Tuesday 18 October 2011
[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]
Green Belt (England)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Goodwill.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Crausby. The number of Members attending this debate shows concern about the future of our green belt among not only our constituents but Members. As individuals, we understand and accept the importance of the green belt and the need to ensure that it is not only protected but enhanced.
At the outset, I will make what some might call a declaration of interest, although it is not. It is important to put on the record that my partner—that is the appropriate word, although it is one I do not particularly like to use—is a director of Persimmon and sits on its board. He would be first to agree that I have never been in anybody’s pocket, and much as he may try to suggest otherwise, he continues to exert little, if any, influence in my life, or control over it. It is important to make that declaration, however, given that allegations were made yesterday about the Conservative party being in the pocket of donors and developers. Nevertheless, the fact that so many Conservative Members are attending the debate this morning shows that we are our own people and speak on behalf of our constituents.
As hon. Members will appreciate, the green belt has a long and noble history. It was first developed in London in 1938, and Birmingham and Sheffield later took up that good idea. In 1955, the then Government urged all towns and cities to create green belts—bands of land around their environs designed specifically to restrict urban growth. Today, our green belts are more than just that; they are our green lungs and open spaces enjoyed by all. They are loved, cared for and valued by communities throughout England and no doubt in Wales—there is only one green belt in Wales—and Scotland. Today, however, we are discussing the green belt in England, because of the various concerns that have been raised about Government policy.
Particularly nowadays, the green belt defines communities, because it halts urban growth and maintains the identity of towns, villages and cities. My constituency provides a good example of how losing part of the green belt can lead to the sort of urban sprawl that it was deemed right to restrict in the 1930s, and which I believe should continue to be restricted. A person driving along the A6005, the road from Nottingham to Long Eaton in Derbyshire, will pass through communities such as Beeston, Chilwell and Toton, but they may not realise that they have left the city council boundary and entered my constituency and the area of Broxtowe borough council. Almost without break, there are only housing developments along the way. Many hon. Members will have similar examples in their constituencies of where the loss of the green belt has led to an unacceptable urban sprawl.
In Broxtowe, one can also see where the green belt has brought profound benefits to many communities. Along the B600, for example, Nuthall is desperately trying to retain its identity and not become part of the urban sprawl, even though that has already happened in part. The village of Watnall is keen to retain its identity along with that of Kimberley, but it is increasingly seeing the encroachment of urban sprawl. As one leaves Watnall, however, one sees the most beautiful stretch of countryside. I was born and bred in Nottinghamshire, so I feel qualified to say that although parts of my county do not contain the most beautiful pieces of countryside, where there are areas of beauty, we value and love them more. The area outside Watnall is particularly beautiful, and if hon. Members want to see a photograph of it, I urge them to visit my website. It is an historic and ancient piece of land, and those familiar with the writings of D. H. Lawrence will recognise the Moorgreen reservoir, which lies outside the boundaries of my constituency. That stretch of land, which undulates as it leads up to Greasley with St Mary’s church in the distance, is beautiful. Even more importantly, however, it defines that area of Watnall from the top of my constituency—Greasley, Moorgreen and Newthorpe, which many would say are unfortunately sprawled together. That stretch of green belt land perfectly illustrates why we must continue to protect our green belt, and why we must ensure that we do not allow development on it, and certainly not on the scale proposed in my constituency.
I do not have anything other than green belt in my constituency, because there is no greenfield land. I do not wish to insult any of the lobby groups that have made representations to this House or newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph, which has launched a campaign, but there has been a lack of understanding about the important distinction between greenfield land and green belt land. Green belt land has always been specially protected, and the Government are determined that it will continue to enjoy that protection. It marks the land out as special and different from greenfield land, which does not enjoy such protection. There has been a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of that profound distinction.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her comments so far and entirely agree with them all. However, as the representative of a constituency that has no green belt land but vast acreage of green fields, I do not necessarily agree that green belt land should be given special preference over greenfield land. We ought to protect our countryside, green and pleasant as it is, irrespective of whether it is green belt land or greenfield.
My hon. Friend speaks with great passion on that issue, but this debate is about the green belt, and I hope he will forgive me if I continue to highlight the appallingly named draft national planning policy framework. All hon. Members, whatever party they come from, will agree that one problem with planning is the abundance of jargon. If ever an offence were to be created it could perhaps be that of the overuse of jargon and terminology that is completely lost on most ordinary people. I congratulate the Government, however, on specifically writing a document in plain English. Let us have more of that when it comes to planning. Our green belt deserves special protection. I hear my hon. Friend’s desire to protect his green fields, but green belt land is different, because it exists specifically to protect communities and prevent urban sprawl.
What has led to the situation in my constituency and the proposal to build up to 4,000 homes on the green belt in the most densely populated borough in the county, if not the east midlands? There are brownfield sites in my constituency, but enough for only 2,000 houses. The borough council has accepted a target of almost 6,000 homes, and the green belt is the only place where they can be built. I am opposed to that, and believe that I represent the overwhelming majority of my constituents in that opposition. It is a peculiar situation, given that the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the Leader of the House and every Minister I have met who is concerned about planning policy, has made it clear, in questions, speeches and so on, that the Government do not intend to alter the special protection afforded to our green belt. All hon. Members will agree that that is the right and proper thing to do.
As you see, Mr Crausby, my copy of the draft national planning policy framework is well thumbed, but pages 38 and 39 contain Government statements on the special need to continue to protect our green belt:
“The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts…Once Green Belts have been defined, local planning authorities should plan positively to enhance the beneficial use of the Green Belt… Inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.”
On page 40, paragraph 144 states:
“A local planning authority should regard the construction of new buildings as inappropriate in Green Belt.”
Unfortunately, my council plans to build or to allow the development of some 4,000 new buildings on my local green belt.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Are not the principles established under the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 of creating the green belt, protecting the countryside and, most importantly, creating the lungs for our cities as vital today as they were in 1947?
The Prime Minister and others have made it clear that there will be no change to the special protection afforded to the green belt. It is unfortunate that there has been a high level of scaremongering. If we believe what has been said by the Prime Minister and his Ministers—no doubt this Minister will give us yet more assurances—that does not square with the notion that our green belt is in any way under threat. I stress again that we are talking about the green belt. Unfortunately, it is under threat in my constituency, and I believe that it is in many other constituencies across the country.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but does she agree that her constituency is fortunate to have a green belt? Many of us represent constituencies that do not have one. In my constituency, the city of Southampton, a very large city, has no green belt whatever. That puts the green fields on the edge of the city, which separate it from villages such as Nursling, Rownhams and Chilworth, under extreme stress.
I absolutely understand the point that my hon. Friend makes, but the great joy, as I see it, in the policy as outlined in the document that we are discussing is that it will enable communities to come together and work together to consider how best they can encourage growth and development in their areas. The two are not incompatible. I shall move on to a good example of sustainable development.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate and on the powerful case that she is making. She has mentioned the word “sustainable”. Would she, like me, welcome from the Minister today a statement that the presumption in favour of sustainable development, which has attracted so much interest, is overridden by green belt policy and should play no part in green belt policy and that the protection for the green belt will remain as strong as it was under the existing policy, if not stronger?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend when he makes that point with such passion, but in some communities people may be content to have development on their green belt. That may be what they wish, if they see the benefit in their area. That is the beauty of this document, combined with the Localism Bill. That will enable communities to form their own neighbourhood plans, which may lead in turn to development on their green belt. In my opinion, if that is what communities want, that is what they should get. Sustainable development and some building on the green belt are not completely in opposition.
I argue that in my constituency we are in a different position, because we have so little green belt, which has been eroded by development over the years. If people look at a map of my constituency, they will see the spaces between the city and the communities that make up my constituency, which have their identities protected by the green belt and therefore retain their identities by virtue of the green belt.
Many people in my constituency would completely echo my hon. Friend’s comments. Certainly in relation to Broxtowe, I completely agree with him. I can see little merit in any surrendering of the green belt in my constituency, for all the reasons that I have outlined.
Sustainable development has got a very bad name, whereas it should have a very good name. I shall give a quick example of how sustainable development could enhance the lives of people not just in my constituency, but in other parts of Greater Nottingham and, indeed, in other counties, such as Lincolnshire, Derbyshire and some parts of Leicestershire. It has to do with improvement of the A453. I will not dwell too long on this, but the A453 is the road that serves the city of Nottingham, and it is a disgrace. It needs widening, improving, dualling and making safe. It needs to be a modern road to bring jobs, prosperity and growth to not only the city of Nottingham, but my constituency, because the enterprise zone that the Government have announced lies both within the city and within the borough of Broxtowe in my constituency.
A considerable amount of money is required to make that improvement to the A453, and unfortunately the Government, because of the economic mess that we inherited, cannot at the moment find the money to improve it, but the county council has offered some money. It has begun to work with Rushcliffe borough council, which has also offered some money. Unfortunately, the city of Nottingham has yet to join in with that idea, but it strikes me that that road could be improved as part of a radical rethink involving councils coming together to consider proper sustainable development. That might mean a substantial number of new homes being built at the city end of it, but the infrastructure would be improved at the same time, because the A453 would be improved. Such an improvement would link to existing public transport, given the railway station at the other end, East Midlands Parkway. Rather than alienating or destroying our environment, any such development would embrace and enhance our environment. The housing development that I want to see would be exciting and innovative. It would provide great homes for people and great places for people to enjoy and for children to play in.
That is all in sharp contrast with the sort of development that has blighted my constituency and, I suspect, many others. I shall give an example, but I want to make it clear that this is no reflection on the people. A constituency such as mine is a great place to live, because of the people who live in it and the homes that they make, but those homes are often in frankly unacceptable developments. I shall provide a quick example of the tired old policy planning that we have seen in Broxtowe. I am referring to a development opposite Bilborough college. The houses there—the homes that people have made—are splendid and lovely, but the roads are too narrow. The whole development was constructed under the previous Administration’s appalling building regulations, which often led to over-dense developments. As I have said, the roads are too narrow. There was no understanding of the modern lives that people live, so we find cars parked up on pavements. There was no appreciation of the fact that the college opposite does not allow students to park on its premises, so they park all over people’s front drives, again cluttering up the pavements. There is no public transport—can you believe it?—to serve the development. It was in effect just plonked down, and I fear that that is a common feature not only in my constituency, but throughout the country.
Why are plans given the go-ahead or de facto given the go-ahead in my constituency by my borough council? I should say at this point that my borough council is controlled by a coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. I am sure that the Minister will join me in urging his Liberal Democrat colleagues in Broxtowe seriously to reconsider the route that they have decided to go along when it comes to future growth in my constituency. In short—again, this will be familiar to a number of hon. Members—they formed something called the Greater Nottingham joint planning advisory board. Such a term would strike terror into the hearts of many people, if they could even begin to understand it. Bizarrely, the board is chaired by Broxtowe. It accepted the previous Government’s top-down housing target. It then decided, having seen that the coalition Government were going to implement their policy to abolish the regional spatial strategy and those top-down housing targets, to continue to accept the figures that had been revised by the Government. As Members know, we sought to abolish the RSS, but the High Court would not allow us to, so until we pass the Localism Bill, we are left with the RSS housing figures. That has meant that the board has accepted the target of 52,049 homes for what is called Greater Nottingham. Of those, 5,765 are to be built in Broxtowe.
On the RSS figures and the High Court hearing, does my hon. Friend accept that the Localism Bill is emerging legislation, so if local authorities had the, shall we say, strength of character—I cannot use the word I want to use here—to stand behind the emerging legislation, they could ignore the RSS numbers the previous Government forced on them?
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I have certainly taken the view—I may be wrong, so I am pleased that another Member agrees with me—that local authorities are absolutely not bound by the RSS figures, and if they have the courage, they can break free of them. Indeed, I was going on to give the example of Rushcliffe, which has taken exactly that route. For some reason, however, my local authority, along with other local authorities, has decided to accept the figures, even though it can break free of them. It is not waiting for the great powers the Localism Bill will give local communities or for the planning policy framework to come fully into force.
My constituency is in London and has a heck of a lot of green belt and green land. My constituents and I are particularly worried that when regional strategies come to an end in the rest of the country, our constituency will still have to comply with the London plan, which imposes a lot on local planning. We are extremely worried that the London plan will impose things on local people that they just do not want. I am thinking, in particular, of councils.
Again, I am grateful for that contribution. I may be wrong, but I think the planning policy framework and the Localism Bill will encourage councils to work together, which is critical. It might be asked whether Broxtowe is not working with the city of Nottingham, Erewash, parts of Ashfield and Gedling council to form the joint planning advisory board, and it is right that they are working together. However, it is a question of getting the balance right so that councils are not in the pockets of a metropolitan area or more powerful councils. It is about councils having equality among themselves and working together in the manner I tried to describe in relation to the development of the A453. It should be about the county council and the borough and district councils coming together and taking a broad, sensible view for their mutual benefit. They should look at how we can have housing and how we can improve our environment and our infrastructure—in other words, proper sustainable development.
To return to the issue of Broxtowe for a moment, whatever the council might say now, it has in effect accepted the 5,765 figure, which is in all the documentation, in the press releases and in the letters that were sent out to some residents. It has actually designated its preferred sites. There are to be 800 homes on the green belt between Toton and the town of Stapleford. If we look at a map, we see that that green belt perfectly defines communities and stops sprawl, but the borough council says it is the preferred site for the development of 800 homes. Another site is to the north of Stapleford, near the village of Trowell. Many say that Trowell has lost much of its wonderful village status, which could be seen in the 1950s, when the village was chosen to mark the festival of Britain celebrations. That green belt land defines those communities, as well as providing beautiful open green spaces and wonderful views for people to enjoy. The irony is that the borough council says this is a preferred site for hundreds of new homes.
My other beef is the complete lack of real consultation. In this day and age, authorities cannot just impose homes and new housing on people in an authoritarian way; they have to consult people and work with them. I went to a number of public meetings in my constituency, and people’s overwhelming cry was that the proposals were a done deal, and they felt cheated of any form of consultation. Real anger was expressed in those meetings, and rightly so.
Again, I am extremely grateful for that positive intervention. My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I hear stories of how different local authorities are stepping away from the figures and determining their own figures. One of the assurances I hope to obtain from the Minister is that local authorities will be able to determine their own housing needs and will not blindly accept figures imposed without consultation by bodies whose work those authorities have had no input in and no say over.
That is exactly the approach being taken by Rushcliffe borough council, which borders my borough council in Broxtowe. It is perhaps a surprise that Rushcliffe borough council is Conservative run. It has stepped away in large part from the Greater Nottingham joint planning advisory board, of which it was once a fully fledged member. Rushcliffe accepts that there may be some build on some of its green belt, because it is keen to have growth and sustainable development. However, instead of imposing that on people, as has, I am afraid, happened in my constituency, Rushcliffe has done the exact opposite; it has gone out to people and it has had workshops and full consultations with communities. It has not only consulted parish councils, but drilled right down into communities, so that people can come along, join the debate and take a real, meaningful part in the process of determining what communities want, not only now, but in the future.
The hon. Lady is expanding on her case brilliantly. Is not the big hope for the transformation the Government are undertaking that planning will in future happen with communities, not to them, reflecting local need, not centralist tendencies?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. That is absolutely right. There are many examples of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) is heading up a neighbourhood plan in her constituency, where there has, understandably, been resistance to the spread of Truro. She tells me that if people in that part of Cornwall are to get the growth and jobs they want and need so much, they will have to take a more imaginative, co-operative view, which is exactly what she wants to achieve. In keeping with the approach the hon. Gentleman rightly identified, she is working with communities, not alienating them, as has been the tendency in the past and as is the case, I am afraid, in my constituency.
On that point, why can we not take the words
“presumption in favour of sustainable development”
out of the planning policy framework and insert the words “presumption in favour of local consultation before some planning decisions”? That would be a great idea, although others might disagree.
My hon. Friend and neighbour and I are separated by some green belt, which perhaps gives us both an incentive to protect it even more. Before she winds up her powerful remarks, however, may I direct her to another comment in the draft planning policy framework, which says the advantage of the green belt is that it assists urban regeneration by encouraging the recycling of derelict land? Does she agree that before anyone even thinks of taking the easy option of taking away some beautiful green fields, they should tackle some of the problem contaminated brownfield sites we all have in our constituencies, which are not used? Moving those sites back into use would be a far more effective way of proceeding.
As ever, my hon. Friend makes a brilliant point, and I am grateful to have him as my neighbour, with or without any green belt that may separate us. He makes an important point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) may hear, about the value of sustainable development, which is not just about building more homes: it is much more than that. It is about bringing jobs and enhancing the environment. That may mean clearing up sites, as my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) said, so that homes may be built, or business be generated or regenerated. There are many sites, such as the Stanton works, with which my hon. Friend and I are familiar, where hundreds if not thousands of people once worked. We need that imaginative approach, which lies at the heart of sustainable development as defined in the framework and identified in the Localism Act 2011.
I suspect that what is happening in my constituency is not unique, and that is something that concerns us all.
My hon. Friend is making a great case for the green belt, but housing numbers are an issue and people need to live somewhere. In our towns and city centres there is living accommodation above shops. All sorts of accommodation often lies empty. It would do towns and city centres good if those properties were refurbished and lived in. That would take pressure off the green belt and green fields.
I completely agree with that helpful intervention. We need a revolution, in the best sense of the word, in the way we provide the new homes that so many people want, without damaging the environment: on the contrary, we can enhance it as we provide those homes. However, we must continue to protect the green belt, because of its special features.
I want to ask my hon. Friend a question that I know is of concern to her as well as me, about the impact of open-cast mining on the green belt. Last week, sadly, an application for open-cast mining in the area of Smalley in my constituency was approved by Derbyshire county council. Does my hon. Friend agree that homes are not the only problem that threatens the green belt? There are also the despoiling open-cast coal mines, which, instead of dealing with contaminated land that needs to be cleaned up, merely rip up green fields. We should have protection from those.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Paragraph 145 of the draft national planning policy framework unfortunately includes mineral extraction—the very sort of open-cast mining that blights Amber Valley and sits hanging over my constituency, between Cossall and Trowell. The paragraph makes it clear that such works are not necessarily inappropriate in green belt land. I respectfully suggest to the Government that they are wholly inappropriate in green belt land. I know that open-cast mines can be restored, and I therefore understand why they are in the paragraph, but in the short term—and, it could be argued, in the much longer term—they are scourges of the countryside. They are horrible open scars. Open-cast mining and green belt are irreconcilable. I hope that the Government will consider that paragraph and do all that they can to protect the green belt from open-cast mining.
I hope that the Minister will make it clear that the Government take the view that, as my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Andrew Bingham) said, local authorities do not have to accept the regional spatial strategy figures, and that they have the freedom and power to determine their own housing need. Planning policy statement 3 makes it clear that in determining housing need local authorities should take into account evidence of sustainable land. I may be wrong, and I hope for some clarification, but I believe that when a local authority considers its housing need it must take into account the land available to it—especially sustainable land. That means that it must consider its green belt. It cannot be the case that homes can be built on the scale in question in Broxtowe on green belt. It is not appropriate or compatible. It is imperative that councils consider the land available to them, and that if it is green belt land it is effectively a no-go area.
Having spoken to colleagues and others, I believe that there is a great danger that what is happening in Broxtowe will be allowed to take place in other parts of England, and that we need a transitional period to make sure that we protect our green belt before the Localism Act 2011 and the policy framework come into full effect. Currently many authorities are rushing through their local plans, ignoring the 2011 Act, the framework and the certainty provided by the statements made by the Prime Minister and many others that our green belt will continue to have special protection. What Broxtowe is doing presents a danger of a presumption in favour of development on green belt, which means it will be completely vulnerable to over-keen developers and heavy-handed councils.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to speak for so long. It is the overwhelming desire of the hon. Members present, and others throughout the House—because it is the overwhelming view of the majority of people in this country, the constituents we represent—that the green belt should be considered special. It needs to be protected and enhanced, so that it is here not just for our generation but for generations yet to come.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on obtaining this important debate. I agree with much, if not all, of what she said. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Crausby.
There is housing need in this country; people need to live somewhere. However, that cannot be at the expense of concreting over the countryside. It is essential, in particular, that we should protect the green belt. I welcome what the hon. Lady said about the Minister writing to local authorities like mine to confirm the point about the RSS figures. That is important, because it will determine exactly what the policies are. She gave a good description of concerns about local authority attitudes. Local authorities need to know what numbers are needed, so that councils such as Sefton, which is drawing up its core strategy at the moment, can determine within the strategy whether there is even a need to look at the green belt. I am sure that the same considerations apply to the constituencies of many right hon. and hon. Members here today.
Green belt surrounds the many towns and small villages that make up Sefton Central. The town of Crosby is surrounded on two sides, at least, by green belt, which separates the village of Little Crosby from Great Crosby. The land up the Sefton coast to Hightown and then on to Formby is nearly all green belt, with the village of Ince Blundell sitting in between. In the Sefton Council draft core strategy, much of that is indicated as potential development sites. The same is true in the east of my constituency, around Maghull, Lydiate, Aintree and Melling. The people in those areas have objected in very large numbers to the prospect of large-scale housing developments and business use. I am sure that those comments will be familiar to other hon. Members. The concern is that much of that land is already owned by would-be developers, by people who have a history in development and by landowners who are not currently using that land. That land is nearly all grade 1 or grade 2 agricultural land. We have some of the best farming land in the country in Sefton, and the prospect of it being developed and built on is a big worry, given the concerns about food availability.
At the moment, one can have planning permission for three years and an extension of three years. Would it not be a good idea to say, “You have planning permission for three years, and you have to do it within that time,” and include completion dates and phases in the planning permission, which would also help the local plan?
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman—it is a fair point—but I am not sure that that is quite what I was getting to regarding the ownership of agricultural land in my constituency.
The hon. Member for Broxtowe mentioned the potential for councils coming forward with plans on the green belt, and gave some examples. There is an example in the village of Lydiate, where recently plans were proposed. They were for a development in the green belt outside a clearly defined urban area, and had the support of planning officers. The Leeds and Liverpool canal runs through my constituency, and the plans were for a marina on the canal. On the face of it, it was a sensible development suggestion, but it was in the green belt and would have broken a clear barrier between the urban and green belt areas. It was worrying to see planning officers recommending its approval. Fortunately, the planning committee turned it down and the planning inspectorate appeal upheld the decision, saying that it would clearly be an inappropriate development in the green belt.
As the hon. Lady said, the guidance is clear in the policy framework: the benefits have significantly to outweigh the harm for planning to be appropriate in the green belt. That has been the case for many years, and it is rightly still set out clearly in the national planning policy framework. The worry is that councils will go ahead and try to push through development in the green belt that, under that guidance, we would all consider inappropriate. The question is how we find ways to make it difficult for councils to develop in the green belt and so protect it, while addressing the need for housing, which, for many young people, is unaffordable—many people are still living at home. There is also a shortage of sheltered accommodation for our growing elderly population. We have to bear in mind such questions when considering this issue. Sustainable development also fits into that conversation. How do we meet housing need while protecting the green belt?
We have set out concerns about the impact on the brownfield first policy. It is vital to reaffirm the importance of building on brownfield sites. The point has been well made by groups such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England. What is meant by sustainable development needs spelling out, and we need a reaffirmation that this Government support the policy of brownfield first, as the previous two Governments did. We need to continue that policy.
We also need to make greater use of empty homes. There are 6,000 empty homes in Sefton, which is more than twice the national average. That is a big problem for us.
May I take the hon. Gentleman back to the brownfield first principle, which was initiated by the previous Government? It has been successful—apart from the fact that brownfield sites also included people’s back gardens, which is one of the first things this Government addressed. However, I totally agree with him: perhaps we should ask the Minister to reiterate the principle of brownfield first and make sure it is embedded in new legislation.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I give credit to the previous Conservative Government—I probably will not do that again in my speech, so make the most of it—because it was they who initiated the brownfield first policy. There has been a continuation of planning policy over the years, and a great deal of consensus. It is important that that consensus be maintained.
I was about to talk about empty homes and their importance in Sefton and elsewhere. I would add the importance of using windfall sites. There are a number of windfall sites in Sefton that can deliver many hundreds of new homes, which would remove some of the pressure on the green belt. Councils are not allowed to use windfall sites or empty homes in their calculations, and that puts additional pressure on greenfield sites and the green belt. I completely agree with the hon. Members who mentioned greenfield sites. Urban green space is as important, if not more so, than the green belt in some cases. However, as we are talking about the green belt today, I shall concentrate on that.
What we need fleshed out is a policy that supports sustainable development. One way of doing that is for the Government to make moves to help develop brownfield sites first and regenerate empty homes. It will not surprise hon. Members to know that I am calling for a reduction in VAT on renovations, because that would level the playing field between refurbishment and renovation on the one hand and new build on the other.
My constituency has a brownfield site, Webster’s garage in Axminster, where all the surrounding development is stopping the plan by having ransom strips and the like. The development, which would be right in the centre of town, has not happened for years. We need to put more pressure on local authorities and others to bring those sites together. Otherwise, they stay festering for years.
That is absolutely right. There is legislation that enables local councils to put pressure on landowners to use unsightly and unused pieces of land and buildings, but I am afraid that few councils make use of it. I hope the Minister is listening and will comment on the issue later. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) is absolutely right—we need to put pressure on landowners. One of the concerns in Sefton is that people or organisations that own large numbers of empty properties are leaving them sitting around for years and doing nothing with them. The properties fall into disuse and become targets for vandalism and a magnet for crime and antisocial behaviour. There are all sorts of other reasons, covering the broader term of sustainability, why we need action on exactly the issue the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.
The Government should take seriously the idea of cutting VAT to encourage renovation of empty homes. The policy is being proposed by the Opposition, and I know why the Government are against it, but if we want to encourage sustainable development they need to act. If VAT on renovations is not cut, what are the other options?
That would be a mistake, because that would restrict growth. Part of the debate on the NPPF is about using the planning regime to encourage growth. Increasing VAT on new build would restrict growth rather than encourage it. There are a number of reasons why a cut in VAT would be valuable, not just in bringing back empty homes and helping to protect the green belt, but in boosting the construction industry, which is one of the most effective ways of getting the economy moving again and solving some of the housing problems. It is more important to level the playing field in that way, rather than by raising VAT. There would be a huge outcry from the construction industry, as the hon. Gentleman would find, if VAT was introduced on new build.
When the national planning policy framework finally becomes a reality, I hope to see a greater emphasis on brownfield sites, empty homes and windfall land, all of which would help to protect the green belt.
The hon. Member for Broxtowe rightly mentioned some of the problems that occurred under previous unstructured planning regimes, including the development of far too many soulless housing estates and industrial developments. The problems that stem from such developments include feelings of isolation, a poor sense of community and a lack of employment opportunities. Therefore, in removing some of the planning framework, the NPPF must be careful to ensure that we do not go back to such unstructured planning, which is why the definition of sustainable development is so important. We must avoid, as we are all seeking to do, ending up with more urban sprawl into the green belt.
I mentioned the planning application that was turned down in Lydiate. One of the big threats to the green belt comes from councils. In trying to meet housing targets, they often feel that they have little choice other than to build on green belt land.
VAT cuts on renovations have the support of the Federation of Master Builders, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. In total, some 49 business organisations back the idea, and the Government would do well to look at it because there is such strong support for it in the country. The idea of creating a level playing field between new build and renovation is essential; it is a good way to protect green space and the green belt.
Consistency and a level playing field is a big issue. I have residents in the green belt who have had small extensions or small sections of hardstanding turned down because they are inappropriate; yet just around the corner, large developers are planning thousands of new homes. We need a level playing field between the small guys and the large developers. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that exists at the moment?
Such an imbalance is caused by the fact that the large developer has access to financial resources, expertise and expert legal and professional witnesses. We need such protections included in the NPPF. However, by putting the onus on local communities and local authorities to object to inappropriate development, my concern is that we may make matters worse. We all appreciate that the local authorities are cash-strapped and have faced big cuts in resources—I will not go into the politics of that. Local communities do not have the resources or the expertise to object to large-scale planning applications. Unless we are careful, the danger is that the situation will become far worse. We need the Government to beef up the NPPF before it becomes law.
In conclusion, we need to protect the green belt—the hon. Lady has done us all a big service in holding this debate today—and ensure that the councils have the tools to do it. The key to that is a definition of sustainable development that encourages local communities and councils to balance the need to protect the green belt in the long term against the need for housing. To do that, we need policies that flesh out what is meant by sustainable development. We should place greater emphasis on using brownfield sites, empty properties and windfall land. If we go down that route, we will be in a much stronger position to protect the green belt, as we all want to do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on an eloquent and important speech. I will be as brief as I can and will try not to repeat the comments that have been made so far. I endorse many of the points that the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) made, particularly his important concluding remarks.
As my constituency consists of the urban sprawl of Poole and then villages and small towns, the green belt is of great importance to us. My constituency is also distinguished by its large amount of heathland, which is a great constraint on development. I was a vociferous campaigner against the south-west regional spatial strategy and the housing it imposed from above on my constituency. There were excellent campaign groups, such as “Keep Corfe Mullen Green” and “Keep Wimborne Green”. We were all delighted when the regional spatial strategy housing numbers were scrapped—or so we thought. Throughout our campaign, I was conscious of the need for affordable housing; we need it desperately. What we did not need was more executive houses and more second homes in our green belt. I had a vision of communities working together because they know what their local housing need is. I wanted to see full involvement from the bottom up. I was delighted in principle with the Localism Bill and the thrust of the NPPF. As ever, though, the devil is in the detail, but I do accept the principles.
As the detail is missing in both the Localism Bill and the NPPF, we have a particular problem with transition. In the few minutes that I have, I should like to talk about the problems of transition and how I think the green belt will be compromised. Let me take the example of Corfe Mullen in my constituency. Originally, all the local councils—not the parish council—signed up to building 700 houses in the most beautiful valley imaginable. Eventually, the district council backtracked, but the matter still went to the examination in public, with the county council supporting the development. The spatial strategy had been scrapped, so we thought that the beautiful valley would be saved. East Dorset district council worked on its core strategy and excluded this site; it had listened and that was good. None the less, there are developers out on Pardy’s Hill, obviously sizing up the site. My fear is that a quick planning application will come in and we will be back to square one.
We must think about the transition. We need ministerial guidance on transition now. The coalition has a real vision of local neighbourhood planning, but, please, we must protect our green belt, urban green spaces and valuable agricultural land. If we do not get to grips with that aspect, our vision will be totally lost. For the sake of our constituents and those who campaigned so hard against Labour’s top-down approach, please do not let this happen. There is much to be said, but we have another debate later this week, so I will make further points then.
Thank you, Mr Crausby, for calling me to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on securing this important debate. The number of Members who have turned up shows how important the green belt is for many MPs.
I turned up here in Westminster Hall 18 months ago, when we had a very similar debate about the green belt and the Localism Bill. I was delighted that that Bill was introduced to ensure the protection of the green belt and to ensure that local communities decide where houses go. The problem is that that debate was 18 months ago.
Since then, I was delighted when the national planning policy framework included special protection for the green belt. However, the reality on the ground in our constituencies is that developers are currently putting in applications to develop green belt land. In South Gloucestershire, we are only just managing to hold off the developers, with the local council working together with residents to ensure that the green belt is protected. Even though we are going to the Planning Inspectorate and applications by developers are being thrown out, in one area of Longwell Green developers submitted an application to build 80 houses on green belt land. We defeated that application, which involved a 1,000-signature petition, by going through the whole planning process, but the developer, having had his application rejected, has now put in another application for 25 houses on the green belt.
My constituents’ patience is wearing thin. They support the Government’s desire to protect the green belt; they believe the Government are protecting the green belt; and they believe that I, the local MP, am standing up for the green belt in the wonderful areas of Kingswood, where I grew up. However, we need to act now, and we need to be on the side of David, our residents, rather than on the side of Goliath, the developers.
I urge the Minister to consider the suggestion that if a developer puts in a planning application on greenfield or green belt land and that application is rejected, they should not be allowed to put in another application for another five years, or perhaps 10 years, because we cannot have this situation whereby developers are allowed, time and time again, to run riot over our planning process.
Thank you, Mr Crausby, for calling me to speak.
I rise to speak as an MP for the north-east. I am disappointed that there are no other MPs here from Northumberland, Newcastle, Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, Durham or Teesside. Nevertheless, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on securing this debate, where she has made a compelling case. In addition, I entirely support what has just been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore).
I will speak very briefly, because I am very conscious that time is short. I want to emphasise my community’s desire to protect the green belt areas that are in or near my constituency. There is a need for housing in Northumberland and young people certainly struggle to get on the housing ladder. Without them, the schools, villages, shops and communities that make up the fabric of God’s own county struggle. We have small villages in Kielder, Riding Mill and Wylam where there is a need for community-based affordable housing, which is surely the way forward.
That aim is best achieved by the type of town and village plans that are being brought forward. They should be supported, and I entirely endorse the work that has been done by local villages such as Ponteland and in towns such as Hexham, which is my local town. Those villages and towns are putting forward really good local plans to establish how they will run their local communities. That is the way forward, not the bureaucratic, top-down, regional spatial nonsense that was forced on us by the previous Government and that great pioneer of planning and housing, John Prescott.
In the limited time that I have to speak, I want to touch briefly on urban regeneration. I am talking about regeneration not only in rural Northumberland but in places such as Newcastle, Gateshead and Tyne and Wear, which have sites that can be taken up and utilised. I urge the Minister to make it a fundamental priority that urban regeneration is done not only in large cities but in smaller villages and towns.
The usage of Government sites is another priority. In my area, two former hospital sites have lain derelict for nearly 20 years. The Stannington hospital site has not been used since 1993. We—the taxpayers—have paid more than £1 million to keep it secure during the past 15 to 20 years, but not a building has been built, nobody lives there and nobody has done anything with the site. We therefore have a Government-owned site, a need for housing and, hopefully, a way in which that site can be utilised for housing in the future, which would also release funds that the Government clearly need. That is the sort of project that we should be highlighting and identifying with, not anything in relation to building on the green belt or greenfield sites. The former mental hospital site at Prudhoe in my area is being developed in the way that I have just outlined. I would have liked that project to include more affordable housing, but there is a good, sustainable mix of housing, which is the way forward.
I also want to touch on the scandal of empty homes. I will be very curious to hear the Minister’s response on this point. In the region of Northumberland, including in my constituency, there are 2,351 empty homes, as established by an audit carried out by the county council in April. Those homes were not used in the six months prior to April and were therefore sitting idle. We could do so much with those properties in the towns and villages where they are located. The county council is conducting an excellent project on using empty homes. I support and endorse that project, and I hope that the council’s approach will be supported by the Minister.
I will make a final point. If there is an example of the housing that we should be getting, it is surely the Vanguard project. That is the pilot project put forward by the Government, which we are proud to have in Allendale in my constituency. Allendale Community Housing has got local communities and local partners involved. It has taken former sites and turned them around, with local partners providing the building, the jobs and the architects’ work. I entirely credit the work of ACH in this matter. That type of development is the right way forward, and it is what we need to see, rather than there being any prospect of any building on the green belt.
I thank you, Mr Crausby, for the limited time that I have had today to speak.
Thank you very much, Mr Crausby, for calling me to speak.
In the very short time available to me today, I will not try to respond to the many points made by the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), who sadly is no longer in his place, having spoken in the debate for 20 minutes.
The number of MPs here in Westminster Hall from both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat parties shows the degree of concern about some of the planning changes proposed by Her Majesty’s Government. I want to give the Government the benefit of the doubt, because they are genuinely trying to introduce localism and to hand decisions about development back to local people, but I will reserve my judgment, and if it turns out that those planning changes are a charter for developers, I, for one, will strenuously express my opposition to them. For now, however, the Government are right in trying to hand the decisions about these developments back to local people, represented by their local councillors, who are the right people to decide whether there should be building and, if so, where it should be.
I will not give way, because I do not have time to do so.
Right now, speaking in this debate on the green belt, I am in opposition, because in North Wiltshire we have no green belt—it does not exist in our area. However, we face very significant threats to areas such as Purton, Lydiard Millicent, Lydiard Tregoze and even Royal Wootton Bassett, which is called “royal” after the magnificent ceremony that took place on Sunday. Swindon is sprawling westwards and currently there is no constraint whatsoever apart from the “rural buffer zone”—no one quite knows what a “rural buffer zone” is. Equally, there is talk of putting 5,000 houses around the town of Chippenham, which is already growing very fast. Even in Malmesbury, there is talk about putting some houses in the Park Road estate, effectively on green belt land, which is very worrying.
I have written to Ministers about this subject, asking why we do not have green belts in North Wiltshire. We ought to have them, as we are under as much threat as anywhere else in England. I was very encouraged to receive a response from Ministers telling me that the body that can decide whether or not to have a green belt is, in fact, the local authority. It is not the Government but the local authority that can decide to have it. Now is the moment that the local authority can do that, when we are consulting on plans for the local area.
My message to Wiltshire unitary council—a very fine Conservative-run council—and indeed to councils up and down the land run by all sorts of parties is that if we are concerned about our green belt and the green fields surrounding our urban areas, there is a very simple solution. Let us create a green belt around the towns of Swindon and Chippenham, and let us say to developers, “You may not build on these green fields and green belt. You may not build there at all. You must build on brownfield sites in the centres of towns.” Let us not do what Lord Prescott—who is much missed here in the Commons—did. You will recall, Mr Crausby, that he very famously said, “The green belt is a Labour triumph—let’s build on it.”
Thank you, Mr Crausby, for calling me to speak.
I want to focus very briefly on the Government’s draft national planning policy framework. Thankfully, the draft framework seeks to protect the green belt provision, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). However, it is clear that the guidance regarding green belt land will be simplified. I am not against that, but it is vital that any such simplification does not equate to weaker green belt protections in practice, and I seek an assurance from the Minister on that. We all know that loose language can lead to loose definitions, which in turn can lead to loose interpretations of planning guidance, not to mention the potential for legal challenges. We must, therefore, clarify that point early on in the wider planning debate.
In addition, I am concerned about the clear emphasis in the draft planning framework that it should not be necessary to propose any new green belt land except in exceptional circumstances. Greenfield sites—mentioned by a number of Members—do not share the same protection as green belt land and, with the Government keen to introduce a presumption in favour of development, I am worried that there might be no further opportunities to extend green belt protection to such sites, which many communities in my constituency would like to see.
Green belt land plays a vital role in shaping and defining communities in rural areas across the country. The overwhelming majority of York Outer residents are proud of the beautiful countryside that surrounds their homes, their villages and the historic city of York. Local residents will fight to protect their green belt land, and I will stand by them.
The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) has done our green and pleasant land a great service by initiating this debate.
In this House and in this country we cherish our green belt and our countryside, as captured in the immortal words of the great English anthem, “Linden Lea”:
“Within the woodlands, flowery gladed,
’neath the oak tree’s mossy moot,
The shining grass-blades, timber-shaded,
Now do quiver under foot…
And brown-leav’d fruit’s a-turning red,
In cloudless sunshine, overhead…
To where, for me, the apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.”
But to cherish is not enough. The great planning settlement of 1947 sought to reconcile growth and development with a genuine say for local people and the protection of our natural environment. Historically, the purposes of green belt in planning policies were to protect the countryside from urban sprawl and to retain the character of towns and cities. Green belts are a buffer between towns, and between a town and the surrounding countryside, and within that belt damaged and derelict land can be improved and nature conservation encouraged.
Green belts are currently protected by planning policy guidance note 2, but that will be replaced by the national planning policy framework. The presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt unless there are very special circumstances that outweigh the harm caused by the development, is to be removed by the NPPF. At the moment, proposals in draft plans that would result in releasing land from the green belt must be fully justified; the Labour Government were committed to protecting the green belt and we encouraged the recycling of land and a brownfield-first approach.
Given the time available, no.
The NPPF also removes Labour’s brownfield-first policy. Under the Labour Government, the green belt expanded by 34,640 hectares. This Government have repeatedly said that policies to protect the green belt and nationally designated landscapes will be retained in the NPPF, but the framework, which replaces all planning guidance, does not give sufficient confidence to people who want our countryside to be protected and risks antagonising local communities rather than engaging them. Inevitably, there will be greater opposition, more appeals and a less effective planning system.
We badly need more development—well-designed and in the right place—not least because we have a growing housing crisis. The Government, however, have responded to legitimate concerns expressed by broad-based non-political organisations such as the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England by calling them “left-wing” and “semi-hysterical,” and by saying that the organisations are guilty of “nihilistic selfishness”. In the current climate, we have the worst of all worlds: collapsing house building, chaos in the planning system and a chorus of voices whose concerns have not yet been properly heard.
How do we salvage some sense from this mess, and protect our green belt? First, we need a recognised definition of sustainable development. The Government should continue to support the widely-subscribed-to 2005 definition. Secondly, and crucially, we need a restoration of the successful brownfield-first policy, which was initiated under a Conservative Government and developed under a Labour one, with 76% of development on brownfield sites. There is currently enough brownfield land available to build 1.2 million homes. Thirdly, we need protection for our town centres. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) referred to the repopulation of our town centres, including people living above shops, and I strongly agree with his view. Fourthly, there should be a commitment to affordable housing, not the trading-off of such housing for reasons of viability and, fifthly, we need transitional arrangements that protect local communities against what will sometimes be predatory proposals by developers—a point that the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) was absolutely right to raise earlier. Finally, we hope that the Government will put the NPPF to a vote in both Houses of Parliament.
Specific concerns have been raised about the NPPF and the green belt. Some people believe that the draft framework does not maintain the existing green belt protections and that it should be improved and strengthened.
Given the time available, no.
A legal opinion commissioned by the Campaign to Protect Rural England emphasises the need to retain the current presumption against inappropriate development in the green belt. Ministers have stated on a number of occasions that the draft NPPF maintains the current protection of the green belt, but although the draft framework incorporates a number of features of current policy—in PPG2, green belts—the CPRE believes that paragraphs 133 to 147 of the consultation draft policy contain a serious weakening of current protections for the following reasons—
Given the time available, no.
The presumption in favour of sustainable development appears to apply in green belts as in all other locations—other than European wildlife sites—meaning, in the CPRE’s view, that development proposals could be refused only if they were shown to harm the objectives of the NPPF as a whole, rather than being harmful purely in green belt policy terms, as at present. The loss of the presumption against inappropriate development is highlighted in the CPRE’s legal opinion, and of particular concern is when the presumption in favour of sustainable development appears to apply in the green belt. Accordingly, the CPRE argues that the presumption against inappropriate development should be reinstated, and cross-referenced in the section covering the presumption in favour of sustainable development.
Other concerns have been expressed by, for example, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has received legal advice that the draft planning proposals would weaken protection for the 4,000 sites of special scientific interest across England. Concerns have also been expressed to us by people who value our village greens. As part of its consultation on village greens, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that it intends to charge communities £1,000 to start the process of protecting their local green spaces.
In conclusion, I would like to put certain questions to the Minister. First, does he agree with the CPRE’s legal opinion that the green belt is at risk? Secondly, what is his view of the other potential loopholes in the draft policy? Thirdly, what is his view of the RSPB’s legal advice that the draft planning proposals would weaken protection for 4,000 sites of special scientific interest? Fourthly, is it right to charge local communities £1,000 to safeguard their village greens?
The Government need to move beyond deriding their critics and polarising the debate. Legitimate concerns have been expressed. We need a system fit for purpose. I hope that the Minister responds constructively.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Crausby, in a debate that has generated huge interest from hon. Friends and other Members who have this concern on their constituency agendas. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) on presenting her case with skill and liveliness. I appreciate her concern that many new homes might be built on green belt in Broxtowe, strictly in accordance with the old regional strategy. Her tour of the history of the green belt and the geography of her constituency was enlightening.
I declare an interest. I do not have a partner who is a developer, but I do have a constituency consisting exclusively of built-up areas and green belt. There is no other choice. I assure hon. Members and my hon. Friends that irrespective of my position in the Government, I entirely share their concern to ensure strong green belt policy that is not weakened by the reforms that we are making. In the brief time available, I hope that I can reassure her and others that far from weakening environmental protection, our planning reforms will strengthen them.
My hon. Friend made some specific points about her constituency and what she perceives to be the contrasting behaviour of the two district councils of Broxtowe and Rushcliffe. Propriety considerations prevent me from commenting on particular situations and requirements, because core strategies will be subjected to examination by independent inspectors appointed by the Secretary of State. Perhaps it is no bad thing that I am not in a position to comment.
My hon. Friend and several other people who spoke made points about the phraseology of the national planning policy framework. I will ensure that the Hansard record of this debate is entered into the consultation process, so remarks made here will be added to remarks received. The consultation officially finished on Monday, but if in the light of this debate hon. Members feel moved to contribute personally or on behalf of organisations, I assure them that if they are quick, their views will still be considered.
Fortunately, my task is made much easier by the fact that that definition takes up about a page and a half of the NPPF. I remind the House that there will be a debate specifically about that on Thursday, so I will contain my remarks to those aspects related to the green belt. I encourage hon. Members and my hon. Friends to contribute to the debate on Thursday.
Will the Minister consider supporting the Second Reading of my Electricity Transmission (Protection of Landscape) Bill, which covers land that is of value to the community but not strictly green belt land, particularly in view of the fact that parish councils will be putting together their plans and local people can be heard in that way?
I have certainly heard what my hon. Friend says. I will concentrate on the green belt for the moment, if I may.
The draft NPPF sets out the Government’s proposed policies on planning and retains the key policy protections for the green belt. I emphasise to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) that I preferred his choice of poetry to his choice of lawyer in his description of what we have done. The draft NPPF says:
“Inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.”
Those special circumstances, as my hon. Friend said while introducing this debate, are clearly set out. She drew particular attention to one aspect that she did not like, but that was an exception contained in the original green belt policy, which is currently in force.
As I have four minutes remaining, it is sensible for me simply to say that I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find the opportunity to make that point on Thursday during the wider debate.
The Government value the green belt highly. It is an essential planning tool to prevent sprawl, and its retention is a coalition agreement commitment. The abolition of the regional spatial strategies through the Localism Bill will stop the top-down pressure to review green belts in many areas. Some 30 green belt areas are currently under the kind of pressure that my hon. Friend outlined eloquently, due to the pressure exerted by regional spatial strategies, which often impose highly inappropriate numbers on areas without the physical capacity to take them.
In future, local planning authorities will be in control. It is certainly not for central Government to decide where green belts should be; as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) correctly advised the House, that is a matter for local authorities. He discussed green fields as opposed to green belts. The NPPF says clearly that
“the planning system should aim to conserve and enhance the natural and local environment by protecting valued landscapes”.
There is a good deal more about environmental protection, to which I draw his attention.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) asked about the transition from the current system to the new one. Whether anybody likes it or not, the existing planning system and its case law will remain in place until replaced by a new system. That new system will come into force upon the passage of the Localism Bill. At the moment, it is assumed that if the House is willing, that will happen on 1 April next year.
Authorities are free to make whatever assessment they believe they should make of their housing strategy and draw up plans in accordance with the current system as they think fit. They should, of course, pay full attention to current consultation procedures, and their core strategies will be subject to review by the independent planning inspectorate in exactly the same way.
That is not to say that legitimate concerns have not been raised about an interim situation. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington made the point that perhaps some will seek to exploit the difference. However, we want plans to be developed in accordance with the wishes of local communities and to create the homes, jobs, transport links and recreational facilities that we need to produce environmentally, socially and economically sustainable communities. It is the Government’s clear intention to do so.
On empty homes—
Badgers and Bovine TB
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I am pleased to have been granted the opportunity to initiate this debate. Although my constituency of North Tyneside is largely urban—it has only four farms—the interests of my constituents are many and varied. They cover a wide range, including concerns about the Government’s proposed culling of badgers.
I would never describe myself as an animal lover, but I would never wilfully hurt an animal. As a townie, I value being a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and in that role I have learned a lot about the issues that confront members of our rural and farming communities, the challenges they face in caring for the countryside and maintaining their animal herds, and the important role that they play in providing for the food chain. Furthermore, I have learned to respect their knowledge of and experience in all those matters.
Levels of bovine TB are unacceptable, not only for our farmers and the fate of their cattle, but for the taxpayer. Last year, 25,000 cattle were slaughtered, and almost £90 million was paid for testing and in compensation. The Environment Secretary has said that over the next 10 years, bovine TB will cost £1 billion in England alone if more action is not taken. However, it is the Government’s proposed action to tackle the issue that I wish to question.
Although the compulsory culling of cattle affected by bovine TB began more than 60 years ago, it was not until the early 1970s that badgers were thought to be the wildlife reservoir for the disease. The UK has one of the densest badger populations in Europe, with up to 30 per sq km in some areas. Badgers are a native species that is widespread across the UK, and live in setts underground in family or social groups of related mature adults and young cubs. Each group defends its own territory, which has a source of food and water. They are creatures of habit and are extremely loyal to their setts. By law, they are protected under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Bern convention.
A number of badger culling initiatives have been employed over the years to control bovine TB, but it was under the Labour Government that a full scientific study was undertaken. Following Professor John Krebs’s independent review, that Government set up the independent science review group, and the UK randomised badger culling trial began. The trial took place over a 10-year period in areas where there had been large numbers of TB cases in cattle. However, the cull was suspended in 2003 when it was found that survivors of partly culled setts were wandering away and spreading the disease. Following extensive research, the study reported in 2007 and concluded that badger culling could not meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in the UK.
Is the hon. Lady not aware that there was proof after the trials that TB in cattle was reduced by some 27% as a result of culling, and that while there was, as she correctly indicated, perturbation around the edges of the area in which the cull took place, within a year that had lessened? In other words, the Krebs trials demonstrated that culling is effective. Indeed, the report of the EFRA Committee, on which the hon. Lady sits, came to that conclusion in the previous Parliament.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the scientific evidence suggests that, at best, a comprehensive culling policy would lead to a 16% reduction in bovine TB, but only after nine years in the culling zones? The Government’s proposal is to undertake a number of pilot projects before rolling out the programme, which is not an effective way forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and agree with her. This is the basis on which the Government are advancing their proposals—nothing better, just the same.
In 2008, the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), decided that, based on the evidence, it was not right to risk the cull because it could have made the disease worse. He stated that the then Government would concentrate on other measures, including investing in the development of an effective TB vaccine for both cattle and badgers.
I am encouraged that we are having this debate. What is the vaccine called that the hon. Lady mentioned? My understanding is that no effective vaccine is in place yet, that the trials are ongoing and that frankly, the vaccine does not exist. An injectable vaccine would be incredibly costly and difficult to administer, and would have no effect on badgers that already carry this terrible disease.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. My understanding, from looking at the Wildlife Trust’s vaccine programme in Gloucestershire, is that BCG vaccines are effective. The trust is carrying out that programme by trapping the badgers and injecting them. The trial took place over the summer and the costs are being looked at, but the programme is under way. I am no scientist, but the injections are similar to BCG injections for humans.
I appreciate the hon. Lady allowing me to intervene again on this important point. I am aware of those Gloucestershire trials, which are important. I declare an interest as a member of the British Veterinary Association, which cares about animals and their welfare. On those trials, it states that
“to conclude from this report that the badger vaccine is a viable alternative to culling in eradicating TB is unrealistic at best and spin at worst.”
The fact is that frankly, trapping a wild badger and trying to inject it and trace it for the next five years—as the hon. Lady has said, there is a large badger population—would be impossible.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but the Government’s proposals on culling are not being monitored and have no scientific fact behind them. The vaccine trials are ongoing and should be pursued. Unfortunately, the Government closed down five of the six trials, thus limiting what can be done, but they themselves are going to put £20 million into vaccine development.
Clearly, there will be different views on a number of issues in this debate, and I welcome that. I should like, however, to clarify the situation on vaccines, so that the debate can progress on a positive, factual basis. As has been said, a licensed injectable vaccine is being used by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. However, that is not a trial. The trust is undertaking a programme of vaccinating badgers on its own land and, as I say, is not carrying out a trial.
On the six projects to which the hon. Lady referred, yes, I cancelled five of them, but they were not trials either. They were called vaccine deployment projects and were purely designed to work out the mechanics of catching and vaccinating badgers and to train the operators. Those projects were not trials to establish whether the vaccine works; we know it works to a large extent, which is why it is licensed.
Forgive me for taking so long, Mr Crausby, but I think these points are helpful. An oral vaccine has not been developed. There have been a number of attempts to do so in New Zealand, as well as in this country, but we are still many years away from it. Just for the record, a cattle vaccine is more imminent but, as no doubt we will discuss, we have major problems with the EU in getting agreement to use it.
Many of us are intervening on the question of a vaccine. I am a farmer and I love wildlife. We would desperately like to have a vaccine that we felt was going to be effective, but for as long as I can remember—I have been involved with this issue for about 40 years—a vaccine has been about 10 years away. What we need from the hon. Lady is an idea of what the Opposition would genuinely do.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which was made from his professional stance. The vaccine issue is very important, and the previous Government were totally committed to it because they appreciated the situation of the farmers and of the animals affected by this horrendous disease. That is why the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central, decided to concentrate on developing a vaccine. Such a decision was based on the scientific evidence that culling was not the way forward, and because he put faith in developing the vaccine, he set up the Bovine TB Eradication Group for England. The measures proposed by that group did not at any point include going along with culling, because it believed that the scientific evidence from 10 years of trials did not conclude that culling would bring any success.
Based on the scientific findings of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle, Labour in opposition remains opposed to a cull. The new Labour-led Assembly in Wales have put a halt to a proposed cull and are concluding a review into the scientific evidence. The coalition claim that it is
“committed, as part of a package of measures, to develop affordable options for a carefully-managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine TB”,
“the proposals are based on the best available scientific and veterinary evidence”.
However, despite that claim, the Secretary of State, supported by the Minister, is proposing to allow a cull of badgers to take place.
The scientific evidence upon which the previous Labour Government based their decision not to go ahead with culling but to seek to develop successful vaccination was supported by experts and organisations such as those already mentioned—for example, the wildlife trusts and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It is also important to note that the people who made up the important group set up by the Labour Government included representatives from the Royal College of Surgeons, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other science groups. The emphasis has always been on scientific evidence, which, as I have said, is still what the Opposition consider the best way forward. It is only through scientific evidence that any action can be taken.
The hon. Lady makes great play of the scientific evidence that came before the previous Government. However, she will remember that the scientific evidence was carefully balanced and that, for example, the chief veterinary adviser to the Government came down on the side of the cull. Does she not remember that the reason why the former vegetarian Secretary of State for DEFRA came down against a cull was because he believed that the social and, dare I say, political and even economic consequences of allowing a cull would be larger than the veterinary benefits? The issue was not actually about science; it was about whether a cull was politically acceptable.
On the science, has the hon. Lady read the document on the DEFRA website that states:
“Bovine TB - Key conclusions from the meeting of scientific experts, held at DEFRA on 4th April 2011”?
I will not read out all the names listed on that document, but there are about 10 of them, including all the scientists who were involved in the trials and in many other aspects of the matter. The science is agreed. There should be no dispute about the science; indeed, hon. Members have already discussed the science. The document that I am referring to clearly sets out the figures and refers to 16%, which has been quoted. That is the science; the issue is what conclusion is derived from it. Has she read that document?
I have spent about 20 hours trying to read everything that I can in preparation for the debate. I have not read the specific names, but I maintain that the information that I have read on the DEFRA website and in other publications indicates that the science base against culling accepted by the previous Labour Government was right and remains so.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, at that meeting, scientists said that they were concerned about the impact of free shooting and that the effects of the policy would be to create differences “either positively or negatively”? The scientists went on to say that such an approach would lead to a
“potential variability in outcome between areas.”
Is that not the case?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Will she comment on what is, as I understand it, the Home Secretary’s view on shooting and on the resources that will need to be taken from the police to deal with free shooting as a method of culling? The 20% cuts that are taking place across the country mean that that will present problems to our police forces.
I was going to raise that issue with the Minister later. The cost of policing, which will be very contentious, is estimated at approximately £200,000 a year, which is one of the things that is not addressed in the Government’s proposals. The amount of money seems to have decreased.
The Minister’s proposals for controlled shooting deviate from those practised in the randomised badger culling trial. To elaborate on what I said earlier, the animals will be shot in the field at night, instead of using the accurate and humane method of caging, trapping and shooting, which was used in the trial. Badgers are difficult to approach, and they spend a lot of their time in the undergrowth. Their physiology makes it difficult for one random shot to kill them outright.
During the 700 hours of debate on hunting in the previous Parliament, it was suggested that shooting was the humane alternative in wildlife control. Is the hon. Lady now saying that shooting is not as humane as it was when it was debated in the previous Parliament?
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government’s own wildlife crime unit raised concerns about that, saying that if the culls take place there is a danger of illegal badger persecution being carried out under the pretext of culling? There is a concern as to what that will do in terms of both community safety and public order.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point on animal welfare and criminality, which relates to public safety as well as to the badger community.
Under the randomised badger culling trial, culling took place over a short period of two weeks. It was found that a longer period of culling saw greater effects from perturbation. Unfortunately, the Government’s new proposals include a longer period of culling. Natural England has expressed concern at the lack of evidence available to demonstrate that a farm-led cull can replicate what has only been undertaken previously by Government.
The Government have designated Natural England as a licensing authority for the cull. Under the proposals, farmers and landowners will be expected to cull at least 70% of badgers in designated areas. However, there is no accurate information about the badger population, so the number to be killed cannot be specified. Without accurate data, culling could lead to extinction in some areas or, where too few badgers are killed, an increase in the negative effects of perturbation. Furthermore, it has been estimated that, as has been mentioned, the policing cost of dealing with protesters who are against the cull will amount to more than £200,000 per year, but Ministers have not specified where that amount will come from.
On the subject of cuts, a number of dairy farmers have approached me to say that the Government cuts to trading standards are having a real impact on cattle testing at market. I am sure that my hon. Friend will come on to the point that, while there is a responsibility on farmers to ensure that they are not transporting infected cattle around the country—there have been concerns about farmers swapping infected cattle and non-infected cattle—apparently there has been a decline in the effectiveness of testing at cattle markets, because trading standards are not being funded. Does she share my concern?
Certainly, I have been approached by dairy farmers who are opposed to the badger cull. They have told me that they are concerned about the cuts to trading standards, which mean that cattle markets are not being supervised in the way in which they should be. I do not know whether that is specifically about testing at markets or assessing in other ways whether infected animals are being sold there, as opposed to clinical testing, but I have certainly been told—I can put this on the record—by dairy farmers who go to market every week that that is having an impact.
I hope that the Minister has noted my hon. Friend’s concerns.
The Minister and the Secretary of State should listen to the experts and the scientists and, instead of pressing forward with plans for culling, refocus their efforts to eradicate bovine TB by concentrating Government resources on developing vaccination methods, along with other measures that are currently being deployed. Other countries where bovine TB is a problem, such as New Zealand, Ireland and the USA, are all working on vaccines. The Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust has carried out vaccine trials in Gloucestershire, as has been mentioned, so momentum is growing in that direction. Culling is not the answer. Sound scientific evidence tells us that we must move in a different direction and try to work with the measures, some of which the current Government are carrying forward, put in place by the previous Government, which definitely work.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely good point, and I am very grateful to her for securing today’s debate. [Interruption.] I wish that Government Members would not heckle, because it is so annoying. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has mentioned dairy farmers who are, quite rightly, opposed to this and who, quite rightly, do not want culling on their land. Will my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) spend a moment addressing the issues around a free-for-all cull, where licensed guns are wandering around looking for anything black and white moving in the undergrowth? Will she spend a moment addressing what will happen when there is a dairy farmer slap bang in the middle of one of these areas who says, “No, we are not having that on my land”? How will that affect the supposedly scientific cull?
I have spent a number of hours reading all kinds of evidence about this, and the main worry about policing and control is that there is none. Natural England will license the guns, and farmers and landowners will come together and train people to shoot, but it must be emphasised that the shooting will not be controlled as it was under the scientific trials. The problem is that the shooting might be random and that there will be no one to enforce any safety measures whatever. The badgers will be shot as they are running or moving along as badgers do in the undergrowth, but who will keep people off the target site or ensure that the shot badgers are killed outright and not wandering off in pain to die a cruel death or, if wounded, wandering away from their setts and spreading the disease?
I urge the Minister to rethink culling. The science is the route, and the science says, “Do not cull!” Will the Minister consider the vaccine route? Resources should be poured into vaccine, ensuring that farmers and badgers have an equal say and that we do not look at killing before we look at curing.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak in the debate, Mr Crausby.
To provide some background, last week, at a place called Broomhill farm near where I live in Pembrokeshire, the home of my constituency agent, 11 cattle were reactors to a TB test. Shortly afterwards, it was discovered that they could not be taken away for slaughter because four of them were in-calf heifers. Therefore, those animals, bred with great care and attention by the family, had to be shot on the yard in front of the son and daughter who were aspiring to grow the farm in the way that we are all encouraging them to, and with all the accompanying trauma. We talk about compensation and, yes, of course there will be compensation for the animals concerned, but there will not be compensation for the calves within them, there will not be compensation for the reduction in the milk yield, there will not be compensation for the additional buildings that have had to be put in place over the years for handling, because of the lack of ability to move animals around, and there will not be compensation for the trauma that that family and others have been subject to over a long period.
In a sense it would be nice to be able to say to the House that that story was unusual, but the truth is, as we all know, that nothing at all about it is unusual. Everyone with a constituency affected by the disease has similar tales to tell. Frankly, there have been 60 years of discussion, 60 years of promises, 60 years of let-downs, 60 years of contradictory science and 60 years of politicians taking the farming community to the brink and then back again, as we have seen in the Welsh Assembly. The evidence was clear, the proposals and everything were in place to embrace at long last some degree of control, but what happens? There is an election. The only thing that changes is the election result and the whole thing goes back to square one. Is it any wonder that farming communities around Britain have lost faith in politicians’ ability to deliver some kind of progress—I will come back to that—on the issue? Thousands of cattle have been killed, as the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) mentioned, millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been wasted, businesses have been destroyed and families broken up and farmers have left the industry, at times in droves—not solely because of the impact of the disease over so many years, but in part.
If I can bring the debate back to human beings—a little more about the human cost and a little less about the animal cost—we might be going in the right direction. Let us be honest: such an impact on any other industry in the UK and over such a long period would have been completely intolerable, but for some strange reason we have stood back and tolerated it in our farming industry, despite the human and financial costs discussed. The Government are absolutely right to draw a line and say, “Enough is enough,” and to come forward with a consultation process—let us not forget that we are still in the consultation phase and that no final decisions have been taken. It is right for farmers, taxpayers, cattle, businesses and—I say to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who has now left the Chamber for the second time—badgers. It strikes me as odd that during the debate we have almost seemed to be frozen with fear at the prospect of curing a disease which itself has a negative impact on the badger population. As a constituency MP representing a rural seat a long way from Westminster, I find it frustrating that so little attention has been devoted to the welfare of badgers. We seem to forget all that. The idea that we should close our eyes and somehow badgers will live happily ever after is utterly naive and does nothing for the overall thrust of most welfarists and conservationists—as opposed to preservationists—that we should look after the health of the wild animal population as much as that of the husbanded population, and balance between them, just as we should look after those who are charged with the interests of both.
My hon. Friend is familiar with scenes such as one described to me by a farmer in my constituency. When the farmer turned on the lights in the yard in the middle of the night, he saw what he thought were 30 to 40 badgers, full of TB, staggering around and unable to stand up. Those badgers could not be helped even if we had a vaccine, because they are ill badgers; they need to be destroyed, and the only sensible way to destroy them is by shooting them. My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point.
It is as much a problem in North Wiltshire as in west Wales and other areas represented in the debate.
Someone said to me over the weekend, “Of course the problem isn’t the disease, the problem is the policy.” I have a certain sympathy with that view, formed over the years we have been studying the issue. The Minister mentioned in one of his interventions the legal stranglehold of the European Union—I do not think that you, Mr Crausby, would thank us if we went into an EU debate now, but it appears absolutely correct that the chances of us being able to introduce in the necessary time a cattle vaccination, which is effective and cost-effective, seems unlikely at this moment in the process. That leaves various other options.
As I suspect everyone is, I am rather in favour of cattle vaccination, if only it were so simple. I suspect that the Minister would agree—for no other purpose than to help his blood pressure when attending debates such as this one perhaps—if it were possible to take the problem away with a magic potion which could somehow be administered to cattle or badgers, but it is not that simple. The cattle vaccination is estimated to be only about 60% effective, even if we could start administering it tomorrow. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who spoke about badger vaccination. To be honest, I am sceptical about the practical possibilities. I live in a fairly remote part of west Wales and within a mile of my house are 20 badger setts, which are all in difficult places. They are not nicely situated in the middle of fields but are in quarries, under buildings and in the most awkward places imaginable. The idea that someone would have the wherewithal, the patience, the money, the expertise and everything else required to trap, inoculate and test or whatever frankly makes no practical sense. Of course vaccinations will form an important part of the final eradication of the disease, and the sooner the better—we can all agree on that.
One simple solution, however, is not what is on offer. We must combine testing and stricter or proper monitoring of cattle movements throughout the UK with sensible culling proposals. I am talking about culling where appropriate, under proper supervision and in line with the consultation documents supplied by the Minister. It is perfectly possible to undertake a well-controlled, humane cull in certain areas, as the Welsh Assembly demonstrated before it had the rug pulled from beneath its feet. A combination of things will lead to final eradication. People who think there is some magic pill out there which can be dished out and is cheap, effective and imminent are deluding themselves. We should take much greater notice of the evidence before us than we have so far in the debate.
I suspect that the goal for all of us is something that is easy, effective, cheap and, above, all, imminent. It is absolutely right, legally, morally and practically that the Government wish to consult on the issue, and we look forward to the final findings before too long. However, let us not underestimate—I hope that the Government will not do so—some of the practical obstacles that will present themselves, not only to vaccination, but to the controlled culling that they have set out.
Above all, the Government should not be half-hearted. They have the evidence they need. They have, if nothing else, reams and reams of human examples, which demonstrate to everyone in the House why it is so important to bring the curtain down on this appalling disease. I have been told that the badger is a political animal, and puts the frighteners on hon. Members on both sides of the House when it comes to making a bold, sensible and evidence-based decision. I suggest to the Minister that there is never a bad time to do the right thing, and now is the time to do the right thing. I commend his proposals.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart). He is absolutely right that bovine TB is a terrible disease. I, too, have seen some appalling cases. To put the matter into perspective, the last figures I saw showed that 92% of farms are free of bovine TB, so it does not impact on every farm throughout the country. It comes and goes in waves.
My late father-in-law was a small farmer in Cornwall, and he was proud of the fact that there was never TB on his farm, despite it having a badger sett. He claimed that his purchasing policy when he bought in animals kept it free, but even I am not convinced that that was the case. I believe that it was the character of the surrounding area, and the fact that a wide range of farmers had high standards.
The Prime Minister told me in the Liaison Committee a few months ago that he agrees that he should spend more time with his scientific advisers, and I suggest that every Minister should do just that, but I also ask that everyone has basic lessons in how science works because the argument is not black and white. Anyone who presents it as such is wrong. The hon. Gentleman said that vaccination is not that simple. He is absolutely correct. Nothing in the debate is absolutely simple, and I will illustrate the folly of the Minister’s position by using the argument that it is not that simple.
Lord Krebs, a highly respected Cross Bencher in the other place, has reported, as is well known. His view is that the process that the Minister recommends has a serious flaw, and it would be foolish to ignore that view. The question is which of the extreme views is right. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman was arguing—my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) was certainly not—that TB in badgers should be ignored, and he was not looking for a 100% cull. We must find a way forward. The question is whether the Minister’s free shooting policy can provide that way forward. My contention, based on the Krebs report, is that it cannot.
I apologise for being late, and I declare an interest in that I am responsible for a herd of bovine animals in Wales. That is not the Minister’s responsibility because we are discussing an England-only issue, but it is a herd that has been affected by TB.
The hon. Gentleman referred to Professor Krebs’s contribution, with which I agree. We must take a view on it. Does he agree that there is a balancing view from David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the Government, who carried out an overarching review of all the science, and came to a different conclusion from that of Professor Krebs?
Indeed. That is my point. The argument that the Government are relying on—that the free shooting policy will work—does not have universal support in the scientific community because, as an hon. Member who intervened on my hon. Friend said, it is not possible to measure that realistically. I am glad that colleagues from Wales have intervened, because that is hugely important. The evidence suggests that, to have any effect, a cull would have to take place over a minimum area—the suggested area is 150 sq km—and be conducted for four years. It is estimated that in the first three years, perturbation would be serious. The problem is, unless the policy is nationwide, how to manage the Welsh and Scottish borders, although I suspect that the latter is less relevant. It would be incredibly difficult to do something effective on the Welsh border. Unless we issue badgers with passports and do not allow them to cross the border, there will be a problem.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. The policy stipulates that there must be hard borders to the area to be culled. The Welsh border is a good example. Unless we give badgers money to use the toll bridges, the River Severn provides a healthy, strong border to protect Wales from Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset, which are so badly affected by bovine TB.
The hon. Gentleman is right where there are major borders, but the Welsh border is a tad longer than the River Severn. Towards my constituency, the River Dee is not the Welsh border. If we brought it back to the Welsh border, it might upset some of our Welsh colleagues. Perhaps Offa’s dyke should be the border, but we have had that debate in the House. There is a serious logistical problem, especially in north Wales, in defining where the boundary would be. There would be one policy on one side of a land border, and another on the other side. The same would apply in Scotland. My first message to the Minister—he is trying to address an incredibly difficult problem—is that free shooting has a substantial weakness, unless he can obtain a buy-in from his Scottish and Welsh colleagues. Otherwise, trials of a free shooting policy in those areas are bound to fail.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that to stem the effects of perturbation, good husbandry on both sides of the Welsh or English border would require buffers to stop the movement of badgers anyway. Is his argument not defeated by the practical measures that farmers would take irrespective of what side of the border they were on?
That is the problem. The hon. Gentleman has significant knowledge of the farming industry. Badgers are fascinating creatures, because they are extremely difficult to control, in the way that would be necessary, by a buffer process. Badgers are habit-forming creatures. Those that cross my land leave a straight line through the grass, and they are so caring about others in the sett that if one goes missing, perhaps because it has been hit by a vehicle, they will go and find its body. They are extraordinary creatures and it will be difficult to create a buffer that works.
I have some sympathy with the point raised by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) about a family who see several badgers in a farm that are suffering from TB. Our humanity means that if we see a creature suffering, we must do something and I would not seek to debar the humane dispatching of a suffering animal. That, however, is not free shooting, which will inevitably take out healthy members of the badger population. The effects of perturbation will be exacerbated because badgers are communal animals and will go looking for partners and friends in new setts should their sett be destroyed. Unless one can guarantee that only those badgers carrying TB will be shot, the risk is that the disease will spread.
It is not mathematically possible to provide a guarantee to the farming community that that policy will work. The question, therefore, is whether such a policy would make any progress, but we must also look at the situation in another way. As has been said, significant work has been carried out on the Gloucester vaccine, which we know works. One would not wish to remove that vaccine where it can be utilised, although we must recognise the problems in administering it.
I think that highest priority should be given to work on the cattle vaccine, and to finding a cross-party agreement and a way to present that scientific evidence through European mechanisms and get agreement on it. One can proceed on a scientific basis, and I urge the House not to go down an extremist route. We all agree that we cannot and would not want to destroy the entire badger population, and all methods currently employed against the disease contain weaknesses. A cattle vaccine is one area that we know is likely to have the greatest success. We must invest in that research and find a cross-party way to take it through European mechanisms and find a solution that is in the interests of both the British countryside and our important farming community.
I will try to be reasonably brief. I thank the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) for securing this debate. She pointed out that she comes from the city and is a townie, and although we work well together on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I feel that she may be wrong on this issue. I welcome the chance to participate in the debate, however, and I welcome the Minister being here. Along with the Secretary of State, he has been brave in moving this issue forward. We have had problems with TB for 60 years or more. We began to get to grips with it in the late ‘60s, but as the badger population increased, so did TB, and we have had a huge problem ever since.
We are talking about disease control because we have got to stamp out TB, which exists not only in cattle and badgers but in a lot of other wildlife. Over 100 cats have suffered from it, and there is much to do to control the disease. In an ideal world we would vaccinate the badgers, but we are without an oral vaccine and we know the practicalities of such a vaccination programme—we simply would not catch them.
A vaccine for cattle is not too far away, but we must ask how long it could take and whether we will get Europe to agree to it. There was a huge debate over foot and mouth disease and whether vaccinating cattle should be allowed, and we would have the same problem with a vaccine for TB. We do not yet have an effective vaccination, and throughout Devon, Cornwall and the whole of the west country, farmers have suffered year after year from the presence of this disease. Many of the herds involved have been restricted for two, three, four, five or more years, and during that time farmers have lost a lot of their highly bred—and irreplaceable—pedigree cattle. All the while, we have done nothing to get rid of the reservoir of disease in the fields.
We test our cattle regularly, and bring them in for the winter although they are tested throughout the year. We take out the infected cattle, but then we put them back into the fields—quite rightly; the public would be horrified if we kept our cattle penned in all year round—where they get reinfected by infected badgers and other wildlife. The disease then affects more healthy cattle, and yet more are taken out. Such a situation cannot go on. The previous Government prevaricated and did nothing about it, but this Government have bitten the bullet.
We must be convinced about the cull that we suggest. It is proposed in limited areas and is likely to take place in certain hot spots. One need only look at a map such as the one I am holding to see where those hot spots exist: mainly in the west country and Wales. It was asked how many farmers will sign up to the policy, but I assure hon. Members that in TB hot spots where farmers have been suffering with the disease for years, there will be no problem in signing up to a proper cull. We are talking about controlled shooting, not free shooting, and that must be carried out by people who are properly licensed and who use proper weapons. I am hugely keen on animal welfare.
The hon. Gentleman will find that the issue has been looked at again, and that controlled shooting is the idea being proposed. We will train people to take part in that, so that it can be done humanely. That is absolutely vital. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the comments of Lord Krebs after his trials, but many people dispute whether those trials were accurate. I believe that reducing the infected badger population will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. There are no two ways about that; we must tackle the issue.
I will not repeat what has already been said, but I have a final point about cattle valuation. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) spoke earlier of the problem of pedigree cattle being taken out of England that are under tabular valuation. Those over 36 months old receive less compensation than non-pedigree cattle, and many farmers in Devon have to go to markets in Somerset and compete with Welsh farmers who have received huge amounts of compensation. It is necessary to get the valuations right.
I very much support what Ministers are doing. For too long, we have wrung our hands on this issue. We must take action, and take action now.
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) on securing this important debate. I agree with the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) that this issue is not black and white. That is why the previous Government did not prevaricate but instigated a 10-year scientific study in order to arrive at a considered view as to how we should proceed. It made use of the most extensive scientific evidence available on the impact of culling badgers. During 10 years, the study examined the effects of culling at 10 high-risk sites across England.
The independent scientific group in charge of considering the evidence relating to the study said that it concluded that badger culling could not
“meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain.”
It has to be said—apparently, it has to be said repeatedly—that we have seen to date no new evidence to contradict the views of the ISG. There have been individual scientists who may disagree, but overall there has been no other significant study—[Interruption.] No, I will not give way. We have to move on because other hon. Members want to speak. There has been no other study on that scale that has come up with a view contrary to the one the ISG arrived at in 2010.
As has been said, Lord Krebs was absolutely clear. He said:
“I do not think culling is an effective policy because if you look at the evidence from the trial you will see that if you cull intensively for at least four years you will have a net benefit of reducing TB in cattle of 12 to 16 per cent, so you leave 85 per cent of the problem still there having gone to a huge amount of trouble to kill a huge amount of badgers. It just does not seem to me an effective way of controlling the disease.”
Indeed, Lord Krebs believes that the approach should be a combination of developing an effective long-term cattle vaccine and improving biosecurity and cattle management. That consideration has not been raised in today’s debate but should be an important one in tackling TB effectively. The Minister has already conceded that we are close to developing an effective cattle vaccine. If the EU is the obstacle, let us put our resources into dealing with that, rather than into culling badgers unnecessarily.
The deputy chair of the ISG has said that the reduction in the incidence of TB as a result of culling will not offset in financial terms the cost of culling. She is of course referring to the compensation that is not paid out because of the numbers culled and the reduction in the incidence of TB. In fact, it has been estimated that the impact of culling will be just a 2.5% reduction in herd breakdowns. That is on the basis of the Government’s proposal, as opposed to the rather comprehensive cull that would have to be undertaken, according to the ISG, in order for anything to be effective.
We know that the Home Secretary opposes a cull. We know, too, that the Government’s wildlife crime unit has raised key concerns about the proposed cull. It said:
“If the culls take place then there is a very real danger of illegal badger persecution being carried out under the pretext of culling activity.”
I was at the launch the other week of Operation Meles. The chief constable of Lincolnshire police was there, launching a campaign to reduce the incidence of the illegal killing of birds of prey and badgers. That is a major operation on the part of the unit. The chief constable made it clear that there is a real and significant link between wildlife crime and other forms of violent crime. Are we really going to see the Government give the go-ahead to an activity that could in many ways encourage those who would shoot and kill wildlife to believe that it is somehow legitimate to do so? The feeling will be, “If the Government can do it, why can’t I?” That point has to be borne in mind by the Government when they make their decision.
No case has been made for a cull. Nothing has changed since the ISG reported in 2010. I shall finish by asking the Minister three key questions. First, how much will the cull cost farmers? Secondly, in the best-case scenario, each cull will reduce the incidence of TB by only 16% over 10 years. Is that the sign of an effective policy? Finally, does the Minister agree with the assessment of the Wildlife Trusts that the scientific evidence does not support the culling of badgers and that it could make things even worse by disturbing the remaining badgers, thereby spreading the disease further?
Some of the points that I wanted to make have been made already and I shall not repeat them. I come from Somerset, which is a hot spot for bovine TB in the west country. Bovine TB is an appalling problem for farmers in both economic and social terms. I deal quite a lot with the Farm Crisis Network, which tries to relieve the stresses on the families concerned.
The Liberal Democrats are committed in the coalition agreement to pursuing a
“carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine tuberculosis”.
I am concerned that, if successful, the badger control policy is expected to reduce incidences of bovine TB by only 16%. People have cited anything between 16% and 27%. We must ensure that robust measures are put in place to tackle the other 84% to 73%, depending on which figure is taken. Cattle controls, testing regimes and biosecurity measures, which are a crucial part of preventing the spread of the disease, are addressed in the proposals. I welcome the fact that £20 million has been set aside for continued development of a cattle vaccine and an oral badger vaccine. However, I am concerned that the approach to culling outlined in the guidance to Natural England varies significantly from the approach taken in the RBCT and is not, therefore, supported by scientific evidence. I am further concerned that it is proven that an ineffective cull increases incidences of bovine TB.
I take issue with the suggestion made in relation to the Government’s proposed area for culling, which is a 7½ mile by 7½ mile patch of land—150 sq km. The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), who started the debate, suggested that there could be 30 badgers per square kilometre. I scaled those figures up. That suggests that in the culling area that the Government propose, there would be 4,500 badgers, which I somewhat doubt. Those who are not informed and who do not live in areas where this problem is fairly severe may take a different view. The suggestion is that a 70% clearance of the badgers might therefore lead to 3,150 badgers being killed in a six-week period. I do not think that that is correct, and I am sure the Minister will have a view on it.
I live very close to the location of Secret World, which is an organisation that protects badgers. It often collects the young badgers that have been left orphaned. It might be helpful if people understood that Pauline Kidner, the lady who runs that organisation, takes care to ensure that euthanasia is carried out when badgers that she collects from around the country are found to have TB, and that she does not just automatically release all badgers back on to whatever piece of land she chooses. Fairly stringent measures are taken against diseased badgers, even by those organisations that exist to help them.
Finally, I call on the Minister and ultimately the Secretary of State to ensure that the cattle testing regime is more stringently enforced. What are the Minister’s thoughts about including the removal of compensation payments for cattle where testing is overdue without just cause? Could compensation payments be tied to good biosecurity measures, with full payments being made to farmers who practise good biosecurity, and lower payments or the removal of payments being implemented for farmers who do not? Could the money saved from reduced compensation payments be used to set up a fund to make grants for capital works to farmers who wish further to improve their biosecurity measures? Could we ensure that each of the pilot schemes is carefully monitored by independent experts for their humaneness and effectiveness in achieving the required 70% reduction in the local badger population? Could any perturbation effects also be monitored? Could they be compared with those experienced in the RBCT? Finally, what are the implications of such an approach from a public safety perspective? The Secretary of State should hold—
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady’s excellent peroration. This has been an excellent debate, with passionate and well-informed contributions from all sides. There is great concern on the Opposition Benches about the efficacy and utility of the badger cull envisaged and designed by the Government. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) on securing the debate and on the eloquent manner in which she presented her case. There is definitely room in this debate for townies, as well as country folk and everybody in between, because this is a matter of national interest.
I might not be able to take interventions, because I have a series of questions for the Minister, so I apologise in advance. In the mass of statistics and counter-statistics, and arguments and counter-arguments, we must not forget the tragedy of stock destruction, including the emotional cost to farmers and their families, and hon. Members have reminded us of that. The fears and tears of those involved in stock husbandry are real, and many here, myself included, have witnessed them first hand.
Tackling this issue effectively is far more important than simply being seen to do something. Let us start where I hope we can agree: science and evidence must be the foundation when it comes to tackling this terrible disease. They are why the Opposition query the course of action the Government are embarked on, and I want to ask the Minister several key questions.
Let us start with the ISGC’s 2007 report entitled “Bovine TB: The Scientific Evidence”. Although we would all acknowledge that there are many considered nuances in the report, this 10-year-long, peer-reviewed, expert-led, science-based study concluded that
“badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB.”
It also noted—presciently, given the Government’s current proposals—
“we consider it likely that licensing farmers (or their appointees) to cull badgers would not only fail to achieve a beneficial effect, but would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease in space, whether licences were issued to individual farmers or to groups.”
That is pretty categoric.
Will the Minister therefore explain why he now so firmly disagrees with those findings and on what scientific and unarguable evidence basis he now feels something must be done, against the advice of this 10-year study? Will he clarify to Members and the country why he has taken against a view that remains the prevailing consensus among those involved in the science and the evidence? Will he explain why the ISGC has taken issue with his claim that his proposals for a cull, which use a very different methodology and different controls from the ISGC trials, would result in a 16% decrease in cattle TB? Why does he have a different figure?
It is important accurately to read into the record the ISGC’s response to the consultation so that the Minister can directly and accurately respond. The ISCG says:
“We note that Defra’s prediction of a 16% overall reduction in cattle TB over a nine year period is extrapolated directly from RBCT findings. This extrapolation assumes that Defra’s proposed culling method would achieve the same outcomes as those of proactive culling as conducted in the RBCT. We have repeatedly cautioned that the outcomes of the RBCT reflected the methods used, most recently noting that ‘the effects described here relate only to culling as conducted in the RBCT, i.e. deployment of cage traps by highly trained staff in coordinated, large scale, simultaneous operations, repeated annually for five years and then halted’. It should not be assumed that farmer led culling, conducted primarily by shooting free ranging badgers, would achieve the same outcomes as RBCT proactive culling.”
Would the Minister also care to share his observations on the clear consensus among responses to his consultation?
My apologies, but I am really up against time. I would love to have more time.
Will the Minister comment on the observation in the consultation document that
“culling predominantly by shooting free-ranging badgers would result in an increase in perturbation leading to an increase in herd breakdowns. This opinion was based on the assertion that shooting free-ranging badgers would be an ineffective method of control and that in practice farmers would not carry out the systematic, sustained and simultaneous cull that the RBCT proved was necessary to have a beneficial effect…A lack of hard boundaries and a robust means of ensuring compliance with licence criteria were key weaknesses raised with the Government’s preferred option”?
When the Minister answers that question, will he address the concerns of some that a lack of rigour in the methodology he prescribes under licence could actually be to the detriment of farmers and their herds? As the ISGC succinctly put it in its conclusions, it would be
“likely that licensing farmers (or their appointees) to cull badgers would not only fail to achieve a beneficial effect, but would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease in space”.
What science and evidence does the Minister now have that contradicts that scientific evaluation of the increased risk of spreading the disease?
Linked to that, what assessment has the Minister made of the risk of farmers abandoning culling, especially if discouraged by an initial increase in the disease through the effects of perturbation, or as a result of farm abandonment, a change of ownership or many other scenarios? Assuming the Minister would wish to see the cull completed and would perhaps ask others to step in, what legal advice has he received on the ability to enforce a cull on privately owned land once it has commenced and been abandoned by the landowner? Would a group of farmers have to come forward collectively as a legal entity to be able to enforce a cull against the wishes, or following the withdrawal, of one of its members?
The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, among others, noted the desirability of vaccination buffer zones around highly infected areas to assist in controlling the spread of the disease. It added that this
“may require the Government to incentivise the process so as to ensure a high enough level of participation.”
What assessment has the Minister made of the necessity for, and cost of, such buffer zones? He will not want to say that he will not know until we have a licence application on the table, because that would be Humphreyesque. He and his officials must have examined the need for such buffer zones and the likely cost implications, and it would be useful for Parliament to have that on the record.
Sir David King wrote an article in July, entitled “If we want dairy farms, we must cull badgers”. The ISGC responded by saying that it
“contributes little scientific insight to the debate on controlling cattle TB. Defra has proposed that badger culls be initiated and funded by farmers themselves. Having overseen a decade-long programme of independently-audited and peer-reviewed research on this topic, we caution that such culls may not deliver the anticipated reductions in cattle TB. King previously agreed with our conclusion that—because of the way culling affects badgers’ ecology—only large-scale, highly coordinated, simultaneous and sustained culls could have positive impacts. Delivering and maintaining such culls would raise substantial challenges for farmers, with a risk of increasing, rather than reducing, disease incidence. Defra’s own assessments suggest that participating farmers will lose more, financially, than they gain. King asserts that shooting free-ranging badgers—Defra’s preferred culling method—‘would be an effective and considerably cheaper alternative’, but there are no empirical data on the cost or effectiveness (or indeed humaneness or safety) of controlling badgers by shooting, which has been illegal for decades. If the government decides to proceed with this untested and risky approach, it is vital that it also instigates well-designed monitoring of the consequences.”
I have some sympathy with the Minister, because the issue has been long debated, and the arguments have been heated and the science disputed. There has, for instance, long been disagreement between Sir David and the ISG. When the original ISG report was published in 2007, Professor John Bourne, its lead author, noted that Sir David’s response and subsequent recommendations in favour of a cull were not consistent with the scientific findings of his report but were
“consistent with the political need to do something about it”.
Why does that sound eerily familiar? Ah yes: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it,” says Jim Hacker, in “Yes Minister”. It is not only animal welfare groups such as the Badger Trust and the RSPCA that demand answers; it is the general public. However, it is also on behalf of and in the best interest of farmers that I ask the Minister to answer the questions as fully and directly as possible. They need to be sure that they are not being sold a pup—a very expensive, incontinent and unruly pup that could do a lot more damage than good.
I shall try to answer most of the questions of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and, indeed, other hon. Members. I offer apologies to any hon. Member whom I do not answer fully. However, the answers to several of the hon. Gentleman’s questions are in the documents that we have published. He has asked me questions the answers to which he can discover, if he has not already read them.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon). I have several times appeared before the Select Committee of which she is a member, and I recognise her commitment to the issues. She began with a superb explanation of the situation, and said that levels of TB are unacceptable, and that badgers are widespread and densely populated, which is perfectly correct. Arguably, that population density is the kernel of the problem. She referred, as other hon. Members have done, to the random badger control trials and the independent scientific group. I should emphasise, of course, that it was the previous Conservative Government who appointed Lord Krebs to look into the issue. The setting up of the trials by the Labour Government was the result of his recommendation—it happened in a cross-electoral period.
Despite the jibes of the hon. Member for Ogmore about Jim Hacker—and I remind the hon. Gentleman that he went on to be Prime Minister—I do not believe that doing nothing should be an option. The hon. Member for North Tyneside rightly referred to the comment of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that if we do not do anything, the problem will cost us £1 billion in 10 years. That is the reality, but worse than the costs is the continued spread of the disease into parts of the country where currently it does not exist. That is the fundamental issue, which has not been addressed by anyone. The hon. Lady also referred to other countries, such as New Zealand and the United States; she did not mention Australia, where the same point is true: they are all working on vaccines. However, they have all culled the wildlife that was a reservoir of the disease.
Much has been made of the issue of the science and the ISG. I am sure that time will stop me going through all the detail, but let us be clear: the figure of 16% that has been mentioned has been signed up to in the document on the Government’s website. That is signed by Lord Krebs, Professor Christl Donnelly, Lord May and a number of other eminent scientists. They all agree about it. The document contains a clear statement about what happened in the cull zone. That is after nine and a half years, so, to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) about there being no new science, there is new science, because we have measurements from beyond the end of the period in question, and beyond the point when the previous Secretary of State made his decision. The new science shows that the incidence of TB in the culling zones fell by up to 34%. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned, the incidence in the perturbation ring went up, but then went down and reverted to the norm. That is the new evidence we have.
It is perfectly true, as the document states and as has been repeated today, that we are not proposing simply to replicate the ISG approach, because we propose shooting, and we propose that farmers, while not literally doing the work themselves, should be responsible for having it done. The two are variations, and some scientists suggest that what is envisaged might not be as effective, but that is why we are conducting two pilots. We have announced—although we have not made the final decision yet—our proposal to conduct two pilots, to establish effectiveness: whether it is possible to cull 70% of badgers in a six-week period; and whether it is humane. I cannot remember which hon. Member challenged me on who would check what is going on; but there will be independent monitors on site, watching badgers being shot. There will be post mortems, so we shall examine the effectiveness and humanity of what happens, and of course safety. Those are the variations from the ISG, and that is why we should seriously consider conducting two trials.
The argument keeps coming back to the science, and the science is the results from the ISG. Everything else since then is conjecture, whether from Lord Krebs, me or any hon. Member. To answer the question about empirical evidence, there is no empirical evidence—but we are trying to find it. That is why we propose two trials. Lord Krebs has no more basis for his conjectures than I do.
No, I am sorry; I cannot give way.
I must emphasise to those hon. Members who challenged on the shooting issue that shooting wildlife, whether they agree with it or not—and let us not get into the emotions of it—is a common practice. Foxes and deer are commonly shot, and the surrounding animal communities are not shot in the process.
No; I am not giving way.
Secondly, we propose that badgers be attracted to a baited area where it would safe to shoot, and trained marksmen—not trained by farmers, as one hon. Member said, but trained and authenticated by external bodies—would do the shooting. There is a lot of emotion involved. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), who has left the Chamber, spoke a diatribe of nonsense about this issue.
On perturbation, the ISG rightly based its conclusions on its studies, from which two fundamental points arose. First, we have addressed the costs issue by proposing that farmers do the work; it is up to them. The decision whether it is worth it for farmers is not for the Government to make; it is for the individual farmers. Secondly, we have clearly stipulated that we will expect those groups of farmers to tell us what they will do to minimise perturbation.
There are several issues. First, we believe that the applications will be for a much bigger area than 150 sq km and that it is more likely to be 300 sq km. That means that the perturbation zone will be proportionately smaller, which helps considerably. Secondly, we will encourage and expect farmers to bring forward hard boundaries that badgers cannot cross. They will be able to use buffer ring vaccination, if they choose to do so. As an aside, I should say that we wholly support vaccination, using the current methodology, if people want to do it.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) made a sound speech, although I did not agree with all its conclusions, but the issue of borders is clearly dealt with. Tuberculosis is not an issue for Scotland, which does not have it. There is virtually none in the north of England; so we can forget that. The issue for Wales has been clearly set out. The document that we have already published states that if there is a zone that goes within 2 km of the border with Wales, the Welsh Environment and Countryside Department will have to be consulted. I suspect—although this should not be taken as gospel—that it is highly unlikely that a trial would happen so close to the Welsh border.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) about biosecurity, more stringent testing and overdue testing. We propose to reduce or abandon compensation where farmers are overdue. She asked me about numbers, and I agree with her that the figures she extrapolated are well out of sync. We anticipate that about 1,000 to 1,500 badgers would be killed, as a total over the four years, for every 150 sq km area.
I suspect, Mr Chope, that I have just about run out of time to address the key issues, although I hope that I have covered them. The subject is important and I have tried to deal with it without emotion. It is easy for both sides of the debate to get emotive. If there are any points I have not covered, I ask hon. Members to write to me and I shall do my best to answer.
It is nice to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Chope, and I am sure that you will keep your hands warm.
I am grateful for the chance again to debate Steart in my constituency, although I am actually also disappointed that we are debating the matter again. In January this year, I stood, I think on this very spot, to deliver a robust speech on the shortcomings of the Environment Agency, the body responsible for many things in my constituency, including flood prevention. At the time, the agency had concluded a ridiculously expensive consultation exercise to try to convince local people of the merits of a long-term plan. It basically wanted to flood Steart peninsula and create a new habitat for visiting sea birds, and it intended to spend a shed load of public money—roughly £28 million—to do that. I believed then, as I do now, that that would be the wrong thing to do.
For a while in the aftermath of the original debate, and prompted by the common-sense attitude of the Minister, there appeared to be an outbreak of sanity and a chance for a sensible conclusion to the matter. Just a few weeks ago, the Minister kindly wrote to me and two of my colleagues who represent neighbouring constituencies—my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox). He had quite rightly called in the Environment Agency to discuss the concerns about the Severn flood risk management project, of which Steart is a part. In the letter, the Minister said:
“The Environment Agency is now reflecting on the response to its public consultations and reviewing its initial proposals”.
That was a great relief to the three of us. The meaning of a review, which the Minister referred to quite clearly, is crystal clear in my book—it means a fresh look. However, just a few days later, a briefing note was sent to me directly from the agency, which seemed to completely contradict the Minister’s words. It said:
“Steart Peninsula is not a location which is under review”.
The author had even underlined the word “not”. That is extraordinary, and it prompts a number of serious questions about the credibility and trustworthiness of the agency.
My constituents need and want to know what is going on. I am forced to conclude that the Environment Agency is suffering from delusions of grandeur. It regards itself as guardian of the planet—we know that anyway—with its dangerous mixture of King Canute and old mother nature, pushing back the tide and issuing pompous decrees all the time. It is, as the Minister knows, unelected, untouchable and, in many cases, unloved. It does not seem to take any notice of Ministers, and I am afraid that it is not just the Minister here, but former Ministers. Perhaps it has a hotline to God? I do not know. It certainly has a hotline to Brussels, which of course you, Mr Chope, are a fan of. Brussels has vested it with enormous legal powers to flood perfectly good land. The agency behaves rather like Judge Solomon. It thinks that if natural coastal erosion is to be stopped in one place, territorial sacrifices must be made in another, and it decides whose fields go under water.
What worries me more than anything is the methods that the agency uses. The plan to flood Steart is not new—it has been on the cards for well over a decade—and the agency has got thus far by a relentless drip, drip, drip process. For nine years, it has argued that Steart should be returned to the sea. It operates on the principle that if it keeps saying the same thing, sooner or later someone will believe it.
Hon. Members may be surprised to learn that the Environment Agency is also a fearsome land-grabber, quite capable—I say this advisedly—of using dirty tricks on unsuspecting victims. Several years ago, the agency started buying up real estate in and around Steart, which is fair enough. One farmer was approached and warned that if he did not sell up straight away, there would be a compulsory purchase order later. That has now gone from one farmer to a few farmers. In my book, that is sharp practice, bordering on—again, I say this advisedly—blackmail. At the time, the plans were not even finalised and there had not been proper consultation. Yet the agency made threats and bought people out at a fraction of even today’s prices. I only wish that those people had approached me, as their MP, before they signed up.
I have never seen a compelling scientific argument for flooding Steart, and I doubt whether one exists. The agency makes all sorts of woolly comparisons with how the coast is being protected on the Welsh side of the Severn estuary to justify letting in the tide to do its worst beyond Otterhampton and Stockland. It calls that approach “realigning defences”, which in Steart’s case means not bothering to defend anything. I fear that the Steart peninsula has been picked because it is under-populated, low-lying and has a history of getting wet. It is the sort of place that the agency thinks that it can get away with quietly drowning. Well, we have some news for the Environment Agency, because Steart is not going under without a struggle.
There is another player in this strange tale of mystery, myths and half-truths, which is the Bristol Port Company. Bristol is 40 miles north of Steart, but the firm that runs the port is now pouring cash into Steart, and one might be forgiven for wondering why. The port has big ambitions. It wants to attract huge container vessels, and it needs to build a deep-water terminal to load and unload them—there are no problems there. However, the Bristol Port Company has had an eye on European law and directives. It will need to remove a section of the Severn estuary coastline, which the law says must be replaced by flooding some other unsuspecting place. Therefore, the Bristol Port Company rolled into Steart, with —I say this openly—cheesy grins and cheque books at the ready.
The Environment Agency did not mind, because having the company on board seemed to help its case a little. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wetlands Trust, and even Natural England jumped on board, promising a brave new world for Bristol’s homeless buff-breasted sandpipers. “Come to sunny Steart,” they squawked. “All you need is a beak and a few feathers.”
Unfortunately, locally, the argument does not hold much water. The Bristol Port Company may have secured planning permission to dig up the sea shore for its new deep-water terminal, but it has not raised the vast sums of money needed to pay for the work. The company does not own Bristol port, but leases it from the city council. Do not tell anyone here, but now is not a good time for raising capital on the scale the company is going to need. Most investors require a firm guarantee of returns, and a leased port is not good.
There is a clear question mark hanging over the new development. If that question mark remains in Bristol, there must be serious questions about Steart, too. The case for flooding Steart depends on scientific evidence, which the Environment Agency cannot produce, and on the loss of a wetland habitat in Bristol, which has not been lost, because the container port will be built on a man-made structure. In other words, the Steart flood plan is based on protecting birds that have not been evicted at all.
I have two words for the Environment Agency and the Bristol Port company: get busted, the pair of them. If Steart were flooded, it would drive away rare, large birds. The great bustard is one of our locals. The birds were once hunted—we were talking about badgers just now—to the point of extinction and were reintroduced only seven years ago. Now there are bustards that winter on the Somerset levels and drop in and out of Steart from time to time.
The Environment Agency believes that it has a legal obligation to flood Steart because of coastal erosion elsewhere. The only thing that the Steart plan has in its favour is the fact that it has been dressed up to look like a plan—and a bad one at that. The agency admits:
“Without this scheme we will not be able to develop measures to manage flood risk to people and property elsewhere around the Severn Estuary.”
In other words, it will be up the Parrett without a paddle if it does not flood Steart. However, I find it hard to believe that there are no viable alternatives, which brings me back to where I began. The Minister believes that the agency is reviewing its plans, but the agency believes that it is doing no such thing—certainly not with Steart.
There is a worrying lack of clarity, which I gently urge the Minister to address. The Environment Agency and the Bristol Port Company intend to apply to the district councils of Sedgemoor and West Somerset for permission to flood Steart. We already know that the Agency intends to spend roughly £28 million on its share of the operation. Remember, we are talking about public money here, and this is at a time when all other public money is rightly subject to the most clinical accounting procedures. Why on earth has the agency escaped the axe on this proposal? The scale of expenditure is far too high at a time when the nation is feeling the pinch.
Somerset is already losing libraries, and some of my local schools really need refurbishing, which we cannot do. We also urgently need a new hospital and a road to take construction traffic to Hinkley Point, which is our nuclear power station. I am sure that this is not the right moment to embark on flooding Steart.
I also invite the Minister to address the subject of planning gain. That is part and parcel of the planning process in which authorities such as the Environment Agency are obliged to provide compensation to communities. What will local people get out of the scheme? The agency has said:
“Creating wetland habitats will provide benefits, not only for people who live on the peninsula but also for birds, fish and other wildlife.”
Such a twee vision would have made more sense coming from the lips of Tinky Winky, Dipsy, La-La or Po. The agency, which trots out such drivel, is meant to be staffed by experts. In reality, the only thing that Steart will get out of the flood plan is a huge pile of bird droppings and, hopefully, an invasion of twitchers.
The Environment Agency has bullied landowners and it is now contradicting the Minister. Its reputation in my constituency is not good at the best of times. The danger is that some of the mud will rub off on my hon. Friend the Minister, because there is an enormous amount of misunderstanding. I invite the Minister to think about his response. Many people in my constituency are worried about where this will end. I ask him to clarify what is happening at Steart peninsula. Both the Environment Agency and the Bristol Port Company should be aware of what the Government want rather than the Environment Agency just telling us what is going to happen.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) on securing another debate and on making a number of good points.
The Steart scheme is an essential project with many positive points. I have to tell my hon. Friend that I have looked at the matter from every angle and I believe it to be the only viable way in which the Government can continue to provide defences and secure access to the village while also meeting our environmental objectives for the estuary.
The Severn estuary is an important wildlife area as well as a great economic asset. It has more than 200 km of coastal defences, which will provide, over time, benefits in excess of £5 billion to more than 100,000 residential and commercial properties. The shoreline management plan highlights the need to maintain and improve most of the defences. However, as a consequence of that there will be a substantial loss of internationally designated inter-tidal habitat.
Our investment prioritisation process is focused principally on protecting people and property and that is where the vast majority of our money is spent. However, we also have obligations under the EU habitats directive to maintain or restore natural habitats and the population of species of wild fauna and flora at a favourable conservation status. Together with the birds directive, it is a key element in the EU’s commitment to halt the loss of biodiversity within the EU by 2020.
Despite the impact on the natural environment, we will continue to invest in the defence of the Severn estuary. There is clearly an imperative reason to do so. Such work is permitted under the habitats directive as long as appropriate compensatory habitat is secured. Our plans to manage and improve the defences depend on sufficient compensatory habitat being secured before the protected habitat is lost due to flood defence construction works. There has already been a loss in the Severn estuary and, without the Steart scheme, such losses mean we are failing to maintain the integrity of the protected Natura 2000 site.
The Environment Agency has consulted on the Severn estuary flood risk management strategy and, in the light of the responses received together with the latest scientific advice on climate change, it has decided to review the initial proposals within the strategy—that was the point of the letter to my hon. Friend. That was a response to the very serious and genuine concerns that have been raised not just in his neighbourhood but right up the Severn estuary. I urge him to look at the difference between that macro policy and the micro issue that exists around the Steart. The scheme has been in development for three years, and has involved the local community throughout its development. It is not part of the review of the wider strategy, because it is needed urgently and it has strong local support. Beyond the short term, it is unlikely to be economically viable or sustainable to maintain the existing defences for Steart, which are in poor condition. To do so would cost in the region of £1 million per property. Therefore, it is of benefit to the local community if this project is implemented as soon as possible.
I have received many letters from people in the area in support of the scheme. Mr Barry Leathwood, the chair of Otterhampton parish council, said:
“The Agency has consulted extensively with the Otterhampton Parish Council which includes the villages of Combwich, Otterhampton and Steart and also with the various individuals and organisations in the area for a prolonged period of time. The project is overwhelmingly supported by the residents and this Council. It is our wish that the project be developed without delay.”
Andrew Darch of Brufords farm, Steart, said:
“Although under the EA’s proposals there is a large amount of agricultural land that will be converted to saltmarsh, this farmland would become very vulnerable to regular flooding without the schemes, devaluing the land considerably.”
I have also heard from Mike Caswell. He said:
“The consultation work carried out by the two companies”—
the Environment Agency and the Bristol Port Company—
“has been first class and they have always, without fail, responded to a request for a meeting with either groups or single individuals.”
I have seen letters to the local press from Dr Phillip Edwards, the chair of the Steart residents’ group, and from Otterhampton parish council. There seems to be a head of steam from local people who want this scheme to go ahead. There may be others who do not. Clearly, my hon. Friend sees dark forces at play. He sees the Environment Agency acting as the malign and evil arm of some secret service from the European Union making life miserable for his constituents, but that is not a view that is shared by the majority of his constituents—or at least by the ones who have written to me or to his local press.
I want to unravel the concerns of my hon. Friend. Undoubtedly, there is a problem here. The scheme is not about flooding the area, although that may happen over time with rising sea levels. The land has been purchased by the Environment Agency. If I were to put a blue pencil through the whole scheme, as my hon. Friend wants me to do, we would have to find new buyers for the land, which would be at some cost to the taxpayer. This is a good scheme that has been consulted on and carried through and I am at a loss to know why my hon. Friend continues with this concern.
The shoreline management plan has considered the issue and highlighted the Steart peninsula as somewhere where the managed realignment of the defence provides the best option for continuing to protect the village and its access as well as creating habitat to offset the environmental impact of flood defence work elsewhere in the estuary. Indeed, Steart has been identified as the most cost-effective place in the estuary for habitat creation without causing geomorphological side effects, such as adjacent erosion. That is a major factor.
The twin objectives of the Steart scheme are, first, to create habitat and, secondly and very importantly, to protect the village of Steart and its access. The scheme forms a vital part of an integrated and sustainable coastal management solution for the Severn estuary. It will provide the only foreseeable opportunity to improve flood protection to Steart Drove, which is the only access route to Steart village. It will also help to maintain the existing standard of protection, and the new defences can be expected to last far longer than the current defences.
The Steart scheme combines the creation of a substantial area of compensatory habitat in the most cost-effective way with better flood defence for the community. These factors make the scheme an integral part of whatever decisions are taken on the wider Severn estuary flood risk management strategy, which as my hon. Friend knows is under review. That is why the Steart scheme cannot be taken as part of that review. I hope that I have helped to clarify for my hon. Friend the importance of managing flood risk in a way that not only protects people and property, and delivers good value for money to the taxpayer, but meets our environmental obligations.
I am quite well aware of the concerns of many hon. Members—indeed, I share them—when directives that are created many miles from here impact on people’s lives at a very local level. I can assure my hon. Friend that I do not take lying down the words of directives. If I can find a way around them, because I feel that they are having a malign effect on the taxpayer or on his constituents or my own, I will take a very robust view on that. However, in this case I believe that the scheme is in the best interests of the people who live in Steart and of the wider estuary. I also believe that it has been properly consulted on and has local support. Therefore, I hope that we can now progress the scheme and that my hon. Friend’s constituents can be reassured that those people who live in Steart have a future, that their access to their community will not be cut off and that we are carrying through a scheme that they have been consulted on and that they fully understand. Our emphasis has always been that we must work with nature, wherever possible, to reduce the risks to people, while also meeting social and environmental objectives.
I can find no evidence that the Environment Agency has threatened people or behaved in a way other than the normal consultative process involved in trying to find a willing agreement to sell land. The threat of compulsory purchase is just not part of how the agency does business. The agency does not resort to compulsory purchase unless it cannot establish who a particular landowner is. Its purpose is to reach agreement and to reach a price that should reflect market conditions. If a compulsory purchase has to be made, the price is calculated by the district valuer and it has to be a market value at the time. If people feel that the price that they negotiated with the Environment Agency was wrong, they can find a market value. I understand that in this scheme that market value was achieved.
I hope that we can put this matter to bed now and that the Steart scheme can go ahead.
Renovation of Empty Property (VAT)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope.
I wanted to secure this debate because of the pressure to build on the green spaces and the green belt in Sefton and elsewhere. Sefton council is consulting on its core strategy and, using the figures in the regional spatial strategy, it says it needs 480 new homes each year. To achieve that target, the council has suggested three options, two of which imply significant incursion into the green belt. The draft national planning policy framework does not continue the brownfield-first policy, and councils are not allowed to include windfall development sites, such as the Maghull prison site in my constituency, which would deliver several hundred homes. In addition, empty homes cannot be counted towards a council’s target, and so the 6,000 such properties across Sefton are not included in the figures. All that means that councils need an alternative strategy for building the homes that we—especially our young people—need. Affordable housing is in such short supply. A sustainable policy is needed, and a cut in VAT on the renovation and refurbishment of empty properties would contribute significantly to delivering the housing targets at the same time as protecting the green belt and important urban green space.
The VAT regime perversely incentivises new build on greenfield land because it attracts 0% VAT. A cut in VAT to 5% on the renovation and reuse of existing buildings would allow greater emphasis to be placed on urban regeneration, on which VAT is levied at 20%. The “Cut the VAT” campaign has a wide coalition of support; it is run by the Federation of Master Builders and supported by many organisations, including the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and the Federation of Small Businesses. There would be many benefits to reducing VAT on building repairs and conversions, and there are strong environmental, economic and social grounds for doing so. In general, subjecting repairs and conversions to VAT is damaging, because it acts as a deterrent to urban regeneration, the proper maintenance of buildings and our caring for the historic environment.
The differential between VAT rates on new build and on repair creates a perverse incentive to leave properties in a state of disrepair or to demolish sound buildings, rather than encouraging their effective use and maintenance. The differential adds to the cost of bringing buildings back into use through repair, renovation or conversion, and contributes to a cycle of decline, because run-down areas are generally a less attractive proposition for investors and developers, even though they might present significant opportunities. I believe that the Government would agree with that analysis. I am looking for the Economic Secretary to nod—she is not doing so.
The additional cost that VAT adds to repairs and refurbishment distorts the market in favour of new build over reuse and refurbishment, which means that developers are incentivised to bring forward new development on greenfield sites before attempting to bring existing resources back into useful occupation. As well as assisting regeneration, making productive use of existing buildings can play an important role in conserving scarce resources such as the land, energy and building materials bound up in the properties, and such an approach also contributes to reducing waste. Government statistics indicate that there are more than 750,000 empty houses in England, and there are many other empty and underused buildings. That is an enormous waste of resources, and a reduction in VAT on refurbishment to create a level playing field between refurbishment and new build would, therefore, make a lot of sense.
Historically, it has been argued that a VAT reduction is not possible because of EU laws. However, the European Commission’s Economic and Financial Affairs Council agreed in March 2009 to allow member states to reduce VAT on housing repair and maintenance, so that barrier appears to have been lifted. The cut in VAT on renovation is now an option that would promote regeneration, bring empty buildings back into use and minimise the use of greenfield land.
Turning to the impact on the construction industry, a VAT cut from 20% to 5% would reduce rogue traders’ competitive advantage and help rescue many legitimate local firms from the brink of collapse. Dozens of small and medium-sized businesses would benefit considerably from a VAT cut on home repair, maintenance and improvement work, and that is why the campaign I mentioned has the support of the Federation of Master Builders. Given these tough economic times, a cut would make a huge difference to many small firms, certainly in constituencies such as mine. It would also make important home repairs more affordable, and help protect consumers from cowboy builders who currently flourish by evading VAT. It is a logical step to help boost the economy, and I call on the Government to take it as a matter of urgency.
The UK economy is facing a weak recovery from the recent recession. Output in the construction industry shrank faster than the economy as a whole during the recession, and recent forecasts suggest there will be no significant sign of recovery in the industry until 2014. Successful trials in a number of EU countries strongly suggest that a cut in VAT on home repair and improvement work would reap economic benefits for the UK. Independent research by Experian, based on a standard VAT rate of 17.5%, suggests that the total stimulus effect of reducing VAT in the sector would be in the region of £1.4 billion in the first year alone.
According to the Office for National Statistics, 249,000 work force jobs have been lost in the construction sector alone since 2007, and that has had a big effect on the Government’s finances as well as a considerable human impact. We know from independent research that a cut in VAT on home repair and improvement work would create thousands of new jobs in the construction sector and the wider economy. Again, independent Experian research based on a standard VAT rate of 17.5% suggests that 24,200 extra construction jobs could be created in the first year alone if VAT on home improvements was cut to 5%. According to the same research, such growth in the construction industry would also lead to 31,000 new jobs in the wider economy.
Those significant job losses—249,000—risk creating a major skills shortage in future years, unless the industry can recruit and train sufficient numbers of people now. The number of construction apprenticeship starts fell by 4,010 between 2008-09 and 2009-10. Almost 1 million people under the age of 25 are currently unemployed, but when the construction industry returns to more sustainable levels of growth there will not be a sufficient number of people equipped with the right skills to meet demand. It will be difficult for employers to make more apprenticeship places available unless there is an increase in construction activity.
We are building fewer than half the number of new homes needed to match the rate of household growth in the UK, and it is therefore shocking that there are up to 750,000 empty homes. Many of those homes require considerable repair work before they can be lived in, and the high rate of VAT makes that a very costly activity for private owners, landlords and local authorities, who could otherwise renovate more existing properties to help ease the pressure on housing supply. Making home repair and improvement work more affordable would encourage the use of existing structures, rather than continuing the urban sprawl and the possible building on green belt land.
Existing homes contribute about 27% of the UK’s total CO2 emissions, and there is a vast amount of work to be done if the UK is to meet the legally binding emission-reduction targets. A simple, single cut in VAT on home repair and maintenance work would help millions of households to upgrade their homes and make them more energy efficient. Without help to reduce energy use, the number of households living in fuel poverty will continue to grow, as they struggle to protect themselves against rising fuel prices.
According to trading standards organisations, rogue traders steal a staggering £170 million each year from unsuspecting home owners across Britain, and cause significant damage to law-abiding businesses. Rogue traders flourish by evading VAT in order to offer a cheap deal. However, all too often, the deal comes without a proper written contract or any kind of paperwork, making the enforcement of consumer rights almost impossible if something goes wrong.
Again, a simple, single action to cut VAT to 5% on home repair and improvement work would protect consumers and legitimate businesses by significantly reducing rogue traders’ competitive advantage. By charging 20% VAT on all home repair, maintenance and improvement work, the Government are exacerbating numerous serious social, economic and environmental problems. Introducing a reduced rate of VAT for all home repair and improvement work is a simple plan to relieve the country of many of those problems.
Thank you, Mr Chope. I am grateful for your warm welcome. I thank the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) for securing this debate. I acknowledge some of the good arguments that he made, but I believe that his proposal is not the right tool for achieving economic growth. I shall deal with some of his specific points, including a note on apprenticeships, a little on energy supply and some remarks on green opportunities for householders.
The hon. Gentleman made some sensible arguments regarding the reuse of empty properties. Of course, we would all like existing housing stock to be put to good use; I know that from my constituency, as I am confident he does from his. He also made good points about the need in the current economic situation to support small businesses as best we can, and about evasion. I shall come to those points, but I will begin with a few words about the Government’s policy on empty property in the round before discussing the specifics of how VAT applies to empty property. I reassure you, Mr Chope, before I veer anywhere near being off-subject, that tackling the country’s 700,000 empty homes is a priority for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, as promoting growth and apprenticeships are for all my other colleagues.
The hon. Gentleman will know that in this year’s Budget, the Government announced £180 million for up to 50,000 additional apprenticeship places over the next four years. That is real action, and I am sure that hon. Members agree that it will meet some of the concerns raised in this debate.
On 20 September this year, the Department for Communities and Local Government announced more powers for community groups to bring empty homes back into use. Community and voluntary organisations will be able to bid for a share of £100 million in Government funding to pioneer housing schemes to help ensure that empty properties are lived in again. That will also help to provide more affordable housing, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman welcomes.
I welcome the Minister to her role. I do not know whether this is the first debate that she has responded to, but I congratulate her on her appointment. She mentioned the £100 million available to community groups. How many homes are expected to be brought back into use as a result?
I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman receives a specific figure, as I do not have it with me. However, as I will discuss—this goes straight to the heart of the issue—incentives also exist for councils to bring empty homes back into use by including them in the new homes bonus, which he will know about. I think this figure will reassure him: after just one year of the new homes bonus, 16,000 previously empty properties have been brought back into use.
The Department for Communities and Local Government will also consult in due course on plans to allow local councils further discretion to introduce a council tax premium on homes in their area that have been empty for more than two years. That will provide a stronger incentive to get those homes back into productive use—an aim I am sure the hon. Gentleman and I share, as do other colleagues—and remove that blight on local neighbourhoods.
It might be helpful to the hon. Gentleman if I explain how VAT applies to empty property. He might be unaware of some reliefs that go a significant way towards meeting the demands of the “Cut the VAT” campaign. The VAT system already provides for numerous reliefs from the standard rate of VAT, as he will know, but some reliefs particularly encourage new housing supply and the bringing of empty properties back into use as homes. The first sale of a new domestic property is zero-rated for VAT, as are most supplies of goods and services used in the construction of a new build, as he acknowledged. However, he might not be aware that the renovation or alteration of residential premises that have not been lived in for two years benefits from a 5% reduction in the rate of VAT. He mentioned European constraints. The 5% reduced rate of VAT exists, and is the minimum available, under long-standing EU VAT legislation. The reduced rate also applies when properties are converted from non-residential to residential, and when the occupancy of existing residential property is increased.
Wide relief already exists for the renovation and conversion of empty properties. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that that goes some way towards meeting the valid concerns that he raised about the homes in which his constituents might live. He might not be aware that the “Cut the VAT” campaign’s report makes it clear as early as page 5 that
“the many and varied exceptions that exist within the housing RM&I VAT regime…can easily lead to confusion as to what attracts VAT at the standard rate and what attracts a reduced rate.”
The report goes on to provide a helpful table summarising the available reduced rates, including for
“Renovation or alteration of empty residential premises”.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a keen supporter of the campaign, as are those on the Opposition Front Bench. For the most part, the VAT reduction for which he asks specifically for the renovation and refurbishment of empty homes is already available.
I am aware of those points. I have a copy of the campaign document, as does the Minister. Is she also aware of the Prime Minister’s commitment to the Federation of Master Builders? He agreed to write to Treasury Ministers to consider the case for cutting VAT on home repair and improvement work. Does she know whether he has done so, whether he has received the response and what it might be?
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I have just spent my first two days at No. 1 Horse Guards. I shall of course ascertain the location of that letter. However, I will suggest a few things that I have absolutely no doubt the Prime Minister will bear in mind as he considers the issue.
Wider VAT reduction risks a serious impact on public finances. I know the hon. Gentleman will be aware of that, despite some of the comments that he made this morning to the Formby Times. For example, if the rate of VAT on residential property renovation and refurbishment were reduced to 5%, it would cost £2.2 billion in the first year alone. If the rate were reduced for five years, it would cost £2.4 billion each year. If it continued for a decade, the cost to the Exchequer—to his constituents and mine—would rise to £2.9 billion for every year of that period. To put those figures in context, that would cost more annually than the entire budget for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and double the budget for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport
I therefore do not accept the claim that cutting the VAT rate for the home improvement sector would lead to a net increase in jobs across the economy as a whole or pay for itself over several years. Although the impact could be positive, we know the real likely impact. If we made such a cut, the revenue shortfall would have to be met from additional taxation elsewhere, which would lead to job losses that would offset any job gains in the building sector. Alternatively, we would need to meet the cost through additional borrowing, which would risk increasing interest rates. As the hon. Gentleman will know, higher interest rates would have an adverse impact on families and small businesses, including businesses in the building sector. I am afraid that there is no such thing as a free pass without effects elsewhere in the economy.
The Government want to provide support across the entire economy for businesses and households.
I had anticipated the Minister’s comments, because this morning I received a written answer from her colleague, the Exchequer Secretary. I understand the Treasury analysis, but the answer mentions
“in the absence of behavioural change”.
Such behavioural change would include the impact on cowboy builders and the economic benefits of people spending money in the sector and being able to afford home improvements, so there is a balance. I also mentioned earlier the £1.4 billion impact on the economy that Experian anticipated under the old VAT regime. Will the Minister comment, either today or in due course, on the assessment of the impact of behavioural change, and not just of the figures that she has quoted in isolation?
Let me first deal with behavioural change in relation to rogue trading, because it is important to put this on the record. I do not accept that a reduced rate of VAT would suddenly cause the illegitimate trade to become honest. I do not believe that behaviour changes in that sense—5% can be as attractive, in many ways, as 20% to a crook. There are many other factors—this is key—beside cost that cause a customer to use the informal economy, and a trader to operate in it. It is unlikely that a reduction in the rate of VAT, which is only one factor, would have an impact on rogue trading and purchasing.
On the wider point of evasion, the hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is investing £900 million to tackle avoidance and evasion and attacks by organised criminals, and that relates to the construction industry. A reduction of the VAT rate alone would not create a level playing field between legitimate businesses and those operating in the informal economy. I fear that his concerns about behavioural change, in that sense, do not go to the heart of the matter.
I will be happy to come back to the hon. Gentleman on the specifics of the Experian report. I am afraid I do not have the figures to hand, so I cannot respond on the spot.
To return to the points that we need to take into account in the wider economy, we need to be aware that households face difficult times. That is exactly why, only yesterday, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change met energy suppliers to discuss how to bring down customers’ energy bills. It is also why this Government have increased the personal allowance, cut fuel duty and will reduce corporation tax year on year, which will assist businesses, including those that have signed up to the “Cut the VAT” campaign.
It is important that the Government continue to explore their options for credit easing, with which the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be familiar. We should try to inject money directly into parts of the economy that need it, especially small businesses, which are the driving force for economic growth.
Doing those things will not only boost demand in the short term and, indeed, change behaviour, but help to tackle long-standing UK problems associated with the supply of credit to small and medium-sized businesses. That is vital. The Chancellor will announce further details on 29 November.
To finish on the broader point, Labour, I am afraid to say, may have been content to spend beyond its means, but such costs are unsupportable in the current economic climate and simply cannot be reasonably entertained. We need sound public finances to make sustainable growth possible. Over the past decade there has been an increasing reliance on an imbalanced economy, which drove ever greater problems throughout. That model has proved unsustainable and what we have needed in the meantime, as set out in the Budget 2010, the spending review and other work, is a credible plan to tackle the unprecedented deficit that the Government inherited—and that the hon. Gentleman, no doubt, is about to jump to his feet to defend.
Until 2008 and the financial crisis, the Conservative party in opposition supported the spending levels of the then Government. It was the financial crisis and the bail-out of the banks that caused the deficit to grow to the level it reached. On the balance between quantitative easing and proposals such as the “Cut the VAT” campaign, which has the support of 49 business organisations, many prominent and highly regarded economists think the latter a far more direct way to get money into the economy to stimulate growth and demand, which I know the Government are in favour of. If we disagree on the means, we certainly agree on the need to do it, whether that be via quantitative easing or cuts to VAT on home improvements. We need to take either one action or the other. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that economists have strong views that such VAT cuts are another way of addressing the issue.
I shall say three things in response. First, on the argument for such a VAT cut, many different sectors make the same argument for their own cuts. It is not clear why this particular cut is the one that should triumph, even if money was available. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman may think that this Government have gone off plan, but his shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), is already £27 billion off the Darling plan this year alone, and the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) has already stated that anyone without a credible economic policy is simply not at the races. Thirdly, our approach to building a credible economy via a credible plan to tackle the deficit has been endorsed, as the hon. Gentleman will know, by the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the European Commission, the rating agencies and UK business organisations beyond those that deal in installing bathrooms. The difficult decisions that this Government have had to take have made Britain a safe haven in the sovereign debt storm, and that is exactly what we intend to carry on being.
Of course, there are concerning signs. I acknowledge that the recent employment statistics make very tempting calls such as the hon. Gentleman’s on behalf of the construction industry. Those signs, however, show more than ever why the UK must stick to its course. We need stability and confidence in the economy, and we need to hold down the costs of borrowing for businesses and home owners.
The hon. Gentleman’s plan risks putting Britain back in the firing line. It could lead to rising interest rates and falling international confidence, which would undermine the recovery in his constituency, the country and internationally. In that context of a recovering economy, fiscal consolidation is what is most important, not only to ensure stability but to provide the conditions for the private sector growth that we all seek. It needs to provide the conditions for investment and hiring. Any suggestion of cuts to VAT for the construction or any other industry, or of extensions such as that proposed by the hon. Gentleman, on top of the relief that already exists to tackle his concerns, adds up, I am afraid, to calling for the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Bomber Command (Campaign Medal)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I called for this debate because we are approaching that time of year when we remember and honour those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in defending our freedoms and liberty. I also wish to pay my own personal tribute to the contribution made to that freedom by Bomber Command. I pay tribute in particular to my constituents Stan Franks, Jack McCorkell and Jim Gooding—all veterans of Bomber Command, all stalwarts of the Grays RAF Association club, all now in their 80s, and all teenagers when they risked their lives defending our freedoms. The contribution of Bomber Command was significant, and the bravery of its members was crucial in bringing the second world war to an end. The failure to recognise that contribution with a dedicated campaign medal is a snub, and it is a snub that they feel personally.
Although many years have passed—obviously, I cannot hold the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Leicestershire (Mr Robathan) responsible for decisions taken many years ago—it is not too late to celebrate and recognise their contribution, just as we remember the fallen every Armistice day. The Minister will be aware that a memorial to Bomber Command is under construction. Will the Government consider whether completion of that memorial offers an opportunity to right this wrong and for the Minister to consider what we can do to recognise the contribution that Bomber Command made and honour those brave pilots who are still with us?
To make the case for this honour, I would like to remind hon. Members of a few facts that illustrate the very real contribution that Bomber Command made to victory in the second world war. For example, in 1940, Bomber Command played a pivotal role in the evacuation of Dunkirk, allowing the escape of 218,000 British troops. Although Fighter Command was at the forefront of the battle of Britain, Bomber Command also played its part by taking the fight to Germany and preventing German bombers from ever arriving here. While the battle of Britain raged and RAF Fighter Command fought off the Luftwaffe, Bomber Command repeatedly attacked the advance of German troops and German shipping. However, its contribution to the battle of Britain still goes uncelebrated because the pilots from Bomber Command are not eligible for the battle of Britain Bar.
In the closing days of the war, Bomber Command’s raids ensured that Germany was unable to strike terror campaigns against mainland Britain and that ultimately victory was secured. It was then that Bomber Command’s contribution seems to have been sidelined, if not ignored. In the spirit of celebrating peace, the then Government chose not to celebrate Bomber Command’s contribution, which was a decision that I believe was wrong.
It has been suggested that to celebrate Bomber Command’s role is to condone the civilian casualties that ensued as part of its raids. However, that is to ignore the fact that we were at war. Awful things happen during war. Many people in this country were killed in the blitz, so to fail to recognise the contribution of these pilots is to diminish their courage and loyalty to a country that they risked their lives to save. The risk to life was very real. On just one night during the battle of Britain—13 August 1940—82 squadron was sent on an operation to occupied Holland. Of the 12 Blenheims sent on that mission, only one returned. That was not unusual. Of the 125,000 men and women in Bomber Command, 55,573 lost their lives. More than 10,000 aircraft were lost. A further 11,000 men were made prisoners of war. Those figures are even more remarkable when we consider that Bomber Command was made up of all volunteers who had an average age of just 22.
It is clear that we owe those people a great deal and I am pleased that work has finally commenced on the memorial, which has been funded by private donations, including a very generous donation by the Bee Gee, Robin Gibb. He is currently undergoing hospital treatment and I am sure we would all like to wish him well. When the memorial opens next year, we should take the opportunity to honour the 3,000 bombers who are still with us as a way of honouring the 55,000 who never came back and right the wrong committed by our previous political leaders. The real point is that the decision to bomb was made at a political level. As early as July 1940, for example, Churchill wrote to the Minister responsible for aircraft production, urging him to increase the production of bombers as it was the only means of defeating German military power. That decision was also supported by Roosevelt. The reality is that air power offered the only military means of striking back.
Some might say that too many years have passed since that decision was taken to reconsider the matter, but I would like to remind hon. Members that there is a precedent for issuing a campaign medal so long after the second world war. In 2005, it was decided to recognise the service of the Arctic convoys. An award was given to eligible veterans that included an emblem that could be worn alongside other medals. We should take advantage of that precedent and show some pride in Bomber Command’s achievement. These people are our heroes. Each time they got into a plane, those young men took their lives into their hands—and they were young men. My constituent, Stan Franks, was just 19 years old. He flew 31 missions and was the youngest flight engineer to complete a tour. As he says,
“I lost many friends. I didn’t want to kill. I just wanted to fly and defend my country—all I want is recognition for what we did”.
We should also remember that getting in those planes was not like getting into today’s high-tech fighter jets. While flying at altitude, frostbite and asphyxiation were very real risks. Arguably, Bomber Command won the war. It took the battle to the enemy and we should honour its bravery. There is real support for doing so outside this place and within it. More than 100 Members signed an early-day motion on this subject last autumn. Let us end the hurt we have perpetrated on these honourable men. They served their country with pride and courage at great personal risk to themselves. It is time that we finally awarded them a campaign medal.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) on securing today’s debate. The issue has been raised on a number of occasions in both Houses with the support of many hon. Members, yet Bomber Command veterans and their families are still fighting for the recognition that they most certainly deserve, which they earned in the most desperate and ferocious of situations.
My right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for veterans has confirmed on a previous occasion that the campaign for medal recognition of Bomber Command personnel is currently being considered as part of the Government’s wider review into medals, which is expected to report shortly. Like many others, I am looking forward to the review’s findings, but I warn the Minister of the deepest disappointment—indeed, resentment—that will be felt by veterans, their families and many others if Bomber Command is overlooked for the seventh decade running.
Let us always keep in the forefront of our minds that these young people—some just boys—made extraordinary sacrifices doing their duty. Their acts of bravery and dedication certainly shortened the war and we should be eternally grateful to them. I would like to declare a personal interest in these matters and explain why I feel as strongly as I do. My grandfather on my mother’s side served in Bomber Command. He was born in southern Ireland, so he did not have to serve because Ireland was a neutral country. However, he emigrated at the age of 17 from Tramore in Waterford and enlisted as an air gunner. A few months later, he was a rear gunner over Germany on operations night after night.
After operations over Germany and then the Mediterranean, my grandfather fought against the Japanese, where he was shot down over Malaysia and found several weeks later in the jungle suffering from malaria. Let me help to put that into perspective. My 19-year-old son Dominic is older than my grandfather was when he started his service. As much as I trust Dominic—I hope that he forgives me for saying this—I would not be happy leaving him the keys to my car let alone imagining him flying a bomber above Germany at such a young age.
As my hon. Friend said, aircrew had no say over strategy, target choice or their mission. They just did their duty. A large number of aircrew came from further afield than even my grandfather did and they too should be recognised for their bravery and loyalty. In fact, one in four Bomber Command aircrew were from overseas. They came from Australia, New Zealand, Poland, free France, the United States, Norway, Jamaica, Rhodesia and India. Of the 55,573 Bomber Command pilots and crew who were killed, including 91 members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, 15,661 were from overseas. Some 9,887 of that number were from Canada, which represents nearly 60% of the Canadians who flew with Bomber Command. Those young people from the dominions showed true loyalty to our nation in its time of greatest need. They were volunteers who answered the call out of kinship, a strong sense of duty and shared values. If successive Governments continue to fail in recognising the huge contribution that Bomber Command made in defending our nation, they dishonour not only our own veterans, but those who came from overseas.
The aircrew of Bomber Command faced incredible challenges on a daily basis. Whatever the statistics, the cold reality was that in 1942 less than half of all heavy bomber crews would survive their first tour and only one in five would make it through a second. In 1943, only one in six bomber crews would be expected to survive their first tour, and only one in 40 their second. In the face of their achievements and bravery, how can we let restrictions and protocol, or breaking precedent, deprive Bomber Command personnel of a campaign medal for their service to our nation?
In 2008, 209 hon. Members signed an early-day motion calling for a campaign medal for Bomber Command personnel; surely a demonstration, if one was needed, of the depth of this wrongdoing. The policy of not instituting medals more than five years after the campaign can be overturned. Exceptions to King George VI’s intention not to award any further world war two medals post-1948 can be made again. Yes, the pilots and aircrew were eligible for other medals, such as the France and Germany star, but what about the ground crew? They kept the aircraft flying and made the missions possible. In total, 1,479 ground crew were killed in the line of duty. Should their sacrifices not be recognised?
There are other reasons given, including the reluctance to give awards to specific military units and to those who served the war inside the UK. Neither of those reasons is insurmountable, but again they demonstrate the lack of political will. Successive Governments have failed to address the issue, but where there is the will there is always a way. I urge the Minister to let this Government be the one to right this grave injustice. During the war, the men and women of Bomber Command were unanimously regarded as heroes. As Churchill himself declared in 1940:
“The fighters are our salvation but the bombers alone provide the means of victory”.
Churchill’s bombers did not fly or crew themselves. Let us now acknowledge the contribution of those that did, and made that victory possible.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) on securing this debate on the very brave men and women of Bomber Command, and their appalling sacrifice, which she has described, during the second world war. I will cover this in more detail, but there are two issues here. One is the respect and admiration that we should have for those very brave people who gave up their lives in many instances in service to their country in incredibly difficult situations. The second issue is how we should recognise their bravery and continue the world’s knowledge of what they did, 66 years after the end of the second world war.
If I may recap, more than 8,000 aircraft were lost. Out of 125,000 air crew, 55,573 were killed. Statistically, a Bomber Command crew member had a worse chance of survival than an infantry officer in world war one. Some 19 members of Bomber Command received Victoria crosses. I can assure everybody here that the Government maintain a deep appreciation—a real appreciation and admiration—of the courage and sacrifice of all those who served in Bomber Command during world war two. We owe them a great deal. My own view is that every schoolchild should know what they did, and I fear that they do not. Everybody in this country should understand that one in six UK fatalities in the second world war were in Bomber Command—a staggering number.
Aerial bombardment was not new in 1939. Indeed, the first recorded example of aerial bombardment took place in the summer of 1911 when Italian aircraft, sent to north Africa to fight the Turks, dropped modified grenades on to an enemy camp near Tripoli. Damage was slight and world reaction insignificant, but it was a significant development in air power. World war one firmly established this new role. Between 1914 and 1918, two distinct types of aerial bombardment emerged. The first, practised eventually by all combatants, involved the fairly simple concept of dropping high explosives on to enemy rear areas, hitting lines of supply, command networks, fuel dumps and military concentrations. This became known as tactical bombing or, if it entailed isolating enemy forces from their own support echelons, interdiction bombing. Exactly where close support and ground attack ended and tactical bombing began was, and often still is, a debatable point.
The second form of aerial bombardment was the concept of strategic bombing. The founder of the RAF, Lord Trenchard, had postulated that the bomber was a potential war-winning weapon, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock suggested. If raids could be sustained, industrial plant would be destroyed and civilian morale undermined to the extent that the enemy would be unable to continue the war. So persuasive were those arguments by 1939 that it was a widely held fear, particularly in Britain, that city areas were doomed to destruction within days of the outbreak of war.
The RAF went to war organised into four separate command units: Fighter Command, Bomber Command, Coastal Command and Training Command. My hon. Friends the Members for Thurrock and for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) will need no reminding of the feats of Fighter Command during the desperate days of the battle of Britain, but it was then, at least, primarily a defensive force. Bomber Command’s great asset was that it could take the fight to the enemy—an all too precious occurrence in those early war years. However, by the time he took over as head of Bomber Command in February 1942, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris had become disillusioned with the effects of precision bombing and was turning to area bombing. This technique required the assembly of very large bomber fleets, up to 1,000 or more, and the inundation of whole areas with high explosives and incendiaries. The aim was to use statistical probability rather than selectivity to destroy military targets, and to make a direct assault on German civilian morale. At the time, it was considered a proportionate response to the terrible damage inflicted on London, Coventry and many other British cities during the Blitz and the later V-bomb attacks.
I do not think that there should have been any guilt felt then, or now, because this was a war to the bitter end. I certainly do not believe that anybody who was involved in Bomber Command should believe that they were doing anything other than furthering the British war effort between 1939 and 1945. Debates may still rage about the strategy, but there is no doubt about the bravery and integrity of those who took part. Night after night, these brave volunteers risked giving their lives—indeed, many gave their lives. The danger was enormous: enemy night fighters, anti-aircraft fire, mechanical failures, extreme navigational challenges, and the prospect of imprisonment for those who managed to bale out in time. Sorties could take eight to nine hours and brought with them a mental as well as a physical ordeal, the intensity of which would be unfamiliar to their colleagues in uniform on the ground or at sea.
I recommend that hon. Members visit the RAF museum in Hendon, look at a Lancaster and see how the whole crew had to get out of a hatch in the front, no bigger than one of the chairs in this room, while wearing a parachute. That is, of course, one reason why so many did not get out, which is a terrifying prospect. Bomber Command pilot Mike Lewis described the experience thus:
“We went in under an absolutely cloudless sky. We were literally over the harbour when the next thing people started reporting was that fighters were climbing up. The German pilots...turned in and just sat blasting away at us and blowing us out of the sky until eventually they ran out of gas and had to go home themselves. If there had been more gasoline I think none of us would have reached our home. We were sitting ducks. It was terrifying.”
Let us not forget the absolutely crucial role of the ground crew and the in-flight engineers—more than 100,000 of them. Without them, Bomber Command would not have been able to carry out 364,514 sorties, drop more than a million bombs, and tie up vast amounts of scarce German resources that would otherwise have been used elsewhere in their war effort.
The dedication and sacrifice of those who were part of Bomber Command is not in question; the debate has always been about how best to recognise it. Those who served in Bomber Command during the second world war were eligible for one of the stars instituted for campaign service: for example, the 1939-45 star. In addition, a series of campaign stars were created for participants in particularly hazardous campaigns—this was certainly one—and many Bomber Command personnel qualified for the much-prized Air Crew Europe star or the France and Germany star.
The case for awarding a medal to those who served in Bomber Command was also considered by the relevant Committee at the time, 66 years ago. However, it was decided that this would not be appropriate specifically for service in a particular command. There is no other example that I can think of, of a particular command getting a medal. That decision was made with the benefit of evidence from all interested parties at the time—something the present Committee does not have the benefit of now.
It should be clear that these brave men and women were not overlooked. They were considered at the time. In 1985, Lady Harris awarded an unofficial medal and began a campaign historically supported by the Daily Express. Both my hon. Friends have said that there is a huge body of opinion supporting this; actually, although there is a great deal of sympathy and a huge amount of respect for those who served in Bomber Command, I have not seen the evidence of a huge weight of opinion that says that we should institute a medal now.
I wrote to the Minister on 13 August last year on this very point, and included a copy of a letter from Mr Henry Pam, who served in Bomber Command. He made the point:
“The Air Crew medal was not presented to those of us operating after the invasion of France etc. in 1944. Why?”
Many of those gentleman—and ladies perhaps, but mostly gentlemen—who served in Bomber Command are no longer alive. It seems mean-spirited not to consider what is happening to those who remain and to the families. We should grant some recognition by way of a medal.
I am just coming to recognition, but I point out to the hon. Lady that, if we were to institute a medal, that medal should go to every person who was killed in the second world war, or their descendants, and indeed to all those who served in the second world war. It would not only be the survivors; everyone would deserve a medal. If people were killed in the first or second world war, their campaign medals were still awarded. That is how such things are done. People who served and were killed certainly deserved their campaign medals, which were given to their descendants. That is right and proper and still happens today.
Were those particular gentlemen not extraordinary in their courage and bravery? As the Minister wrote in his letter to me, Mr Pam had received the 1939 to 1945 star, the France and Germany star, the defence medal and the war medal for 1939 to 1945. The peculiar situation in which Bomber Command found itself should surely be a prerequisite for handing out some sort of medal in recognition.
The hon. Lady is of course entitled to her opinion. Those people were incredibly brave and I in no way wish to detract from my admiration for them. My hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke referred to his son, and yet the even younger men of Bomber Command did things one can hardly believe—but then, so did those who served in Fighter Command, and they did not get a medal, and nor did those brave men and women in the Special Operations Executive who parachuted into occupied France, the majority of whom were executed when they got there. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock is saying that the people of Bomber Command were brave, and I believe that we recognise their bravery—we should do so, and we pay tribute to it—and that is what I am coming on to.
Since I became a Minister, I have been involved with the Bomber Command memorial. The Bomber Command Association is establishing a national memorial and has even cut the turf—I went to the turf-cutting ceremony in the summer. In October 2008, the Prime Minister, while in opposition, said:
“I have always believed that the 55,000 brave men of Bomber Command who lost their lives in the service of their country deserve the fullest recognition of their courage and sacrifice.”
I believe the same.
The Ministry of Defence is pleased to chair the Bomber Command memorial funding campaign, which is moving ahead with pace, and that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock. A construction contract has been awarded and the Bomber Command memorial will be located in Green park, opposite the RAF club on Piccadilly. We are aiming at a completion date in 2012. I am actively supporting the memorial and was meant to be having a meeting in a little over an hour with Malcolm White of the Bomber Command Association. Unfortunately, we had to cancel that meeting, but I shall be meeting him shortly to discuss how to facilitate the memorial, as well as various issues that have been in the newspapers. That will be the best and most fitting memorial, which will last long after we have all gone, reminding people of the sacrifice of our forefathers.
On the medal review, in the coalition’s programme for government it set out its intention to review the rules governing the award of medals, as a part of the commitment to rebuild the military covenant. A draft review was produced to enable us to consider the various views, and we sent the draft report to the campaign groups, including the Bomber Command Association, along with an invitation to submit comments. That review has now been carried out and the closing date for responses from the campaign groups has now passed. The formal responses we received have been carefully considered, but it is worth noting that the Bomber Command Association offered no comments on the medals review. The review will be published in the not-too-distant future.
There is no doubting the bravery and sacrifice of all those involved in the thousands of sorties made by Bomber Command over occupied Europe during the second world war. They made a real difference to the outcome of the war. It is equally clear that that difference was a crucial one, recognised by the other side. Hitler’s armaments Minister, Albert Speer, who more than anyone else in Europe knew about the true effect of the bombing campaign and the ability of the Germans to maintain the war, summed it up thus:
“It made every square metre of Germany a front. For us, it was the greatest lost battle of the war.”
In a sense, there could be no more convincing testimonial.
We support the erection of a fitting memorial to those whose courage made such a critical contribution to the successful prosecution of the air campaign in the second world war. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock is right when she says that it is not too late to honour the brave men and women who took part in Bomber Command. We are honouring them next year with the erection of the memorial, which I applaud.
Question put and agreed to.