[Relevant documents: The Fifth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2009-10, on the proposal for a National Policy Statement on Ports, HC 217, and the Government’s response thereto.]
I beg to move,
That this House takes note of and approves the National Policy Statement for Ports, which was laid before this House on 24 October.
It falls to me to introduce the motion because the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), the Minister with responsibility for shipping, is this evening hosting a reception on the occasion of the 27th assembly of the International Maritime Organisation.
The national policy statement sets out national policy which must be considered in determining whether development consent should be granted to port infrastructure projects that are examined by the Infrastructure Planning Commission or, with effect from next April, when it is intended that the Infrastructure Planning Commission will be abolished, the major infrastructure planning unit in the Planning Inspectorate. It is also intended that the national policy statement will stand as a material consideration for port developments below the capacity thresholds that are set out in section 24 of the Planning Act 2008, which fall to be considered by the Marine Management Organisation. The national policy statement applies to ports in England and Wales, but not in Scotland or Northern Ireland, where ports policy is devolved.
Members will know that the previous Administration consulted on a proposal for the national policy statement on ports between November 2009 and February 2010. Alongside and beyond this consultation, Parliament also undertook scrutiny of the draft national policy statement. Scrutiny in this House was undertaken by the Select Committee on Transport, which held three oral hearings, took written evidence and in March 2010 published a report of its findings with 22 recommendations and conclusions, to which the Government have responded. I would like to take this opportunity to thank members of the previous Transport Committee, including the then and present Chairman, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), for the important work that they undertook, the thoroughness with which they approached it, and their readiness to do that within a relatively short period.
This debate is taking place because the Government have agreed with the House to anticipate, as we did earlier this year for the suite of energy national policy statements, the relevant requirements of the Localism Act 2011, which will not come into effect until next year. I will speak briefly about the Government’s planning reform agenda; the purpose of national policy statements; and the background to the Government’s ports policy and the need for new infrastructure, which is central to the national policy statement.
On the planning reform agenda, the Government are committed to making the planning system as a whole work better. “Better” means faster, fairer and easier to understand for all involved, including applicants and objectors, while of course giving due regard to environmental considerations. It most emphatically does not mean denying people a right to be heard. My ministerial colleagues at the Department for Communities and Local Government are satisfied that the system of engagement and consultation set up by the Planning Act 2008 fully secures that right, so we have not sought to modify that. Engagement with local people and their representatives from an early stage is crucial if applications are to come to the Infrastructure Planning Commission or Planning Inspectorate with the project as well defined as it can be, and with proposals for avoiding, mitigating and/or compensating for adverse impacts.
Is the Minister aware that after a year-long planning inquiry, a proposal for a massive container port at Dibden bay on the edge of the New Forest was turned down? I understand that there would not be provision for any such inquiry in the future. Can he assure me and my constituents that a streamlined planning process for such a proposal would be no more likely to be carried than it was under the previous, rather more detailed opportunities for challenging it?
I do not believe that the change in arrangements makes that more likely, but obviously every application is considered on its merits and according to the circumstances that apply at the time.
The Government have set demanding targets for the consideration of what could be complex cases, but applicants and their consultees must contribute by thinking well ahead and ensuring that applications are fit for purpose. The Department recommends that ports should start in this spirit by consulting on port master plans. These are neither statutory documents, nor part of the formal Planning Act regime, but nevertheless they could help enormously to promote local understanding of what a port is trying to achieve and how best to avoid or mitigate adverse impacts. Master plans are not confined to large ports. Newhaven in my constituency is an excellent example of a port engaging thoroughly with its community in that way.
Paragraph 4.4.1 of the national policy statement states:
“Ports in England and Wales operate on commercial lines, without public subsidy and with investment from their own operating profits or from the private sector investors.”
Will the Minister assure me that the Government will uphold that policy rigorously and fairly, particularly given the desire of the port of Liverpool to use a publicly funded cruise terminal to compete with the privately funded cruise terminals in Southampton, which breaches the principle of fair competition?
I am sure that it is Government policy to uphold all policies fairly, and I imagine that that is what my hon. Friend the shipping Minister and others will seek to do.
Where we have made a change is in the intention to abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission so that, from next April, major project applications will revert to the Secretary of State for decision following consideration by the major infrastructure planning unit, which is to be set up within the Planning Inspectorate. That reinstates an important element of democratic oversight in the process, although I should make it clear that the Secretary of State intends to consider applications on the facts, on the advice of the major infrastructure planning unit, and in accordance with the national policy statement.
Another aspect of the Planning Act that we have retained is the principle that applications should not succeed if their adverse impacts outweigh their benefits. I do not believe that many applications will fail that test if they are thoroughly prepared in accordance with the national policy statement, but none the less this represents a robust safety net in case we fail to foresee any significant adverse impacts. The Infrastructure Planning Commission, and the major infrastructure planning unit that will succeed it, will not be a completely one-stop shop, but it nevertheless reduces the separate applications potentially required. Marine licensing, as set up under the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, streamlines previous licence and consent requirements, and associated development can now be fully integrated with the main application.
The purpose of national policy statements more generally is to provide a framework for preparing, considering and deciding planning applications. Therefore, this national policy statement does not purport to be a complete statement of Government policy as it relates to each and every aspect of ports. In essence, it is a planning document.
The UK is of course a trading nation, and well over 90% of our international trade by weight arrives or leaves by sea—the lion’s share of a total traffic of around 500 million tonnes a year. Ports are under-appreciated. They ply much of their trade behind high security fences, and even large ships can be surprisingly inconspicuous to those living in the port’s hinterland. We need port capacity to carry that trade and provide for coastal traffic, which can help to take lorries off our roads and reduce the incidence of pollution and congestion.
I very much welcome the national policy statement and those statements that will have a positive impact on ports, such as Falmouth, set out in today’s national infrastructure plan. One helpful recommendation relates to the habitats directive and helping to balance the economic and social impacts of a port against potential impacts on habitats. It proposes setting up an industry body that would work with Ministers to review some of the over-zealous interpretations of the habitats directive and its impact on licensing port activities. Will the Minister shed some light on when that body will be set up and which industry bodies will be represented on it?
I am afraid I cannot answer that question in detail, but I will ask my hon. Friend the shipping Minister to respond to it. We are determined to strike a balance between the sensible needs of a working port and respecting the natural environment as far as possible, and it would be quite wrong if one of those were able to triumph unduly over the other. We can strike a sensible balance in our arrangements, and my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) is right to raise the matter, so I will ensure that the shipping Minister writes to her with the answer that she has asked for.
The Minister could unlock £150 million of totally private investment in Southampton’s container port next September if only he and his colleague’s officials cut through the red tape holding up that investment and the dredging of the River Test, which is necessary for large container ships. I am sure that he will not have been briefed on the issue, but I urge him to take it away and see what can be done to resolve it.
I will happily take that issue away. It is important that we unlock private investment, that we help our ports and, at this particular time, as the Chancellor said today, bring forward investment where possible, so I will look at the problems that exist in the area and see whether they can be overcome. It may be that they cannot, but it is perfectly proper to raise the issue in the Chamber.
Ports are diverse. They cater for liquid-bulks, dry-bulks and break-bulks, ro-ro, including trade vehicles, and of course containers, and they play host to many kinds of warehousing, distribution and process activities. Their markets can be lively and volatile, and they need to be nimble in the short term to react to changing market conditions and patterns of demand, yet they must also plan for the long term. Port infrastructure is long-lived, lasting 20, perhaps 30, years and more, so it is important that such decisions are taken carefully, with full regard to all their significant consequences.
In the short term, the ports industry is well placed to respond to economic recovery. The first phase of Hutchison’s Felixstowe South project is already open, and that will help to secure the nation’s ability to accommodate the largest container vessels; we have seen the announcement by Dubai Ports World that it plans to complete the first phase of the London Gateway container terminal by the end of 2013; ABP Southampton, to which the right hon. Gentleman perhaps alluded, is pressing ahead with its own expansion plans; and other ports, including Bristol, Teesport and Mersey, already have consent for development.
We cannot afford to be complacent, however. Investors in ports need to be able to plan development for every type of traffic, and to do so in a planning context that is stable and well understood. Equally, ports’ neighbours need to know how their essential interests will be protected through the planning system.
The national policy statement brings together established policy for ports and established policy for mitigating their adverse impact. The fundamental policy that we set out in the ports national policy statement is market-led, building on the success of the industry since it was freed from the constraints of state ownership and the national dock labour scheme. Port operators are best placed to decide the type of facilities they need, so this is a non-location directive national policy statement, and I make no apology for that.
At the same time, development must be in sympathy with the environment, including the marine environment —to pick up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth made. The national policy statement sets out in some detail how that translates into requirements for planning applications and their accompanying environmental statements. Unless there is provision for sufficient capacity, disruption at major ports has the potential to translate very quickly into serious disruption to people’s everyday lives.
The national policy statement expresses confidence that the ports industry, with each owner/operator taking its own commercial view, will deliver the resilience that the country needs against disruption, and the national policy statement is very clear that the planning system should give weight to delivering that important resilience.
Finally, in completing the national policy statement, we have been fully conscious of the fact that ports are nodes in a network, and that connecting infrastructure is essential to their success.
The Minister said that authority over, and responsibility for, ports is devolved to Northern Ireland, the area that I represent, so from a ports point of view, what is the relationship between Westminster and Northern Ireland? In other words, do we have continuity of strategy and parity so that the relationship between the mainland and Northern Ireland is real and we all benefit?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are, indeed, well established and close links between the Department for Transport and the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We certainly draw attention to and discuss with the devolved Administrations any issue that appears to have importance outside the English coastline, as it were, so I hope that that reassurance satisfies him.
Several consultees, as well as the Transport Committee, argued that the national policy statement on ports should be designated alongside the launch of our consultation on the proposal for a national networks national policy statement. I have some sympathy with those arguments, but so much of transport policy is interconnected that one could make a case for linking many other documents in this way, and the practicalities do not always work out. In the Government’s response to the Transport Committee’s recommendations, we explained why we are confident that both national policy statements will work as free-standing but mutually consistent statements.
Our reforms to the major infrastructure planning process will ensure that there is a concise framework for development that can be readily understood by all those involved in the planning system. Ministers will be responsible for decisions to consent or to refuse major infrastructure development, thus closing the circle of democratic accountability. I look forward to listening to contributions and responding to issues raised during the debate. I commend the national policy statement on ports to the House.
This motion is brought before the House on the day that the Chancellor has unveiled his national infrastructure plan on which the UK’s economic recovery is supposed to rest. I have to say that those are grand hopes for a 150-page wish list with little coherence and even less sense of how it will be delivered. Although it is welcome that the House is getting the chance to debate the national policy statement on ports—an important innovation pioneered by the previous Government and made possible by the passage of the Planning Act 2008—it is time that Ministers faced up to the opportunities that are being missed because of failure to join up key decision making on transport infrastructure.
First, though, let me say what we support. We are pleased that national policy statements are going ahead and that Ministers have chosen to accept the Transport Committee’s recommendation that debates on them should take place in Government time.
We have heard today, in the Chancellor’s autumn statement, that Britain faces continued stagnation. Unfortunately, it will take more than a national policy statement on ports, no matter how finely crafted, to return our flatlining economy to health. However, although not sufficient, thriving ports are necessary to any recovery. Any successful route out of these doldrums will require an economic rebalancing that includes Britain’s exporting more to the rest of the world.
With about 90% of world trade taking place by sea, we need more than ever to ensure that Britain has sufficient modern, efficient port capacity that is capable of handling the size of ships and containers that are coming to dominate global trade. That port capacity needs to be linked to a land-based transport network that provides reliable and efficient links for exported and imported goods. That means having fast and free-flowing road links to major ports and increasing capacity on key rail routes, not only in relation to train paths but to enhancing the loading gauge to allow larger containers to be carried. That is why the last Labour Government worked with Network Rail to allow containers of 9 feet 6 inches to be carried between Southampton and the midlands. Today’s statement on rail freight interchanges is therefore welcome.
Our ports are essential to this island nation. They are part of our heritage and our future as a global trader. In 2010, the UK’s ports handled 512 million tonnes of freight, making our ports sector the largest of any in Europe. Ports and directly related services account for about 58,000 jobs, widely distributed across the country. From Immingham to Southampton and from the Medway to Liverpool, ports are at the centre of local economies.
We support the principles behind the policy statement in that port expansion is essential economically but must be conducted in ways that benefit local economies, drive regeneration and are environmentally sensitive. That is because businesses seeking new markets will be looking to the new Administration to deliver on the significant expansions consented to by the previous Government: a two thirds increase in the handling capacity at Felixstowe, consented to in 2006; the London gateway port that the Minister mentioned, handling up to 3.5 million containers a year and consented to in 2007; a doubling of capacity at Liverpool, also consented to in 2007; and further major expansions given the green light at Bathside bay in Harwich, at Teesport, and at Bristol.
Although we agree with the underlying principles of the statement and will therefore support its approval, the way in which it has been presented exposes serious shortcomings in the Government’s approach to planning transport infrastructure. I hope that the Government will reflect on that and make changes so that their already disjointed infrastructure planning does not deteriorate further.
The need to link ports with other infrastructure projects, particularly in road and rail, is obvious. However, the Minister has not given a satisfactory explanation of why he has ignored the recommendation of the Transport Committee to integrate the NPS on ports with the promised NPS on national networks.
The hon. Gentleman will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe that the Eddington report was published in 2006 or 2007. The previous Government did not get on with improving road infrastructure to the ports. I say gently that it is a bit rich for him to criticise this Government for not moving more quickly on that.
Progress was made, but unquestionably more needs to be done. I think that it was incumbent on the incoming Government to respond positively to the recommendations made by the Transport Committee just before the last election. It is a matter of great regret that they have not done so.
The Government have chosen to abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission, yet the entire statement is written on the basis that the IPC exists. I hope that the Minister will make it clear in winding up, if he has time, or in writing if necessary, whether the end date that he gave of April next year is a firm date or simply a target, and whether that change will require further consultation on the NPS.
The House is being asked to approve the NPS without reference to wider ports policy, most notably on ownership models, including mutualisation. As the Minister is well aware, that is of great interest to many Members and local communities, most notably around Dover and the trust ports. The lack of any guidance on ownership and changes of status in the NPS demonstrates why it is not a substitute for a proper ports policy. I hope that the Minister, whom it is an unexpected pleasure to see today, or the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), will commit to coming before the House with a comprehensive statement on ports policy, in which the NPS sits.
It is unfortunate that the statement gives such limited consideration to the economic and social impacts of port development proposals, particularly on local employment. After the fiasco of the Thameslink procurement process, Ministers claim to be alive to these issues, yet they seem to be little more than an afterthought in this document.
The Transport Committee recommended that the statement should include preference for port development to reduce inland road transport, yet that is missing from the statement. It contains no wider policy on how to achieve a reduction in the reliance on road freight. We hope that Ministers will consider revising the NPS to ensure that development decisions are taken in a way that specifically promotes and encourages a modal shift for onward transportation away from roads and on to rail and coastal shipping.
On climate change, there is little in the NPS on emissions. The Government need to make it clear whether they will accept the advice of the Committee on Climate Change to include the UK’s share of shipping emissions in the 2050 target.
Finally, we support and welcome the growing demand from the offshore energy sector for additional port capacity, including in my constituency of Barrow and Furness. The Government need to take a more proactive role to ensure that the UK takes a larger slice of this booming market. That is referenced in the NPS, but there is little detail. Will the Minister say how the Government intend actively to promote the potential for ports in the offshore energy sector?
The statement shows some progress but, with the economy flagging, the Government need to raise their game on ports and infrastructure across the piece.
The NPS is extraordinarily important. Representing Dover, I know just how important it is. Only today, the approval has been announced of a plan for the development of the western docks at Dover. It is a gold-plated plan on a rather larger scale than it needs to be, with a price tag of £400 million of investment, and the application has taken getting on for five years to go through the system—an awfully long time. Although the planned capacity will possibly not be needed until 2025 or 2030, owing to the economic difficulties that the country has faced in recent years, and although a gold-plated scheme certainly is not needed, it is an important step forward for the development of the port of Dover. It is much easier to amend an application once permission has been granted than to make a new one.
The fact that it has taken so long for the application finally to be approved underlines the need for a far swifter system of getting applications passed and sorted out. As the Transport Committee made clear in its report, there have been calls from business interests and others for major infrastructure projects to be handled properly, not with extensive public inquiries and long drawn-out decision-making processes but in a shorter and sharper way—something a bit less than the terminal 5 or Sizewell B inquiry nightmares. The NPS is therefore extraordinarily welcome.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) was right that the application at Dibden bay took a long time and got thrown out. It took four years, and I believe that it cost the applicant some £45 million, so that was dead money. That makes no sense whatever. The new, swifter method will be much better.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), rightly made the point that it is desirable to consider the wider aspects of the matter. My understanding is that the NPS is more focused on planning applications for ports than on whether development rights will be granted. I agree with him that, some years on from the Eddington report, which was produced back in 2006, not a lot has happened to the road infrastructure to ports. Although I picked him up for making a slightly partisan point about that, the fundamental point was accurate. We in Dover have been waiting for the upgrade of the A2, which is an important potential artery to the port. It was in the roads programme back in 1997, but was taken out and has not yet got back in. We have been waiting for that road to be dualled and upgraded for years, but it has not happened. We feel very strongly about that, and the Eddington report was fundamentally correct on the matter.
I turn to the NPS itself. The contents page reveals a massive focus on the environmental side of things. There are sections on, for instance, the environmental impact assessment, habitats and species regulations, pollution control, climate change control, biodiversity—so the list goes on. There is, one suspects, a greater concern about flood risks, coastal change and all the environmental things—including, I dare say, the lesser-spotted shellfish—than on socio-economic impacts, tourism and, above all, regeneration.
I totally agree with the point that my hon. Friend has just made, and I wish to highlight one example in my constituency. The port facilities have existed for more than 100 years, and they offer every opportunity for growth and more jobs. However, they sit close to sites of special scientific interest, which are impeding that development. The fact that those SSSIs have been sitting close to that port development for so long surely illustrates that nature is resilient enough to accept port expansion.
I thank my hon. Friend for that fundamentally good point.
We need to think harder about the people involved. We need to consider ownership models, as the shadow Minister said, but also regeneration, tourism, jobs and money. We need to think about strengthening and boosting our economy, and making the most of our ports, just as much as we think about the environmental side.
The Select Committee on Transport published its report on the national policy statement on ports when the last Government were in office. We reported in March 2010—indeed, it was the first national policy statement to be reported on. The cross-party Transport Committee is not influenced by which party is in power. We reported at the time of the previous Government and we registered several serious concerns, and concluded that, unless proper consideration was given to our recommendations, the national policy statement was not fit for purpose. We therefore made a very clear statement then.
Considerable time has elapsed and several changes have been made. We are now looking at the revised national policy statement, so my comments will refer to some of our criticisms and also to some of the changes that have been made since we produced our report.
The key change since that time is the decision to abolish the Infrastructure Planning Commission. It was decided that, following consideration by the infrastructure planning unit and the Planning Inspectorate, the Secretary of State would make the decisions. It was also decided to abolish regional economic strategies and regional planning strategies. Some of our criticisms were of the planning process and the lack of clarity. The changes bring more clarity to the system whereby decisions are made. The background against which the planning statement is being assessed is therefore now rather different.
Time has resolved another major criticism that we made. We were extremely concerned that the policy statement was made before the Marine Management Organisation, which was to examine port development below the threshold for the infrastructure commission, had actually been set up. The Marine Management Organisation has now been set up and consulted, so that major criticism and concern has been addressed.
We expressed several concerns about environmental issues, and the Government’s response states that our concerns have been considered in a different part of the statement—in the documents appended to it. We register the Government’s response. We still have some concerns, but we accept that the Government have pointed out another way of addressing them.
We were very worried that the Government were not providing an update on ports’ traffic forecasts, which are extremely important. There was some dissension about the forecasting of ports traffic that was proposed as a basis for the ports statement. The Government’s response has not been to accept the precise form in which we wanted those forecasts to be updated, but it states that they will provide
“new forecasts in the near future”.
In a spirit of reasonableness, we accept that that concern has been addressed. We will wait and see how those new forecasts are provided.
Those major concerns have therefore been addressed, at least in part. The changes go some way towards dealing with some of the major concerns that we, as a Committee in the previous Parliament, had when we stated that we did not think that the statement was fit for purpose.
It is very important that the ports policy statement is correct. As hon. Members have pointed out this evening, ports are extremely important: 90% of the UK’s trade by tonnage and 512 million tonnes of freight go through our ports, and ports traffic contributes £17.9 billion to GDP, taken together with the employment that it generates. Indeed, the direct employment is at least 132,000 jobs, with many more indirect jobs. The ports sector is extremely important and that is why having the correct ports policy matters.
I want to deal with some concerns to which we have not received a satisfactory response. I think it is important to register them. One is the absence of a definitive ports policy, other than to say that the Government’s policy on ports is market-led. The Committee in the last Parliament felt that that was not good enough, because ports are such an important part of a thriving economy. Little progress has been made since in defining a ports policy. In fact, the ports policy such as it is was defined in an interim policy set out in 2007, and the Government have now said that that interim policy, together with additional statements that have been made, is their definitive ports policy. I suppose that we could look at it that way, but it does not meet in full the point of concern that the Committee has raised, and I hope that we can see further progress on that.
The Committee also raised the concern that the policy statement on ports seemed to concentrate almost wholly on container traffic. While that is the basis of the ports’ trade, we are concerned that other developments, such as offshore wind, were not considered properly. I am still unclear where such additional developments feature in the Government’s statement.
I reiterate the concern that the Committee raised about the absence of national policy statements on national networks at the time that the ports policy statement was put forward. I accept that some progress is being made. We are now being told that the national network statements will be laid in January. That is progress, but it would have been better if it had been done before we approve the ports policy statement. At least we have had some assurances that those statements are coming.
It is important that we know the Government’s plans for other transport networks apart from ports, partly because of the economic importance of ports, but also because their impact on the economy, including the regional economies, is affected a great deal by how goods are transported to and from those ports. It is therefore necessary to look at road, rail and inland networks, and at the issue of multi-modal transport, and how that can be encouraged. It is important that we know how that will be addressed, and I hope that the Minister can give us some more information on that basis.
We heard evidence during our inquiry from the northern ports that they felt that southern ports were very much at an advantage because of the extensive public investment in road and rail networks around them. The Committee in the previous Parliament felt that that was a very important issue, and this Parliament's Committee is of the same view. I noted the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) this evening about the application from Liverpool for a turnaround cruise facility at the port. The application has been made because the possibility of such a facility, and the return of the cruise ships to Liverpool, is so very important to the regeneration of the city. I hope that when a decision is made on this issue—and there has had to be a consultation, as is proper—a reasoned approach will be taken, and recognition given to the fact that Southampton currently has 65% of the market for the turnaround facility, while Liverpool has only 5%.
The hon. Lady of course has a constituency interest in this matter, and I represent a constituency close to Southampton. Does she appreciate that what is really worrying is that Liverpool received a great deal of both European and public money in order to build its port of call facility, and it gave undertakings that it would not use that facility as a turnaround point to start and end cruises? It now appears that it never had any intention of sticking to those undertakings, so if it were—bizarrely—to achieve retrospective permission to do what it promised not to do, surely it should have to pay back all the money and not just a quarter of it over a very long period, as is proposed.
As a constituency MP I recognise the supreme importance of the turnaround facility to Liverpool. However, I also recognise that a reasoned judgment has to be made on the proper way in which to go ahead. The statements that the hon. Gentleman made about Liverpool’s intentions are not accurate, but this is not the place in which to pursue the detail of that. I hope that a reasonable decision is made. Liverpool City council has made an offer to deal with the very point that the hon. Gentleman has made, but that is for somebody else in another place to address. I simply ask for reason to be applied to resolve the issue.
I do not want to intrude on the private grief between Southampton and Liverpool. I represent Dover, which has a little less cruise business. It is also further away and can take a more dispassionate position. Does the hon. Lady not recognise that there is something of a state aid issue here and that that needs to be handled with extreme care?
The state aid issue is a matter that will have to be dealt with by the appropriate authorities. After discussing it with all the relevant parties, I hope that a reasoned judgment can be made.
Earlier today, when the Chancellor delivered his autumn statement, he referred to the regional economic significance of ports and made reference to the support that he intended to give to developments in the Mersey and the Manchester ship canal in relation to Peel Holdings. It is because ports have such an important economic effect on a region that the issues that I raise are so significant and I hope that the Government are able to consider them.
In light of the time that has elapsed since the report was compiled by the Committee under the previous Government and the changes and statements that have been made, I believe that the port statement should not be opposed. None the less, I want to hear from the Minister about how he will address some of the outstanding issues that I have raised tonight.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. We have heard from speakers in whose constituencies are some of the great ports, such as Newhaven, Barrow-in-Furness, Dover and Liverpool. The port of Cambridge, however, is less active than it used to be. It was one of the country’s significant ports, dealing mainly with the Dutch trade, until the Fens were drained. If we do not get our climate change policy right, Cambridge may once again become an important port.
I will try to be brief as there is little time left. I will not highlight why ports are so important to this country; I assume that that is obvious. Although the ports are very important for leisure and tourism, there are other factors involved. Goods that come into that port then have to move on. Currently far too much freight is moved by road, and road congestion is very damaging. In 2006, Transport for London estimated that road congestion in and around London cost £1.6 billion a year, and that figure will go up. More locally for me, the A14 in my constituency is used by a large number of heavy goods vehicles, which are largely travelling from the very successful port in Felixstowe. Those vehicles cause a large number of accidents and most of the congestion, which is why I welcome the £20 million that will be spent on trying to alleviate the problem and ensure that we do not have those accidents.
The key solution is to do more with rail freight and I should like to hear what the Government are planning to do in that regard. Rail freight over the past decade has grown by two thirds and saved 2 million tonnes of pollutants and 31.5 million lorry journeys. There is still more to do. The Felixstowe east-west rail freight link could be boosted. There is some work happening now, but more needs to be done.
I also wish to highlight the role that canal freight plays. Canals are much more efficient in terms of CO2 than roads. Tesco has been using barges since 2007. In addition to rail freight or canal freight, will the Minister also consider the idea of inland ports so that we can minimise the amount of road travel? That is one of the key aspects that I should like to hear more about in his statement.
I understand that, for reasons that are slightly beyond my ken, people seem to be very anxious to finish at 7 o’clock this evening rather than at the normal time of 10 o’clock. I suppose that that is something to do with the fact that we are beginning to sit rather earlier.
The issue of Dibden bay, which I referred to in an intervention, is the single most important constituency issue in New Forest East in the 14 years that I have represented it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) said, it was a long time before the considerations on whether a giant container port should be built at Dibden bay produced decisive outcomes. We had a year-long public inquiry, as I said in an intervention, but we also had, as he said, several years leading up to that public inquiry. If the new procedure, first through the Infrastructure Planning Commission put forward by the previous Government and then under the replacement arrangements proposed by this Government, allowed for public consultation—
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Ordered, That the debate be resumed tomorrow.