Thursday 5 May 2011
[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Bill Wiggin.)
The Backbench Business Committee encountered some difficulty in finding sufficient business today, when many Members have good reason to be in their constituencies. We are pleased to have been able to arrange some business, but the Government giving us Westminster Hall and the Chamber on the same day as part of our allocation caused us some difficulty. Discussions about the number of days the Committee allocated in the Session will no doubt refer back to today.
Parliamentarian of the day award goes to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), who, I anticipate, will have contributed in both Chambers within an hour. It is also good to see my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) in his place.
Two Members notified the Committee that they wish to participate in the debate, but others are free to speak. Today’s debate follows the traditional structure of pre-recess debates. The Committee has found that introducing this structure at times other than before recesses has proved popular among Members, as it offers flexibility within the parliamentary timetable to raise a range of subjects. We are happy to have arranged this debate, albeit on a slightly tricky day for business.
Two subjects have been notified to us, the first of which is the impact of BAA on the Heathrow villages.
I thank the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) and the Backbench Business Committee for giving us this opportunity.
I fully support the innovation of the Backbench Business Committee and reform of Back-Bench debates. Having sat for eight hours through many pre-recess debates and been able to speak for only two minutes, I think this is a wonderful innovation. The fact that so few Members have applied to speak in the debate is no reflection on the structuring of these debates. There are no local government elections in my constituency, so this is perhaps a higher priority than other matters.
I represent Hayes and Harlington, which covers Heathrow airport. The airport is surrounded to the north by Cranford Cross, Harlington, Sipson, Harmondsworth and Longford—villages in the traditional Middlesex style. They still have their own identities and wonderful features to celebrate that we value greatly locally.
Cranford has a wonderful park, in which is situated the mediaeval St Dunstan’s church. We in Hayes regularly hear the peal of its bells. At an open day a couple of months ago I tried my hand at a peal of bells, and although it was not particularly successful it has gone down well as a comic act on YouTube.
In Harlington, we have St Peter and St Paul mediaeval church, with its ancient yew trees. Harlington was the home of William Byrd, the composer and musician to Elizabeth I.
Sipson is a vibrant village, despite the threat to it. It has a traditional pub, the King William, and a wonderful primary school. Sipson house was owned by Nelson’s funder and banker and is still a local monument.
Longford is a collection of attractive homes, many of which are located on an island surrounded by a stream. Despite the problems of noise and pollution, it remains an attractive place to live.
Harmondsworth is a traditional Middlesex village, with a green and pubs on it. The person who discovered the Cox’s orange pippin, Mr Cox, is buried in its mediaeval church, St Mary’s, which is a place of pilgrimage for gardeners. Harmondsworth tithe barn is the largest mediaeval barn in Europe.
All those villages are surrounded by park lands—Prospect park and Cranford park—and linked by open spaces. There is 1,000 years of history in the villages. Philip Sherwood, a friend who is a local historian, has written books on the history of the Heathrow villages, and Catherine Kelter has written on the wider history of Hayes. People can read various articles by Douglas Rust, another local historian, in our local history society journal. Those books and articles, especially Philip’s history of Heathrow and photo collection, show how the area has changed over time. That change has been dominated by the growth of London airport, now known as Heathrow.
Heathrow was developed in the 1930s. Initially, there was a row of tents in a field located strategically on the A4 near London and the aviation manufacturing and development at Fairey Aviation in Hayes.
In the second world war, Heathrow served as a key airport for London and it expanded. Heathrow village was demolished to develop the airport. The Government developed their plans for the expansion and growth of the airport throughout the war, but they were largely kept secret. It was to be the national airport with a network of runways and terminals. Interestingly, those plans bear close resemblance to those that BAA eventually proposed for a third runway and sixth terminal. From the mid-1940s to the 1990s, we saw a rolling out of almost the original plans: five terminals, two runways and an emergency runway.
Heathrow village was demolished and wiped off the face of the earth. Longford and Cranford Cross suffered increased noise and pollution, but we managed to contain it by liaising with the airport authority, minimising the environmental damage. We were able to protect the other villages by maintaining a divide between the airport and the villages: the A4, which forms the northern boundary of Heathrow airport.
The peripheral developments associated with the airport are beyond the A4—hotels and the headquarters of BA, the British Airways Pilots Association and the Unite union—but they were managed to a large extent by the planning process and therefore had minimal impact on the Heathrow villages. There were some incursions into Longford, as properties were bought by developers for more hotels, some of whom were encouraged by BA. Allegations were floated at the time that BA was secretly funding the developers so that it could take control of Longford.
Nevertheless, the Heathrow villages were maintained. They were jealously protected as thriving communities by vigilant residents represented by vigilant residents associations, working with councillors and me over the past 35 to 40 years. Village life continues, and we have excellent and successful schools such as William Byrd school in Harlington, Heathrow school in Sipson and Harmondsworth school in that village. The churches and the local temple have been an essential part of the local community, we still have small local shops, pubs and clubs, and there were British Legion clubs in Sipson and Cranford Cross.
Wonderful community organisations include Harlington hospice, of which I am a trustee. It provides an essential service supporting the local primary care trust. There are active community centres in Harmondsworth and Sipson, and the secret jewel of Harlington is the model steam railway, which children especially enjoy. We have local scouts, guides, cubs and brownies—everything we would associate with a typical English village, evolving over time.
When the threat of the third runway came on the scene, things changed. Let me outline the history. In the 1980s, BAA introduced proposals for terminal 4. That expansion was agreed to on the basis that the airport could have a new terminal, but there was to be no further expansion, and the new terminal was to be contained within the airport and south of the A4 boundary. In the 1980s and 1990s, despite Government assurances of no further development, BAA started to lobby for terminal 5, which I opposed and campaigned against because I thought it was overdevelopment. Terminal 5 was eventually agreed in the 1990s; none the less, when it was agreed, the inspectors’ report was extremely helpful, because it recommended rejection of any further expansion of Heathrow, particularly a third runway or a further terminal.
BAA lobbied extensively after that inquiry and within 18 months introduced proposals for a third runway between Harlington and Sipson. It was initially to be a short take-off runway, but we knew that it would eventually become a full runway. It would have demolished Harmondsworth and its mediaeval barn, obliterated Sipson, and even impinged on Harlington. At one time, the proposed network of roads would have gone through our local cemetery at Cherry lane and we were faced with the prospect of having to exhume our loved ones. A further revelation that came during that process was that, as we predicted, a third runway would require a sixth terminal, which would completely obliterate Sipson village. All the Heathrow villages would be dramatically affected by the airport’s expansion, and many would come within the airport’s boundaries.
As many hon. Members know, local residents launched a campaign against the proposal. We campaigned on a cross-party basis in the local area, but it became a national issue and we had support from a range of direct action campaigners. The climate camp arrived in my constituency, and I slept there for a few nights. I learned more about the use of superglue in direct action than I ever knew before—one campaigner, in a publicity stunt, superglued himself to the previous Prime Minister.
Friends of the Earth and 50,000 of their supporters bought a piece of land, and became beneficiary owners, so that they would be consulted on the expansion of Heathrow. The issue went from being a local one, sometimes described as nimbyism, to one of national shame that the project might go ahead with the threat of 10,000 people losing their homes, and 2 million being affected by noise and pollution. It then became a global issue as we discovered more and more about climate change.
As a result of debates about the expansion of Heathrow, we looked at alternatives, including high-speed rail which, it seemed, would provide more employment and environmental protection than the expansion of Heathrow. The threat of climate change changed the nature of the debate on aviation expansion: it moved on to reducing demand and controlling the environmental impact of airports instead of simply acquiescing to more and more expansion.
We won the campaign. It was a virulent and mass campaign—I will not go into the use of the Mace in the Chamber—and it was creative in developing a broad base of opposition. The Liberal Democrats supported us. The Conservative party turned a policy somersault from backing airport expansion to being opponents of the third runway, and I congratulate it on doing that. The Labour party was split: it supported Heathrow’s expansion and the third runway, but in the negotiations on a coalition, I believe, it offered up the third runway as an item that could be dropped.
When the coalition was formed, the third runway was rejected. I am convinced that the third runway and the sixth terminal are dead, but although we secured victory in our campaign, we must recognise that casualties continue. Residents and small businesses in the Heathrow villages have suffered blight from the threat of expansion—a threat that has existed for more than a decade. The culprit was and continues to be BAA.
BAA was established in 1966. It owned and was responsible for Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and originally Prestwick airports. It was then a nationalised industry, but in 1987, the Thatcher Government privatised it, and as a private company, it was responsible for 85% of air traffic movements in the London area. In March 2006, BAA was taken over by the Spanish company, Grupo Ferrovial, which is a major international construction group.
At various times, Ferrovial has had to refinance the debt that it incurred when it purchased BAA, as well as Heathrow and Gatwick airports. The Civil Aviation Authority determines the charges that airport authorities and owners may levy, including BAA’s charges at Heathrow. When purchasing BAA and Heathrow, Ferrovial consistently overestimated its ability to charge and the profits that it could make from expanding Heathrow. As a result, it failed to fulfil the expectations of its shareholders.
Ferrovial thought that the purchase of Heathrow would be a way of making a fast profit in the short term that would justify investment in expansion to make even more profit in the long term, but the CAA’s control of the levy and its failure to increase charges to the level that Ferrovial demanded has made Ferrovial’s ownership of BAA financially embarrassing. Ferrovial has found managing the short-term and long-term profitability of the airport difficult. I think it wanted to repatriate some of the profit from Heathrow to prop up its position because of problems with its international construction group and to cope with volatility in the construction market. It has failed to do so. When it factored Heathrow expansion into its calculations, it did not reflect charging levels and the possible failure to achieve a third runway.
It is entirely understandable that Ferrovial factored in the expansion of Heathrow and a third runway because, until the last three years, BAA’s every demand for expansion and the aviation industry’s every policy demand has been acceded to by successive Governments of every political hue. There has been cross-party consensus on acquiescence to every demand from the aviation industry. Ferrovial was shocked that the CAA did not allow it to increase its charges so it could make the profits it wanted, and by the incoming Government’s refusal to allow Heathrow to expand. I understand that shock because, as I have demonstrated in debate after debate in the House, there has been an almost incestuous link between BAA, the aviation industry and the Department for Transport, with almost a revolving door for people coming to and from jobs in the Department and the aviation industry, and even from No. 10 into airline companies and BAA.
The third runway dominated BAA’s thinking about its long-term future. It was so confident of convincing the Government to allow expansion that it dominated the media, which took that expansion as read. As soon as the previous Government opened up the debate on the third runway, there was immediate blight. Home owners who wanted to move for the usual reasons—families growing up, people retiring and wanting to move nearer their children, and people securing jobs away from the area—were unable to sell, even at significantly knocked-down prices.
Small local businesses were unable to raise capital to invest or plan for the long term, and they were therefore unable to secure their long-term futures effectively. Community groups were affected by the blight because they were not able to raise funds—particularly capital funds—to secure investment in their premises, because of the risk that those premises would be demolished with the building of the third runway. The local authority, Hillingdon council, was not able to plan investment in local schools or housing because of the insecurity over whether or not the area would be affected by the airport expansion and schools would be demolished or rendered unusable.
As a result, we lobbied BAA and asked it to introduce some mechanism to provide security or compensation for those who were affected by the blight and wished to sell their properties and move, or invest in their companies. We met Ministers who put pressure on BAA, and that organisation linked up with the airlines that operated as part of the consortium around Heathrow. We asked BAA whether it would introduce a mechanism to allow families, residents and businesses to receive some form of assistance to overcome the blight, and we presented a number of heart-rending examples of those affected. One family, for example, lived in a one-bedroom flat. The number of people in that family had increased over the years, but they were totally unable to sell their accommodation and move somewhere larger. There were people who were elderly or ill and wanted to move to live near their families who had moved away. They were unable to do so because they could not sell their properties. There were retirees who wanted to move to be near their sons and daughters.
After a lot of pressure, and assistance from representatives of all political parties who mobilised to put pressure on BAA, BAA came up with a proposal for a bond scheme. Under that scheme, BAA agreed to purchase individual properties from residents at a guaranteed price if planning permission was given. The scheme was extremely limited to certain identified areas that included Sipson village and some streets in Harmondsworth, although not many. Some concerns about prices and valuations needed to be hammered out, and the bond scheme did not include compensation to organisations other than individual property owners. There was no compensation for community organisations or for the wider consequences of the blight, particularly in Harmondsworth and Harlington.
The scheme also failed to address the needs of small businesses in the area. I will provide examples in a moment, but in such businesses, the family often live on site above the shop. In the post office, the local hairdressers, the pub and the local garden centre, people were faced with the loss of their home and their business without compensation. That was largely the result of complications that excluded leaseholders in those circumstances. There was certainly no redress for the wider implications of blight on the local authority or other community organisations.
A number of residents submitted an expression of interest in the bond scheme for consideration. After the general election, the coalition Government rejected the third runway and announced publicly that it would not go ahead—I supported them wholeheartedly in that and congratulate them on having done it. To give it its due, BAA adhered to its commitment to implementing the bond scheme for the many families who were suffering blight and wanted to move for a range of reasons, such as having outgrown their properties, wanting to move closer to other family members, or because of the insecurity and the potential threat that plans for the third runway might return.
So far, BAA has identified 723 properties within the bond scheme, but only 300 of those are homes for families and eligible for that scheme. Of those, latest figures show that 268 properties have been purchased, and another eight sales are in progress. BAA is now the largest home owner in Sipson village, and it is a significant home owner in other Heathrow villages. Many of the homes that have been purchased have been left empty. We are told that those homes are being refurbished with a view to being let, but the process is extremely slow.
Although I have met representatives from BAA and, along with local residents and the local residents association, applied as much pressure as possible, the assurances we have received that the properties will be let quickly to families have not been fulfilled. The slowness of estate agents in allowing lets to take place has been extremely influential in undermining village life, and allowing properties to stand empty has had appalling consequences. In addition, many of the properties have been let not to families but to transient airport workers who have, frankly, no role in village life. They are in the village for short periods of time, do not spend much in the local shops and some do not pass the whole week there. Many of those incomers make no contribution to the local village or to village life because they are there only for short periods of time.
We urged BAA to look at the potential of housing local authority nominated families in those properties, so that the local council can tackle its waiting list that currently stands at over 7,000 families. We also suggested that the council could manage some of the properties more effectively. That has not occurred although I believe that some discussions have taken place at Hillingdon council. Local businesses were not included in the blight compensation scheme. They have lost their loyal customer base and some of them have been devastated. They are struggling to survive from week to week, and it is difficult to see how they can continue.
The current situation is dreadful. I will give some examples because I feel that BAA and the Government need to know the personal circumstances of some of the people in the village as a consequence of decisions made by BAA and in this place. Jackie Clark runs the local hairdresser in Sipson together with her partner, Danny, and she is the third or fourth generation of Clarks to live in the village. I knew her father, Jack Clark, who died aged 97 a short while ago. He was famous because he used to plough the fields in the village and take produce to Covent Garden. Jackie runs the local hairdressers and she was an important figure in our campaign to save the village. It now looks, however, as though she will lose her business and her home because she lives above the salon. Her takings are down by 70%; her husband, who works alongside her, has had to look for alternative work but has found only part-time positions so far. Her business is on the edge of survival.
Shaun Walters runs the local pub. The brewery has done everything it can to assist him and Shaun is not paying himself at the moment—he cannot. He has tried many methods to encourage the use of the pub; he has developed it as a restaurant and added other facilities, but his takings are down by 50% and he is looking at the prospect of not being able to survive unless assistance is provided.
The butcher’s shop in Sipson is run by Gerald Storr. Again, he is not sure how long he can survive because his takings are down so considerably. The village general store and post office, the heart of the village, is run by Mr and Mrs Daurka. They have told me that their customer base has gone and that the number of regular customers is down by at least a quarter, perhaps more. They have looked at whether they can sell their business but they cannot because it is no longer as profitable as it was, or indeed at all. Sipson has a garden centre run by Ian and Pam Stevenson. They once employed 30 staff, but that number is now down to six. Their takings are down by between 60% and 80%, and they are looking at enforced closure if business does not pick up.
The problem is that the homes BAA has bought in Sipson are not being sold. They are being sat upon by that authority, and when they are let, they are not let to settled tenants or families. If the homes are not sold or let to settled families, it is incredibly difficult for the businesses to rebuild the loyal customer base that they once had. Then village life declines. Indeed, if we lose the core village businesses—the shops, the post office, the hairdresser’s and the pub—the village dies, and at the moment we are witnessing the village dying before our eyes.
There are knock-on consequences for the other villages of Harmondsworth, Harlington, Longford and Cranford Cross. They largely were not included in any compensation scheme and they live in the continuing fear of a third runway coming back. That is fuelled by public statements made by BAA that it is still seeking Heathrow expansion and is still confident that it can convince the present Government or future Governments that a third runway should be allowed at some stage. The villagers are receiving no compensation for the suffering that the blight is causing them. Many residents, a lot of whom are elderly, have endured real worries and stress and they are still affected by blight. They are trapped in their homes because the value of their properties has fallen so dramatically, but they are not included in any bond guarantee schemes.
Community organisations, too, have been undermined by the falling population in Sipson village and elsewhere. St Mary’s church in Harmondsworth was cited in the local paper and in a national paper, The Independent, as unable to pay its church stipend this year because of the falling number of parishioners.
A pall is still hanging over the Heathrow villages and that has been caused by BAA. I have had meetings with representatives of BAA consistently. The relationship is relatively amicable. I want a good working relationship with it. I am not opposed to the airport; none of us is. We support the airport: it is an employer and an engine of the local economy. All we oppose is any further expansion of Heathrow. We just want BAA to be a good neighbour. As I said, I have met BAA representatives, and we have considered various schemes to assist the villages and the village businesses. We looked at a “Shop Local” campaign, which I launched. There is consideration of a discount purchase scheme in local shops that can be promoted at the airport among its employees. But with the best will in the world, such schemes are insufficient—they are not what is needed. What is needed is a number of actions by BAA and by Government.
The first relates to blight compensation. I would like BAA at least to accept responsibility for the blight that it has caused. Just a statement of acceptance of that responsibility would go a long way towards restoring some of the relationships between the villages and BAA. However, BAA also needs to bring forward now consideration of a new compensation scheme that provides compensation for the blight that has been caused in the past and for the ongoing blight. That is a wide issue. Immediate action is needed to agree a scheme of compensation for the Sipson small businesses that comprises both lump sum compensation for past blight and ongoing compensation to ensure that they are sustainable while they rebuild their customer base in the village. We are talking about half a dozen small businesses. It is a limited number, so it would be an extremely limited cost.
Secondly, there needs to be consultation of community organisations about the community view of the blight and the ongoing implications. A community investment programme needs to be agreed to regenerate the Heathrow villages. When terminal 5 was agreed, a compensation scheme was set up and it was to be administered by the Hillingdon Community Trust. Under that scheme, BAA gave the trust £1 million a year for 15 years to spend on local community organisations in the south of Hillingdon to tackle community regeneration and environmental improvements. A similar scheme could now be established for the Heathrow villages to compensate them for the blight. I am talking about a scheme controlled by the villagers themselves specifically to regenerate the Heathrow villages and to overcome the ongoing blight that they are suffering.
I would also like BAA to consider a compensation scheme for special cases of blight impact. Where individuals or voluntary and community organisations, such as individual Harmondsworth residents, individual schools or St Mary’s church, could identify specific impacts of blight caused by BAA’s expansion policy, BAA could consider how it could provide compensation and work with those people and organisations to overcome the problems.
Above all, I would like BAA to start selling the empty properties to families. BAA now owns numerous properties in Sipson. It does not need to sell them all at once, but if it now started a process, to take place over a limited period, of putting those properties on the market at a reasonable price so that families could buy them, we could re-establish a stable, thriving community. To get a social mix in the village, it would possibly be worthwhile for some of the properties to be given to Hillingdon council to let to local families. The council would manage the properties itself.
I would also like BAA to look again at using its purchasing power. We have worked with BAA to develop a local supply chain to the airport, which has encouraged businesses across the west of London to take up contracts that have supported the airport and, as a result, supported those businesses. I would now like BAA to consider developing a local supply chain whereby the local village shops and the garden centres elsewhere could become key suppliers to the airport and therefore be sustained.
Above all, I would now like BAA not just to admit the blight, but to give a public and firm commitment to my community that there will be security in the future because it no longer wishes to expand Heathrow airport. I would like BAA to make a public statement that it accepts that the present Government and future Governments will not allow the expansion of Heathrow and that it is giving up its expansion ambitions—that there will be no third runway and no sixth or seventh terminal. I fear at the moment that BAA is retaining the properties—some allege that it is continuing to purchase properties around the Heathrow villages—because it is convinced that it can change the policy of the existing or a future Government by its lobbying and that the third runway will be back in prospect.
We know that BAA is developing a lobbying strategy, particularly targeting coalition partners and Conservative Back Benchers—I will be frank about that. It will be lobbying at the national party conferences. The wining and dining will start again. It will also try to lobby within the Labour party, using the unions as a wedge to try to promote the expansion of Heathrow as developing employment in the area. I believe that that strategy will be well funded and that BAA will seek, during the next 18 months to two years, to get to a situation in which, in the run-up to the next general election, the issue of the third runway and Heathrow expansion will be reopened.
I am convinced that the present Government are committed to no further Heathrow expansion and I am now of the view that the Labour party will come alongside it and support that policy. The problem is that even if we could convince BAA to come out with a promise not to expand and it was written in the blood of the chief executive, not many people would believe it. Therefore, we have to search for a better and more secure route to a commitment that will give people in my area more assurance and lift the blight that they still face. The Government and all the political parties have a role to play in that.
I would like to see, across political parties, the development of a common statement that we all sign up to and that says that no matter who is elected, they do not and will not support the expansion of Heathrow. Let me be frank: I do not see that as an issue for the Liberal Democrats, because it is a long-standing Liberal Democrat party policy. With regard to the Conservatives, the present Government made a commitment and it has proved popular. It would therefore be unpopular to resile from it, but as I said, lobbying is going on, particularly of Back Benchers, by BAA. The policy review taking place on transport is the way in which the Labour party can get itself off the hook of its previous commitments to Heathrow expansion. I hope that the Labour party will rise to that challenge.
I am not sure, however, that even a commitment from the political parties that there will be no further expansion at Heathrow would convince people and lift the blight. We therefore need a more secure commitment, and I look to the example of Gatwick. As Members will recall, one reason it was proposed to expand Heathrow rather than Gatwick was the existence of a legally binding, covenanted agreement that there would be no further expansion at Gatwick until 2020, and that agreement has held.
I would like the Government to bring together all the partners, including all the representatives of the political parties, the Greater London authority and the Mayor—mayoral candidates across the parties have opposed Heathrow’s expansion—the area’s local authorities, particularly Hounslow and Hillingdon, BAA and the airlines, to see whether we can hammer out a draft legal agreement that prevents further expansion at Heathrow. We can seek political consensus, but we can give people authoritative reassurance if we produce a binding legal agreement, which might well be secured by some form of legislation. In that way, we can give people security. A Heathrow concordat or contract would also give my constituents the assurance that their community and village life will not come under threat again.
That is not too much to ask. My community has suffered this blight for decades. I just want my constituents to be able to live in peace in their community and in an environment of their choice. I want them to be able to bring up their families and enjoy their lives in a way they have not been able to because of the lack of security and the blight caused by BAA over the past three decades.
I now call Mr Gordon Henderson to raise the subject of roads infrastructure in Sittingbourne and Sheppey.
It is good to take part in this rather select debate and to have you in the Chair, Mr Benton. It is also good to follow the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), although I wonder whether the next boundary review will change the name of his constituency to Heathrow, since the airport seems to take up the major part of it. It is ironic that the London Mayor wants to uproot Heathrow lock, stock and barrel and move it to my constituency, although Members will be delighted to hear that I will fight that with every breath.
I will not talk about airports today, however. My aim is to highlight a problem in Sittingbourne and Sheppey. I have lived in the constituency for 30 years and I feel immensely privileged to represent it in the House, but almost 3,000 people in my constituency are out of work, and like many right hon. and hon. Members, I want the number of people out of work in my constituency to be reduced. I appreciate that the jobs needed to reduce unemployment will not be created by me, the Government, Kent county council or Swale borough council; only private enterprise can achieve that. Our small, medium-sized and large businesses can provide the entrepreneurial spirit that will help steer industry in Sittingbourne and Sheppey through the choppy economic waters we are experiencing. With a fair wind, I hope we will come out the other side stronger and fitter.
I also appreciate that a prospering local business sector is good for all my constituents. For that reason, I have made it one of my top priorities as the area’s Member of Parliament to help my local business community in any way I can. I am well aware of my limitations and recognise that there is little I can do as the Member of Parliament to make a difference to my constituency’s prosperity, but I can offer leadership and be on hand to offer help and advice to local companies that do not know where else to go to get information and advice—it is always surprising how many do not.
With that in mind, I recently set up a dedicated website called Sittingbourne and Sheppey Link 2 Business, which can be found at www.blinkss.co.uk. The website offers local businesses a direct link to my team so that they can contact me if they have a problem with a Government agency—companies have difficulties with Government agencies every day of the week. Equally, companies that have a problem or a query about Government policy can get an answer fairly rapidly by visiting my website. Link 2 Business also hosts monthly breakfast forums, where local business leaders can share their concerns, frustrations and, sometimes, good ideas with me so that we can improve our local community together.
I am lucky that my constituency has a wide variety of industries: for example, we have a major deep-water port with the deepest water outside of Rotterdam, which is unique; we have the only steelworks in the south-east, as well as one of the last remaining brickworks in Kent and the largest paper mill in the country; and we have just opened a regional distribution centre for a national supermarket chain. We also have a number of industrial sites with a wide range of industries, from refrigeration equipment refurbishment, which is a national concern, to aluminium casting companies.
We have those traditional skills and traditional, old-fashioned industries, but at the Kent Science Park we have a number of high-tech companies that are at the cutting edge of technology in this country. Our largest employer is in the public sector, because we have three prisons; and, last but not least, we have the long-established summer tourist industry, which is based mainly on the Isle of Sheppey.
We therefore have a good industrial base, which provides a higher percentage of private sector jobs than some constituencies can boast, but things could be so much better. Sittingbourne and Sheppey might be located in the south-east, but it still needs a helping hand: for example, much of the unemployment in my constituency is concentrated in areas that are among the most deprived in the country—indeed, two of our wards are in the top 10 most deprived wards in the UK. We can go some way towards eradicating that deprivation if we can ensure that our existing businesses expand and if we can attract more companies into those deprived areas.
On the face of it, Sittingbourne and Sheppey is ideally located for business development: it has good sea links with Europe and good rail links with London, and it is close to the M2, the M20 and the M25. Ironically, though, one of the biggest obstacles to business growth in my area is the local roads infrastructure, and that is where local and national Government have an important role to play.
My area needs help to improve a number of important local roads. For example, the A249 is a good dual-carriage trunk road linking Sheppey with the M2 and the M20. It includes the superb second crossing of the Swale, which was built just three years ago—until the bridge was built, a lifting bridge provided the only way on and off Sheppey, which, as Members can imagine, caused havoc to the local economy in the summer, when yachts were going up and down the Swale and the bridge was going up and down almost every hour. We are therefore really pleased to a have a second decent bridge.
The problem with the A249 is that the dual carriageway stops at Queenborough corner, which is on the outskirts of Sheerness. If the dual carriageway went all the way into the dock area, which is less than half a mile away, it would open up the port of Sheerness for an expansion that would offer the south-east of England an alternative to an increasingly congested Dover as a strategic port of entry. It would help to avoid the expensive Operation Stack that takes place several times a year on the M20. Finishing the A249 would be a major strategic benefit to the country.
The Sittingbourne northern relief road links the A249 to the industrial areas in north Sittingbourne. The latest section of the road, from Ridham avenue to Castle road, is under construction and will be opened later this year. Eventually, the northern relief road is planned to link up with the A2 at Bapchild, but nobody knows when that will be. For the foreseeable future the NRR is destined to become an expensive cul-de-sac. Local businesses on the Eurolink industrial estate and residents living on the new housing estate at Great East Hall want the final link to be built as soon as possible, which is understandable, but many other people feel that finishing the NRR without first planning for a southern relief road, which would link the A2 to the M2, will simply increase traffic problems for residents living in east Sittingbourne and the surrounding villages. It is a square that has to be circled as a matter of urgency.
Another major traffic bottleneck in Sittingbourne is the Stockbury roundabout, which is located on the A249 at junction 5 of the M2. The congestion at that spot has been going on for so many years and has caused so much havoc in the local area that urgent action is needed to solve the congestion if we want to provide easier access to our industrial sites, encourage business expansion and keep the traffic flowing.
While I am talking about roundabouts on the A249, it is worth pointing out that the one at Iwade, which serves the St Regis paper mill and the new Morrisons regional distribution centre, is becoming increasingly congested. One way of solving that problem would be to provide a rail spur into Ridham at Swale halt. Both Morrisons and St Regis Paper are very supportive of a rail spur, which would put more incoming goods on to rail and off the road. Of course, it will take the Government to make that rail spur happen.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, we have three prisons on Sheppey. I believe there is potential to expand the prison estate, solving in advance the undoubted problem of finding suitable sites for future prisons, but the current road from the A249 to Eastchurch, where the prisons are located—the newly designated A2500—is a single carriageway that can barely cope with the current traffic flow, let alone any expansion of the prison estate. The A2500 will need to be upgraded soon, which would be an added bonus to the communities at the east end of the Isle of Sheppey, because it will help to reinvigorate the local economy in one of the deprived areas I mentioned. If we can get extra tourists going to the historical camp sites and the traditional seaside town of Leysdown, we can reinvigorate the whole of that area.
South-east England is acknowledged to be the economic dynamo of the United Kingdom, and Kent is considered by many to be the economic dynamo of the south-east. I believe that improving the roads infrastructure in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, which in the grand scheme of things would be relatively inexpensive, would help make my constituency the economic dynamo of Kent. I am pleased that the Deputy Leader of the House is here, but I do hope the Secretary of State for Transport will hear about this speech, take note of my words, and perhaps agree to visit my constituency, so that he can see for himself the tremendous potential that we offer our country, at a relatively small cost to the Exchequer.
It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. It is also a pleasure to have another opportunity for a general debate. We had one not long ago with a pre-recess Adjournment debate; I suspect we will have another one relatively soon, with the next pre-recess Adjournment debate. One can never have too much of a good thing. The only thing I regret is that both hon. Members who have taken the opportunity to speak today have raised issues about transport in their constituencies. Had we known that only transport issues would be raised in the general debate, it might have been more appropriate for a Minister from the Department for Transport to offer a response, because I fear that I am an inadequate substitute.
I assure the hon. Members that their comments will be passed on to relevant colleagues. Where there are issues, which inevitably I will not be able to answer to their satisfaction because I do not have the expertise, they will get replies in due course from the relevant Departments. I also thank the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) and the Backbench Business Committee. They were given a difficult spot to fill today, when so many hon. Members are quite properly engaged in matters in their constituencies, and they have done their best under difficult circumstances to ensure that hon. Members have the opportunity to raise matters of importance.
I echo the hon. Member for Battersea regarding the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell): it takes great energy to speak in two debates simultaneously in the House on different issues that affect his constituency. He has contrived to do that this afternoon, which is to be commended.
I enjoyed the history of the Middlesex communities that the hon. Gentleman gave us at the beginning of his comments. I do not think we hear enough about rural Middlesex, which has been wiped from the national consciousness. However, it is a delightful area. I felt for him when he talked of his lack of success in ringing a peal of bells. I have never tried a full scale peal of bells, but I was recently asked to open a refurbished chapel in my constituency, where I simply had to ring a single bell to mark the fact that the chapel was reopened. I was told firmly that I had to pull hard on the rope. That is not advice one should give to a former rugby player. I pulled hard and the bell remained obstinately silent, but the rope was there in my hand, no longer attached to the bell. That is an aside. I was glad that no one filmed that for people to watch on their computers.
I will not fill my entire reply with anecdotes about my constituency, but I like the fact that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington mentioned that Mr Cox of Cox’s orange pippin apples came from his constituency. I am sure that he already knew that, but I am always fascinated by the fact that one continually finds out new things about one’s constituency as one goes around. I recently looked at the history of the village of Rode in my constituency, which became topical due to the book and subsequent TV programme, “The Suspicions of Mr Whicher”, about a very famous murder there. I was irritated by the fact that it constantly said that Rode was in Wiltshire, and I knew it to be in Somerset. I looked at the local history to see whether it had ever been in Wiltshire, and, no, it had not been, but the house where the murder took place was just across the county boundary. Purely by chance, I discovered that a wool mill in Rode invented the colour “royal blue” in response to a competition, therefore “royal blue” was invented in my constituency. That is the sort of detail that one discovers as an MP, which one would never have a reason to find out otherwise.
I shall return to the matters about which we are supposed to be talking, which are the important issues raised by the hon. Members for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) and for Hayes and Harlington. I ought to declare an interest in the matter raised by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, in that I believe I am still a beneficial owner of 1 square foot of Sipson village as part of the campaign against the third runway at Heathrow. I do not regret my position, and I am very pleased that it is now the Government’s position. It was an excellent campaign that drew attention to the fact that we really need to put some constraints on airport expansion, while recognising, as the hon. Gentleman does, the economic and other benefits of airports. Getting that balance right is inevitably the purpose of Government.
The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington correctly stressed that the coalition Government made a clear commitment not to proceed with the third runway at Heathrow, but to look at how we make Heathrow, and the other major British airports, work more efficiently and provide a better service without expansion—make Heathrow better, not bigger. I think that the hon. Gentleman and I share that aspiration. He drew attention to how the long period spent aspiring to the expansion of Heathrow blighted the neighbouring villages and his constituents, and this debate is a good opportunity to have done that. He talked about its effect on people who needed or wished to sell their homes, and the fact that they were unable to find buyers in the context of an anticipated expansion of the airport.
The hon. Gentleman has worked very hard on these issues over the years with BAA and the previous Government, even in the context of a policy in favour of expansion, to see how its effects could be mitigated. Part of the result of his labours and the work of the previous Government was the home owners support scheme that BAA set up, which he referred to as the bond scheme. It is important to stress that it was a non-statutory arrangement set up by and entirely a matter for BAA. It was clearly persuaded that it was worth while and what it should be doing as a good neighbour. Nevertheless, the scheme had no statutory basis, therefore how BAA operates it to protect local home owners from the effects of blight, to allow them to sell their homes without financial penalty and to move if they need to or want to is a matter for BAA. It is interesting to see the number of home owners who took advantage of the scheme and the impact that it has had on the local area. He said that BAA now owns some 300 houses. It had no obligation to establish the scheme; I think that it was a recommendation in the 2003 transport White Paper, and of course there is no obligation on home owners to partake in the scheme.
I readily recognise what the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington said about the scheme’s effect on the local area given the number of houses that are not normally filled with residents. If houses are lying empty or are subject to short-term lets or arrangements with airport employees, the situation will inevitably affect the local community. He not only listed the effects in terms of the lack of residential population, but listed the effects of the lack of a residential population on local businesses. He mentioned his constituents Jackie Clark, Shaun Walters, Gerald Storr, and Ian and Pam Stevenson, and the hairdressers, the local pub, the post office shop and the garden centre, which are all affected by no longer having a local constituency of customers or consumers, which means that their businesses will inevitably be put in some difficulty.
To summarise, I think that the hon. Gentleman seeks: BAA’s acceptance of responsibility for the blight caused by the expansion plans; a new compensation scheme that includes local small businesses and special cases that might fall outside the previous criteria; a consultation with community organisations to look at whether it is possible to establish a community regeneration scheme; and the sale of the empty properties and a move to ensure that they are not retained in the ownership of BAA, but are put back on to the general market. He also wants the various political parties to come together to create a common statement of intent with regard to Heathrow expansion. I think that he would ideally like a covenant putting a legal restraint on future development at Heathrow.
There is a limit to what I can stay to the hon. Gentleman in response, as he will appreciate. I hope that I am able to communicate all his points to my colleagues in the Department for Transport effectively. I am happy to reiterate the general policy direction. I have already said that we do not want the third runway—that is clear. We want Heathrow to develop in a better, rather than a bigger, way. There are further steps afoot that I am sure the hon. Gentleman, as an expert in the area, will be more familiar with than me. The South East Airports Task Force, which was announced on 15 June last year, has an important part to play. It is engaged with the various aviation stakeholders to deliver operational improvements at Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick, and is due to report in July 2011. It may have something to say that—“makes more concrete” is perhaps an inappropriate phrase—strengthens the future intentions in terms of the strategic planning of aviation.
The Department has issued a scoping document setting out the questions that it wants answered to develop a new vision for a competitive aviation industry, which supports economic growth and addresses aviation’s environmental impacts, both globally in terms of climate change and locally in terms of noise and air quality. It put out the scoping document and set out the questions that it wants answered, and it is hoped that it can publish a draft policy framework for consultation by March 2012. That may add further weight to the direction in which the Government are working on aviation policy.
There are some important issues here that need to be taken up with BAA. To a large extent, the matter is in its hands, and there is a limit to how much the Government can insist on. The dialogue, however, must be maintained.
I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for saying that he will set out the proposals and communicate them to the relevant Ministers in the Department for Transport and for the supportive way in which he has responded to my contribution. Securing Government policy in the long term is important, and I am sure that there is good will in government to do that. I hope that there will also be good will across the parties. Will he say to the Secretary of State for Transport and the appropriate Minister that it would be helpful if they could meet the Hillingdon Members as soon as possible to look at this programme, because it is a matter of continuing concern? Locally, we have been working on this matter on a cross-party basis. It was the pressure that coalition Members applied when they were in opposition that brought BAA to the table for a proper dialogue, so an early meeting would be helpful.
I will happily communicate that request to the Department. The Minister of State, Department for Transport is probably the appropriate Minister, and I will ask her whether such a meeting is possible. We will also see whether we can convey the concerns of the Government on this matter as well as those of individual Members.
This matter may be of interest to the Department for Communities and Local Government. The hon. Gentleman said that he would like to see the London borough of Hillingdon hold nomination rights. Economic development issues will often be mediated by the Department and the local authorities, especially Hillingdon and, I suspect, Hounslow as well. I will bring his remarks to the attention of the DCLG in the hope that it will also have a view on the matter. I am grateful to him for everything that he said today. He made a compelling case on behalf of his constituents, and we all understand the difficulties that they face.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey prefaced his remarks by stressing some unavoidable facts in his constituency. Although we often hear that the south-east drives the economy and that its economic conditions are rather better than those in the rest of the country, constituencies such as his have genuine problems relating to employment and to ensuring that there is sufficient access to growth in the economy. He said that 3,000 of his constituents are out of work, which is too many. We can reduce the number of unemployed people by enabling business to develop. However, that is not something that Government do; they create not jobs but the environment in which private industry can create jobs.
My hon. Friend told us some of the things that he is doing on behalf of his constituents. I am rather jealous of the acronym in his website—BLINKSS. It would not work for my constituency because it would become “BLINKSF”, which sounds like a speech impediment. He is clearly attuned to the needs of his constituents.
Despite the difficulties in north Kent, my hon. Friend listed a number of major employers in the area, such as the deepwater port, the steel works, the brick works, the paper mill, the distribution centre, the high-tech industries and the three prisons. The tourism industry is unrelated to the three prisons but, nevertheless, they co-exist.
That is an interesting observation, but not one on which I will expand. We always hear that economic difficulties and deprivation take place in regions such as the north-east, which is true and I do not in any way minimise them. None the less, such problems also exist in the so-called prosperous south-east and south of England. Sometimes, it is more difficult to deal with pockets of deprivation within an otherwise reasonably affluent part of the country. I applaud what my hon. Friend is doing on behalf of his constituents.
My hon. Friend raised a number of road issues, most of which will not come as a great surprise to the Department for Transport, because they are matters that he has raised before. The A249 is the principal road serving his constituency. I hope that he is impressed that I have a full colour map of his constituency—I brought it along so that I could understand his geographical points. He mentioned how effective the new Swale crossing is in making the A249 fit for purpose, but then pointed out that it peters out on the outskirts of Sheerness, which means that it cannot effectively serve as an artery to the port facilities. As I understand it, Kent county council has not submitted an application to the Department for Transport for that to be dealt with, but one may be submitted in the future. If there is, my colleagues will be interested in considering it. However, the thrust of Government policy is that decisions of this kind will, as far as possible, be taken at a local level. He will recognise that in much of what has been said by both the Department for Transport and the DCLG. Such a policy is entirely appropriate, because local people know how resources should be applied to provide the best outcome. On matters such as the dual carriageway beyond Queenborough corner on the A249, and Sittingbourne’s northern relief road and its connection with the road at Bapchild, we are looking for a clear steer from the local authorities in the area. I know that my hon. Friend will be constantly pressing the case with Kent county council and with the other local authorities, which, in turn, will be applying for substantial amounts of capital investment from the Department for Transport to make such projects a reality.
I was intrigued by what my hon. Friend said about the rail spur and the effect that it will have on the movement of freight in his area. He also mentioned the prospect of improving the B2231—at least that is how it appears on my map, but it has apparently been renamed, which means that my map is out of date. He is talking about the road that serves the east of the Isle of Sheppey and provides a communication link to Eastchurch and Elystan. I can see that improving the road would make an immediate difference to the area.
My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot give any commitments on behalf of the Department for Transport. I suspect that even if a Transport Minister were here, they would be equally unlikely to make firm commitments in response to his requests other than to say that they would seriously consider any applications.
The hon. Gentleman made a very strong case on behalf of his constituents. I will ensure that what he has said today is communicated to Ministers at the Department for Transport, and I will also ensure that he receives specific responses to his points, because I understand that he is seeking to make sure that the infrastructure in his constituency meets the aspirations for economic development that he has for his area, which I am sure his constituents appreciate.
I assure the hon. Members for Hayes and Harlington and for Sittingbourne and Sheppey that I will ensure that messages are passed to the Department for Transport about the specific points that they have made today and that responses will be passed back from the Department to them.
I thank both hon. Members for participating in the debate; I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to have the debate; and I thank you, Mr Benton, for chairing the debate.
Question put and agreed to.