Department’s figures, accommodation for some 25,000 personnel within the defence estate of the United Kingdom is considered to be not of the highest standard, and my understanding is that there are currently no plans to upgrade that accommodation.
The second issue that concerned the CDS, as he pointed out when he appeared before the Defence Committee, is how we will educate the children of the returning service personnel. I do not wish to repeat the argument that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire and I had during consideration of the Armed Forces Bill about how to educate those children, but there is a very real issue about the schooling that we need to provide for all the children of returning personnel.
It is worth paying tribute to the first-class Wootton Bassett comprehensive school, which is two or three miles down the road from Lyneham. At the moment, of course, its pupils are 30% to 40% RAF, so we would have primary and secondary school places immediately available in the surrounding area, if necessary.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I hope that the Minister will be able to go slightly further and give a guarantee that, as part of the assessment that I am sure he is making, there will be a proper assessment of the current capacity for education of returning service personnel’s children and, if necessary, a guarantee that additional funds will be provided to any of the military bases—or rather, the local authorities in whose areas the military bases are located—that are chosen to house returning personnel, to ensure that we do not have a surplus of demand over capacity and so that no local authority is left with challenges as a result. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point that the schools in his local area already have that capacity, but I nevertheless hope that the Minister will carry out a proper assessment of this issue.
Regarding the accommodation of service personnel and their families, I would be grateful if the Minister were to tell the Chamber whether the MOD is confident that all accommodation at RAF Lyneham is of the highest standard. If it is not, can he say what the timetable is for bringing it up to a suitable standard?
As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire will recall, we touched on the final issue that I want to raise with the Minister today in last night’s Adjournment debate. I have a long-standing concern that the MOD has perhaps not always carried out its decision making in a duly transparent way and has not sought to ensure that the communities affected by its decisions are the first to know about them. I hope that the Minister can give a guarantee today that not only will the process for any decision making on the return of troops and their stationing within the UK be conducted in a clear manner and that he will share the details of that process with the House and the Defence Committee, but that he will do everything within his power to ensure that the communities affected by those decisions are the first to know about them, then the House and lastly the media, rather than what has unfortunately happened in the past, where the media have found out about decisions before the communities affected by them.
I want to end by again congratulating the hon. Member for North Wiltshire on securing this debate and on his powerful words.
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) for securing this debate. As someone who grew up in north Wiltshire and who is aware of the footprint that RAF Lyneham has in the local area and in the county more widely, I also pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done during the past seven years in campaigning to keep the RAF at Lyneham and to the work that he is now doing, as he reflects the reality of the decisions that have been made, looks to the future and seeks a constructive way forward.
I speak as both a Wiltshire MP and as a member of the Select Committee on Defence. It seems to me that there are three significant reasons why this case for having the Army come to RAF Lyneham needs to be carefully examined.
The first reason is that it is quite clear that there is huge symbolic significance to RAF Lyneham and its relationship with Wootton Bassett. It is impossible for the Government to pay great tribute, with one voice, to the people of Wootton Bassett, which is just a few miles down the road from RAF Lyneham, for all that they have done to recognise the huge contribution of all those who have fallen in battle, and at the same time, with another voice as it were, not to go out of their way to recognise the impact that this decision, if it does not go the right way, would have on the local community. Effectively, RAF Lyneham is the gateway between the UK and Afghanistan, and over many years the people of the surrounding area have made a massive contribution to the well-being of service personnel’s families.
The motto of RAF Lyneham is “Support, Save and Supply”. As my hon. Friend has set out fully this morning, the opportunities for RAF Lyneham to continue to serve the armed forces—in this case, the Army—are significant. The infrastructure is in place, and I do not need to point to the long history over the past 50 years of the people of Lyneham and Wootton Basset’s service to the nation, but the decision has clearly been made to move the RAF to Brize Norton. We have to acknowledge, however, that we cannot make such decisions wholly without emotion and without respect for the wider issues at play in the vicinity.
The second reason is the economic value of RAF Lyneham. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) knows that the Defence Committee, of which I, too, am a member, looks at the strategic issues, but the economic arguments are massive. There are about 2,500 civilian and military personnel at Lyneham, and several thousand acres of land are connected with the base. The impact on the local economy has been estimated at about £90 million a year, so if Lyneham were to no longer have a significant military footprint, a considerable gap would be left which, as the chairman of Wootton Bassett chamber of commerce has pointed out, would be unsustainable. If the decision does not go the right way, there will be a direct adverse impact on the economy of Wootton Bassett.
Thirdly and finally, the strategic defence and security review has reached some uncomfortable conclusions, and it has made some difficult assessments of what needs to happen over the next 10 years, driven by the acknowledged financial mess that the Government have inherited. With 10,000 to 15,000 troops returning to the UK, we need to find the right situation for them to locate to, and it is absolutely clear that in Wiltshire the Army has a very welcoming home. In my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), there are so many strategic reasons why it would make sense for the Army to locate to Lyneham. It has been suggested that the Royal Logistics Corps could move from South Cerney and Hullavington to the Lyneham base, but a number of other options are available.
I ask the Minister for a timely decision, because considerable ongoing debate would leave the local economy open to lots of uncertainty. If that is not possible, we must ensure that we put in place a clear plan for the economic regeneration of the area, and allow the options to be fully explored and quickly executed. If there is a problem with the transfer of assets from the RAF to the Army, it needs to be worked out and dealt with quickly and sensibly, rather than allowing internal wrangling in the Ministry of Defence to stop progress.
The case seems very clear: Lyneham is a symbolic home of the armed forces and should continue to be so, whether for the RAF or the Army. There is an absolutely sound economic case for that, and it also presents an effective, practical solution to a problem that will need to be dealt with over the next 10 years. An Army base at Lyneham makes sense, but we must ensure that it happens quickly, so that the people there can have some reassurance after their massive contribution over the past 10 years.
I congratulate my neighbour, the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), on securing the debate and, in particular, on the dexterity and skill that went into securing a 90-minute one, which affords many more of us the opportunity to participate. I rise primarily to demonstrate the shared interests of my constituents and his.
Despite Wiltshire being a rural county, it has great affection for Lyneham and the RAF there. As we have heard, ordinary Wiltshire people, far beyond the confines of Wootton Bassett, share in the honourable act of respect for our fallen, and I have on occasion bumped into Chippenham residents after a repatriation there. Even before I was elected to Parliament, I was privileged to have the opportunity to visit RAF Lyneham as part of the excellent Supporting Britain’s Reservists and Employers programme—SaBRE—where we saw a well maintained, busy base, which clearly had a number of people who lived further afield than the base participating in the effort. That is an important consideration in our approach to the future for Lyneham.
My honourable neighbour has made a comprehensive case for the military benefits of the Army coming to Lyneham, and I recognise that that must be the primary basis for any decisions, but it is important that I take the opportunity to set out some more of the economic consequences of the current situation. We have heard that the estimated contribution to the economy of the MOD’s involvement at RAF Lyneham is some £90 million a year, and my constituents voluntarily raise the topic of that economic impact with me. The impact is felt over a wide area, and is reflected in the wide array of partners that have come together under his chairmanship of the Lyneham taskforce, as it has sought to put together a vision for Lyneham. Members of the taskforce include the South West regional development agency, Wiltshire council, Westlea—our local social landlord—and, importantly I would argue, the Wessex association of chambers of commerce, which, among representatives of business groups has a very acute understanding of the concerns of businesses in the area, and is an association of which I was a member until May last year.
I am pleased to report a conversation with the chairman of Chippenham chamber of commerce, who is very keen for the Army to come to Lyneham. The chamber is very concerned about the widespread and, from the point of view of ordinary members, hard to quantify consequences of leaving Lyneham empty. I suppose that we must consider that we might be unsuccessful in our calls today, for it will not be easy for either Wiltshire or the Ministry of Defence, to achieve alternative futures for Lyneham, which the taskforce has carefully considered. Nevertheless, it is important that the Minister is aware that there is an easy alternative.
With level heads, the members of the taskforce have considered the future aviation use of the airfield and have concluded that a commercial airport development at RAF Lyneham would be wholly inappropriate. I echo the views expressed earlier in the debate of the importance of a timely decision. Too many communities in other parts of the country have seen areas blighted because unused defence assets have been hung on to, which ultimately leads to a very expensive regeneration effort. It is certainly the view of people in Wiltshire that we need a clear future for Lyneham before very long.
Without wishing to stray too far from the subject, there are lengthy debates about housing development in Wiltshire, and it is important to recognise that there are no easy get-outs to be had from taking such advantage of the land in Lyneham. Surely it is essential that any future development in Wiltshire involves sustainable communities. It would be a travesty if we built housing developments that did not provide jobs for the people living in our communities. Considering the large population expansions that even Wiltshire council still seems to desire in places such as Chippenham, we cannot afford to remove many jobs, which would create a great imbalance in the local economy.
Importantly, although the site is large, not all of it is suitable for development. We must consider the potential agricultural returns on the site, if it were not successfully reused by the Ministry of Defence. I urge the Department not to see the land as an asset to be sweated or a cash cow presenting financial benefit, or to use that as a reason not to support the exceptionally well-developed case made by all the partners under the leadership of my neighbour the hon. Member for North Wiltshire. I invite the Minister to consider in particular our anxiety for a swift decision about the future of Lyneham and the community’s immense appetite for its continued association with the Ministry of Defence. It is an opportunity for us, as a community, to show our hospitality to the Army.
I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), who has campaigned assiduously for Lyneham and for investment in his constituency. I was born in Chippenham and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), I grew up in north Wiltshire. I therefore feel that I should make a brief contribution to support my hon. Friend and say that the key factor about RAF Lyneham is how much support it has had from local communities.
Lyneham, with its Hercules fleet, generates a lot of noise but precious few complaints. I lived in the area during the Falklands war, when lots of Chinook helicopters were ferrying supplies at all times of the day. Local people show great support for the RAF, and the RAF has been a good neighbour. Indeed, some of the biggest arguments that I have seen at local parish councils concern whose turn it is to go to the open day at Lyneham and perhaps get a trip in an aircraft. People value the connection with Lyneham, which is an important point for the future.
I thank my hon. Friend for being here to speak in support of this debate. He is absolutely right. In my 14 years as a Member of Parliament for Lyneham, I do not remember a single letter of complaint from any constituent. There was one exception when a clay pigeon shoot was being held too near the wire—we had it moved—but with regard to military activity, I cannot remember a single complaint.
That certainly reinforces my point that north Wiltshire and the military have had a close relationship. As my hon. Friend has said, Lyneham is a tremendous asset, given its sporting facilities and existing housing. I do not know what condition it is in—the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) made a good point about the state of the defence estate; we must ensure that our armed service personnel have good-quality homes—but it is a material factor.
Lyneham is not only a good base for deploying units from Germany on military grounds, because we should pay attention to what is good for armed service personnel’s families. There are homes near the base, but there are also a wide range of homes in the community for those who wish to buy. It is an RAF tradition for people to live in all the communities around the base including not only Swindon, but Chippenham, Calne, Wootton Bassett and Malmesbury—a lot of personnel have become part of local communities. North Wiltshire is an incredibly good place to live. It is conveniently located for the training grounds on Salisbury plain and in south Wales. I consider it a no-brainer to use Lyneham for a good military purpose.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) made the good point that, with the RAF going, a swift decision is sensible, so that we can make use of this tremendous asset and locate the military somewhere that they can train and base their families, with good-quality schools and education and a supportive community. That would be a good decision for the MOD, serving personnel and their families and the people of north Wiltshire, who have done a lot to support the military and will continue to do so.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on securing this important debate and on his work to support and champion the armed services generally as chairman and founder of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces. He hosts troops returning from Afghanistan here in the House of Commons, and I know that he served with the Honourable Artillery Company, so he has a personal understanding of the armed services. He has also been a champion and advocate for RAF Lyneham and his constituents for many years. I commend him on his tenacity in ensuring that the future of the base remains on the political agenda, despite the sad news that the RAF will be leaving Lyneham, with final vacant possession by December 2012.
It is right to pay tribute to the local community for its support of the armed services. We have all seen the poignant tributes on television in which local people and others from far afield pay homage to the fallen servicemen and women repatriated from Afghanistan who land at RAF Lyneham and then proceed through Wootton Bassett High street. It stands out in all our minds. Those residents express the gratitude that our nation feels to those who sacrifice their lives to protect our freedoms and way of life. That symbol of local support never fails to move me. It is one of the reasons why, to my mind, RAF Lyneham is well placed to become a new home for the Army. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, people in the area have unwillingly accepted that Lyneham will cease to be an RAF base by 2012. That is not to say that acceptance has been easy, but he has been resolute in championing Lyneham and making the case against its closure.
It is with a heavy heart that the people of North Wiltshire must say a sad farewell to the harmonious bond that they have had with the RAF for 80 years. However, the new Government have given at least some encouraging news. We were all heartened to hear my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s announcement that as part of the strategic defence and security review, which other hon. Members have mentioned, our service personnel will return from Germany and some of them will be rehoused on a redundant RAF base. I take this opportunity to echo some of my hon. Friend’s sensible arguments why Lyneham has much to offer as a home to some of our returning troops, but first, giving examples from my own experience, I will explain why maintaining an armed forces presence in Lyneham is of undeniable benefit.
As a Territorial Army recruit, I did most of my basic training at the Prince of Wales barracks in Grantham, which used to be an RAF base. I was posted to the Royal Citadel in Plymouth for six months before being deployed on Operation Herrick. Both camps are integral to their local communities, have a large beneficial effect on them and help project a positive image of the Army, with all the obvious benefits that that brings. Local areas clearly benefit socially and economically from the presence of a military base.
In Lyneham’s case, the withdrawal of service personnel from the local community would have an immense impact. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, the study commissioned by Wiltshire council in 2009 demonstrated that the gross added value to the local community would be reduced by up to £90 million. Furthermore, 3,400 jobs in local services, retail and other sectors were likely to become redundant, and real household disposable income would decline by about £86 million. That is an obvious impact on local people. He was also right to mention the devastating economic consequences that the local area could face if the base closed permanently.
Besides the economic effects, one thing is abundantly clear: the people of Lyneham and the local area would welcome the Army, which must be one of our biggest considerations. Given Wiltshire’s strong military connections and Lyneham’s proximity to Salisbury plain, I see it as a natural choice for rehousing troops returning from Germany or further afield. Local people not only accept Lyneham as a military site—service personnel are already well integrated into Lyneham and the surrounding areas—but, given that 21,000 military personnel and their dependants reside in the county as a whole, the local area would need to change little if Lyneham, as we hope, becomes an Army base. As my hon. Friend has informed us, letters of support from the local community and the chamber of commerce are a clear indication that that is desired across the board.
In conclusion, I agree that rehousing returning troops at Lyneham would provide the Army with a large, convenient and well-resourced base close to major training areas and other military sites and offering readily accessible family accommodation. It is overwhelmingly clear that local people would welcome it, which is far from guaranteed elsewhere. There are prevailing reasons why serious and urgent consideration should be given to moving the Army to the site as soon as possible.
I am grateful, Mr Betts, for the opportunity to speak in this debate. May I join the tributes to my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray)? For many years, he has done his level best to maintain the presence of the Royal Air Force at Lyneham. Indeed, prior to the election, I had several conversations with him about his work, and I was struck in particular by the report that he and others prepared before the election. It outlined the very basis on which he secured today’s debate, and it argued that civilian use of the Lyneham airfields was not appropriate, that the clean-up costs for the area would be considerable and that logic therefore dictated that military use of some kind—that is, the Army—was appropriate. I support that wholeheartedly.
I am sorry for interrupting my hon. Friend’s fine speech, but I want to correct him on one small point. I am absolutely committed to keeping the RAF at Lyneham and, after that, totally committed to getting the Army on to the site, but if there is to be no military use for it, I believe that we could use it for other civilian, commercial and industrial uses. I would certainly work with industry to try to make that possible and would not rule out commercial use.
Forgive me, but I was talking about the site’s lack of suitability for use as a civilian airport. In fact, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) also made that point. It would be incorrect to say that Lyneham has an unlimited range of options, and it is important that we reinforce that point. I support my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, however, in saying that, if we cannot retain military use for the area, we clearly need an action plan for commercial use, so that we can generate much-needed jobs.
The communities of North Wiltshire and of Wiltshire in general have always supported the presence of the Royal Air Force in their county. Moreover, it would be wrong of me not to pay tribute to the residents of Swindon, who play such an important part not only in supporting the work of RAF Lyneham, but in playing host to many personnel—both current and former—who work at the base but who live in my constituency or that of North Swindon. Some of the former personnel serve on Swindon council and are great friends of mine. They have years of experience in the RAF and feel strongly that, if Lyneham cannot be retained for use by the Royal Air Force, it should be retained in some military capacity.
I pay tribute to the community of Wootton Bassett for playing host to the repatriation ceremonies. Anybody who has been to a ceremony will know exactly what my hon. Friend is talking about. It is a unique atmosphere in which the residents of the town, without too much fuss, take a few minutes from their busy lives to give time and space to pay homage to those returning from Afghanistan, whose families are given time to mourn their loss. Indeed, my hon. Friend and I had the pleasure and the honour of attending the Royal British Legion’s field of remembrance in November, which was hosted by His Royal Highness Prince Harry. The event took place at Lydiard park in my constituency, but it was designed to acknowledge the contribution of Wootton Bassett and of the communities of North Wiltshire and Swindon to the repatriation ceremonies. At the end of those ceremonies, many motor vehicles containing my constituents returned to Swindon having played their part in supporting the town of Wootton Bassett.
I am grateful that my hon. Friend has referred to RAF Wroughton. It was an air base in my constituency, but it is now home to a large collection of Science museum artefacts that cannot be stored in London. The fact that they are now stored in the hangars of RAF Wroughton is an innovative use of the site. My hon. Friend is right to say, however, that far too much time was lost after the closure of the base to determine what would happen. Time brings deterioration and uncertainty, and it causes many problems in relation to sites as large as Wroughton—Lyneham is, of course, a very large site indeed.
It is right to pay tribute in passing to the former Princess Alexandra hospital, which served not only the RAF, but all military personnel so well until its sad, unfortunate and, I would say, wrong closure in 1996. Perhaps those who took that decision did not foresee the huge demands now placed upon the medical service by those who return from the theatre of war who are scarred not only physically, but psychologically by their experiences. As the MP and the candidate for South Swindon, it has been wonderful over the past few years to meet so many people who have shared their experiences of the theatre of war with me. They have educated me in some of the difficult issues faced by former and current service personnel.
My hon. Friend is speaking extremely well on the subject. He is quite right about RAF Wroughton. As someone who was a special adviser to the Conservative Government who closed RAF Wroughton, we should put our hands up and say, “That was wrong—we shouldn’t have done it.” It was a first-class place and a very useful facility, and I wish that we had it today. I fear that the decision in relation to RAF Lyneham may be rather similar and that, if we let it go and do not put the Army there, we will look back in 10 years and say, “What a damned silly decision that was.”
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend and I share his views entirely. Some important points have been made, particularly by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), about accommodation. It would be wrong to say that RAF Lyneham, although it is in a semi-rural setting, is not near large centres of population. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) has said, many service personnel who work in Lyneham live in Swindon, which as you will know, Mr Betts, is a large town with a large population. We have for many years happily paid host to service personnel and their families. Having met many of them over the years, I know that they are happy and content to live in a community that welcomes them and that readily acknowledges the contribution of the armed services in the local area.
I do not, therefore, think that accommodation is at all the problem. In fact, I cannot identify a problem that would be an obstacle to the Army locating to Lyneham. As many other colleagues have said, Lyneham’s proximity to the M4 and its generally central location in southern England make it an ideal location for large numbers of Army personnel. Frankly, I cannot think of a better place to relocate returning personnel from Germany. I do not think that there are any obstacles to bringing our personnel back to Lyneham.
I also point out that leisure facilities in Swindon are enjoyed by service personnel. We have all sorts of facilities—cinemas, sports venues, an ice rink, swimming pools, leisure centres—and plenty for the families of service personnel to enjoy. Indeed, the facilities are currently being enjoyed by service personnel, who, as I have said, are a very important part of our community.
I have mentioned the need for urgency and for decisions to be made quickly. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) has said that a timely decision is needed, and I cannot put it better myself. If the Army cannot be located to Lyneham, will the Government help the local council, local businesses and the local chambers of commerce to come together to draw up an economic plan for the use of the site?
Schools have been mentioned, and my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has referred to Wootton Bassett comprehensive school. Again, plenty of primary and secondary schools in Swindon are already being used by service personnel, who I am sure would warmly welcome the children of Army personnel who relocate to Lyneham. In my view, it would be a seamless transfer if the Army came to Lyneham. It would not be the imposition of a wholly new culture on a community that was unfamiliar with it and that did not understand or appreciate the contribution of the armed services.
I urge the Minister and the Government to take up the suggestions made today and in other places to acknowledge the contribution of the local community to the life of our armed services, and to conclude that Lyneham is a no-brainer when it comes to relocating Army personnel from Germany.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on securing the debate. I pay tribute to his hon. Friends for attending the debate and showing support for the case that he has made. I appreciate from their contributions that they have given support over significant time and that they recognise the difficulties that lie ahead.
I fully recognise the hon. Gentleman’s anxiety about the future of the base, its potential use and the undoubted socio-economic consequences of the closure of RAF Lyneham in just under two years’ time. As has been said a couple of times this morning, he was present in the main Chamber yesterday evening, when the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) initiated an Adjournment debate— albeit a significantly less time consuming one—on his local RAF base at Leuchars. He made a strong defence of the need to retain Leuchars on the grounds of its militarily strategic location, and he sought to raise the important matter of the socio-economic impact of such a closure.
I recognise that a number of local chambers of commerce from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, including Wootton Bassett, have joined together to make the case for replacement employment at Lyneham. I want to put on the record my ongoing support for the people of Wootton Bassett. They have shown strength and fortitude over many months and, at the repatriation ceremonies that have regrettably taken place far too often, they have provided support for the families of those servicemen who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country.
Unlike the uncertainty that surrounds RAF Leuchars, Lossiemouth or Marham, after a base review that took two years to conclude, it was determined in July 2003 that Lyneham would cease to operate in its current form. However, I recognise that that does not make it any easier for the people who are either on the base or living within the surrounding communities. Hon. Members have made the case that they want to see early decisions—the hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) has said that swift decision making is important—but it is important that the right decisions are made. We need to take appropriate time to think through the consequences of any decision. I wholeheartedly agree that when that site is vacated, swift action should be taken to put something else in place. If nothing happens when not only military bases but major employers in all parts of the country vacate large sites, those sites can rapidly turn into wastelands. Considering the beauty of the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and the surrounding area, we do not need a wasteland to develop at that location.
The hon. Gentleman made the point that the site is ideally located for training and that there is a standard of available accommodation. From what he said at the beginning of his contribution, I know that he appears to have the Prime Minister’s support. Irrespective of which party we are in, many of us would consider that having the Prime Minister’s support would mean we were making the right noises.
Although I might seem to be arguing against my own case, I should perhaps make it clear that the Prime Minister has not said that he necessarily supports the Army going to RAF Lyneham. He knows that RAF Lyneham is one of a number of sites that the MOD is considering, and he has encouraged me to make the argument very strongly, but it would be quite wrong to claim that the Prime Minister has spoken in support of my argument, as he simply has not.
The hon. Gentleman was just a little bit sharp on his feet, because I was about to make the point that he has the support of the Prime Minister in at least making the case. From what I have read in the Western Daily Press, the case needs to be made to the Secretary of State for Defence and to the Minister. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman might be somewhat anxious that back on 31 August it was being said that the Secretary of State
“has played down the chances of the West’s biggest RAF base being occupied by thousands of soldiers”.
If the manner in which the press have reported that is correct, the hon. Gentleman still has a battle to fight.
I am most grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s advice. The journalist who wrote that story, my good friend Tristan Cork, acknowledges that it is based on absolutely no facts whatsoever. The story was, of course, written before the strategic defence review was announced and before we knew that the soldiers were coming back from Germany. Dear old Tristan, who is a very good journalist and a close friend of mine, will acknowledge that he is not absolutely certain what that story was based on.
I am astonished that journalists are not correct all the time, but I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point.
As I said at the beginning of my contribution, it is clear that the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends have been arguing the case for RAF Lyneham since the announcement was first made in 2003. It is clear from the debate that he is not giving up one iota in bringing forward proposals for the future of the base. He has given the Minister what appears to be a significant document that outlines exactly what he would like to see. From what we have all heard in debates over the past weeks and months, however, I am sure that he recognises that something of a pitched battle is going on, because more than 15,000 troops are coming back from Germany. People are staking their claims to have those troops return to a variety of different locations across the UK to fill the gap that will be left when bases close. It will be appropriate for the Ministry of Defence and the Secretary of State to look at all those cases carefully before the final decision is made.
I am aware that, during the intervening period since the announcement of the base closure, certain tentative proposals have been flagged up. I only want to mention one, namely the proposal for the base to become a possible location for a consolidated support helicopter base under Project Belvedere. Regrettably for the hon. Gentleman, those on the base and the wider community, it was concluded that the proposal did not represent best value for money. Specifically, it was decided that the efficiencies that could have been achieved from such a major rationalisation programme would not produce the necessary return, given the investment that would have been required. If we are to consider whether some of the bases that will become vacant should become Army accommodation, perhaps some locations are more appropriate than others. The Minister may confirm this a little later, but significant investment might be needed in some of these locations. Value for money should be the underlying principle when the Government consider what to do.
I shall briefly return to the issue of decision making, because the Minister said yesterday evening:
“we do not expect that work to be concluded for some time yet, but we hope it will be by the summer.”—[Official Report, 25 January 2011; Vol. 522, c. 270.]
I hope that the Minister will take the opportunity this morning to say whether the decision on the future of RAF Lyneham will be taken at the same time as the decision on all the other bases currently under review. It would be inappropriate if the Department and Ministers were looking at one set of bases and not reaching a decision on the subject of this discussion, so I hope that they are all in the melting pot together. I also want the Minister to give an indication of what options the Department and the Government are considering, if he can give any indication at all.
The big issue, to my mind, is the socio-economic impact of what is happening or is likely to happen. The hon. Member for Chippenham has mentioned £90 million per annum flowing into the local economy, which is a significant sum. Such a gap cannot be plugged easily. I am not convinced, although I am no economist, that merely by moving in a couple of thousand Army personnel and their families, we would plug the gap if that £90 million were lost.
May I correct the hon. Gentleman slightly? I do not mean to intervene on him too often and am most grateful to him for being so generous with his time. He is wrong, because if 2,000 or 3,000 soldiers and their families were to move into the area, it would exactly replicate the RAF personnel who are leaving and would indeed plug the economic gap that he has described. If we got a reasonable number of soldiers in there, it would be precisely what we want for the local economy.
I bow to the hon. Gentleman’s probably better knowledge of what is happening in the locality. The main point that I am trying to make, to support the hon. Member for Chippenham, is that £90 million is a significant sum. That will need to be carefully considered.
In respect of finance, is the Minister prepared to say whether a specific and dedicated budget to assist with any transition arrangements for RAF Lyneham will be available? He will be determined to ensure that he keeps a tight check on the budget in the Department, but what additional support might be available to the local community if the MOD is not prepared to fulfil some of the wishes expressed this morning?
I fully recognise that it has been a traumatic time since the initial announcement in July 2003, and it is still a worrying time. Whatever the decision that Ministers and the Secretary of State make and whatever the outcome, if it is not good news, it will still be a devastating shock. I hope that, in the time that I am leaving available to the Minister this morning, he will be able to give a flavour of what is being considered by the Department, even though he cannot give details of any ultimate decision. We are all, perhaps a little tentatively, looking forward to the summer, when we will see the wider picture that he and his ministerial colleagues will be able to paint for the future of many of our bases.
It is a pleasure to have you presiding over our deliberations, Mr Betts. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) for initiating this important debate on RAF Lyneham and the effects on the surrounding community. Its importance is reflected in the fact that so many of my hon. Friends from the Wiltshire area have turned up to support him. I also thank him for the dossier that he has given me from local community leaders. I assure him that we will give full consideration to what it contains as we move forward with our decision making.
Hon. Members will know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire has been an assiduous and persistent advocate for RAF Lyneham. In fact, during the previous Parliament, he must have raised it with almost as great a regularity as the fondly remembered Tam Dalyell raised the sinking of the Belgrano. Nothing would provoke me to imagine that he will be dropping the subject any time soon. He has campaigned industriously against the closure of Lyneham on behalf of his constituents, and I recognise that a wide section of his constituency has a very great concern about the future of the base.
I join my hon. Friend and several other hon. Members in paying tribute to the people of Wootton Bassett, who have provided such a dignified and moving homecoming for the deceased. That has been appreciated by the whole nation. We shall shortly be moving the repatriations to Brize Norton, but this is a moment to pay tribute to the people of Wootton Bassett for what they have done.
I also pay tribute to all the personnel who have served at RAF Lyneham since it opened for active service in 1940. It is rather an important point that, as has been said, it was announced in July 2003—getting on for eight years ago—that the future air transport and air-to-air refuelling fleets would be co-located at RAF Brize Norton by 2012. It must be acknowledged that the savings from that co-location will be significant. It is not possible to reopen that debate—the co-location is going ahead—but that decision meant that Lyneham would no longer be required for its current purpose, with current units leaving the base by 2012.
The Department has examined several alternative uses for the site. As the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown), who speaks for the Opposition, has mentioned, it was considered as a consolidated support helicopter base under Project Belvedere, but for the reasons that he has outlined, that unfortunately did not work out.
The Minister is, of course, right, and I would not seek to reopen that debate. We are none the less a little puzzled as to how it can be that we will save an enormous amount of money by co-locating the air transport fleet at RAF Brize Norton, but we would not save a similar amount by co-locating the helicopter fleet at Lyneham. There seems to be no logic in those two arguments: one co-location does not pay; the other does. However, that involved the previous Government, whom the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) supported, so perhaps we need not reopen that argument.
The key point is that when we are considering value for money, we have to balance the scale of the investment to build the facility against the savings that we will make from having everything at one location. I was not party to that decision, but clearly when those numbers were ground through the computers at the time, the judgment was arrived at that the Project Belvedere option did not represent value for money.
Since then, it has seemed unlikely that another defence use will be found for RAF Lyneham. I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) talking about the need for an economic plan, and I could not agree with him more. I am just mildly mystified as to why, 14 months before the base closes, the local civil population is talking about the need for a plan when the announcement that the base would cease its current role came eight years ago. The point that I am making is simply this: if there is to be a civilian use for RAF Lyneham in the future, rather than a military one—I am not saying for one moment that that will be the case—it will be for the local civil community to decide what that future will be.
The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway asked about transitional assistance. There is no precedent for that coming from defence funds in the cases of other base closures. It would certainly be something that other Departments and local authorities, particularly under the new localism agenda, would need to pick up. My hon. Friends are absolutely right, and the tone that has been struck—
In a moment. The tone that has been struck by my hon. Friends thinking constructively and positively about what the alternative uses might be is exactly the right way forward from where we are now.
I have been asked about the timetable for a decision. I can only repeat that it is more important to get things right than to do them at breakneck speed. A detailed study is taking place of the entire defence estate and the ramifications of bringing nearly 20,000 personnel back from Germany. I reassure the Opposition spokesman that that is a comprehensive piece of work and that it will not be piecemeal. That work is going on at the moment, and it will take a few more months. In any event, we anticipate that decisions and announcements will be made before the summer recess, which is the approximate time frame for the decision. To that extent, my point about those in the local community knowing where they are will be resolved in the next few months, but it is wise for them to make contingency plans.
The point that needs to be made is that local communities are being prevented from establishing a viable economic plan. They have done considerable work with Wiltshire council to establish an embryonic plan, but an MOD decision is required before that option can be fully explored. One cannot do the local plan before the MOD decision is known.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, but, with respect, this bone of comfort—that the Army might come back from Germany—has been thrown only in the past couple of months, and I am still mystified why planning for a civilian future did not start long ago.
The Minister must not be mystified. The explanation is that the Lyneham taskforce convened within weeks of the original announcement in 2003, and the civilian-military co-operation involving Wiltshire council has been constant since then. The local community has been fully engaged for the past seven years in looking for alternative uses, so the Minister is quite wrong to think that we have not been. As he has said, however, the Army is a useful bone to be thrown at this stage.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for clarifying that. Clearly, I had drawn the wrong implication from some of the other contributions, which suggested that we needed to form an economic plan now. My hon. Friend, in whose constituency Lyneham is based, has said that such plans exist, and it is useful to have that recorded and clarified, so I am grateful to him.
Since the announcement in October, work has been under way to look at the basing requirements of not only the Army, but the RAF and the Navy. As I said in previous debates, including the one about Marham and the one about Leuchars last night, that is a big piece of work; we must get it right, and we will take our time to do that. I hope that we will be in a position to put all these local communities out of their agony as soon as possible, and I readily acknowledge that uncertainty is being caused in every community.
We have received many representations from hon. Members, local authorities, local groups and the devolved Administrations, and we will do what we can to take them all on board. Of course, there will be socio-economic impacts, but that will be true at any of those bases. We recognise those impacts, but they must be balanced against each other. Our overriding consideration, at the Ministry of Defence, is the military arguments. Bringing the Army back from Germany is something that we will do only once, and it is important that we get it right and put the Army in the right place for the next several decades. I must stress that we cannot really have a beauty contest between different parts of the country to secure the prize of a base in their locality.
Whatever the outcome of the review, it must be about what is best for the armed forces. Bringing back the Army units stationed in Germany is not an easy job. Once it has been decided which units we are bringing back to which locations, detailed work will have to take place to plan those moves. As the Opposition spokesman has said, investments will have to be put in place to prepare the bases that will receive those Army units. The work going on to bring the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps back to Innsworth, near Gloucester, has taken years. I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, who painted a rosy picture of the Army marching in as the RAF marched out, but the likelihood of that happening is infinitesimally small. The programme to bring the Army back from Germany will happen over 10 years, and in almost no imaginable case will we see the Army march in as those vacating bases in the next year or two march out.
I implore Members to reflect on what was said in the strategic defence and security review about the Army’s intention to organise itself into multi-role brigades. Although we would not necessarily seek to accommodate an entire multi-role brigade on a single site, we will nevertheless want units to be located near enough to each other to use common training grounds and make formations as a brigade for training purposes. There is, therefore, a wide range of considerations. Is the new base big enough to accommodate the units? Does it have the right accommodation? How much would it cost to upgrade? How much new building will there have to be? What is access to training facilities like? Are the training facilities of the right type? How long will travelling distances to those facilities be? Where will the other units involved in training be? All those questions need addressing, and it will take time to balance them all and ensure that we get things right.
The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway asked about schools, and we will, of course, give every consideration to the education requirements of future military communities. He also asked about accommodation, and I acknowledge that there is a lot more work to be done on improving service family accommodation. However, I urge hon. Members to recognise our desire in the SDSR to build a new employment model for members of the Army. We want more super garrisons, so that people who progress through the Army will be able to spend more of their career in one place, which would be more like the Navy and the RAF, and therefore to put down roots and find houses among the local population. As we go forward into future years, more of the Government’s effort will focus on ensuring that members of the armed forces can buy their own homes and settle in communities. Although I do not rule out building further family accommodation, we view that as the second-best option. The desire will be to help people settle into communities.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the scrutiny process and how we will let communities know about decisions. It would be desirable to let some community leaders know before official announcements are made, but the only way to inform whole communities is through the media, so the hon. Gentleman’s argument becomes slightly circular.
On the economic impact being £90 million, I agree with the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, who said that replacing like with like has a neutral effect on the economy. I saw that in my own constituency, where the Marines replaced the RAF at Chivenor. The economy recovered fairly quickly, as did local services, schools and so on.
My hon. Friend has made a strong case on why Lyneham would be a good base for the Army. Many of his arguments have a great deal of merit. He mentioned the proximity to other Army units in Wiltshire and to Salisbury plain, and those are good arguments, as well as reasons why Lyneham is in quite a strong position as we look at the different bases.
The Opposition spokesman asked for guidance on how the Government’s thinking is going. My point about multi-role brigades and the need for units that will make formations together to be within easy reach of each other is one of the factors, and the military’s footprint across the different parts of the UK will be the other. One point that I would make about Salisbury plain, however, is that we must be realistic about its capacity to absorb a huge increase in the amount of Army training that goes on there.
The House has had debates about various other RAF bases. Obviously, every community is inclined to look at the worst-case scenario, but I reassure hon. Members that no decisions have been made yet, and we will continue to look at the whole issue with an open mind. Today has been a useful opportunity for the Wiltshire community to make particular local points. It has been useful to hear from the neighbours of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire about the impact on the wider Wiltshire economy, which I am well aware of. One way or the other, I travel through Wiltshire twice a week. My wife’s family are from North Wiltshire and are still there, so I am familiar with the locality, and I can see the advantages of RAF Lyneham and the impact that it has on the community.
We must look beyond the local considerations, base by base, to the wider defence picture. We need to make the best use of our existing assets in the UK. I do not want to mislead Wiltshire Members into thinking that there is necessarily a future defence use for Lyneham at the moment—it is too soon to say that, because there is still a lot of work to do. In the mean time, we continue to make plans for the disposal of Lyneham. We shall, however, as I have said, try to put all the local communities out of their agony as soon as we can. We shall work with other Departments, devolved Administrations—where appropriate—and local authorities to ensure that our plans can be implemented with the least possible disruption for the communities affected.
As they were in the SDSR, our decisions must be objective, unsentimental and based on the military advice that we receive about what is best for the armed forces. We shall also have to look at what provides the best value for the taxpayer, and we shall, of course, consider the impact on communities and regional economies as we balance those factors. We must limit our resources to where they are most needed.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring the current political situation in Chechnya to the attention of the House, following my visit there last year with Lord Judd, to examine the human rights situation. Sadly, since I secured the debate, the instability of the Caucasus has once again risen high on the news agenda, following Monday’s deadly suicide bomb attack at the airport in Moscow. Police sources say that the bomb bears the hallmarks of past attacks carried out by Chechens and other Islamic separatists from the Caucasus.
In 2009 Moscow declared that the situation in Chechnya had normalised, marking the end of its military operations in the republic. However, Chechnya and the north Caucasus region face a constant battle against terrorist insurgency, which, far too often, the world seems to ignore. From 2002 the parliamentary all-party group on human rights was keen to send a fact-finding mission to Chechnya. The eight-year delay is testament to the challenge of getting the permission of the Foreign Office and the Russian and Chechen authorities, all at the same time. I and Lord Judd want to thank Nicole Piché from the group, who organised the visit and accompanied us. Without her tenacity over eight years it would never have happened. We also thank the Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials here and in Moscow for their assistance and advice—particularly Iain Frew and Elena Arganat, who came with us to Chechnya. Their knowledge, insight and translation of both language and culture were invaluable.
I should like to draw attention to several issues of concern about the political situation in Chechnya: the security situation, and in particular the danger of young people being driven to extremism out of desperation; the regular human rights abuses, such as the house burnings and disappearances, of which we sadly heard tales during our visit; and the sinister and oppressive Chechen regime, with no accountability or judicial process, and a culture of impunity. I fear that all those problems will only continue, and indeed will get worse, before the international community understands that Chechnya is a destabilising sore, which is infecting the whole region. I hope that the Government will recognise the danger of Chechnya’s situation and the importance of engagement with Russia, the EU and the wider international community to address it.
I want first to discuss the security situation. Last autumn’s siege of the Chechen Parliament, when Islamic militants killed two police guards and four rebels died, hit the headlines all over the world. The suicide bombing of the Moscow metro in March 2010 brought Chechnya’s “black widows” to international attention; the suspected perpetrators of the attacks were Chechen women who had lost husbands to the Russian military. However, such news attention on terrorist attacks for a few short days only plays into the hands of the militants, who relish the publicity. Instead a sustained and focused effort is needed to deal with the underlying problems of corruption and oppression.
Many in Moscow, and possibly beyond, may cling to the false notion that the security problems can be contained by President Ramzan Kadyrov’s authoritarian regime. Keeping the population in check through a climate of fear and repression and the brutal crushing of dissent is fuelling tension. State-sponsored murder creates martyrs. A combination of desperation and revenge is driving some, often young, Chechens to what they see as the only alternative—the extremist cause. Kadyrov’s Administration have justified some of their brutal acts on the grounds that they are fighting terrorists, who also use brutal means. However, the boundaries have become blurred between terrorists and dissidents. I do not think I am being cynical if I say it suits the regime for it to be so easy to silence any critics by denouncing them as terrorists.
The main focus of our trip was to investigate the human rights situation, in response to reports of appalling violations. On several occasions, we met the relatives of those who had been beaten, abducted and locked up in a far-flung prison on some trumped-up charge or who had disappeared. House burnings were another cruel tactic that was used. One woman placed three photographs in my palm. They were of her brother, her son and her daughter, all of whom had been killed or were missing. The fear was palpable. Speaking out about these abuses, even in a so-called private meeting, carries a real risk of reprisals that could see other family members being abducted, tortured or worse. I understand why so many people keep quiet in fear. I am in awe of the courage of those who speak out, through their grief, to try to secure justice, however slight the chance. In this context, the work of non-governmental organisations in protecting and promoting human rights is absolutely vital, although they operate in a very dangerous environment.
In July 2009, leading human rights activist Natalya Estemirova was abducted in Grozny, and found later near the border with Ingushetia with gunshot wounds to her head. The Estemirova murder sent shock waves through the NGO community in Chechnya, and her employer, Memorial, had to suspend its Chechen operations for several months on safety grounds. There is a wilful misunderstanding by the Chechen authorities of what the “N” in NGO stands for. The very concept of an organisation that is independent of Government—or non-governmental—openly challenging policies and practice seems anathema to them. Their preference is for NGOs to be subsumed into Government, thus removing any semblance of transparency.
President Kadyrov has suggested that Memorial should change its working methods. Instead of making cases public, he thinks it should tell him personally about the problems so that he can just solve them quietly. Forgive me for thinking that that is not a solution to the problems.
Human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, who is charged with championing human rights in Chechnya, has asserted that he is “independent of other authorities”, but in our meeting with him, he flatly refused to discuss any allegations that implicated the President, so, despite his protestations, he was clearly far from independent.
During our meeting I literally could not believe my ears—I even challenged the translator in case there had been a misunderstanding—when Nukhazhiyev told us that Oleg Orlov of Memorial had “benefited” from Natalya Estemirova’s murder. With the champion of human rights in Chechnya behaving in such a way, it is not surprising that people despair.
Memorial’s status as a truly independent NGO means that it has attracted the ire of the Chechen regime. In July, President Kadyrov went so far as to say it was an enemy of the people, the law and the state. That accusation is more appropriately levelled at President Kadyrov himself. The international community must assist NGOs and human rights defenders who are taking great risks to document and improve the situation in Chechnya. We must defend their right to do their vital work. When the lives of prominent human rights defenders or journalists are threatened, we should be open to applications for asylum. We do not wish to see more cases like that of Natalya Estemirova or Anna Politkovskaya.
I am pleased to say that in October, MEPs voted to endorse a resolution defending Memorial, and condemning the
“cynical and absurd attempts to implicate it in the crime of aiding terrorist organisations.”
I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will continue to press our EU friends to recognise the significant human rights problems in Chechnya and use European institutions to bring pressure to bear on Moscow to act.
The human rights violations in Chechnya are compounded by the lack of transparency and accountability of the regime, and the absence of any meaningful justice process and rule of law. The personality cult around Kadyrov is unbelievable. Every public building in Grozny displays large photographs of the President, and the TV news would be funny if it was not actually real. Back at our hotel, we watched the evening bulletin and it was almost entirely composed of positive news stories about what the President had been up to that day, with no debate, opposition or criticism.
On the day the President was far too busy to meet with Lord Judd and me as scheduled, the TV news told us that he had been opening a furniture shop—urgent business indeed. We might complain about this country’s press and media, and as politicians we perhaps do so more often than others, but a free press is essential to a free democracy. Journalists in Chechnya continually walk the difficult line between trying to report the news in line with their journalistic principles and not angering the regime so as not to risk their lives.
Kadyrov and his Government face no parliamentary scrutiny: 37 of Chechnya’s 41 MPs belong to the same party, and the Parliament meets infrequently. The President is keen to promote a climate of fear, and in a recent broadcast said:
“I am looking for evildoers everywhere. If two people meet, the third among them will always be one of my men. I know everything. I hear everything.”
That is truly chilling, like something out of a George Orwell novel.
In relation to the very clear impact on human, political and democratic rights, there is the issue of religious freedom. A great many people have been persecuted because of their religious beliefs. Did the hon. Lady have an opportunity to speak to any such people, who perhaps out of fear did not make themselves known to her? I am aware of a great many Churches and groups of people who are experiencing religious persecution and discrimination. What should we do about that, and what could the Government do in representing those people?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that valid point, but in a short debate it is impossible to cover every aspect of what we saw on our visit. It was a short visit, but we did see some evidence of a lack of religious freedom, particularly with the forced Islamisation. There were simple things, such as Chechen women being forced to wear headscarves in Government buildings. The Minister of Information told us that they chose to wear them, but it was very clear when we spoke to women elsewhere that it was a rule. I am sure that many religious minorities in Chechnya experience persecution, and I hope that our Ministers are pressing hard on that issue with the Russian authorities. Religious freedom, free access to justice and a free media are absolutely essential, and are part of the underpinning of a democratic society, but sadly they are far too lacking in this troubled state.
The judicial system faces similar problems. Cases are opened for show purposes, but proper investigations are not completed. In 2009, 39 cases involving the abduction of 43 individuals were opened, but no one knows how many resulted in convictions; when we met with the prosecutors they did not have that information—it was not collected. That sounds like one of the absolutely worst parliamentary answers that we get in this place, and which we do not stand for. It is not recorded how many of the cases involved the Chechen security services, or how many disappearances go unreported for fear of further persecution. Of course, most human rights violations do not get reported because of the safety concerns that put many people off the juridical route. Even providing a witness testimony could lead many to fear the consequences, and the witness protection scheme has a fatal flaw in that the security forces that are supposed to safeguard the witnesses are often the very people accused of the abuses.
Chechnya and the Caucases have for far too long been too low down the international community’s priority ladder. The UK has not only a responsibility for, but a long-term interest in preventing the contagion of militant insurgency from spreading. It cannot be overstated that when human rights are protected and are a key priority for the Government, opportunities for extremist recruiters are greatly diminished and terrorist threats recede. The choice is not between human rights and fighting terrorism; safeguarding human rights is essential in the fight against terrorism. The risk in Chechnya and its neighbouring states is very much that the oppressive regimes will provide a fertile breeding ground for the terrorists of tomorrow, and we must therefore assist both the Russian and the Chechen authorities, if they will let us, to improve the environment within the republic. I hope that the Minister will tell us how the Government plan to assist and strengthen the work of human rights organisations and civil society in Chechnya. We clearly need to ensure that, through the European Court of Human Rights, individual Chechens have the ability to bring cases against the Russian authorities, and that they receive the due process of justice.
We must also press Russia to take its obligations as a member of the Council of Europe more seriously, particularly in relation to the judgments handed down against it by the European Court of Human Rights—it should not be allowed to get away with ignoring those. In general, we should encourage Russia and the Chechen authorities to allow increased access to Chechnya for foreign delegations, international organisations and independent media and NGO representatives. Most of all, Russia needs to recognise that the brutal oppression of the Chechen people is not a solution to the security threat that it undoubtedly faces.
Our Government should do all they can to assist Russia in dealing with this difficult internal problem, even if it is just encouragement to pursue a course of action that puts the people first and rejects the fallacy of security under the draconian Kadyrov regime. We must help to convince Russia that the need for genuine engagement with the international community and its Chechen citizens is in its own long-term interests. I hope that the Minister and his FCO colleagues will be working hard to that end.
First, I join the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary in extending my condolences and sympathy to those affected by the appalling attack at Moscow airport on Monday, in which a British citizen lost his life. The Prime Minister has offered his condolences and support directly to President Medvedev and the Foreign Secretary has written to Foreign Minister Lavrov. The British people stand with the Russian people at this tragic time. People around the world will have been shocked by the pictures that they saw on their televisions on Monday.
Let me also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on securing the debate, which is particularly timely given the circumstances, but would be important at any time. We do not yet know for certain who was responsible for the attack in Moscow and it would be wrong to leap to the assumption that the perpetrators came from the north Caucasus region. However, preliminary indications from the Russian authorities show that there might indeed be such a connection. As we know, Russia has experience of terrorism related to the north Caucasus region.
The House is well aware of my hon. Friend’s long-held interest in Chechnya. We all benefit from her comprehensive knowledge and active approach in addressing the very serious issues faced by the people living in the region, which she expanded upon forcefully this morning. It is right that we support the efforts of the Russian Government to tackle terrorism. We welcome President Medvedev’s initiatives to address the underlying socio-economic conditions in the north Caucasus. Those conditions can provide fertile ground for extremist ideology. As the report of my hon. Friend’s visit to Chechnya noted, the reconstruction of Grozny is a notable achievement, but reconstruction alone does not create stability. A long-term solution to the region’s problems can be built only on a foundation of respect for human rights and the rule of law.
The fact-finding visit that my hon. Friend went on with Lord Judd on behalf of the all-party group on human rights in February last year helped bring home to the House the situation in that troubled part of the world. The FCO was pleased to provide financial and administrative support for the visit. I appreciated the time that she and Lord Judd took to meet me in September to discuss their findings from that visit. Their report was an important contribution to the debate over the situation in Chechnya. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government share the concerns highlighted in the report, particularly the strong evidence of ongoing abductions, torture, punitive house burnings, and attacks on human rights defenders, in which the local Chechen security forces are often implicated.
The lack of effective investigations into human rights abuses perpetuates a climate of impunity. In particular, the Government are deeply concerned that, after a year and a half, the investigation into the murder of Natalya Estemirova in the north Caucasus in July 2009 has not produced any results. We also share the report’s other key observation that counter-terrorism strategies that do not observe human rights serve only to perpetuate the poor security situation. Human rights in Chechnya, and in the north Caucasus more widely, remain a serious concern to the UK.
Although Chechnya might be more stable today than in the recent past, that stability has come at a price. Today Chechnya is a place where too many people are unable to exercise their human rights; a place where freedom of expression and speech are curtailed; and a place where civil society is unable to contribute in the way in which it should to a functioning democratic system.
One of the reasons that Britain regularly engages with Russia on human rights issues is to address those concerns. During his visit to Moscow last October, the Foreign Secretary met representatives of civil society and made the case for human rights, rule of law and impunity issues with the Russian Government. The Foreign Secretary will do so again when he meets Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov on his visit to the UK next month.
Discussing our concerns in an open way and seeking to find constructive ways to co-operate with the Russian authorities in addressing the problems that they face is an integral part of our bilateral relationship. Just last week, the UK held its human rights consultations with Russia in Moscow. During those negotiations, senior UK officials underlined specific concerns, including those about Chechnya and the north Caucasus. There were constructive discussions on socio-economic development in the north Caucasus; on pursuing counter-terrorism strategies while protecting civil liberties; on nationalism and ethnic violence, and strategies for combating such violence; on implementation of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights in cases that refer to abuses in the north Caucasus; and on women’s rights in Chechnya, which my hon. Friend mentioned in her speech. We will look for ways to continue that dialogue and to offer further opportunities for the Russian authorities to share experience, if they would find it useful to do so.
More widely, the UK has also raised concerns about the conduct of the Khodorkovsky trial; the death in pre-trial detention of Sergei Magnitsky; the stalled investigations into the murders of two defenders of human rights, Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova; the death penalty; freedom of assembly, which my hon. Friend mentioned in discussing the wider context of the oppression of people, as she described it, in Chechnya; and the protection of gay rights and the rights of other minorities in society. So there is a wide range of concerns that we raise directly in that forum of our human rights consultations with Russia.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I was not present at those discussions in Moscow myself and I have not been supplied with information about that issue. However, I can assure him that we take very seriously concerns about religious persecution in all parts of the world and those concerns are expressed in ways that I am sure he would support; they are expressed forcefully and directly to Governments and other bodies in countries where we feel that religious freedom of expression is infringed. That religious freedom of expression includes the right to practise a religion, the right to change one’s religious affiliation and the right to hold no religious beliefs if that is what an individual wishes to do.
Therefore, if the Foreign Office feels that discussion of that issue is a necessary part of a dialogue with any country or any organisation within a country, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will include that component in talks. If he knows of specific cases or specific parts of the world where he feels we could increase our focus in that regard, I make the offer to him that he can let me, or another Minister in the Department, know and we will seek to act on his concerns.
The UK also actively works with the European Union, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Council of Europe to bring our combined political weight to bear on pressing human rights issues. The Russian Government have so far declined the Council of Europe’s repeated offers of technical assistance with the exhumation of mass graves in connection with the two Chechen wars. However, should they change their view on that, the UK is ready to consider any request we receive for assistance.
In addition, we support a wide range of human rights organisations working in Chechnya and Russia as a whole. Therefore, the active role of the British Government is not merely—although I do not want to understate it—based on the relationship between our Ministers and officials and those of Russia. We are also keen to help more directly at the grass-roots level. We have funded projects aimed at preventing and resolving conflict in the north Caucasus; at encouraging free and fair elections; at supporting an independent media, which was a point that my hon. Friend made forcefully, based on her direct experience during her visit; and at improving policing and prison conditions.
The United Kingdom worked with the Russian NGO Committee against Torture to facilitate independent investigations into allegations of torture. The evidence that resulted from those investigations led to prosecutions in Chechnya and entrenched local courts’ knowledge and use of human rights law.
The UK has funded other Russian and international NGOs to assist applicants taking cases of human rights abuses through national courts and the European Court of Human Rights. In 2010, the European Court handed down judgments in favour of 17 applicants supported by organisations that we help to fund, and more than €1,720,000 in damages were awarded to them.
The UK supports the activities of local civil society organisations in building stability and cross-border co-operation in the region. For example, Nonviolence International used UK funds to develop a comprehensive model of co-operation between youth and law enforcement officers, helping to build trust and create the grass-root conditions for long-term stability. The UK continued to support the work of the independent media agency, Caucasian Knot, which provides balanced and objective online media reporting of news from across the Caucasus region, and offers local citizens a forum in which to report directly and express their views.
In conclusion, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the opportunity to discuss the issues on a formal basis. The issues continue to concern this Government and we continue to engage with them, both bilaterally with the Russians and with our colleagues in the United Nations, the European Union and other international organisation. I assure all hon. Members that this Government place the strongest emphasis on human rights. The Foreign Secretary has addressed the subject specifically, repeatedly and strongly during his time in office, and we will continue to place a strong emphasis on Britain taking a lead on projecting around the world, including Chechnya and Russia as a whole, the values upon which we in this House place great importance.
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to hold this debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I called this debate because I am deeply concerned about the communities in which I live and in which I grew up. At a time of public sector cuts, declining rates of growth are exacerbating the efforts of the north-east to help rebalance the economy. In County Durham, Sedgefield could suffer the same fate this decade that it did in the 1980s. There was hope, because the previous Government drew up a plan to halve the deficit, but that has now been replaced by a strategy to eradicate the deficit. As a consequence, unemployment is rising, economic confidence is damaged and growth is starting to stall.
When we left power, unemployment was falling and home repossessions and business bankruptcies were only half what they were in the 1980s and 1990s. The previous Government were acting in the spirit of the big society. In the 1980s, unemployment in Sedgefield stood at 5,500, 40% of whom were out of work for 12 months or more. Then the figures were massaged, so people were taken from the unemployment register and put on incapacity benefit and whole communities were closed down. If you met someone in the street, you never asked them if they were well; you asked them whether they had a job. Lessons are being learned. As the Government cut deep into public services with a fury, we do not want their mantra, “There is no such thing as society”, thrown back in our face. Some argue that the Government’s notion of the big society is a cover for the cuts, but it is, I believe, worse than that. I accept that the Government believe in a big society—after all they cannot be against fresh air. However, their deep cuts into the grants awarded to the third sector will inevitably prevent them from building such a society. Those who want to build a big society will not be able to do so, because they are denied the proper tools.
Charities have always had a role in society. People have always volunteered, but the need for charity and for volunteers becomes more acute when society fails its people. You only need to look at the coal mining traditions of County Durham in the late-19th and 20th centuries to prove the point. As A. J. P. Taylor said:
“Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state beyond the post office and policemen.”
Perhaps some would like to return to such an age, but let us look at what it meant to the mining communities of that time.
Colliery owners provided housing from which colliers could be evicted at any time. Thousands of miners died at their jobs—sometimes hundreds of them died in a single incident, because of the lack of mine safety. Education was provided by charities, the Church and sometimes by colliery owners. At the opening of his school in East Hedleyhope colliery towards the end of the 19th century, Sir Bernhard Samuelson said:
“If elementary schools were being built for the working population, colleges and secondary schools were also being erected for those who employed them.”
Life expectancy for miners was poor. In the 20th century, 27% of miners were disabled before they retired. Health care, which was provided at the county hospital in Durham city, was funded by miners’ subscriptions. It was a time of great volunteering, of banding together and of mutual help. It was driven not just by altruism, but by enlightened self-interest.
In the 1890s, some 52% of the adult population—the highest figure of any county—belonged to a co-operative and were known as co-operators. Some 130,000 miners in Durham joined together to form the Durham Aged Mineworkers’ Homes Association, which built homes for miners, so that they could live out their retirement in dignity. They were able to live in a “haven of rest” rather than go to the workhouse.
The miners also formed a trade union and, as we all know, the trade union movement itself helped to form the Labour party. Keir Hardie, one of our founding fathers, believed in “a communal consciousness”, which is what we today would call a big society. It is this belief in community that has always driven my politics. I am proud of what the miners did for themselves and I am proud of their heritage, but you could argue that they were practising the big society.
It is obvious that the miners did not live in a big society and that they did what they had to do. They risked their lives every day of the week, and there was no one there to help. As they left the pit, they had to run charities and raise funds to look after themselves. They put into practice the belief that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone. To me that is what a society that is fair, big and good should be doing.
For the big society to work, there must be more than just volunteering and charity, because there must be a democratically elected Government who act on behalf of the people and the community. People will be able to live secure in the knowledge that society will work with them to provide the environment for health, work and education.
With respect, the hon. Gentleman’s seat is very different from the one that I represent. None the less, I have some big problems in my own area, too. He makes the case for the history of Sedgefield and brings it up to the current day. Did he not agree with the Prime Minister when he said that there was such a thing as society, but it was not necessarily the same as the state? That is not to say that the state has no role, but that it should not have an exclusive role.
I do not think for one moment that anyone is saying that there is no place for charity or for volunteering, but both must work in hand with the state if we are to have a fair and just society. We cannot have one without the other. I use the miners as an example, because what they were practising is what we would see today as the big society. Self-interest made them behave in such a way, because there was no one there to help them and the state would not take part. As A. J. P. Taylor said, the state was nowhere. The only time you came across it was when you went to the post office or when you met a policeman in the street. A strong society is what we need, and it is something that the Labour party has helped to build over the years.
The big society cannot only be about you and what you do for yourself, because it is also about what you can do for others, which is something with which we can all agree. The greatest acts of volunteering and charity will come where there is the greatest need, such as in the coalfields of County Durham in the 19th and 20th centuries, and I do not want to return to those times. The Government thought not only that they did not have a role but that they should not have a role either. A lot of volunteering and charitable work goes on today, which the Government have acknowledged. Volunteering levels have remained stable since 2001 with 40% of people volunteering once a year and 27% of people volunteering once a month.
Citizen Survey, which has been quoted by the Government, also states that 83% of people perceive their community as cohesive and agree that their local area is a place in which people from different backgrounds got on well together, which is an increase on 2003.
When people are content, there is little likelihood of their feeling the need to volunteer. It is a testament to the efforts of the previous Government that they put so much into community cohesion.
I welcome you, Mrs Main, to the Chair. I apologise that I cannot stay for the full debate, because I have to attend another meeting, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he agree that in order to have proper community cohesion, there needs to an adequate amount of funding in working-class estates to provide the projects that are so badly needed? Although we understand that there is a difficulty with funding per se given the economics of the country, to withdraw it or reduce it dramatically knocks confidence. People are left feeling that they might as well have never received it in the first place, because if it is cut in mid-stream, they are left in limbo.
There is much truth in what the hon. Gentleman has said. He comes from an area which has pockets of deprivation and working-class communities that rely on this funding to ensure that they can go ahead with charitable work.
The previous Government more than doubled the amount of money in the third sector, which increased from some £5.5 billion to more than £12 billion. There are now about 62,000 social enterprises in the UK, contributing at least £24 billion to the economy. It has been estimated that social enterprises employ about 800,000 people. At the height of the recession, we used the hardship fund to give £17 million to local charities, for example those working in health and social care, housing support, and education and training.
What we and the Government must be careful of—
I will not do it again. Thank you for pointing that out, Mrs Main.
I am worried that the Government are raising expectations about what the third sector should deliver, but they are about to embark on cuts that will damage the capacity of civil society to deliver. That brings me to the nub of my argument. How can the Government fulfil their big society agenda when they are cutting funding and dismantling the infrastructure within which a big society can flourish? Because the cuts force people into volunteering, as they have no other choice, what we have left is not a big society but a coercive society. That is the kind of society that the miners of Durham found themselves in because the community at large had abrogated its responsibilities, which is what this Government are doing.
I am not the only one saying that about the funding cuts; the charities are too. From what I understand, a recent press release from the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations estimated that the voluntary sector
“will lose more than £1 billion in the 2011-12 financial year and more than £3 billion a year by 2014-15 as councils terminate grants or buy fewer services.”
As the Government try to push their big society programme, the ACEVO warns that:
“if the scale of the spending cuts to councils were passed on to charities the voluntary sector would be ‘decimated’. Charities are already facing pressure from VAT rises and the loss of Gift Aid relief.”
If the charities themselves are saying that, is it not time that the Government listened to what they have to say?
Before we on this side of the Chamber are lectured by the Government on the economy and their belief that they need to cut as deeply as they are cutting because of the deficit, I just want to say that I do not think that we can be lectured on those things any more, especially as the Chancellor gave a three-minute interview on the BBC yesterday in which he blamed the weather for the economy’s problems 24 times. If the Government want to build a big society, they need to re-examine how they are going to fund charities and the third sector.
I have been listening very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has been saying. Surely, however, he will acknowledge that his own party, when it was in power, had identified that it would make £44 billion—I think that was the figure—of savings or cuts. Is he saying to hon. Members today that none of those cuts would have affected the voluntary sector in any way?
We would have done two things. First, we would have made sure that, as far as possible, we did not damage front-line services. Secondly, we would not have raised expectations, as I believe this Government are doing by saying that they will create a big society while at the same time undermining that big society by slashing and burning all the grants and facilities that provide for the third sector. We would not have done that.
We also need the Government to consider what they can do other than providing for charities and the third sector, because the big society involves more than doing just that. For example, one of the issues in my constituency is that some private landlords are neglecting the properties that they own. Those properties were owned by the National Coal Board many years ago. They were then sold off, and people bought them to get on to the property ladder, before selling them on. Private landlords came in and bought them. Now we have a problem, and I believe that, if we are not careful, whole centres of communities will be sucked out and the community spirit will be sucked out too by the behaviour of some of those landlords.
Labour introduced selective licensing schemes, which I am pleased to say the Government have allowed to continue. However, we were also going to introduce a national register for private landlords, which would have meant that you had to register in communities such as mine before you could go on to rent out properties. The Government are not introducing that register. I know that private landlords are not necessarily the Minister’s responsibility, but he has responsibility for the big society. He needs to discuss this issue of private landlords with the Department for Communities and Local Government, because it is ripping the soul out of some of our local communities and needs to be sorted out.
I totally endorse the point that my hon. Friend is making about the lack of registration of landlords and what I think is a lack of consideration by this Government of the need for communities to know who landlords are, so that if problems with rented properties emerge, they can be tackled at local level.
My hon. Friend and I worked together a lot on this issue with Durham county council. Many of those private landlords are absentee landlords, and a lot of them live abroad, so what do they care about what is happening in the villages of Sedgefield or elsewhere in the country? It is an issue that needs to be tackled nationally and, if need be, internationally, too. I say that because if you are not careful what you will have in these areas is not a big society but a non-society, because the community spirit will be taken out of them.
If we really want a big society to flourish, and if we are “all in this together”, we must look internationally to secure a future for our communities that is protected from unstable international financial systems. We need a big society that is not underpinned by abolishing the future jobs fund or the education maintenance allowance, and by the Prime Minister basically reneging on his pledge to send back to the drawing board any Minister who came up with a proposal that affected the front line.
Finally, I want to leave you with this example of the kind of society—
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for bringing this important debate to Westminster Hall. I came along because I was intrigued by the title of the debate, “Community Cohesion”. Obviously I have listened to what you have said. I believe that our Localism Bill very much embeds all the charities and all the volunteers within what we are trying to do, whether it is HealthWatch, the Work programme, community groups or community centres. The big society is everything that you are talking about, just seen from a different viewpoint, and I have people coming to me locally and saying, “Thank goodness we’ve been liberated to go forth and develop what we want, rather than having a top-down state approach.” So I hope that you welcome this way forward.
Okay. Thank you for that, Mrs Main.
The hon. Lady might have people coming up to her and saying, “Thank you for us being liberated.” I have people coming up to me and saying that they are scared stiff that their charity will not survive because of the cuts, or that they are scared stiff that they will not be able to work any more for the young people in their village or to look after the elderly, and so on, because of the cuts that they know are coming down the line. So this issue actually cuts both ways, but I am more concerned about those people who are frightened to death about what is going to hit them.
I want to end by relating a true story, which for me encapsulates the big society that is already here. A friend of mine had a couple over from America visiting him a few months ago. The Americans were out with my friend for a meal one evening and one of them was taken ill in the street. So my friend phoned 999 on his mobile and a few minutes later a paramedic turned up, administered to the lady who was ill, made her better, got back on his motorbike and drove away. The Americans were amazed by that. They were amazed that they did not have to pay on the spot and that instead this man just turned up on his motorbike, made sure that the person was made well and drove away, and they did not even know his name. My friend said to me, “If you want an example of a big society that is a big society, when that works.” That is down to the NHS, which I believe is a true testimony to the big society. The NHS makes the story of the good samaritan an everyday occurrence, but I believe that this Government want to dismantle it. The Government might believe in a big society but they will never get it to work, because they do not actually know what it means.
I read with some interest on the Order Paper that there was going to be a debate on “Community Cohesion”, because I wondered what that phrase meant. Usually, the topic that is going to be debated is clear from the Order Paper, and the policy issues that will be considered and the Department that is likely to respond to the debate are usually implied by that. The phrase “community cohesion” does not lend itself to any of that, so I thought, at first, that it might be shorthand for “the big society” and, as I have listened to the comments made by the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) in the debate today, that is, I think, what has so far been intended.
On this side of the Chamber, we have certainly made it clear that the size, scope and role of the Government has reached a point at which it is inhibiting rather than advancing the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality and increasing well-being. In short, we do not believe that Government with a capital G has all the answers, and the coalition has made it clear that its alternative to big government is the big society, a society in which we all recognise the responsibilities that we owe to ourselves, our families, the communities in which we find ourselves and the nation as a whole. It is a society with much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility, where people come together to solve problems and to improve life for themselves and their communities, and where the driving dynamic or progress is social responsibility, not state control. I am sure, therefore, that the concept of the big society runs, and will run, consistently through the coalition Government’s programme, which is reflected by the fact that the Minister responding to this debate is responsible for the policy on the big society.
The Government’s plans to reform public services, mend society and rebuild trust in politics are part of the big society agenda. Such plans involve redistributing power from the state to society—from the centre to local communities—giving people the opportunity to take more control of their lives. That is why the Localism Bill is so important, as are similar initiatives. It was heartening to see that so many right hon. and hon. Members wished to speak last week on Second Reading. Some 76 Members put their names forward, which I suspect was a record and which reflects the considerable interest in the localism agenda. It has occurred to me that if the hon. Gentleman wanted to have a crack at the big society, he would have tabled something on that topic at that point, and we would have found on the Order Paper a debate entitled, “The Big Society”.
The phrase “Community Cohesion” should therefore mean something, and as I reflected on that I decided to look it up on Wikipedia, which was not a particularly reassuring experience. The Wikipedia reference to community cohesion starts by proclaiming that
“this article does not cite any references or sources”,
so if there is some great sociological debate going on here, it clearly has not hit Wikipedia. The website then gives a short definition:
“Community cohesion refers to the aspect of togetherness and bonding exhibited by members of a community, the ‘glue’ that holds a community together. This might include features such as a sense of common belonging or cultural similarity.”
I cannot work out why it is necessary for hon. Members to spend an hour and a half considering our sense of common belonging, because it is axiomatic that we have a sense of common belonging.
The phrase is included in some of the Conservative party documentation that I have read on the big society, and community surveys in recent years also talk about community cohesion. The phrase has not just come out of the blue, and the hon. Gentleman’s own party has used it to explain what the big society is all about. My point is not that anyone is against the big society, but that because of the cuts that you are going to bring about, you will ensure that there is no big society.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman has said, but he chose the topic for this debate, and in the substantial briefing prepared by the Library—it runs to pages and pages—the phrase “community cohesion” is, interestingly, mentioned only once.
After giving the brief description that I cited before giving way, Wikipedia recommends that one should also look on the site for terms such as “gemeinschaft and gesellschaft”, “integration”, “multiculturalism”, “social cohesion”, “structural cohesion” and “social solidarity”. On the basis of those associated terms, it struck me that community cohesion is not a policy that would commend itself to many of my hon. Friends, because it is clearly shorthand for state intervention by stealth. If it is not, I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman has not candidly introduced a debate on the big society.
I then recalled, from the recesses of my mind, that there is one statutory reference to community cohesion—just one—which is that the previous Government placed in statute in the Education and Inspections Act 2006 a duty on schools to promote community cohesion, and an obligation on Ofsted to police whether schools were taking sufficient action to promote such cohesion. I do not know about other hon. Members, but in the time that I have been a Member in north Oxfordshire I have found that all the schools in my patch strive hard to play their part in the local community and do not require a tick-box exercise to determine whether they are full members of the community. Indeed, how can a school be isolated from what other parts of the community do? I suspect that every head teacher and governing body in my patch believes that community cohesion is a fundamental part of their ethos. They need neither Ministers to tell them what they should be doing nor Ofsted inspectors to check that they, as schools, are playing their full part in the community.
I assumed, therefore, that what we would be having today would be synthetic row about the perfectly sensible decision of Ministers at the Department for Education to remove from Ofsted inspectors the obligation to have regard to community cohesion when carrying out inspections, and about the decision that inspectors should, in future, concentrate on four principal areas, namely the quality of teaching, the effectiveness of leadership, pupils’ behaviour and safety, and pupils’ achievement. That seems an eminently sensible approach. Indeed, and perhaps understandably, head teachers and the teaching unions have long urged that there should be less control from the centre and that they should be trusted more to run their schools and to teach for the benefit of the pupils concerned and not for the benefit of bureaucrats. Those four principal areas of focus for inspection by Ofsted show whether a school is performing effectively, but I am conscious that the people who are opposed to Ministers removing an obligation on Ofsted to have regard to community cohesion, are also having a crack at the policy of free schools being introduced by the Secretary of State for Education and other ministerial colleagues at the Department. I find that hostility to free schools truly bizarre.
This year we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Church of England entering the field of education and the formation of the National Society. At that time, the Church of England introduced Church schools into every parish for the purposes of educating local children. It was never intended that they should be faith schools; they were seen as part of the Church of England’s central mission to the local community, and in 1944 Rab Butler was able to introduce his Education Act only because the Church of England was prepared to integrate Church schools into the state system of education.
Then, as now, Roman Catholic and other schools provided diversity, and in recent years that diversity has been extended by the introduction and continuance of academies by the previous Government. Children in Banbury have a choice of going to Banbury school, which is a trust school, North Oxfordshire academy, which as its name suggests is an academy, or Blessed George Napier school, which is a Roman Catholic secondary school with a sixth form. Post 16, they can go to the Oxford and Cherwell Valley further education college. Parents welcome such choice, and head teachers, governing bodies and schools are all, in their different ways, rooted in the local community.
Indeed, the Education Act 1944 makes it clear that as far as is possible, children should be educated in accordance with their parents’ wishes, a concept endorsed fully by Jim Callaghan as Prime Minister in the mid-1970s during his notable speech at Ruskin college on education, in which he made it clear that whatever parents wanted for their children, the state should want for all our children. I thus find it entirely bizarre that the Labour party, which endorsed the academies programme while in government—not just in inner cities but in areas and constituencies such as mine—wants to pull up the drawbridge now that it is in opposition.
Who is it that the Opposition do not trust—head teachers, governing bodies or parents? Occasionally, they seek to show their opposition to free schools by having a crack at faith groups, but faith groups, such as the Church of England, have, as I have said, been running schools in this country very effectively for 200 years. I was fortunate enough to attend a faith school. A couple of months ago, I returned there to take part in a seminar commemorating the life and work of one of the school’s distinguished old boys, Michael Foot. I fail to understand why some in the Labour party wish to pull up the ladder that they and others climbed.
I am pleased that a new free school is proposed in my constituency that will take pupils from age eight through secondary level. RAF Upper Heyford was a United States air force base until the early 1990s. For some years, the base was in limbo while various national house builders who owned the site negotiated the planning process. Heyford Park now has planning permission for 1,000 homes, including the existing 300, and parents there made it clear in a survey that they would like a combined primary and secondary school built at Heyford Park. A Heyford Park parents’ group has grown up as a result of that effort to seek parents’ views, and it in turn has developed into Heyford Park parents’ planning group for a new free school.
I strongly support the initiative. It seems totally in accord with the Government’s policy on free schools and new academies. It also has the benefit of an existing community that will grow over time and from which such a school can be born in terms of parental support and a geographical area. In addition, there is no primary or secondary school in the area whose offering the creation of a Heyford Park academy would challenge, threaten or undermine, as all the existing primary schools nearby are effectively full, obliging many primary school children from the area to travel a considerable distance to Bicester. The creation of the school would allow children to go to school much nearer where they live.
The planning group includes Roy Blatchford, former head teacher of Bicester community college and one of Her Majesty’s inspectors. I am glad to report that the buildings for a school already exist and that there are plenty of grounds and playing space at Upper Heyford dating from when it was an air force base. The developers are willing to commit substantial amounts of money to the new free school.
That project chimes with what we are trying to do to give local people much greater control over their lives. If we are to debate the big society, let us have a debate, but I believe that the localism agenda, which gives people much greater control over their own lives—having regard to the obligations that we all have to ourselves, our families and the communities in which we find ourselves—is the right direction of travel. I am glad that it is this Government’s direction of travel.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this important debate. Like the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), when I saw “Community Cohesion” on the Order Paper, I was confused about what this debate would address. I started preparing for a debate about community cohesion and stopping the radicalisation of young people. Then, fortunately, I received the Library briefing, which made it clear that we would be discussing community cohesion and the big society. I am pleased to discuss that as well—
Thank you, Mrs Main. For the purposes of this debate, a discussion of projects to reduce radicalisation among young people might take us off the agenda that other Members intended to debate. Also, the Minister does not have responsibility for that particular aspect of Government policy. I intend to focus on the big society. My borough, the London borough of Sutton, is one of the four lead authorities on the big society, so the issue is close to my heart.
As the hon. Member for Sedgefield said in his opening remarks, it will clearly be harder for the Government and people throughout the country to deliver a big society agenda against the nation’s current financial backdrop. We have the largest budget deficit in the G20. The Government are rightly taking measures to address that, and many organisations will be affected. I intervened on him to point out that his Government accepted that such action would be necessary. I was not aware of any suggestion in his remarks that the voluntary sector, for instance, should be ring-fenced from the budget cuts. I was hoping that he might set out an alternative approach that took into account the fact that we face difficult financial circumstances. However, he did not do so, providing us with a list of things that he did not think the Government should cut rather than an alternative approach to deliver the £44 billion in savings that his Government would have made, if they had been elected on 6 May.
On the big society, I make an unashamed plug for the work being done in the London borough of Sutton. The borough is concentrating on four things. It is developing the Sutton Life centre. It is concentrating on the public transport agenda, particularly smarter travel. It is progressing health provision, GP commissioning and ensuring that local people and the local authority have a bigger say in health provision. Finally—this is the area that I will focus on most—it is developing the Hackbridge vision, which is a grassroots effort. That is what the big society should be about. The community is driving a project to make Hackbridge the most sustainable suburb in the country.
The Hackbridge project has already got off to a good start. Members might be aware of a residential development called BedZED, which has been widely covered in many colour supplements in recent years. BedZED has received visitors from all over the world. When I catch the train that goes through Hackbridge, I often see visitors from every country in the world getting off at Hackbridge and going to visit the development. It will form the core around which the rest of the initiatives will be developed. The community, local authority and developers are all working successfully to develop the concept. I am sure that renewable energy plants will be delivered there. The local landfill site is already putting energy back into the grid using turbines. That is exactly what the big society is about—a grassroots movement to develop a community sustainably and with the support of local people.
I will mention a couple of exemplars. When the local authority identified the need for a children’s centre on the site of Amy Johnson primary school, the borough could offer only limited cash to the school. It said to the school, “We have £180,000 that we’re going to spend on developing this.” The school governors came back and said, “Give us the money and we’ll do it.” The local authority said, “Okay, but we will not give you £1 more than £180,000.” The school governors and parents went away and designed a project that ended up with 40% more floor space than what the local authority was going to offer. It was also designed to their specification and delivered within the £180,000 envelope. In addition to the voluntary contribution from the school governors, the school caretaker, who had worked in the building trade, took on a lot of the project management. That is a good example of what can be done in big society terms.
Another initiative is the Wandle Trust, which has taken over responsibility for maintaining the River Wandle from the Environment Agency. It is involving many more volunteers than the Environment Agency could ever hope to. Another example is Gaynesford Lodge, which provides day care for senior citizens. It is looking at setting up a social enterprise to take on responsibility for providing that service, and I hope that it will receive advice from the Government to help it to do that.
Earlier this week, I was at an event where the Federation of Bangladeshi Caterers talked about the role that its businesses can play in the big society. That might involve providing training or business mentoring to young people. Its members are therefore keen to get engaged.
I carry out an electronic poll once a month, sending out e-mails to about 6,000 constituents. One of those straw polls was about the big society, and I am pleased to say that 53% of the people who responded said that they would want to get actively involved in big society projects. There is, therefore, a real desire to get involved.
Let me read a couple of comments from people who responded to the poll. Sarah said:
“I believe this is a good opportunity for the community to work together for the common good of all.”
“It is easy to be cynical about Government and see this as a middle class gimmick but we all need to feel more connected to each other...Let’s get on and test it.”
Explaining why she collected litter in her road and the surrounding area, Margaret said:
“If more people did this we would have pride back in where we live. It is not taking jobs from people it is simply helping us to help ourselves.”
In the London borough of Sutton, at least, there is a strong desire to engage—people are not cynical.
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will tell us which rules and regulations that apply to the Government, local government, the police and the NHS will be changed to facilitate the big society process. For me and my constituents, that process is about helping people get involved. Currently, they are being prevented from doing so, because a few obstacles have been thrown in their way. Those obstacles are not really necessary and can easily be removed. I accept that the Localism Bill, which the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) has mentioned, is part of that process, but I hope that the Minister and his officials are identifying some of the obstacles. I also hope that he will be able to tell us—if not now, perhaps as things develop—exactly what bonfire of regulations and rules will take place to enable people to engage in the big society in the way in which they are keen to.
I thank you, Mrs Main, and the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) for giving me the opportunity to speak in this important debate.
We all accept that community cohesion is a wide-ranging notion. We all want to live in a community where we feel safe from crime, where we give our children a good education and where everyone comes together at times of need to help those who need help most.
When I was first selected as the prospective MP for Hexham, and we first started talking about the big society and community cohesion, individuals in the 1,100 square miles that I am lucky enough to represent said, “But we already have this. We do this already.” However, they would then add a “but” and talk about the obstacles that prevented them from going forward and being freed up to do things. I will attempt to identify those individual problems, although I do not particularly seek to criticise previous Governments. None the less, it is clear that there is much in the big society agenda that we can take forward and use as an asset.
There have been accusations—in The Times on Monday, for example—that the big society is not being implemented in the way in which everybody would like, but, in my respectful submission, that is not right. Although the big society is there to a degree, and it comes to the forefront in times of crisis, the coalition has managed to make it an individual, overriding aim. Apart from wiping out the deficit, which clearly must be done, we want to decentralise government. Effectively, we are enablers; we are trying to take government back to the people, who are in charge. I can give multiple examples of that, but that is surely all about trying to give power back to the people with whom it fundamentally rests.
It follows from that vein of thought that it is up to individuals actively to transform community cohesion from being big only in times of need, as it was perhaps in the past, to being something that exists at all times. People need to be aware of it at all stages. I implore my colleagues to get behind this initiative, if they have not done so already.
I want to make an unashamed plug at this point. On 11 February, more than 100 individuals will get together in Hexham to see how we can take community cohesion forward. The event is not sponsored by anybody individually, although I am paying the bill. We are bringing together all manner of people—representatives of different faiths, councillors and housing representatives —to look at the opportunities. I will come to that in a bit more detail, but I just wanted to give the context in which we are working.
Ever since I have had the honour of representing Hexham, we have tried to support many big society initiatives, with the aim of creating more community cohesion. I want to list 10 things that we are doing. First, we have an internship programme in the constituency office to which everybody contributes. We have had 35 young people, which is an awful lot in seven months. They have been aged from 16 to 22, and 10 of them have already completed the programme. A further 30 young people have signed up for the internship programme for 2011.
Secondly, the volunteers and I help to run our MP’s charity quiz nights. We go to local pubs around the constituency raising money for charities. We have worked for Help the Heroes and a local charity, Tynedale Activities for Special Children.
Thirdly, we are committed to an annual Christmas social action project. Lots of people have such projects, but I want to give some idea of the extent of ours. I have a spare office—it is meant to be my surgery office—but I had to move out of it, because so many people contributed presents. The project mushroomed and acquired a wonderful life of its own. We sent those presents to Support Our Soldiers and collected care packages for our serving troops. The response in the community was wonderful. Almost more interestingly, the two regiments involved—one is 39 Regiment Royal Artillery—wrote to tell us what an amazing contribution that we had made. One individual even wrote just before Christmas, but sadly passed away. We saw the impact on the people we were trying to help on a regular basis.
There is also our social action programme, which has ideas for youth training, job clubs and producing community guides. There is not, for example, in the wonderful, wild world of Northumberland, a universal guide to its best parts, so we are producing one ourselves. We managed to persuade the tourist board to give us what it uses, such as photographs, and we shall integrate all those things into our programme, so that during the weekend all the individuals who are trying to set up bed and breakfast or support for organisations will be supported by us.
We also have volunteers who support nature projects such as tree and bulb planting, and community allotment days throughout the constituency. I am not at all green-fingered, but I am becoming better by the minute and have, delightfully, been offered the vice-presidency of the Prudhoe allotments, a welcome activity for destressing on a wet weekend.
There are small projects, but there are also very big ones. One is in the village of Humshaugh, which has a village shop. It lost its post office, which is a problem faced by every constituency. In Humshaugh, with the post office having gone and the shop struggling, the villagers faced closure, because they had no money to go on with. So the community rallied round and enlisted the support of a wealth of individuals. I use the word “wealth” because everyone involved—60-odd people—gives their time for free. It is an amazing example of a shop that closed, then reopened and is progressing. There was a contribution by a business man who prefers to remain nameless, but everyone else was involved. People thought that that was so good that they were a bit upset about the pub. The Crown Inn, Humshaugh, had not gone into receivership but it was not far off, so the villagers took it over as well.
I want to discuss broadband. Everyone knows that there are efforts to take it forward. I am lucky in that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), whose constituency neighbours mine, has money and funding for the Eden Valley project, which is a very successful and good project. It is just over the border—I wish it was with us, but such is life, and we must get on with it. We have gone to see what is happening, and we are trying to dovetail with what it is doing. Kielder forest and the Northumberland national park cover huge areas, with probably the largest forest in the country. We have no broadband or mobile phone coverage, and we have a problem with making progress, so we work with a host of different providers. How are they helping us? We have worked on the concept, of which the Minister will be aware, that there are alternatives, and we are considering how we can use Northumbrian Water, which is a substantial, FTSE 100 company. One might consider it and think, “How can you help? You are a very wealthy company.” In reality it is telling us that it is possible that it can provide pre-existing sewers and the like, and that we can use them to make alternative provision. There are other good examples to assist us, and I am hopeful that as the Eden Valley project expands, we shall be able to do more.
Ninthly, I want to talk about planning, which is a huge issue in every constituency. You have got individual people, on a regular basis—
I apologise, Mrs Main.
Hon. Members have individual problems with planning, and they are struggling, but that can be addressed. The Localism Bill will be of huge import, and it will be a huge success in the effort to free up the ongoing planning crisis. I urge hon. Members to get behind it. The Bill is a large one, and we could talk about it for hours, as we saw last week. All the things that I am discussing are about enabling people to do things. I keep coming back to that, because with such enablement we can take good ideas forward. Instead of a system that requires five or six different referrals to go through the Leader programme or other One North East programmes and get a result, things should be much quicker, simpler and faster. I hope that they will be.
I want to finish by talking about the Tynedale big society summit, which will be held in just over two weeks’ time. There will be representatives from business, faith groups, voluntary organisations, local politicians, health and housing, and environmental groups to help people with local government. I hope that the key players in expanding and enabling the big society will come together across Tynedale with the intention of sharing best practice and past successes, and developing a local framework that will help organisations and volunteers to play a strong role in delivering the ideas behind the big society. Participants will be able to question a range of guests on the opportunities ahead for the third sector to play a central role in the procurement and delivery of services.
There will also be specific examples of project-based best practice shared between the various sectors, in which local groups have made a difference to their communities, as well as group discussions on a plan of action taking forward ideas of further co-operation between those existing groups and volunteers. Best of all, the whole day will be staffed—aside from being paid for by my good self—by local volunteers who are interns. The sandwiches will be provided by a start-up company that wants to expand. The essence of what we are trying to do is there.
I could talk about the effect when previous councils, who suffered the blame for unpopular decisions, blamed Whitehall in the face of local anger. Things have developed to the point where very few people seem prepared to accept responsibility for a mistake or for unpopular decisions, whether right or wrong. That has even been transmitted to the social level. We live in a democracy where it is important to feel that someone can have their say, if they want their view to be heard.
We need to consider the glue that binds us together. On a national level, it can be a range of things, such as sport, conflict or even a general election. Those things bring us together, but often in different or separate camps. There are few instances where we are all unequivocally united on one side. We may be divided over the fighting in Afghanistan, but we are united in supporting our troops and doing our bit to ensure that they are supported. It is that sense of shared investment, a shared contribution and a shared goal that brings us together into a cohesive community not only nationally but locally. With the investments and projects that I have described, and with us as enablers, we can and should take that forward.
I came to listen to the debate and perhaps make an intervention, but I thought that what I had to say might go on too long and you might ask me to sit down, Mrs Main. Therefore I thought I might say something near the end of the debate if there were time.
When I saw the title, “Community Cohesion”, I thought, “What an admirable debate.” Is that not what everyone, on both sides of the House, is looking at in order to see how we can work in our communities? Is that not what MPs do? We try to figure out the solutions to problems and work together. We have to work within the set budget to take that forward, but, at the same time, I have found in my local community a desire to explore the capabilities of individuals and communities, and I have felt a bubbling up from the ground for people to take control of what they are doing.
Big society may be two small words that mean a huge amount to different people, but when the idea was introduced, the people of Wirral West grasped it. When shops closed on the high street, they came together and asked, “What can we do?” They did not want to see that in their little villages and towns, of which they are very proud. Art shops and places for children and families may have opened, but when people saw council-owned pieces of land, such as allotment areas, they wanted to expand on that and have some more, so that their sons could go there with their dads—and mums with their daughters—to understand what a root vegetable is and what fruit and vegetables are, rather than buy them from a supermarket. All those things were bubbling and building up.
There were also asset transfers. The local community centre was not doing so well, so people living in the area thought, “We know what’s best,” and they have taken it on board and are working together. Even bigger schemes started to bubble up, too. They asked whether first-time buyers could afford local housing and thought about what they were going to do about social housing. They are now looking to develop a plot of land that will be affordable for first-time buyers, and an eco-environment, which we would desperately like in our area.
We are all looking for community cohesion, which is why, when I read an article in The Observer last week which cited ideas on the Labour big society, based on local loyalties, family and common good, I thought that that was not so far removed from the Conservative big society. My example of the allotment is about the family, and my example of the community centre is about the common good for the local area, which is also the case with affordable housing.
The big society must be explored by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and we have to work within the set budget. That is why I welcome the Conservative party’s proposals for a £50 million community first fund and a £10 million voluntary match fund, as well as the piloting of the national citizen service and the £100 million transition fund. All those things must come together.
I am delighted to hear about community cohesion, which is something that we are all trying to achieve, and I will be delighted to hear from the Minister not just about what else we are going to do that will work in places such as Wirral West, but about what would be an enabler in places such as Sedgefield, which may have very different needs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. We have had an interesting and wide-ranging debate. I shall begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this important debate. His description of the community he serves is familiar to me. We are both very fortunate and privileged to serve as MPs for ex-mining communities. He is right to point out that, over many years, these communities have often been denied the tools to improve their areas, notwithstanding their ability and desire to do so. He was also right to remind us of the centrality of mutualism and co-operatives to the development of communities and, indeed, to the Labour party itself. Moreover, he was right to question whether the Government’s agenda is more than self-help.
The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made a number of interesting points about the role of the state. I say to him that, if Labour went too far in using the state as a way of improving communities, I hope that he would accept that this Government could be going too far in dismantling the state, particularly the welfare state. He might also want to consider the impact of that on disadvantaged areas in particular. He was right, however, to applaud the Localism Bill, which includes some useful elements and has created high aspirations for what it could deliver in my constituency. I hope that the Government will deliver on their rhetoric for my constituents.
As we might have expected, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) started off by blaming Labour for the world’s ills, but I hope that he would accept that Labour set out a clear plan to reduce the deficit. We said that we would do it more slowly and carefully than this Government.
As I said, we set out clearly how we would reduce the deficit more slowly. The amount of money that we would have reduced would, therefore, have been less, so there would not have been these huge, up-front cuts affecting local government. Interestingly, the hon. Gentleman outlined vividly one of the points that I wish to make—the voluntary sector and the big society were not invented by this Government. Much wonderful community and voluntary activity is already taking place, as he demonstrated so eloquently by talking about what is happening in his own constituency.
The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) outlined the obstacles that may prevent voluntary activity, but he gave little recognition to the fact that some individuals are more able than others to undertake such activity. Perhaps the atlas and geography of volunteering need to be taken into consideration. Nevertheless, I pay tribute to the many volunteers in his constituency and to the wonderful work that is taking place, as I do to the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), who has pointed out that much is already happening in her constituency and that the Government could do more to enable further activity to take place.
On the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield, he was absolutely correct to focus on what is undermining the big society, rather than to question the principles that underpin the idea of encouraging more volunteering, supporting community organisation and development, and giving a new impetus to social enterprise, co-operatives and mutuals. It would be churlish for us to do that. In government, Labour more than doubled the amount of money provided to the charitable sector, and we encouraged more volunteering. Organisations such as V did wonders to improve the number and range of volunteering activities available to young people, and that is just one example. The outcome of Labour’s support for the sector was greatly to increase the number of those involved in volunteering, and to expand the role of the sector in delivering services.
Surely, therefore, it is a matter of great disappointment that recent data from the citizenship survey for April to September 2010 show that 24% of people volunteered formally at least once a month, which is a lower level than that which existed previously and, perhaps, a surprise given the emphasis placed on volunteering by this Government. We should not, however, be at all surprised that, this week, we began to see questions in the media about whether the cuts might be choking the sector and impeding the development of the big society. All MPs are now becoming aware of how cuts to funding are impacting on not just the voluntary sector in their constituencies, but on smaller charities and agencies that undertake highly valuable work in all of our communities.
As if things on the funding front were not bad enough, it is interesting to note that Phillip Blond—one of the architects of the big society—is quoted in the press this week as having to argue that the big society is not in crisis. Of course, as soon as he tries to defend the big society, we immediately think that it must be in crisis and that his comments suggest that there is trouble.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield has so eloquently pointed out, Labour knows the value of supporting community development. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) did much at the Department for Communities and Local Government to put community empowerment on the agenda, but I sometimes wonder if the current Government understand the support that some communities and sections of communities need for that.
We know that levels of volunteering vary hugely across the country, yet it is the areas that have the lowest levels of volunteering—the poorest areas—that are suffering most from the public spending cuts. Those are the areas where most needs to be done. The deprived inner-city areas of London and the northern cities are experiencing the most drastic cuts, which undoubtedly will be passed on to the voluntary sector. If we are faced with huge cuts to services and funding, the Government will have to redouble their efforts if they are to succeed in developing more enterprise and mutuals in those circumstances. The big society bank has been put forward as a means of achieving that, but there are big questions about the delay in its implementation and whether it will have enough resources to do its job.
As well as flagging up what is happening with the levels of volunteering, the citizenship survey is important in other regards. It shows that 86% of adults in England were satisfied with their local area as a place to live, that 85% thought their community was cohesive and that 64% were not worried about being a victim of crime. That is hardly evidence of the broken Britain that the Government feel has to be fixed by an army of volunteers. That is not to say that volunteering is not important; quite the opposite, it suggests that much of what the Government say they want to create already exists in communities up and down the country. We saw many examples of that this afternoon. If they are to do more, they need support in terms of finances, resources and infrastructure, at least in a number of areas that face multiple and complex problems and have social needs. Social action can be a key feature in turning communities around, but it is not the only ingredient that is necessary.
I hope that the Minister will say what support he intends to give to groups and agencies suffering cuts beyond the inadequate transition fund and, crucially, how his community organiser programme will work with existing organisations. Perhaps he could answer the question posed in yesterday’s leader in The Times on why the Government still have to develop any signature policies or to bring examples of what the big society means. The Times was also useful for letting us know that the Minister has written to ask what ideas Conservative MPs have to make the big society a success. We will await the answers with interest. In the meantime, it is important to do what we can to support community and voluntary organisations and to develop social enterprises and mutuals, not least as a means of employment in our poorest communities. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister how he intends to achieve that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, for the first time. We have had an excellent, wide-ranging debate and you have chaired it very firmly. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on not just securing the debate, but battling flu so valiantly and presenting a sincere picture of his concerns for his constituency.
I have picked out three things that I would like to respond to directly. First, I shall discuss the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that the Government do not really know what big society means—he talked about fresh air in that context. I would also like to address his valid concern about cuts to the voluntary community sector, which was picked up by his colleague who represents the beautiful city of Durham, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods). I would then like to deal with the issue of landlords and how their practices risk unsettling, dividing and undermining communities.
Out of courtesy, if I could address the specific issue first, I will undertake to write to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government on the issue of a national register. That subject is not my direct responsibility and I am sure that there are lots of complexities underlying his suggestion, so I will write to the Minister for Housing and Local Government to alert him to the concern expressed in this debate. I have discussed the matter with a colleague who represents a seat in Cornwall. That is a long way from Sedgefield, but it has exactly the same problem the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That area adopted the grass-roots solution of personal advocacy. Basically, the community was fed up with the situation, so it got together and lobbied directly the people causing the problem and forced a change in policy. I do not know how applicable that is in Sedgefield, but there are examples around the country where that problem has been tackled by grass-roots action—a very big society response. I will write directly to the Minister on his behalf.
I will not take an intervention at this point because I want to move on from that issue.
I shall address the hon. Gentleman’s main concerns about what the big society is, what the Government are trying to achieve and what we mean by it. If he wants to look at the record tomorrow, he will see that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) articulated the matter as well as anyone, when he talked about trying to promote a greater culture of social responsibility. The idea is not fresh air because, as the hon. Member for City of Durham and various hon. Members pointed out, a lot of wonderful activity is going on in constituencies across the country, where people are working together and giving up time to try to find better ways of doing things, supporting initiatives and getting things going.
The Government want to throw a bigger spotlight on that activity to try to make it easier for people to do more such things and be more ambitious. The matter should not be divisive. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) put the argument beautifully. We should all be encouraging such things. I shall put the matter simply: it is about trying to encourage more people to get involved. There is no point pretending that all is rosy in the garden, as I think both Labour Members were saying when they cited the citizenship survey. We know that the country faces enormous challenges and that there are very stubborn, expensive social problems. It seems absolutely ridiculous to continue pretending that the state, people here or in Whitehall or even local authority chief executives somehow have all the solutions.
From my constituency, I know that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of the value that residents—constituents—can bring to the idea in terms of tapping into the talent, expertise, experience, ideas, networks and skills that are out there in communities. The big society is about trying to get more people involved and engaged in traditional volunteering or in that hugely important valuable work that we all know about from our constituencies. It is about providing the opportunity to give time to help improve someone else’s life. The value of that is two-way. Of course, we want to encourage more of that, but it is by no means the whole story. The big society is also about trying to get more people involved in shaping the future of communities, in the decisions that really matter and in trying to save things if things need to be saved, such as post offices, pubs, shops or whatever. It is about trying to combat the voice that I hear from constituents who say, “It’s not worth getting involved because it’s not as if we can change anything.” That is what we want to change.
The big society goes beyond that into the reform of public services and trying to open those up and get the people who pay for them and use them more involved in them. Again, in my constituency, I get a sense that people are becoming increasingly resentful of just taking what they are given and feeling that matters are being dealt with in a very detached way. Yes, this is about encouraging more volunteering, but it is also about getting people more involved at a local level in shaping the public services that they use. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) used the powerful expression “giving the power back,” which I liked. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was entirely right: that is what people want; they would like to get more involved. The citizenship survey showed that, and we are trying to make it easier.
There is a specific, proactive, big role for Government. There is no point in pretending that suddenly Government will disappear. The Government will play a hugely important part in all our lives, whatever the scale of the spending cuts. However, when it comes to making it easier for people to get involved and making the case for that more compelling, the Government are absolutely committed and on track, and will be delivering through three strands of action.
The first strand is about transferring real power to communities. That is now moving from words to realities. The specific measure has been mentioned—the Localism Bill. I am very pleased about and encouraged by the welcome that it has received, not least from the hon. Member for City of Durham. It is raising expectations. I think that that is right. People are excited about it, which suggests that its time has come. It is a huge piece of legislation, with lots of new rights and opportunities. However, there is more to the issue than just legislation.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington challenged me to be more specific about what we are doing to get out of the way. He was entirely right. If he listens to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, he will get the sense that that is a Secretary of State who wants to do exactly that. He wants to change the whole nature of his Department so that it works for citizens.
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that our approach is to send this message to communities: “Tell us what is getting in the way and we will work to see what we can do to remove it.” There is a specific barrier-busting service, of which he may be aware. That flows from a very powerful piece of legislation called the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which I took through Parliament as a private Member’s Bill. Already, communities are responding to this invitation: “Tell us what’s getting in the way and we will see whether we can remove it, but give us the specifics.” The new website was launched a few weeks ago, and I think that more than 50 proposals have come in already. That is on top of the 300 different proposals that we had for the first wave under the Sustainable Communities Act. These things are community driven, so there is a real determination on our part to get out of the way.
The second strand is about public service reform: opening up the public services to new providers, including, specifically, the voluntary and community sector; bringing those services closer to the people who use them; and liberating people who are in the front line delivering the services. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury talked passionately about schools. He will know from his experience with local heads about their desire to be liberated. Specifically in relation to public service reform, a White Paper, which I think will be published next month, will set out our stall on that and explain exactly how we intend to go about it.
The third strand is about social action—trying to inspire people and make it easier for them to give time and money to get things done locally to help people. Again, the words are now being backed up by actions. The Cabinet Office has published a Green Paper on giving, which will lead to a White Paper. We seek fresh ideas on what Government can do with partners—the charitable sector and business—to make it easier for people to give time and money.
We have announced the pilots of the next phase of the national citizen service. Again, that is a powerful, positive programme, which is designed to connect young people with their ability to make a contribution to their communities. I think that one of the biggest pilots, involving 1,000 young people, is taking place on the edge of the constituency of the hon. Member for Sedgefield. I urge him to engage with it, because I have seen that that programme can be very powerful in lifting the aspirations and confidence of young people.
The hon. Member for City of Durham rightly challenged me on this important point: the big society must be open to all. We all know that some communities are in a stronger position than others to take advantage of it. I represent a relatively affluent, suburban constituency on the edge of London, a long way from Sedgefield. My communities are well networked, strong and ambitious and, I think, will respond quickly to that agenda, but other communities will need some help.
The Government are determined to be proactive in encouraging, supporting and helping those communities to help themselves. That is one of the driving forces behind our community organiser and community first programmes, which we will be announcing more details of soon. The aim will be to establish, in those communities, people who can bring people together, organise communities and start building networks—people who have the confidence to start getting people together to get things done. With that will be a neighbourhood grant programme. Again, that will be targeted on the most disadvantaged areas, where the social capital is lowest. It will put money into the hands of neighbourhood groups to help them to develop and deliver on their own plans. The hon. Member for City of Durham mentioned the big society bank. That is wholly designed to make it easier for social entrepreneurs—people who want to take a bit of a risk to get things happening and who want to do things differently in those areas—to access capital.
The Government are doing things, but things are also beginning to happen in communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury was very modest about his pioneering work on developing job clubs in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham is getting a big society initiative going in his constituency. In my constituency, I am convening people in exactly the same way—in one ward, people are concerned about the future and feel that they need to come together and think about a neighbourhood plan for the area. I am facilitating that.
Last week I was in Halifax, where groups of people from the public sector—different stakeholders—were gathered round a table, talking about partnership in a way that they never had before, because they felt that that was possible and they were being encouraged to do it. One could sense that they were not going to go back to the bad old ways of sitting in their silos and just pursuing their individual targets and budgets. Something is happening and changing out there, and it needs to, because we have to find better ways of doing things.
I shall spend the time left to me on dealing with the very important issue of cuts to the voluntary and community sector, which is an emotive issue for many hon. Members. I have written to every Member of Parliament, inviting them to bring in representatives of their voluntary and community sector to talk to me about that, and many have taken up the invitation.
Of course, the voluntary and community sector is hugely important to this project, because of its ability to support and mobilise people, but it is not—we should be frank about this—the whole story. Business has a hugely important part to play, as do citizens and residents groups and as do Government. Charities are not a proxy for community, but they are a hugely important partner in the process.
There is a very difficult issue, which we should not underestimate, in relation to managing the transition. However, we need to be honest about this. Unfortunately, the sector cannot be immune from the cuts. The nation is spending £120 million a day in interest and borrowing £1 for every £4 that we spend. That is not sustainable. We have to reduce public spending on a scale that means that, unfortunately, the sector cannot be immune. That would have been a reality confronted by the Labour Government, exactly as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington emphasised, so there are cuts and there will continue to be cuts.
I would rather not, because I would like to finish this important point. The numbers being bandied around are entirely speculative. The Government are monitoring the situation closely, at central and local government level, because we are concerned that the process should be managed properly. We established a transition fund, which has now closed. That process was well run. From the Prime Minister down, we have sent a strong steer to local authority leaders that we do not expect them to take the easy option of making cuts to the voluntary and community sector before they have taken the opportunity to pursue their own efficiencies. Many councils, such as Reading and Wiltshire, which I heard about today, are increasing the amount of funding that they are giving to the voluntary and community sector. We are continuing to invest in the training of commissioners. We have reviewed and updated the compact, which is the framework that steers the relationship. The Office for Civil Society is continuing to invest to support and strengthen the sector.
We have three priorities. We ask ourselves, “What are we doing to make it easier to run a charity or voluntary sector organisation?” We are continuing to invest in infrastructure to support the sector. We are examining the red tape and regulation that get in the way. There are reviews across Government in respect of the Criminal Records Bureau and health and safety. Again, we are trying to get out of the way where we can. We are actively examining ways of getting more resources into the sector. The giving Green Paper is about trying to stimulate more charitable giving. The social investment bank—the big society bank—is about trying to grow a new market of social investment. We are reviewing everything that we can to try to make it easier for charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises to deliver more public services.
The transition that we have to manage is very difficult, but we are trying to help the sector to work towards a future in which it can be a very active player in the big society, delivering more public services, helping to give people a voice at local level, and benefiting from the extra time and money that we hope people will give. The Government are absolutely determined to make it easier for people to get involved, to live in even better connected communities and to feel part of something bigger.
UK Internet Search Engines
Thank you, Mrs Main, for chairing this Adjournment debate. I am told that it is on a subject that has not been addressed in Parliament so substantially before. However, the subject affects the UK economy and other European economies, and my constituency particularly.
Reach Global, in the ward of Church in my constituency, is a major online company involved in the search for, and retrieval and collation of information—it is a search engine. Netmovers is a major property internet search site that Reach Global owns and it is part of Reach Global’s portfolio of vertical UK search engines. Reach Global’s owners are resident in the UK, they pay taxes in the UK and they employ and train British people. Reach Global is a cutting-edge British company, but like many British companies it is being squeezed out by unfair and anti-competitive practices by Google. There is growing evidence that Google is leveraging its dominance in the search engine market into adjacent markets, much as Microsoft did when it leveraged its dominance in the operating systems market into adjacent markets, such as the web browser market.
E-commerce and e-business are booming. According to 2009 figures from the Office for National Statistics, the UK’s digital economy supports 143,000 enterprises, generating a total turnover of £178 billion of revenue, with nearly £100 billion of gross added value to the UK economy. Against that exponential growth, however, there is evidence that some smaller companies are finding that they are unable to gain access to the online search engine market.
According to Ofcom, in May 2010, 87% of internet search engine users chose Google. Numerically, that is 32.4 million out of 35 million UK searches, which was up 5% on the previous year. Google’s grip is tightening further. By January 2011, its market share had risen to 91% of the UK search market and as a result it dominated online advertising revenue. Bing has 3.87% market share, Yahoo! 2.85%, Ask 1.26% and the remainder of the providers, including UK providers, have just 1.34% of market share between them.
Google has been the focus of much criticism, with claims that it could be abusing its dominant position in the market. In my view, Google has gone from being a competitor to a predator and from a horizontal organic search client to a monopoly giant, with subliminal and unclear sponsored searches that favour other Google products.
It is important that we create the right market conditions to facilitate innovation in the online economy. Competition must be allowed to flourish, which I believe would create the right conditions and defend the interests of British companies, particularly high-tech IT companies.
Concerns are now being raised that Google’s dominant position is stifling innovation and preventing smaller companies from entering the market. Earlier this month, Google was in the headlines for disclosing that in 2010 it had made £2.2 billion in the UK market, claiming approximately 50% of UK online advertising revenue.
All that has led to Google becoming subject to an EU anti-trust investigation into its European operations, with allegations of anti-competitive behaviour. There are suggestions that Google’s search results are influenced by advertising and even that Google’s technology might deliberately lower the visibility of rival sites.
Acting as the principal gateway to the internet, Google has a responsibility to ensure that it provides an open and transparent service, and one that is free from bias or purchased favouritism. Because of its domination of the global search market and its ability to penalise competitors by placing its own services at the top of search results, Google has a virtually unassailable competitive advantage. Moreover, Google can deploy that advantage well beyond the confines of the search engine sector to any service that it chooses. Wherever it does so, incumbents are toppled, new entrants are suppressed and innovation is imperilled. The top result in any search usually results in 50% of the traffic going through that site, so it is easy to see why anyone would want to have the number one slot in the return on any search that is made.
The preferential placement of Google’s price comparison service, for example, caused traffic to the UK’s leading price comparison services to fall by an average of 41% over two years. During the same period, internet traffic in general rose by 30%. That is a marked contrast, but more marked is the fact that traffic to Google’s price comparison site rose by 125% during the same period.
The preferential placement of Google Maps decimated traffic to Multimap and Streetmap, the UK’s two leading online mapping services. The share price of TomTom, a European maker of navigation systems, fell by 40% this week after the announcement of Google’s free turn-by-turn satellite navigation service. RightMove, Britain’s leading real estate portal, lost 10% of its market value on the basis of a mere rumour that Google was planning a UK property search service.
The delineation between advertising and search results is becoming blurred. It is becoming more difficult to separate a sponsored from an unsponsored result. Google’s revenues exceeded $29 billion last year, but that pales next to the hundreds of billions of dollars of other companies’ revenues that Google controls indirectly through search results and sponsored links. That revenue-driven model has encouraged Google to begin promoting its own services at or near the top of its search results, bypassing the algorithms that it uses to rank the services of others.
Reach Global in my constituency currently hosts a UK-focused search engine that is in its seventh incarnation. The search engine, Searchers, has been in continual development for seven years and is independent and owned and funded by a private company. It is a very British enterprise. I am led to believe that it is the largest UK search engine apart from those emanating from the United States. Reach Global believes that Searchers could have an important role to play in the domestic economy where it claims Google fails: focusing on British business, promoting a sense of our national identity and, crucially, aiming to keep at least a portion of the massive advertising revenues available within our economy. As it is UK-based, its results are relevant to UK users.
I hope that the Minister will take up an offer to visit Reach Global. It is a fantastic company, and its investment in IT is incredible. I hope that he will accept that offer and see for himself what a great company it is. According to the ONS, Reach Global is one of 65 businesses working in the information and communications sector in Hyndburn, one of 2,000 in Lancashire and one of 144,000 in the UK.
Foundem is another British company that appears to have been blocked or sanctioned by Google in what appears to be a misuse of internet-filtered search results. The company provides search database solutions to a variety of British high street companies. It was leading the way in supporting US and European Union investigations into monopoly practices. In 2006, Foundem dropped to 144th in Google searches but remained first on Yahoo! and seventh on Ask. It is time to look beyond network neutrality and consider search neutrality: the principle that search engines should have no editorial policies other than that their results be comprehensive, impartial and based solely on relevance.
Without search neutrality rules to constrain Google’s competitive advantage, we may be heading toward a bleakly uniform world of Google everything—Google Travel, Google Finance, Google Insurance, Google Property, Google Telecoms and, of course, Google Books. Some will argue that Google is so innovative that we need not worry, but Google Maps, Google Earth, Google Groups, Google Docs, Google Analytics, Android and many other Google products are all based on technology that Google has acquired rather than invented.
It is not just about computers. Google’s Android smartphone operating system is gaining significant market share. The bundling of Google products with the operating system puts other companies that offer a free product, such as Skype, at risk of losing out to Google’s in-built advantages.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and congratulate him on securing this debate. I have also met representatives of Foundem. Does he agree that the Google position is stifling British businesses? I congratulate him on taking part in this debate, and particularly on championing the British aspect.
I welcome that intervention, which is helpful. That is quite true, and it is the thrust of the point that I am making. British companies are being stifled. Moreover, the Treasury is losing out. In 2008-09, The Guardian reported that Google, by locating its companies outside the UK, avoided paying £450 million to the UK Treasury, and that was just in one year. Google is also taking advantage of the lower tax rates. It has leverage with large organisations and can employ other commercial anti-competitive practices to the disadvantage of British companies. I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point; it is very relevant.
I want to come on to the extension of Google into the mobile market. There is speculation that Google may seek to acquire, or seek preferential contracts with, 3G networks specifically to harness advantageous proprietary Google technology into that network, which again would be to the disadvantage of other companies.
Although I am aware that competition law is predominantly dealt with on a European level, what legislative and non-legislative efforts do this Government intend to take to address the imbalance and protect cutting-edge British companies, such as the one that the hon. Gentleman mentioned? I am sure that in his constituency he has IT companies like Reach Global that need our help. What action are the Government planning to take to ensure that a competitive yet innovative market exists in the UK online industry, for the benefit of companies, customers and the economy?
At a time when other markets are struggling, the online digital economy is growing and innovating. We must ensure that it remains open to fostering as many innovative competitors as possible and that British companies and British interests are not compromised.
A recent study by the Boston Consulting Group found that the internet contributed an estimated £100 billion to the UK economy in 2009. To put the figure into perspective, it contributed more than construction, transport or utilities. To achieve its full potential, smaller businesses need to be given the opportunity to grow. The Government need to ensure that we create the right conditions for new economic activity to flourish.
In conclusion, it is in the interests of customers, business and securing the recovery of the UK economy that this issue be dealt with.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on securing this debate. Initially, we were scratching our heads when the title was first put in front of us. In a sense, though, the debate is very much about Google and its dominant position in search.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) on securing this important debate. Although I recognise his concerns, he has opened up a wider issue, which involves competition, innovation and the internet. I hope that the Minister will address the issue of his Department’s responsibilities for securing competition on the internet to ensure that the UK can play a leading part in the innovation and economic benefits that will follow.
I will certainly try to do that. If I do not, I hope that the hon. Lady will intervene again to get me back on the straight and narrow. Essentially, the hon. Gentleman was talking about his concerns, and those of some of his constituents, who appear to be running very interesting, go-ahead, high-tech companies—exactly the kind of companies that we want to encourage in this country. There are concerns that the growth and potential of such companies are being stifled by the alleged dominance of Google. Let me give an illustration of how pervasive Google is—“dominance” is a word that is pregnant with other meanings, so I will use “pervasive”. The hon. Gentleman has cited the Boston Consulting Group report, which pointed out the value of the e-commerce market in the UK. My understanding is that that report was commissioned by Google, which just goes to show that almost everywhere we turn, there is a debate about Google.
This is the second time in this Chamber that we have had a debate in which the focus has been on Google. The previous debate was about the breach of privacy that was carried out by street cars that Google put on the road to create Google Street View. Many hon. Members raised concerns about not only that specific breach but privacy on the internet. It is my responsibility, within Government, to try to shape internet policy, so I will try to address some of the issues that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) raised.
Is the Minister aware that a great many people with tremendous talent in my constituency have had to leave Northern Ireland to get jobs elsewhere? What steps does he intend to take to ensure that that ability and experience can be utilised to its full potential here in the United Kingdom? What does he intend to do to encourage and foster business?
I am grateful to you, Mrs Main, and for the intervention.
What is the current position regarding search engines? It is absolutely true that the foremost popular internet search engines in this country are based in America. The top two have more than 90% of the market, and that situation is replicated pretty much across the globe, as evidenced by Google’s global market share of around 85%. On one level, the internet search engine market obviously operates in a free market environment, and in the UK there are no barriers to a consumer’s ability to switch to a preferred search engine or to stay loyal to the one of their choice. Many search engines, including the most popular, have local versions that search only UK websites.
Will the Minister comment on the bundling of browsers? Apple’s Safari has a direct link with Google, in that the Google search is in the taskbar, and Microsoft’s browser has its own Bing search engine. Will the Minister admit that such bundling practice is anti-competitive and does not create an open and level playing field with fair competition?
It is open to the consumer to choose the product that best suits them, but it is also open to individual companies to partner with whichever companies they choose. Consumers want a service that offers good performance and enables them to find what they want quickly and easily. Google has entered a market and gained market share by giving consumers what they want.
The hon. Gentleman is obviously not speaking in a vacuum, and he referred in his speech to the investigation that is being undertaken into Google. All businesses operating in Europe have to comply with competition law, and the EU is carrying out an anti-trust probe into the alleged abuses by Google. He has mentioned the case of Foundem, which was one of the companies that took a complaint to Europe to secure the probe. It cited allegations of manipulation of its search results, particularly the unfavourable treatment of its unpaid and sponsored results, and the preferential placement of Google’s own services. The probe clearly demonstrates that regulators are alive to the possibility of dominant market players abusing their positions.
The hon. Gentleman also made the point that a number of companies in the UK—not least in his constituency—have concerns about Google’s alleged dominance. It is perfectly open to those companies to ask the Office of Fair Trading to investigate, and I understand that OFT considered the Google case in 2009 and concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that UK consumers had suffered as a consequence of Google’s market share. In his evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, John Fingleton, the director general of fair trading said:
“Where a company has achieved that position by superior innovation, foresight and better targeting of customers, we’re very wary of intervening…We see a lot of customers benefit from what’s happening in this marketplace from very high innovation—it’s good for the British economy. We don’t want to send a negative signal about that.”
We must keep in mind that there are, according to one source, 177 UK search engines servicing the UK market, including not only the organisation that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, Reach Global, but companies such as Mojeek, which is based in East Sussex and offers a
“crawler based search engine providing unbiased, fast and relevant search results combined with a clean user interface and user privacy conscious approach.”
It is important to say that where allegations of abuse are made, it is open to individual companies to approach the Office of Fair Trading. We have a robust competition regime in this country and in Europe, and where there is evidence of abuse, it is perfectly possible for the relevant competition authorities to investigate it.
We are debating Google, but we could be debating equally interesting issues involving individual companies on or engaged in the internet. For example, many people who use the internet do all their transactions or engagements via Facebook. The hon. Member for Hyndburn has mentioned Safari’s tie-up with Google, but again, if one has an iPhone or iPad, much of one’s engagement with the internet works through applications vetted and sold by Apple. We are, to a certain extent, coming to a point in the development of the internet where consumers may choose to stay with one or two trusted sites or companies, be it Apple, Facebook, Google or a particular internet service provider, as well as using the open internet where people search and find information.
It is also worth making the point that many ISPs in this country are British-based. One can access the internet through BT or Virgin Media. When raising concerns about the dominance of Google, we should also celebrate the fact that a British company such as BT, which is at the heart of our tech industry, is a global company with a presence in 170 nations around the world.
On general internet policy, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central was probably inviting me to talk a bit about net neutrality, among many other things that take my interest. I am conducting a number of round tables and much policy development work on a host of different issues. The first is illegal piracy and the unauthorised downloading of music and film. I am seeking to implement the Digital Economy Act 2010, which will obviously affect the development of the internet. There is also the protection of children from inappropriate content. Again, I am seeking a self-regulatory solution from ISPs in order to give consumers the opportunity to choose to protect their children from inappropriate content.
Another issue on which I have spoken and which has produced an interesting debate is net neutrality, on which I will briefly set out the Government’s position. The term “net neutrality” is difficult, because it means different things to different people. Interestingly, my speech on the subject was called, “The open internet”, but it was interpreted in entirely the opposite way. Let me be clear that we are absolutely committed to an open internet. That is relevant to the constituents of the hon. Member for Hyndburn, because we want small, high-tech and internet companies to have an opportunity to reach consumers without being unfairly discriminated against.
The internet has developed at a huge pace and in directions that were impossible to predict, so we are wary about introducing legislation that would dictate how it might evolve. In my opinion, the internet has done very well without over-regulation, and I want such innovation to continue. Nevertheless, the improved transparency requirements provided by recent revisions of the electronic communications framework, along with a competitive marketplace and the ability to switch easily between providers, should mean that regulation in that area is unnecessary. We want to give the market the opportunity to self-regulate, which is important, but Ofcom will monitor closely how the market develops. If it develops in an anti-competitive way, Ofcom will have the appropriate powers to intervene.
That is a difficult question to answer. First, Google operates in a competitive environment, where there will be winners and losers. As UK citizens, we may be patriotic enough to have wished that it was a UK search engine that had won that particular battle, but the fact is that it was Google. My second point is that it is an open internet, and it is open to any consumer to use any search engine that they choose. Thirdly, although I am not here as an advocate for Google, it is probably worth pointing out that, as a search engine, Google has provided huge opportunities to UK companies—not just high-tech companies, but retailers and small businesses—who have the opportunity to reach a global audience.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has mentioned the talent and ability of young people in Northern Ireland—I completely concur with his comments—and invited me by implication to talk about how we plan to ensure that our creative industries in this country continue to flourish. In that respect, the hon. Member for Hyndburn and, indeed, his constituents, whose letter I was fortunate enough to see a copy of, are right to point out that high-tech innovation takes place not only within the M25, but all over the country. The north-west and Northern Ireland are two particular areas where there is a lot of expertise and skill. Particularly in the north-west, the development of Salford and MediaCityUK will have a significant impact on the growth of creative industries. The creation of Creative England, with one hub in Manchester, is a source of Government support for the creative industries in general, and I hope that that organisation will have an impact.
In general, we want to create new businesses to try to keep our young talent here. We want to lower the regulatory barriers that have a huge impact on the sector, including employment and environmental laws, and take account of the cumulative impact of existing and potential regulation. We want to look at the international regulatory regime and how it should adapt to the rise of the internet and the challenges and opportunities that it presents.
The constituents of the hon. Member for Hyndburn mentioned the Hargreaves review, which will look at the intellectual property system and consider how it can possibly be reformed to overcome barriers to growth and enable business models to develop that are fitted for the digital age. We want to look at the application of the competition regime and consider how it should be best structured, empowered and guided to deliver a competitive and thriving UK media system. We also want to look at the removal of blockages in the skills system, which mean the needs of employers in the sector are not fully met.
Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman has asked me twice now, and the second time he did so particularly nicely. It goes without saying that I am delighted, honoured and flattered to be asked to visit that company in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and see the work that it is doing, which has impressed him so much.
Those are some of the issues that we are considering under the creative industries growth review. Let me sum up briefly. First, I absolutely understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about Google. The EU anti-trust investigation reflects the widespread concerns, although Google operates in a competitive market and the Office of Fair Trading investigated the issue about 18 months ago. Secondly, I passionately believe that we need an open internet that is not overly regulated and that allows innovation and competition to develop. Thirdly, we are focused on our creative industries growth review, which we hope will produce a strategy for growth that will help young people in Northern Ireland, in the north-west and in the north-east, and that will help this country’s huge creative advantages.
I want to begin by saying how grateful I am to Mr Speaker for allocating time for this debate, which I will use to address two connected issues that I am sure are important not only to my constituency of Sittingbourne and Sheppey but to a number of other constituencies with similar demographics. The first issue relates to how we provide development land for much-needed affordable homes, particularly in rural areas, while at the same time protecting what remains of our green spaces. The second issue is how we can help to revive the holiday homes industry on the Isle of Sheppey to reinvigorate the local economy, while at the same time bringing the current stock of holiday homes closer in line with actual need.
I want to deal with the latter issue first. There are more than 7,000 holiday homes in my constituency, mainly mobile homes and chalets. Much of that accommodation is of a high standard, although very little of it is currently suitable for occupation all year round. However, some of the accommodation in my constituency, particularly some of the chalets, is of a very poor standard and is simply not fit for use in the 21st century, even for a one or two-week stay.
I am keen to see a revival in the holiday industry on Sheppey. There is much to commend the island as a holiday destination. It is steeped in history, with one of the oldest churches in the country and an abbey that can be traced back to the birth of Christianity. There is also the recently restored Shurland hall. It was built by Sir Thomas Cheyne, and it was where Henry VIII dallied with Anne Boleyn during their ill-fated marriage. In addition, Sheppey has a rich naval heritage and is also the birthplace of British aviation. Furthermore, the island has some fantastic natural habitats, including the Elmley bird sanctuary, which forms part of one of the most important wetlands in the United Kingdom. Sheppey is easy to get to, with good road and rail links, and it is close to London, Canterbury and Dover.
I make no apology for sounding like a travel agent, Mrs Main. I am proud of Sheppey, and I want to encourage more visitors to the island, so that they can share its riches. To cater for those tourists, we need to maintain a stock of good-quality holiday homes. However, the holiday industry in my constituency needs support and flexibility, if it is to act as the catalyst to reinvigorate the economy of Sheppey, particularly on the eastern end of the island, which has experienced a steady decline in fortunes during the past 30 or 40 years. At this point, I declare an interest, because eastern Sheppey is the area where I cut my political teeth, representing its people on both Swale borough council and Kent county council.
The support for the island’s holiday industry must come from local and national Government. Nationally, I hope that the Government will introduce regeneration measures to help the coastal communities on Sheppey, which contain some of the most deprived wards in the country. Locally, we are looking for support from Swale borough council, which until four years ago offered a 50% council tax discount to the owners of second homes or holiday chalets. That discount has dropped to just 10%, and I hope that in time, as the economic climate improves, the 50% discount can be reinstated, because such financial support would encourage chalet owners to upgrade their properties.
In addition to support, holiday park owners also want more flexibility in the length of time that they are allowed to stay open. I know that Swale borough council is actively reviewing whether the current eight-month occupancy period, which has been imposed on many holiday parks, can be extended to 10 months. I commend my colleagues on the council for undertaking that review, because the extra two months of occupation could make a real difference to the viability not only of the holiday parks themselves but of the many local businesses that rely on holidaymakers for their trade.
I am realistic enough to know that the holiday industry on Sheppey will never return to its 1950s heyday, because we live in a different world. People can now have a two-week holiday in Greece or Turkey for the same price as a week in Britain. Even the Isle of Sheppey cannot guarantee that the sun will shine during a British summer. In Sittingbourne and Sheppey, we must recognise that we no longer need 7,000 holiday homes to cater for the number of holidaymakers whom we can expect to attract.
That leads me back to my first issue, which is how we can provide development land for much-needed affordable homes, particularly in rural areas, while at the same time protecting what remains of our green spaces. We can go some way towards answering that question by bringing our holiday-home stock more in line with current needs and allowing some development on the land that is released.
The vast majority of our excess capacity holiday homes are located in rural areas. Subject to local approval, which is vital, some of the poorest-quality chalets could be redeveloped to provide good-quality, affordable, all-year-round accommodation, such as the bungalows found on the Parklands Village development in my own constituency.
The irony is that although the Parklands Village homes were built to full building regulations and energy efficiency standards, the home owners can only live there for 10 months of the year and have to find temporary accommodation for the other two months. As I have said before in the House, such a situation is both perverse and ludicrous. Of course, any proposed development would be subject to normal planning and building regulations, which would include consideration of the highways implications and a requirement to provide the necessary infrastructure to support such development.
The problem is that some local planning authorities are loth to grant planning permission for the development of all-year-round housing on holiday sites, insisting that the land on which parks that close down are located must revert to rural status. A solution would be for the Government to classify as brownfield land redundant, out-of-use holiday home parks.
Five identifiers are used to define brownfield land: previously owned land which is now vacant; land that has vacant buildings; land and buildings that are derelict; other previously developed land or buildings that are currently in use but that have been allocated for development in the adopted plan or that have planning permission for housing; and other previously developed land or buildings, where it is known that there is potential for development.
Holiday home parks might be included in any one of those categories. However, explicitly including holiday park homes as a sixth identifier would leave planning officers with absolutely no room for doubt. Such a policy would not solve the housing problem that we inherited from the previous Government, but it might go some way to providing more affordable homes and perhaps ensure that young people in my constituency can afford to clamber on to the first rung of the housing ladder.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on bringing to the Chamber his understandable concerns on two linked issues. I will do my best to give him some comfort on at least part of what he has to say. I am not sure whether this is an interest that I need to declare, but shortly before he was born, I had a holiday on Sheppey. I have been there, and I expect that somebody bought me the T-shirt.
I am sure that we both wish that that were the case. I have a recollection of the island and its unique character. I have not had the opportunity to go back, which I am sure will upset my hon. Friend. As he has said, times have moved on and he has painted an eloquent picture of the challenges faced by Swale borough council and locally elected representatives, as well as the challenges that he faces as the Member of Parliament.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this debate and wish him many happy returns for tomorrow. Important points have been made not only about the importance of affordable housing, but about protecting the green belt. The Minister has mentioned the issue of other authorities. The issue with affordable housing in my area of York is very similar to that faced by my hon. Friend. The real problem is that we are not getting development going, and it is the affordable housing thresholds, which are being imposed through the planning process, that are causing developers not to bring land forward. A 50% affordable housing threshold means that 50% of nothing is nothing. Does the Minister think that reducing the threshold might lead to more affordable housing throughout the country?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I will do my best to give him some assurance, but I will come to that in a moment.
I want to start with the wider context. We the Government are certainly committed to a major upswing in housing to meet Britain’s housing needs. I think that it is well understood in the Chamber that the level of household formations is approximately twice that at which new homes are being provided, and that is clearly challenging for us. There is an urgent need for low-cost, affordable homes for sale and for rent. The Government’s comprehensive spending review announced proposals to introduce a social and affordable housing programme and, by tackling the overall, macro-economic situation, the Government are strongly committed to creating an environment in which the private sector can flourish as well. We want greater stability in the housing market and house price rises to be more in line with earnings growth.
We have put in place a number of policies that are explicitly designed to generate that investment. The new homes bonus scheme will be a powerful and simple incentive for local authorities and communities to increase their aspirations for housing growth. I was interested in what my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey had to say about the council tax discounts that have been applied on Sheppey. That is not, of course, a direct generator of new investment, but I want to assure him that the level of discount is a matter for the borough council to determine, and that it is not prescribed by this House.
My hon. Friend asked about a number of other things relating to the current management of the holiday home stock on the island. He drew attention to the fact that the borough council is considering whether to change the planning conditions on the requirement of residence from eight to 10 months a year. That is a matter for the planning authority to decide, and it has the flexibility to do that. Again, it is not subject to national rules and restrictions in so doing.
May I add to the various comments made by my hon. Friends? I represent an area of south-west Wales that is heavily dependent on the holiday industry, and I wonder whether we are missing something. Will the Minister comment on the report of the Affordable Rural Housing Commission, which the previous Government, to their credit, put in place? It made the point that other hon. Members have made about the flexibility of planners and how some of them might not be as flexible as they could be—
Thank you, Mrs Main. I understand the points that are being made and I hope that my hon. Friend will get some comfort when I address the changes to the planning system, which are currently being discussed by the Committee that is considering the Localism Bill.
As I was saying, the borough council has the flexibility to decide what planning conditions it imposes on both existing and projected new developments. Such flexibility already exists in the current planning regime. I will say in a moment how I believe the measures that we have announced in the Localism Bill—should they find favour with the House—will increase the flexibility of local planning authorities to deliver what my hon. Friends, now numbering three in this debate, are really asking for.
We do not consider that holiday caravans are the right way to increase the provision of low-cost housing, and I do not think that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey was advocating that. We would certainly appreciate any planning authority that took the view that the accommodation as it is at the moment would not be suitable for that use. In deciding whether an area should be developed or redeveloped for housing, any planning authority would want to take into account not just the site itself, but, as my hon. Friend said, issues relating to infrastructure, services, flooding and so on. All such matters should be considered by any planning authority when looking at the suitability of a site. They would have an encouragement via the new homes bonus to do so, which would bring them the equivalent of six times the annual council tax for that property as an un-ring-fenced, upfront payment—as a reward or a bonus for increasing their housing stock.
My hon. Friend said that the current planning frameworks make it difficult for applications on surplus holiday sites to succeed. There is definitely good news available in the planning system that we have set out in the Localism Bill. We are taking away the top-down prescription of what can and cannot be done. It will now be the case that if the Isle of Sheppey, or some part of the Isle of Sheppey, decided that it was appropriate for that community to have its own neighbourhood plan, it would be free to develop such a plan and reach such views as it saw fit about how the development should proceed. Although that would have to be within the constraints of the borough local plan, it would not be constrained by huge, thick volumes of national guidance.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made the point to the House when introducing the Localism Bill that the current planning guidance exceeds in number of words the combined works of Shakespeare. That is clearly a ridiculous amount for any planning authority to take account of and it unduly and unreasonably restricts the capacity of local communities to determine their own fate.
I commend the provision of neighbourhood plans in the Localism Bill as a way forward for the island and for all the different communities in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Of course they cannot discount the issues of traffic, they must take account of some of the broader strategic issues, and there will still be the national planning framework, which will provide overall guidance in relation to the country as a whole. None the less, local communities will have a far greater capacity to decide what factors are relevant when considering applications and what factors should be discounted. The sixth identifier that my hon. Friend talked about will rapidly become redundant because the neighbourhood plan will have supremacy—if I may use that phraseology. I believe that the changes to the planning process that we are initiating will provide him with the capacity to tell his constituents that the prosperous, regenerated and renewed island that they—and he—want to see can indeed come to pass.
The message that I have delivered for the Isle of Sheppey is, I believe, just as relevant for York, but I have to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) that he will have to have discussions with colleagues in the Welsh Assembly. The powers in the Localism Bill will be made available to the Welsh Assembly through provisions in the Bill, and the Assembly may, if it chooses, adopt them and then adapt them to the circumstances in Wales.
I think that I have addressed all the key points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, but if he feels that I have not, I will be ready to take an intervention. I hope that it is felt that I have given him a helpful answer, which is what was intended.