Wednesday 8 January 2014
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Evennett.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I am delighted to have secured the debate today. I ought to start with two disclaimers. First, although I served for 12 years on a county council, a strategic planning authority, I have never served on a district council and am ignorant of some of the niceties of local planning procedure. Secondly, despite some small differences in government with the Minister—I have rather an affection for productive agricultural land, which he affects not to share—I believe in principle in the reforms introduced by the Government. It is absolutely right that we turn around the principles of planning to make it more responsive to local people and base it on local priorities rather than on a Whitehall-knows-best approach.
The reason for calling today’s debate, however, is simply that the reality in many local authorities at the moment—certainly for those in my constituency in Somerset—is the precise reverse of that. In the absence of agreed local plans and agreed five-year supply, far from empowering local communities, we are disfranchising them from decisions that will have the most profound impact on their local areas. That is what I want to impress on the Minister today.
I could give a number of examples from my constituency, such as the villages of Evercreech, Rode or Beckington, all in Mendip, or Huish Episcopi, where a recent planning inspector’s decision has gone in completely the opposite direction to that wished by the district council, and by local people, as evidenced through the parish council. As an illustration, however, I will use the village of Norton St Philip, which I have raised with the Minister before in the Chamber. It is an example of what is actually happening on the ground.
Norton St Philip is a beautiful village: it is an historic settlement and a conservation area; it has, arguably, one of the oldest pubs in the country; and it was the scene of a battle during Monmouth’s rebellion. It has everything going for it, including one of the most spectacular views from the said pub’s car park across the village cricket pitch to the church—a view that one might wish to see anywhere in the country. The village also has the fortune, or misfortune, of being only a few miles away from Bath, with its inflated Georgian infrastructure. Those few miles are green belt, and Norton St Philip is therefore in reasonably high demand as a dormitory village for the cities of Bath and, to a lesser extent, Bristol.
The problem that Norton St Philip faces at the moment is that it is under siege from developers, with five applications already before planners and a further two in the pipeline. That could have a disastrous effect on the fabric and nature of the village.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I am enjoying the reverie across the car park, the pub and the village green. Does he agree that, although we all want development on brownfield land first, the most important idea to take to the Minister is that housing projections by local authorities must be realistic and ascertainable rather than unrealistic?
I will be touching on five-year supply in a moment, because it is critical to what is happening.
Let me say a little more about Norton St Philip. Under the new Mendip plan, it has been classified as a “primary village”, and along with that goes a requirement for 70 new homes. That is predicated on the newly reopened shop and post office. Without that shop and post office, Norton St Philip would revert to being a secondary village, with a requirement for 40 new houses. Setting that aside, what has happened already is 73 new houses. The applications before the planning authority provide for a further 223 houses in that small village. In other words, were those applications to be approved, the size of the village would be doubled, without any improvement to the infrastructure, and, needless to say, the character of the village would be hugely changed in the process.
I am particularly exercised by one of the applications, although I know that Members of Parliament should always be cautious about getting involved with local planning decisions. Nevertheless, to build on what is called Great Orchard, which is the site of the battle of Philip’s Norton, the skirmish during the rebellion, seems to me to be an extraordinary proposition. It is deep within the heart of the conservation area of the village and would put at risk some 200 metres of the finest dry stone wall to be seen in Britain. I apologise to hon. Members if I am exercising my Baedeker view of my constituency, but it is vital to understand that the village is an important and historic settlement. I cannot see the circumstances in which such a proposition would be approved, and of course it was not—it was not approved in the local plan and was not part of what was reserved for development.
People in the village are perfectly happy to ensure that the building that is already taking place and that which is projected in sensible places go ahead. They are not averse to development in the village. However, they do not want their village destroyed. That is a perfectly proper proposition.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this important debate. Does he agree that one of the major problems with planning—it has been for many years—is inconsistency? One council area will approve one thing; the neighbouring council area will not approve it. There needs to be flexibility, especially with town centre developments. If we are to regenerate our town centres, we need that flexibility, but inconsistency in planning has been a problem for many years.
I agree that we need flexibility, and that is better determined by local people understanding local needs, rather than by an inspector in a planning department—in Bristol in our case—determining a case on the basis of rules derived from Whitehall. Local people should determine what is best for their area.
Perhaps my hon. Friend’s constituents are like mine. It is not nimbyism and they are not against development per se. Does he agree that it is all about a sense of proportion? Things seem to be out of all proportion, which is what is causing concern.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Let me come on to where I think things are going wrong. We have a free-for-all at the moment, an avalanche of applications that are opportunistic in nature, because the local plans have not been agreed.
The Minister has said on a number of occasions, “Well, it is up to local authorities to have their plans approved.” He is right—of course it is up to them, and everyone understands that, but he underestimates the difficulties and the extent of the changes in the process. The early adopters of local plans had an easy time. Some of the local plans, which the Minister can look at in his office, are paper thin and would never get through the process now, but because they were done right at the start, they went through. The smaller rural district planning authorities in particular are now struggling with an extraordinarily cumbersome and complex process.
Let me deal with some of the issues that are bedevilling that process. The key is the five-year supply, which I have mentioned. There is a lack of definitive guidance on how it is to be calculated. There was a clear promise from the Department for Communities and Local Government that definitive guidance would be produced in August last year, but it has not appeared. Two things are happening as a result. First, planning authorities are struggling to understand exactly what is required. Secondly, plans are being picked apart at planning inquiries by clever QCs, who are going back to the first principles in the planning framework and using those to override any sensible local decision making.
There are tensions within the system. Historically, census figures have been used, but it now seems as though economic aspiration is a key factor. Economic aspiration is fine, except that if it does not come to fruition, an area is left with the houses but not the jobs, which does not make sense.
There is also the fundamental problem that housing supply is effectively determined by the house builders themselves and what they say they will be bringing forward in a particular year. Let us not kid ourselves: there are a limited number of national house builders that effectively have an oligopoly of supply. They are coming forward with figures that might look all right on paper, but the house builders will build only when the margin meets their requirements, and the profit margin on those developments is relatively high. The Government might wish to see more houses built—I certainly do, as we desperately need them across the country—but developers are interested in banking development land rather than building when their marginal profit is not at its greatest.
As a result, we have perverse incentives for developers to acquire permissions but not develop the projects. We have what are called technical starts, where developers will put in a road and say, “We have started that project, but we are not actually going to build any houses yet—we will leave that for the moment. Meanwhile, let’s get on with our next application for the next bit of land that we see.” That can distort the entire local plan and what emerges from it.
The second key factor is the weight that the emerging local plan has in planning inspectorate decisions, as it is developed, consulted upon and submitted to the Department. The Minister said to me in the House a few months ago that the plan has weight, but that is not evidenced by the decisions taken by planning inspectors, who are not working on the basis of ministerial aspiration but of regulations—quite rightly, as that is the only basis they can work on—which require them to look at different criteria. We are therefore seeing inspectorate decisions that do not match the desires of local communities for local planning.
I have to say to the Minister that, when we are talking about large conurbations, sometimes it really does not matter which bit of land is developed—there is capacity for spread, so if one development comes on, it is possible to deselect another bit of land to bring everything back into kilter—but when we are talking about small market towns and rural areas, the topography does not allow for that. If the wrong bit of that sort of community is developed, it does not help to deselect what would have been the right bit for development. Deselection does not work.
There is another aspect concerning the inspectorate that I shall mention in passing: the perverse decision, which has been evidenced more than once now, that because a particular design of building is right in one place, it will necessarily be right anywhere. As a result of that, we have lost the sense of the vernacular, which is key to good planning. We should be able to ensure that the buildings in a particular area suit how buildings in that area have been built historically and fit with the urban or rural community landscape. Instead, the same model of house is relabelled in different parts of the country: in Somerset, they would probably call it a thatched cottage, despite the fact that it is an executive four-bed home, whereas in the north it would be called the Ullswater model or something like that. It is nonsense. Such decisions show whatever the visual equivalent is of having cloth ears.
I have a number of modest requests for the Minister. First, I want emerging local plans that are on the point of publication to have real weight in the planning process—to have what is called materiality. That is simply not the case at the moment. If he wants that to happen, he has to make it happen by regulation—to instruct planning inspectors that they have to give the plans real weight and back local councils in doing the right thing. That is the whole principle of localism.
Secondly, the Minister needs to provide definitive guidance on the five-year supply, to show exactly what is to be taken into account and how it is to be calculated. He must not leave it to clever QCs representing house builders to determine what is right for a particular local area. That is not localism, but an absolute divorce from it. Until we have that clear guidance, I do not believe the situation will improve.
Thirdly, we need to give real weight to the views of parish councils. That is a gap in the new legislation. At the moment, they are virtually non-people, and do not have the locus they should have in planning decisions. I recently read a speech by the Minister about the importance of neighbourhood plans. We went down that road with the previous Government and their village plans.
I have 135-odd villages in my constituency, and many of them spent months and years of really hard work on developing their village plans, thinking that what they were doing would affect future planning decisions and ensure that what was built matched needs and locality. The reality was, of course, that those plans were completely ignored. I am worried that neighbourhood planning will go down exactly the same road. Indeed, people are now so cynical that they might not engage with neighbourhood planning in the first place, because they do not believe it will have an effect. Unless we can show that it will bring a real improvement to local planning decisions, people will not engage.
My hon. Friend has mentioned backing local councils and parish councils as well; that is an important part of this discussion. There is a problem, however, when those two organisations come into conflict. On my website there is a petition, with nearly 2,000 signatures, objecting to our current plan. How does he think district councils and parish councils could work together better to create greater consensus among local residents?
That is important, and I believe there is a duty of co-operation within the local planning process that involves that sort of consideration. As I said, I have never sat on a district council in my life, but I know from my experience as leader of a county council, where we were dealing with matters such as mineral planning, that getting consensus is a long and iterative process. I do not believe that it is impossible for local people to achieve that consensus when they work together with shared objectives, but it is difficult when a plan is overridden by an inspector at appeal, or, worse still, when a district council feels so powerless to resist planning appeals that it rolls over in advance of them. We have seen that time and time again with local councils.
My hon. Friend has made a powerful case outlining the mess that we are in. Just to be clear, is he content that the system should, ultimately, leave decision-making powers with the unelected planning inspector, or does he agree that those powers ought to be much closer to the property owner, the householder and the community?
Ultimately, I would like the planning inspectorate to be redundant and local plans to be sufficiently robust to provide for the planning environment and, if necessary, local planning courts to determine whether there is a clear breach, but we are a little way away from that. In fact, the situation is quite the reverse: Her Majesty’s planning inspectors—I am not criticising them because they are only doing their job within the rules they have been given—are the planning authority for many of our rural areas. That cannot be right.
The hon. Gentleman has talked a good deal about the impact of housing development on rural communities and so on. Does he have the same concern about the drive for green energy, wind turbines and the targets set by Europe? Does he believe that the same consideration should be given to the impact on householders, as the hon. Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) mentioned in his intervention, so that they may object and a balance can be struck in the countryside between the drive for green energy and the impact on people and the quality of their lives?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not want to divert this debate to energy, which is a completely different issue. I have always suggested that energy generation should be subject to the same sort of planning considerations as other industrial development. Although I am strongly supportive of renewable energy, I do not believe that it overrides all other considerations and I believe that such matters are best decided at local level. However, I do not want to derail this debate, which is about more routine planning policy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate, the importance of which is evident from the turnout this morning. It is interesting to hear that he has 135 villages in his constituency. I will name just five communities in mine: Lindley, Linthwaite, Upperthong, Netherthong and Golcar. They are facing the prospect of open land being pounced on by developers because my Labour-run Kirklees council’s local development framework is up in the air and it is refusing to use the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. The nub of the matter is that when local councillors on the planning sub-committee listen to local concerns and are minded to refuse an application, its planning officers run roughshod over them, so there is no local democracy and no local accountability.
The nomenclature of the villages in my hon. Friend’s constituency is as euphonious as those in mine. I could trade some wonderful village names with him. I am grateful for his intervention.
I have said that I want four things to be considered: the materiality of emerging local plans, a definition of “five-year supply”, the position of parish councils, and the vernacular, which is really important. I urge the Minister to look at that. It may seem to be a minor matter, but simply allowing uniformity of design throughout the country is contrary to the organic way in which architecture has developed in this country and is a hugely retrograde step.
I want to make one more suggestion. Central Government often put huge pressure on local councils to do things within time scales and castigate them if they do not. Could the same discipline be applied to the Government in terms of non-determination? It seems to me that local authorities are desperate to get local plans certified. Why do we not have a period following completion of the local plan process—perhaps six weeks from the plan being lodged with the Department—when it will be certified or will be deemed to have been certified irrespective of the planning Minister’s decision? It is no good the Government saying that they do not have the resources to deal with the issue—they do not accept that argument from planning authorities. The suggestion is a modest but good one, and I am sure that the Minister, being a radical Minister, will want to adopt it.
Something is seriously wrong not with the principle but with the operation of planning reform. It is causing great concern throughout the country. There is concern that communities will be distorted by opportunistic developments that our local authorities are apparently powerless to stop in the present circumstances. We must look closely at that. I do not want suburban sprawl across my rural constituency, but I see a risk of that. Of course I want houses to be built—we have a desperate need for them—but I want the right houses in the right places for the right reasons determined by local people. Those are exactly the principles that the Minister has espoused in his planning reforms. What I do not want, to almost quote the immortal words of Peter Seeger, is little boxes made of ticky tacky.
Order. A glance round the Chamber demonstrates that quite a lot of hon. Members are trying to catch my eye. I want to make two points. First, the drill is that hon. Members write to Mr Speaker indicating their intention to speak in debates. Those who have not done so will be at the bottom of the list rather than the top. Secondly, I have the authority to impose a time limit, but I do not believe in time limits. I believe that we should have self-regulation and good manners rather than rules, so if hon. Members restrict themselves to about five minutes that would be extremely helpful.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I take on board your comments and will be as succinct as possible. I thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) and congratulate him on securing this important debate. The Government’s planning reforms are of great importance on Teesside and in East Cleveland, and I intend to discuss their effect in those areas and raise the concerns of my constituents and local government leaders.
Planning policy makers have the difficult job of reconciling conflicting interests, but the Government’s approach to planning policy, particularly their Localism Act 2011, is distinctly centralist. The national planning policy framework ties the hands of local planning committees and removes much of their discretion in making decisions about planning applications based on local conditions. On Teesside, Stockton-on-Tees borough councillors, both Labour and Opposition, have been particularly vocal about that. Stockton council is not in my constituency, but its members have made several very valid and interesting points.
In November 2013, Stockton council passed a motion calling for an urgent review of the NPPF. It resolved that the framework effectively removed planning control from the local community and placed it in the hands of developers. It also made the interesting and valid point that that is coupled with massive reductions in available funding for the remediation of brownfield sites and that local authorities are effectively forced into permitting development on greenfield sites. A Thornaby Independent Association councillor questioned the reason for the very existence of a planning committee under the NPPF regime. Despite that, Stockton council has been under continual attack by the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) for its planning decisions. He branded the council’s leader “Bob the Builder”, despite the fact that since May 2010 the hon. Gentleman has not once objected to a planning application, and his Government are coercing the council into making the decisions. When Yarm councillor Mark Chatburn defected from the Tories to UKIP, he cited as one of his main reasons the hon. Gentleman’s silence prior to planning decisions and his refusal to utter a word of criticism of the NPPF.
It is not just Stockton council that finds itself under attack. Redcar and Cleveland borough council has been subjected to criticism about its draft local plan from local Liberal Democrats. I have submitted a response to the consultation on this document, as has my colleague Anna Turley, Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Redcar, who urged the inclusion of a commitment to a traditional pier and stressed her opposition to proposed developments in Marske.
Confusingly, however, despite criticism by the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) and Redcar and Cleveland Liberal Democrats of the council’s draft plan in the press and their focus leaflets, they have not responded to the consultation. Will the Minister explain why the Redcar Liberal Democrats have failed to respond to this consultation when Ministers repeatedly tell the House about the importance of having a strong local plan? Does he believe that their silence is indicative of a belief that local plans are unimportant, not locally controlled and subservient to diktats originating in Whitehall?
That is not a point of order. I have listened very carefully to all the speeches made in the Chamber this morning, and if they were out of order, I would have made the hon. Member concerned know that they were. So far, the hon. Gentleman who is speaking is making political points, and he is perfectly entitled to do so in a Chamber such as this.
Thank you, Mr Gray. On a final note, the Government have abolished most of England’s regional government and governance structures, but has the Minister considered reintroducing a regional element into planning? Currently, one of the few parts of joined-up thinking in the formation of local plans is neighbouring authorities responding to each other’s consultations, with the Tory Hambleton district council, for example, responding to Redcar and Cleveland’s plan, supporting the construction of housing in my constituency so as to avoid its having to be built in the constituency of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague). That seems like a very unco-ordinated way to co-ordinate development. If requirements were determined on a regional basis, it would be more efficient and would allow for more strategic planning. Again, I thank you for allowing me to speak on this important matter, Mr Gray, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Before we move on, I remind the hon. Gentleman that when he mentions another Member in a speech, it is a convention of the House that he lets that Member know. He may therefore find it appropriate to apologise to the Members he mentioned, if he had not given them due notice, and let them know what he said about them.
Here we are again. I will try to be as brief as possible, and I will put the full text of what I had intended to say on my website—tonybaldry.co.uk. I am sure that constituents and right hon. and hon. colleagues will read the text in full, because I want to make three succinct—I hope—points in supporting and endorsing what my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) said.
The first is on the five-year housing supply, which will be a requirement—not only when there are approved local plans, but until 2031. At any point between now and 2031, developers will be able to come forward and say to a local authority, “At this moment, you haven’t got a sustainable five-year housing supply, so we are entitled to build wherever we want within your district”.
At present, there is no agreement on the methodology used by planning inspectors to determine the five-year housing supply. Two distinct methodologies seem to be used by planning inspectors. Different methodologies are used in different cases. One is now referred to in planning shorthand as the “Liverpool” method of calculation, and the other as “Sedgefield”.
In a recent decision in a planning appeal in my constituency at Deddington, the planning inspector calculated housing supply locally on what could even be described as a third method and a variation of “Sedgefield”; it might be described as “Sedgefield-lite”. It is simply not good public policy for local councillors, chief planning officers and others not to know what methodology a planning inspector will adopt in calculating whether a local planning authority has met its five-year housing supply. Ministers have to make clear and unambiguous the methodology that they expect planning Ministers and everyone else to use in calculating the five-year housing supply.
My second point is about brownfield sites. It has been an article of faith in the planning system, quite rightly, that one should bring forward brownfield sites first, but if local authorities are so keen and need to have their five-year housing supply, they will bring forward sites that are easiest to develop in the five-year supply. Invariably, those are greenfield sites, so brownfield sites will get put to the back.
I give as an example the Banbury canalside site in my constituency. The intention is to have that built in the centre of the town on an area that was in the flood plain, but now no longer is, because we built adequate flood defences. The plan is for 950 houses, but my district is so determined that it has to meet its five-year housing supply that that brownfield site is being put back rather than being brought to the front of the queue. That is daft.
I can see the situation changing only if planning inspectors, in calculating the five-year housing supply, give credit in housing numbers for brownfield sites when local authorities can demonstrate that they are undertaking sustained and credible work to make a brownfield site available in the market. Otherwise, given how the five-year housing supply is working at present, brownfield will be put to the end of the queue rather than being brought to the beginning of the queue. As I said, that is daft.
My third point relates to neighbourhood plans. All of us understood that, with the new national planning policy framework, neighbourhood plans and localism were going to be really important, but neighbourhood plans have to clear two hurdles. First, they have to be consistent with the local plan, and secondly, at present the community has to complete its neighbourhood plan until such a point as is agreed by a local referendum. Many of the communities that have started neighbourhood plans carry them out diligently and earnestly, but they are unlikely to complete them within a year or 18 months, by which time I suspect that a large number of them will be redundant.
A classic example involves the community in Deddington, a village in my constituency. People there are busily undertaking a neighbourhood plan, entirely consistent with the provisions set out by the Government. A landowner and developer come along and put in a planning application to build up to 85 houses on the edge of the community, which is refused by the local authority but allowed on appeal. Under the agreed local plan, because of what is happening with most of Cherwell’s new housing—we have planned for nearly 17,000 houses in our agreed local plan between now and 2031, so we are hardly not stepping up to the plate to meet housing requirements—Deddington is due to take something like 80 new houses to the end of the survey period in 2031. However, the location of up to 85 has already been decided—not by the local community, but on the basis of whoever happened to get their planning application in first. With respect, that is not neighbourhood planning. It is not a plan-led system; it is a system of first come, first served.
If a local planning authority has submitted an agreed local plan and if neighbourhoods are carrying out a neighbourhood plan consistent with the rules set out by the Government, in a timely and proportionate manner, I suggest that any planning application that will effectively pre-empt the neighbourhood plan should be dismissed on grounds of prematurity, in that it would effectively rob local communities of the opportunity to determine their future. Thank you, Mr Gray. If any colleagues would like the full text of what I was going to say, they should please refer to my website.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) on securing today’s debate. I would like—in a timely fashion, obviously—to reinforce some points that he made.
We have a dilemma. We all believe in local decision making. Nobody could have been more pleased than me when the regional spatial strategy was abolished and we lost our proposed new town, which had not been supported by any democratically elected person. That was good. Like the Minister, I want a planning system that will play its role in contributing to providing our much-needed homes. At the moment, things are clearly not working together and at the right pace.
Neighbourhood plans sound so good; we hear about the examples that have gone to referendum—the great success of Thame and others. The number of neighbourhood plans sounds good, but I suspect that it represents a tiny proportion of what is needed. I believe that there needs to be more support, although I accept that the Government are supporting the process, because it is such an important way forward. I do not think that we should lose sight of that on the Government side, because it was a great innovation.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the emerging local plan has to have more material weight in the inspectors’ considerations. I do not know how that can be achieved, but in the past an emerging plan certainly had weight. Perhaps developers are finding new ways of getting around things. The Government must concede the point, given the number of places that do not have fully adopted plans as such, and support those areas that do not have fully adopted plans.
I have mentioned housing projections to the Minister. I feel that our local residents have to be able to understand where the local projections have come from and why they are there, at the scale they are at. It would then be easier to get a community buy-in.
I want to touch on the need for authorities to co-operate, because I am not convinced that they are doing so very well at the moment. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) likes to make the point that Cheltenham is very constrained, in terms of where new development would be suitable. My constituency is very constrained because of protected heathland. We have these dilemmas. There is a duty to co-operate, but I think we need to look more at how local authorities can form natural partnerships and work together to meet housing and other infrastructure needs.
I shall briefly touch on rural exception sites, which I have raised with the Minister. I was a big fan of rural exception sites until last week, I think it was. In my constituency, one has come in for 35 homes. There is a recently adopted plan in that part of the constituency. The parish is working up its neighbourhood plan, but that site has not been consulted on at all. It seems totally wrong that that could come in without a proper round of community interaction. It may well result in houses at the end of the day, but I am finding it difficult to see how it fits with our new planning framework.
I also want to touch on good design. There are instances in which we should accept that higher density can be good design and meet some of our objectives. I have to use those words carefully, because that is not always the most popular thing to say, but I just ask generally what encouragement the Minister is giving for good design.
I believe that the Minister has commented on how we could approach the problem of planning permissions being given but not implemented. I would like him to comment on what more he should be doing, because the public need confidence that what land is coming forward is not just the easiest picking when there are outstanding planning permissions that could be implemented.
Thank you, Mr Gray. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that if he is under any illusion or delusion that the planning system is working well, all he needs to do is listen to the hon. Members who are speaking here today. This is rather a large turnout for Westminster Hall. Hon. Members are talking about their anxieties and frustrations and the fact that their constituencies are under siege. I certainly feel that myself, because the Ribble Valley is under siege.
I was first elected in 1992. I said to my executive that I hoped that after my days in the House, when I handed the Ribble Valley over to my lucky successor, it would be in better shape, or at least in no worse shape, than when I became its Member of Parliament. I was doing rather well until 2010, when the planning system started to change. We in the Ribble Valley are under siege.
There are not as many villages in my area as in that of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), but there are many wonderful, lovely villages and towns, including Clitheroe, the main market town. The whole area is under siege. We do not have our core strategy in place, and it seems as if that is a green light to every speculative developer to put in a planning application, with no protection for the local authority or for the people themselves.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that a development in a small village area can turn communities into strangers? One developer can come in for a vast site in a small village area that will more than double the number of properties. That is not good for communities.
I agree with every word that my hon. Friend has just said. Barrow in my constituency is a perfect example of a village where planning applications have gone in that would more than double its size. The people are up in arms against that. I hope that the public will get protection against that application, which I think is barmy.
There are a number of other areas. Clitheroe is the largest town; applications have gone in all over the place there, and many have been granted on appeal. Somebody did suggest getting rid of the inspector, or the inspectorate. That would make me smile more than anything else, frankly.
The frustration for many of my local councillors is that they go out and tell the people what they will do when they are elected; the people tell their councillors what they want when planning applications go in; and the councillor stands up for them and says, “No, we don’t want to see 1,000 houses in Clitheroe”. However, the decision is then overturned or, as in this case, the local authority gets the feeling that if it did turn the application down, it would go to appeal, cost it a lot of money to defend its position and the application would then be allowed. In many cases, local authorities are allowing certain applications when their hearts tell them that they should not.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the scenario that he eloquently lays out and which I have seen in my High Peak constituency is damaging people’s faith in democracy across the board? They see their elected representative making one decision and an unelected representative overturning it.
I totally agree. It means frustration on the part of not only the people, but the councillors. They shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, what is the worth of being a local authority councillor if we are making these decisions on behalf of the public and then they are overturned?” Or, even worse, the local authority is told, “Listen, you’d better accept this planning application. Otherwise, it’s going to cost you a lot of money and you will lose.”
My hon. Friend has made the point with great clarity and passion, but I cannot forbear from saying that those of us who stood for election on the Conservative manifesto stood on a platform of a radical decentralisation of power—an invitation to the people to join the Government of Britain. I think that he will agree with me that those of us who stood on that platform with enthusiasm are rather disappointed that it has come to this.
More than disappointed. I used to use a counter-argument against those in my constituency who said, “This is a disaster. This is what is going to happen if the Localism Bill goes through.” I said, “No, localism will give power back to the local authorities.” Now, when we look at what has happened, it seems as if there has been some Orwellian double-speak. Localism sounds as if it is giving power back to the local people when in essence it has not done that at all—quite the contrary. If people want to build houses, localism is fine. If people want to go against the building of the houses, localism does not help them one jot.
I was elected as a Conservative. I am a Conservative; just as the name on the tin suggests, I want to conserve—I want to conserve what is best in our area. The position is as my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) said. If people in the Ribble Valley want to live in Manchester, that is fine—they can go and live there. What we do not want is Manchester coming to us. We do not want to see these towns growing at such a rate that we do not even recognise them.
The Ribble Valley is one of the nicest places to live in the whole country; it is one of the jewels. I say that it is like the Lake district without the lakes—even with the rain we have been having, we still do not have the lakes, thank goodness. People want to live there for a certain reason. I know what the Minister is talking about when he says that people deserve the right to have a roof over their heads. Everyone deserves a home; I agree with him on that, but we need to look at areas that neighbour places such as the Ribble Valley—such as Burnley, Preston, Pendle and Hyndburn—and see what we can do to regenerate some of the run-down areas there. We need to ensure that homes that are run-down are made available to people in those areas and that they do not have to flee those areas and live somewhere else.
I will finish shortly because I know that many other hon. Members want to speak, but I just want to say this. I believe that we ought to have a planning system that is based on consent—the consent of the local people. I finish by referring not just to housing but to wind turbines. When fairly well everybody in a local area is saying no to three wind turbines in a suburban area and the council turns the application down because it has listened to what the local people say, but it then goes to the inspectorate and the inspectorate passes it, there must be something wrong in the system because we are not listening to the people. Minister, listen to the people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) on securing this very important debate. Its importance is demonstrated by the number of hon. Members who have turned up. I know that there are many who could not attend who would have attended otherwise.
The primary issue being debated is housing projections in our areas. Many of the issues that have been described apply to my own area in Cornwall. The Isles of Scilly are rather different: it is a very protected environment and one where the projections and pressures are not the same.
I fear that the debate is being characterised, or rather could be characterised from the Whitehall and ministerial perspective, in a certain way. I fear that what people are hearing is the rather complacent and self-satisfied voice of the contentedly housed seeking to deny opportunities for the unhoused or the inadequately housed—in other words, the nimby argument.
The view is that the role of Government, through their policies and the inspectorate, is to ensure that there is balance in the system and that that group of people are seeking to resist simply from the perspective of wanting to protect their own property values, scenery and lifestyle—the drawbridge mentality, which often applies to people living in a rural setting. The view is that the role of this system is to stand up against those kinds of pressures. That is a rather simplistic view of how the system operates in an area such as mine. Cornwall is not a nimby place. The housing stock has more than doubled in the past 40 years, but local people’s housing problems have significantly worsened over that period.
We cannot be accused of being nimbys, but successive Governments’ policies have been counter-productive for the region. They have ensured that projections are maintained, but those projections have been utterly unsophisticated. Many of the Office for National Statistics projections over the past 10 years have been significantly undershot, and I believe that the ONS model for setting projections is rather flawed. When there is a high projected figure, what happens—not only in the five-year supply, as my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome has said, but in the system as a whole—is that even in areas that have not been designated for housing development, the hope value on all surrounding land becomes extremely high, because of the expectation that planning permission will be relatively easily obtained. As a result, it becomes impossible to implement schemes to deliver affordable homes, which require low land values.
Such policies have a counter-productive impact. That sits against the aims of the exceptions policy and “Planning Policy Guidance 3”, which was established in the early 1990s under the then Environment Secretary, Nicholas Ridley. The principle behind that policy was absolutely correct. If a strict and controlling system that protects the local community is established and a genuine exception, which follows the policy, is granted, it is possible to achieve low land values and deliver affordable homes in rural areas. The setting of high projections will never achieve that.
The exception described by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) is clearly not a proper exception. An exception would have to be brought through with the support of parish council housing associations and others, and the necessity for it would have to be clearly demonstrated by a community needs assessment. My hon. Friend’s example is a rather curious one. Over the past few years in Cornwall, we have seen a lot more housing—we are the second or third-fastest growing place in the United Kingdom—but housing problems have soared. In the Penzance area, rough sleeping and homelessness is second, proportionately, to London, so the policy has clearly failed.
The Government must stop imposing projected figures on Cornwall. Cornwall council will have a debate next week in which it will say that if it does not accept the ONS projected figure, that figure will be imposed on the council. That is not a basis on which Cornwall can establish a plan to meet local housing need. Meeting the desperate need for affordable homes, not accepting projections that divert us from achieving that aim, is ultimately what matters. Otherwise, we end up with more second homes, more unoccupied property, more investment property and more retirement homes. Those sectors have certainly grown in Cornwall, while opportunities for the local population to find adequate housing have significantly decreased.
I hope that the Government will recognise that the issue is sophisticated and difficult, and that they will give local authorities the power to meet local housing need rather than forcing on them thousands of houses that will not help to meet that need.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) on securing this timely debate. It is a great pleasure to follow a fellow Cornish MP, my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who has in a nutshell articulated our dilemma in Cornwall. We have welcomed a lot of people into Cornwall; there has been a lot of inward migration and a lot of house building, but we still have a chronic housing situation. People who are born and bred in Cornwall, who work in our local economy and contribute a great deal to it, cannot afford to live there. Because so many colleagues want to contribute to this debate, I shall take the lead from my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) and say that my speech will be on my website in its entirety. I associate myself very much with the comments that he has made.
With brevity in mind, I seek some simple assurances from the Minister. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives has said, Cornwall council will meet next week to attempt to agree its plan, and some specific assurances from the Minister today would help the councillors in that process. Our councillors are being told by the planners that unless they accept a projected housing target based on what Cornwall has delivered over the past 10 years, the planning inspector simply will not agree the plan. To help the plan-making process, I urged Cornwall council to undertake a local needs assessment, which it has done. That assessment looked at the number of homes that are needed in Cornwall for those who currently do not have the right type of genuinely affordable housing, and the number needed to support the growing businesses in Cornwall. The local needs assessment demonstrated that Cornwall has been over-delivering properties at a rate of up to 1,000 a year, and that we need a much smaller number in order to meet our obligations and our desire to provide the right sorts of homes and achieve sustainable growth.
Cornwall councillors are being told that the good evidence base that has been gathered in that local needs assessment cannot be used, or the planning inspectors will throw out the resulting plan. I seek an absolute assurance that if Cornwall councillors, when they meet next week, can provide an adequate evidence base that supports the building of a certain number of homes based on realistic population growth and observed household composition rates, the planning inspector will accept that number. Any reassuring words that the Minister can give about the methodology that councillors can use in making their decision next week would be most welcome, because we desperately need to agree the plan. There has been a huge amount of consultation and very good work is going on in neighbourhood planning, but that plan has to be agreed.
As so many other hon. Members have described today, a developers’ free-for-all is going on in Cornwall and a huge number of speculative planning applications are being made. We need to use the tools that the Government have laid out in a new plan-making process to ensure that we have development in Cornwall, but that it is sustainable and fits in with our unique environment. Our key industries are tourism, farming, fishing and food production. Only yesterday the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs quite rightly pointed out how much more food we need to produce in our own country, and how food security will become an increasing issue. Those are key industries for Cornwall, and we can make a key contribution to the nation if councillors are given the tools to balance the need for housing with the need for a sustainable environment.
I would like to add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) on securing the debate so early in the year. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I declare an interest as a home owner in the Malvern Hills district, which has recently been found to be the second best place to live in the midlands, but I think it was severely underrated in that survey. It is a wonderful place to live.
I have had the pleasure of attending two debates on the south Worcestershire development plan in this Chamber in the past few months—one on 24 October and one on 20 November—so I do not want to talk too much about my local area, but about national planning issues. I have some questions for the Minister. I agree with the many colleagues who said that we are in a much better place, as far as planning is concerned, than we were when we had the top-down regional spatial strategies so favoured by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop).
I completely agree with other colleagues who said how important home building is in our areas and how important it is for the economy, which is beginning to show signs of recovering from the dreadful recession we had under the Labour Government. I know how keen the Minister is to see the promising increase in the rate of home building continue, and I have some suggestions as to how we could speed up housing development by clarifying the guidance to the planning inspector. It is my view that the Planning Inspectorate is holding up growth in many areas, and we have heard many examples of that today.
In my area, we are a bit further on than the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome: our local plan was agreed by the councils over a year ago—as far in the past as December 2012. It was then submitted to the planning inspector in May 2013 and it took him until 28 October to give his interim thoughts on stage 1 of the inspection. That is a total of five months. He found that the duty to co-operate was being met and he had many good things to say about the plan, but he still wants further information and has rejected all seven methodologies presented to him for housing projections. We are playing a game of “pin the tail on the donkey” in the dark with the planning inspector and guessing what sort of housing numbers he wants to see. He has told us that the next stage of part 1 will start on 10 March 2014—a delay, with five months between that date and the continuation of stage 1. He has also written to me to say that he cannot give a time scale at this point for stage 2.
I wanted to see how long our process took compared with what hon. Members had seen around the country. There is a good spreadsheet on the Department for Communities and Local Government website of the 350-odd local plans currently in different stages of development. It categorises them by whether a council has published its local plan, submitted its plan, whether the plan has been found to be sound and whether the plan has been adopted. I thought it would be helpful to see how long the process takes. In about half the cases, the plan has been fully adopted. It is interesting to note that the time between a plan being submitted and being found to be sound has increased substantially in the past year. Since the national planning policy framework became live at the end of last March, the number of days between a plan being submitted and being found to be sound has increased from nine months on average— a normal human pregnancy—to 14 months. There is a material difference: the time period is not as long as an elephant’s pregnancy yet, but it is certainly increasing—the size of the mammal is going up.
My first question to the Minister is whether the delay—the increase in the time between the plan being submitted and having it found to be sound—is due to a national shortage of planning inspectors. My neighbour and newly knighted colleague, the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Sir Peter Luff), tabled some parliamentary questions at the end of last year. He was told that 80 plans are in the process of inspection across the country, which, in the Department’s view, will take 25 full-time equivalent planning inspectors, and it is currently recruiting additional inspectors. I would like an update from the Minister on the recruitment of those additional inspectors.
Secondly, is the delay since the NPPF became active a deliberate strategy? Does the Minister believe that it is encouraging more home building? I submit that that is a mistaken view. It would be helpful if we heard whether he had noticed any difference between the number of new homes bonuses paid out in local council areas that have an adopted plan and the number paid out in those areas that do not. Is there a statistical difference in the rate of housing delivery? Housing delivery will speed up and the arguments about planning will slow down if a plan is given significant weight in the planning process.
I conclude by saying that my thesis is the same as that of many hon. Members here today. The goal of the Minister, the Chancellor, the Prime Minister and indeed the country of delivering more homes and building local democracy into the heart of that process will be better achieved if the Minister told his inspectors to move immediately to give almost full weight in the planning process to plans that have been submitted and democratically agreed.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I give my hearty congratulations to our hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) on securing a worthwhile opportunity to set out our thoughts on planning.
The essence of the debate is that increasingly relying on an inspection regime to sort out problems is not localism, but quite the reverse. That is the cornerstone of most Members’ contributions today. Stroud district council is busily preparing its local plan, but it is of course a Labour-led administration, which is bound to hamper progress, and it has a committee system, which is not ideal.
Delays have left many communities spinning in the wind, as gusts of developers come along and make proposals here, there and everywhere. I have been the recipient of many messages from communities saying, “What are you going to do to protect the integrity of our area while we don’t have a local plan?” I reiterate the point made by my hon. Friend and others: while emerging local plans are still being formulated, we must give them more prominence in inspection considerations. That matters because if we are talking about localism and giving local people a voice, we must be bold enough to do it. We must give emerging local plans some consideration.
The same logic, incidentally, applies to neighbourhood planning. When we go around our patches, as I do, encouraging neighbourhood plans, the response heard is, “Well, that won’t be sufficient to stop what’s being proposed.” That is absolutely true unless or until such plans are given recognition in the planning process, too. If a community is concerned about what will happen to it, a neighbourhood plan is a good way to do something, but we must give that plan some traction. We should not only think about the local plan as a whole, but consider emerging neighbourhood plans. They are a clear illustration of what communities are thinking, if they are bold enough and sensible enough to have one.
Many hon. Members have talked about housing numbers. It is important to bring together two issues. The first is co-operation among councils. They must talk to each other and understand the scope and content of their plans and their relationship to each other’s plans. That is essential. Secondly, this is not just about housing numbers, but about the economic conditions that prevail in an area. We need planning authorities to take much more account of the economic factors, which should have a bearing on housing numbers. The Minister needs to express that clearly, so that councils have to consider the economic issues, as well as the obvious question of housing numbers.
Time is obviously short, so I shall finish by saying that we want to see local communities planning and we want to see more houses. We need to understand the value that more houses can bring to local communities which need to feel involved and have ownership of the developments. That is another essential point that needs to be transmitted to local authorities. In short, we do not want an inspection-led regime, because that is not localism; it is effectively the nationalisation of planning. We want the reverse, and we want to be able to say to local authorities, “Those of you that are doing something, do it well and be respected.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) on securing this debate. He has very eloquently raised important constituency issues this morning, and I shall return to the specifics of his speech in a minute or two.
I hope that Government Members and others will forgive me for not mentioning them individually; there are rather a lot of them. Everyone spoke earnestly and lucidly on behalf of their constituencies. I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) for helping me to feel a little less lonely on the Opposition side and for raising important issues that affect his area. He highlighted inconsistencies in the Government’s approach to planning at the moment.
This debate follows one on a broadly similar topic. Lots of Government Members attended that debate a few months ago in October. It was about what happens with local planning decisions when there is not a local plan in place. There was some dispute among Members about whether there was a need for additional housing in rural areas, and that has been reflected to a degree in some of the contributions today.
I want to put on the record that I agree with some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, particularly those about technical starts; land banking; land supply; the need to get better quality into our house building system; the need to strengthen brownfield policy further; and how we take more notice of neighbourhood planning. I concur with all those points and will talk about them in more detail in a minute or two.
We know that we need more housing, including in rural areas. I shall not rehearse again all the figures that I gave last time. Suffice it to say that, to secure a typical mortgage, a rural resident needs to earn £66,000. With the average rural income standing at just over £20,000, there clearly is a problem with affordability, partly as a result of insufficient supply.
The situation in rural areas is part of a wider problem. For decades, under successive Governments, house building has stayed low relative to demand. Private house building completions in England have been relatively static for more than 30 years, averaging about 130,000 per annum. That is below the peak average of 180,000 per annum in the 1960s. There is an ever-growing gap between supply and demand, which means that millions of hard-working people are increasingly priced out of buying their own home.
Recent data from Glenigan show that although approvals for new housing are improving, they are not yet at the levels recorded for 2007, and are not high enough to deliver the output of about 200,000 houses per year that most sensible commentators suggest we need to meet demand, so we must address the housing shortage.
The Government are right—I want to emphasise this—to allow housing need to be objectively measured locally as outlined in the NPPF, but as the National Housing Federation has stated in its briefing for today’s debate, more could be done to clarify the methodology used. Indeed, it appeared to back Labour’s call that we need a common methodology to be applied across all local authorities to ensure a consistency of approach. That might help to address some of the concerns raised by Members this morning.
I also agree with other Members who have contributed today that development sites need to be identified by local communities, with a stronger emphasis on neighbourhood planning and with consent at the heart of the planning system. I think that that can be helped in a number of ways. I have paid tribute to the Minister before for his support for neighbourhood planning; he has the Opposition’s support. We want him to think about how neighbourhood planning can be strengthened and how we can better integrate neighbourhood planning into the local plan-making system.
I also applaud the precedence that the Government have given to local plans in the determination of planning applications, but, as many hon. Members have said this morning, the process of getting them adopted is still too slow, with only 55% of authorities having an adopted local plan. I know that 76% of councils have published a plan, but there are still not enough of them in place. In the meantime, we have a situation in which, as many hon. Members have mentioned today, the Planning Inspectorate, and in some instances local authorities, are approving inappropriate schemes in the absence of a local plan, or they are not taking enough note of a local plan.
A few months ago when we debated the issue, the Minister had nothing much to say about how he would remedy the situation. I hope he has stronger words of comfort for us today. It is clearly an issue that relates to many areas and it is causing anxiety locally. Worryingly, the Local Government Association has said that local decisions taken in line with emerging local plans are being overturned by the Planning Inspectorate. I agree with it and others who have said that this will undermine trust in the planning system and result in development that does not reflect the needs of local communities. That is the opposite of what we all want.
The LGA also points out, helpfully, that it is not planning that is the barrier to growth. Councils are approving 89% of all planning applications, and planning permissions are up 31% on 2012. Indeed, planning approvals are at a 10-year high, so it should be possible to have the housing we need and to reject inappropriate development as defined locally at the same time. Otherwise, the current system risks breeding further resentment towards development. Instead, we should be supporting a planning system that more readily favours development based on consent.
The issue is important for the Minister, because the NPPF states clearly that weight should be given to emerging local plans, but, in practice, this appears to be being ignored by PINS. Members have this morning called for greater guidance to be given to the Planning Inspectorate.
Forgive me, but I am terribly short of time.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made an excellent point: the issue is not simply about housing numbers. It is about employment, proper infrastructure and leisure. We need to talk not only about housing numbers, but about building communities. This is an issue that is often not considered strongly enough by the Planning Inspectorate. Again, I want to emphasise the need to do something about quality and about protecting our ancient woodlands. Perhaps the Minister will say something about that. It is an added concern for us all after the past week. What is the Minister going to do to speed up the system for getting local plans approved? That is clearly the key to getting the development that we want.
Before I sit down, I should say that while we have been having this debate we have all learned about the very sad death of our colleague, Paul Goggins. I am sure that all Members will join me in sending our deepest condolences to his family and friends.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
First, I absolutely echo the condolences that the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) has just extended to the family of Paul Goggins. I had not understood that he had died, and it is a very sad day. He was a gentleman who commanded respect and affection across the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) on securing this debate, which has become something of a “Groundhog Day” experience for me. I am absolutely sure that this is not the last time that I will have this experience, although whether I will end up with Andie MacDowell at the end of the movie is open to question.
I welcomed many of the questions that my hon. Friend asked, but I must object very strongly to how he opened his speech. He seemed to imply that I was not a supporter of maintaining agricultural land for farming. I heard some bellows from up above, where my recently departed father, a sheep farmer in Devon, and my rather-longer-ago departed grandfathers, farmers in the Mendips and in Devon respectively, were outraged at the implication that I am anything other than a passionate supporter of farming.
My hon. Friend is such an experienced Member that I am surprised he believes what he reads in the newspapers.
In the very short time available to me, I will try to cover some of the main issues raised this morning, chiefly by my hon. Friend but also by other hon. Members. I will not be able to answer every question. In particular, I would like to write to my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) about the questions that she put about the Planning Inspectorate. I will copy in everybody in Westminster Hall today with the answers, because they were very good questions but technical ones, and I would like to come back to her specifically on them.
The first issue is housing projections. What is the role of figures from the Office for National Statistics in supporting housing projections? The fundamental situation is that, just as we expect local authorities to make plans to meet their needs for schools and for social care, we expect in the national planning policy framework that local authorities will make plans to meet their housing needs. Those plans have to be evidence-based. Of course, we cannot entirely reject ONS population projections, because the ONS is our national statistics body and those projections are the best that we have, although I entirely understand why they are often wrong and flawed, as all projections necessarily are.
What I have said, however, does not mean that those ONS projections are the last word. It is absolutely open to any authority—Cornwall council will certainly have this opportunity—to look at the actual figures achieved in the past, relate them back to the projections that were in place then and then say why it thinks that projections are not the last word and that different numbers have an evidence base. It is absolutely open to authorities to do that, but their numbers must be based on evidence; they cannot be based on assertion alone. Authorities must use evidence and that evidence will be challenged in an examination by developers and others, so it needs to be pretty robust.
I will now address the subject of the five-year land supply and particularly the question put by my hon. Friend about this rather vexed question—I cannot believe that we are all getting into this business whereby we are all experts on Sedgefield and Liverpool, not as places, football teams or constituencies, but as methods of calculating land supply.
What “Sedgefield” and “Liverpool” simply refer to is a particular question. If an area has had an under-delivery of housing in the past, how quickly—in the area’s new plan—should it catch up on that under-delivery? Rather than getting into the whole question of, “Is it Liverpool and is it Sedgefield?”, which will mean precisely nothing to our constituents, I will just read out what the draft guidance, which we hope to finalise in a very few weeks, says about this issue:
“Local planning authorities should aim to deal with the under-supply within the first five years of the plan period where possible.”
Now, some things are not possible; some things will conflict with other sustainability policies that are very important in the NPPF. However, it is not unreasonable to expect that, where past performance has undershot need, if it is possible, we should try to catch it up at the beginning of the plan and not during the full 15-year life of the plan.
I thank the Minister for giving way on that specific point. Of course, by catching up quickly in the plan, my local authority—Test Valley borough council—faces a situation where in years six to 15 it is unable to include sites such as windfall sites, which we know will inevitably come forward. Does the Minister have any plans to allow my local authority to include windfall sites again, or are such sites off the agenda for ever?
I cannot comment on any particular plan, but windfall sites absolutely can form part of a plan. Where an authority can evidence that it has had a consistent delivery of housing through windfall sites in the past, and it is reasonable to expect that there will continue to be such a delivery of housing through windfall sites, it is absolutely reasonable to say that part of its planned projections assumes a level of windfall site delivery. There is nothing in the policy to prevent that.
I will move, very briefly, to the question of the weight of emerging plans. The hon. Member for City of Durham was absolutely right to say that it was a vexed issue in the last debate that we had on this subject. We are trying to make this issue clearer in the draft guidance and although the consultation has closed on that draft guidance, as far as I am concerned consultation never closes.
If hon. Members would like to look at that draft guidance, they should refer to the Department’s website. I would be very happy to take any comments or concerns from them. We have also invited my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, who both had very serious concerns about this process, to meet the chief planner to discuss in detail how it will work.
I did not get the opportunity to speak; I will put my speech on the website. The Minister can go further than issuing draft guidance and actually amend the NPPF, because all is not lost. He does not have to come back to Westminster Hall and have “Groundhog Day”. He can also take into account the cumulative effects of development within the NPPF, at paragraphs 186 and 187, to close a loophole that he has been hearing about today; he has also heard about the pain that that loophole has caused. I also have other suggestions that I will write to him about.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We are not looking to change the NPPF, because after such a dramatic change in the planning system, stability has an enormous value.
However, what we are looking to do in the draft guidance, which we hope to confirm shortly, is to make it clear that it is sometimes reasonable—in exceptional circumstances, but exceptions happen all the time—to refuse a planning application. That is the case if, one, the application is so substantial that it runs the risk of undermining the plan to which it is being referred, and, two, where a local plan has been submitted for examination—it has not yet passed examination, but has been submitted. A refusal can also happen in the case of a neighbourhood plan, when it has entered into what is called the local authority publicity period; it has completed consultation but it has not yet gone to referendum or, indeed, to examination. Before the plans have been examined, they will have material weight and they can, in exceptional circumstances, be used just on the basis of prematurity to refuse an application, if the application is so substantial that it could completely knock the legs out from that emerging plan.
I hope that I have reassured hon. Members. We have listened very carefully to the concerns that have been expressed. As I say, we have met other Members who have had concerns about this issue and we have done our utmost to listen to them, and to try to reflect those concerns.
I simply point out that that is not entirely within our gift, because, much as I understand how my colleagues from all parts of the House would dearly love to abolish the Planning Inspectorate, I can tell them where these things would end up if we abolished it—they would end up in court. It would cost their local authorities a lot more money to fight these things in court than it does to fight them either through an examination or in an appeal with the Planning Inspectorate. Planning inspectors are a better solution for local councils and local communities than the available alternative in a system where the rule of law enables people to challenge Government decisions whenever they like.
In the minute or so I have left to me, I will address the very important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome made about design. To reassure him, hopefully, I will read the draft guidance about the very point that he made:
“Development should seek to promote character in townscape and landscape by responding to and reinforcing locally distinctive patterns of development and culture, while not preventing or discouraging appropriate innovation.”
Local vernacular is critical to making people feel that development is a friend, and is actually helping and supporting communities, rather than undermining, challenging or alienating them. It is something that matters a great deal to me. I believe that if we built more beautiful houses in more beautiful places, we would build more houses, and ultimately that is what we all want to achieve.
I thank the 11 hon. Members who spoke and the eight who intervened. Will they please now leave the Chamber swiftly and quietly? I congratulate the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), who nobly acted as Parliamentary Private Secretary in the previous debate and will now introduce his own debate.
Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation
It is a pleasure to be here today under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate on the work of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation. I requested this debate following the JCVI’s decision on the 2 October 2013 to undertake further work on key issues surrounding the human papillomavirus, or HPV, vaccination programme. I understand that some colleagues may wish to comment on other aspects of the JCVI’s work. I want to focus particularly on the Committee’s decision to consider—I use its word—“urgently” vaccinating men who have sex with men, on attendance at sexual health services, and adolescent males. I intend to focus my remarks on that work now being undertaken with regard to the HPV vaccination programme, specifically in terms of exposure to HPV-related cancers, which are increasing in boys who have sex with females and the MSM community.
The decision of the JCVI to prioritise consideration of vaccinating MSM is noteworthy, not least because the minutes of its October meeting accept that a full economic model might not be necessary where sexual health clinicians can develop independent guidelines. Historically, the JCVI has often rejected vaccination of adolescent boys and MSM on economic grounds, so it is a major step forward for it to say that heath clinicians with expertise—particularly at sexual health clinics—can take such a decision on clinical grounds. That is welcome.
It is important—I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Minister will need to ensure it—that any decision on extending vaccinations is clinically and financially sound. I do not seek to undermine that decision. I wish to stress the economic benefits of extending the vaccination swiftly, rather than stress other issues of equality, which I raised in an Adjournment debate last year.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this important health matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. There have been significant positive results from vaccinating women and girls for HPV, so clearly there is an advantage shown in doing that. That consolidates the hon. Gentleman’s request for the same vaccination to take place in men and boys as well. Does he agree that the same should happen with regard to men as has happened for women and girls?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point that repeats some of the discussion we had in last year’s Adjournment debate. The success of the vaccination programme among girls has had a dramatic impact on HPV-related cancers among women. However, the flaw was that it assumed herd immunity for boys who were having sex either with girls or within the herd. But of course, not all boys have sex with girls: some—shock, horror!—have sex with other boys, and not all boys have sex within the herd. Increasingly, in a global economy, and particularly in Europe where the vaccination programme is not the same, adolescent boys in this country are exposed to women who have not been vaccinated. It is important to close the loophole for adolescent boys having sex with unvaccinated girls and those having sex with unvaccinated boys, who, obviously, grow to be unvaccinated men.
If the JCVI has agreed to urgently review the economic case for extending the vaccination programme, why is this debate needed? Before I discuss that, it is worth reminding ourselves what health problems we are trying to prevent. I recall, during the Adjournment debate, seeing the duty Whip sink ever further on the Bench as we discussed certain topics and cancers. This is not a pleasant subject, but I would rather discuss an unpleasant subject than have to deal with it in our hospitals.
Nine out of 10 cases of genital warts are HPV-related; oral-related HPV infections—men are six times more likely than women to have oral infections—increase the risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, neck and head cancers; and there are HPV-related penile and anal cancers: HPV is associated with 80% to 85% of anal cancer in men. In 2009, just after the HPV vaccination programme started, there were more than 6,500 cases of these cancers, with 47% of penile cancer and 16% of head and neck cancers thought to be HPV-related. The latest incidence data show that in 2010 there were 437 incidences of anal cancer and 5,637 of oropharyngeal cancer, 515 instances of penile cancer and 180,000 instances of genital warts. Rates of HPV-related cancers are on the rise in the UK. Throat cancer has overtaken cervical cancer as the leading HPV-related cancer. I am pleased that the JCVI has accepted that there is an urgent need to review the clinical and economic case for extending the programme to adolescent boys and MSM.
I should like to put on record my thanks to the Minister’s predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry),for her support in this matter and for facilitating a teleconference, which she and I and representatives of the Terrence Higgins Trust had with the Chairman of the JCVI, which I believe gave some impetus to this change of heart and the speeding up of the work by the JCVI. That was a significant breakthrough.
The key point in this debate is that although the JCVI’s urgent report is due at some unspecified point later this year, the procurement of the next round of HPV vaccinations will commence in October or November this year. I am concerned that if the JCVI does not report in time and this procurement round is missed, we may have to wait four more years—I believe it is a four-year procurement round—before the HPV vaccination programme is extended to adolescent boys and MSM, if that is the recommendation.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this subject to the House. I share his concerns. Is he also concerned that although the JCVI undoubtedly does some excellent work, it does not share the flexibilities of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, in terms of its medical and health assessment processes? Would he welcome some movement there, which might in turn help bring this vaccine forward more quickly?
The hon. Lady makes a good point and speaks, probably, with more knowledge than I have. If NICE is able to react more swiftly than the JCVI, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will take that point away and consider whether the two organisations could share best practice. Clearly, as new drugs come on the market and new issues arise, we must ensure that the health advisers are able to respond quickly to changes.
The key point I was making is that if we miss the procurement window, and if we have to wait four more years, boys and the MSM community would be unnecessarily exposed to HPV-related cancers. There is not just a personal cost to those who become exposed to HPV-related cancers: the NHS would be exposed to treatment costs that might be mitigated or avoided if we get the JCVI to report in time for the procurement round later this year.
If we look at the costs, we can start to see the scale of the savings. To put that into perspective, the three-dose HPV vaccination programme currently costs some £260. I understand that the JCVI is also considering whether that may be reduced to a two-dose vaccination, which would reduce the outlay. Let us compare that with the £13,000 cost per patient of treating anal cancer, the £11,500 cost per patient of treating penile cancer, the £15,000 cost per patient of treating oropharyngeal cancer, or the £13,600 cost per patient of treating vulvar and vaginal cancer transmitted by an infected male. In 2010, the total cost to the NHS of treating genital warts was £52.4 million. If we multiply those figures by four, we can see the clear economic benefits of bringing forward the decision to coincide with the next procurement round.
The clinical reasons and the economic benefits are evident, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm today that, at best, the JCVI will be able to report in time for the procurement round later this year or, at worst, that any contract procured later this year will have flexibility built in to allow the Minister and the Department of Health to extend the vaccination programme to adolescent boys and MSM at some point after the report.
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) on securing this important debate.
I wish to change the subject and address meningitis B. A vaccine is available, and the Minister and the Department have decided that it is not cost-effective. I wonder what costs they have taken into account. Was it the lifelong costs of looking after a child such as my constituent Isabelle, who contracted meningitis B when she was seven years old? Isabelle was given a 0.7% chance of survival. She survived, but she had to have both her arms and both her legs amputated. She is the most amazing little girl. She is so bubbly, so bright and so cheerful given what she has to deal with, but there is the cost to the NHS, the cost of education and the cost of continuing care for the rest of her life—she is now 10 years old. She has to have four sets of legs and two sets of arms, which change regularly and cost thousands of pounds each. She has to have two wheelchairs, one portable and one mechanical, because she cannot walk far.
Isabelle has to have continuing care in school. Someone has to sit with her in classes because, clearly, there are things that she cannot do. She cannot easily carry her books from class to class, for instance, and she will need such care not just for the rest of her school and university life but for the rest of her working life, because she will be limited in what she is able to do.
Isabelle is the most amazing child that I have ever come across. She has come through such terrible circumstances. Her family had to make the awful decision that both her legs and both her arms had to be amputated. No parent should have to make that decision, and no child should have to live with that consequence for the rest of their life. She is not the only such child in this country; there are a lot of children in that situation with varying degrees of disability.
When the Minister reconsiders universal vaccination, will she bear it in mind that, although it is expensive, the emotional costs of what Isabelle’s family went through outweigh that expense? The Minister should consider the matter in the round, not just the cost to the NHS of vaccinating every child. We should consider what vaccination is doing for the whole country in saving money and preventing parents from having to make such a terrible decision. It must have been agony for the parents, the child and the family to survive in that situation. Will the Minister reconsider what can be done to ensure universal vaccination against meningitis B?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) on securing this debate and on again bringing this important subject before the House. He has been a great champion. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on raising another vital aspect of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s work, to which I will also respond, albeit briefly.
It may help the House if I provide some background. The JCVI is an independent departmental expert committee, and it is a statutory body constituted to advise the Secretary of State for Health on the provision of vaccination and immunisation services. The committee and its invited experts represent some of the finest clinicians and academics in the UK and Europe, and all members are selected for their expert knowledge of matters concerning vaccination, immunisation and associated disciplines, including immunology, virology, bacteriology, paediatrics, general practice, public health and health economics.
We all recognise that the NHS budget is a finite resource. New vaccination programmes and extensions to existing programmes represent a significant cost to the health service in terms of both vaccine procurement and administration. Obviously, it is essential that any recommendations from the JCVI on changes to the national vaccination programme are supported by evidence of cost-effectiveness.
The JCVI has adopted a methodology for assessing cost-effectiveness that is in line with that used by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Using those processes, the committee basically ensures that increased spending on immunisation does not result in an overall decrease in the health of the population because resources are diverted from more cost-effective health care interventions. We all recognise that those decisions are not easy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire makes a powerful case for the meningitis B vaccine, which the JCVI is currently reconsidering. The updated statement published on 25 October 2013 reflects the JCVI’s recognition of the burden and severity of meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia in the UK and the need to explore the potential for their prevention through immunisation. The situation is difficult when we have a new vaccine, in this case against meningitis B, but lack important evidence on its effectiveness. We need to know how well the vaccine will protect, how long it will protect for and whether it will stop the bacteria spreading from person to person. At the committee’s next meeting in February, if it feels it is in a position to make such a decision because it is in possession of all the relevant facts, the JCVI will make a final recommendation on whether meningitis B immunisation should be introduced. Obviously at that point we will carefully consider and respond to the recommendation. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that the recommendation will get proper and careful attention.
On the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green, the primary aim of the UK’s national HPV vaccination programme, which began in 2008, is to prevent cervical cancer related to HPV infection. The HPV vaccine protects against two strains of HPV—16 and 18—that currently cause some 70% of cervical cancer.
As HPV is responsible for virtually all cases of cervical cancer, preventing the disease is the major aim, but as my hon. Friend rightly says, HPV infection has been associated with other cancers, including cancer of the penis and anus, and some cancers of the head and neck. The precise proportion of those diseases that can be attributed to HPV infection is less well defined, but evidence is emerging all the time, so HPV infection should be taken seriously.
Evidence from clinical trials demonstrates that the HPV vaccine has a very high efficacy against the precursors of cervical cancer. Evidence of efficacy against cancers at other sites is emerging, and it is recognised that the current programme may therefore provide protection against a wider range of HPV-related cancers in females and, indirectly, in males than originally envisaged.
It is also worth saying that the UK’s HPV vaccination programme has been a considerable success, with this country having some of the highest coverage in the world—something we can be very proud of. A recently published study by Public Health England provided new evidence that the programme is successfully preventing HPV infections in young women in England, and that adds to our confidence that the programme can achieve its aim of reducing cervical cancer.
With a high uptake of HPV vaccination among girls, transmission of HPV between girls and boys should, as my hon. Friend said, be substantially lowered. Many boys will be protected against HPV infection and will, therefore, be at reduced risk of developing the related cancers we have spoken about, such as anal, head and neck cancers. However, I appreciate that he is particularly concerned that the current programme does not extend to men who have sex with men. He argued strongly that that is an apparent health inequality, and he raised the issue with my predecessor in last July’s debate, for which I was present.
As my hon. Friend will know, the JCVI has recognised that, under the current programme, the protection that accrues from reduced HPV transmission from vaccinated girls may not extend to men who have sex with men. He made the additional point about men who might have sex with girls and women from elsewhere who have not been subject to the broad coverage provided by our programme.
That is why, in October 2013, the JCVI agreed to set up a sub-committee on HPV vaccination to assess, among other issues, the question of extending the programme to MSM, adolescent boys or both. The JCVI therefore recognises the issue as a priority, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on championing it, because the attention it received in Parliament was obviously part of the reason that it was given a fresh look and is regarded as a priority. I know the JCVI took events in Parliament into account, and, indeed, my hon. Friend made his case directly.
The sub-committee will aim to identify and evaluate the full range of options for extending protection from HPV infection to men who have sex with men, and that will cover a range of settings, including genito-urinary medicine clinics. However, as my hon. Friend will be aware, GUM clinics may not be the best setting for offering vaccination, as those presenting may already have been exposed to infection, so their ability to benefit from vaccination will inevitably be limited.
The sub-committee is scheduled to meet for the first time on 20 January, when it will assess currently available scientific evidence and consider what further evidence is required to advise the JCVI on the suitability of possible changes to the HPV programme. For the reasons I outlined earlier, any proposals for the vaccination of additional groups will require supporting evidence to show that it would be a cost-effective use of NHS resources.
Public Health England has begun preliminary modelling to assess the impact and cost-effectiveness of vaccinating MSM, in anticipation of further guidance on the issue when the HPV sub-committee meets. Further work to assess the impact and cost-effectiveness of vaccinating adolescent boys against HPV infection is also planned, but it will take some time to do that important modelling, and I am conscious that that is one of the predominant concerns on my hon. Friend’s mind. These are complex issues, and the development of the evidence base and the mathematical models by PHE, as well as the deliberations of the JCVI itself, take time. However, that process and the time that it takes ensure that we get important decisions right and that decisions are taken on the basis of the best evidence. We cannot, therefore, undertake to take decisions hurriedly, because they are big decisions with, potentially, big implications.
Should the JCVI recommend the targeted vaccination of MSM, flexibility around contracted volumes in the current vaccine contract may allow a programme to be undertaken without the need for a new round of vaccine procurement—the numbers involved are relatively small in the context of the existing programme—if additional vaccine was available from the manufacturer in the required quantities. We are therefore cautiously optimistic that we can accommodate targeted vaccination of MSM in the existing programme, were it to be recommended by the JCVI. I hope that is a little encouraging for my hon. Friend.
Vaccine supply contracts are let for as long a period as is considered appropriate, taking into account the timing of potential changes to JCVI advice, policy and market forces, as well as Government procurement guidance. Obviously, longer contracts can secure firm prices for a longer period and allow for more accurate budget planning. However, we are exploring the flexibility that we have in existing contracts to align the window for the new contractual discussions with any potential recommendations by the JCVI, especially on the wider vaccination programme, were that what it recommended. We have not completed that work yet, but what I have seen so far leads me to conclude that we might be able to do something around the existing contract. We are looking at that to ensure that we do not miss the window of opportunity, which my hon. Friend identified as a chief cause of concern.
In conclusion, this important work has yet to be completed. We have to get some clarity on the time lines. We cannot achieve one of the things my hon. Friend mentioned—bringing the work on the assessment forward—because we have to review the available evidence and fill in any gaps if further evidence is needed. A decision on the vaccination of adolescent boys will probably require the development of quite a complex model to determine whether vaccination would be cost-effective, because the numbers involved are large. Such a model may identify a need to generate additional evidence, so a decision on that wider programme is not likely before 2015. However, as I said, the evidence to support a decision on a selective programme to target men who have sex with men may become available during 2014.
I can certainly give my hon. Friend the commitment that I will keep under careful review the timetable for key decisions when the committee makes its assessment and look at how they align with what we know about the flexibility that we have under the procurement contract. We will keep that under careful consideration. I conclude by congratulating him again on bringing this important issue before us and on continuing to keep it on the Government’s agenda.
Health Care (London)
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the subject of the NHS in London and delighted that so many colleagues from the four corners of London want to say something about the health service in their areas. I want to sketch out, with some specific reference to local issues, the momentous changes that are happening within London’s health care and the extent to which the Government have made necessary changes far more difficult to achieve than should have been the case. I fear the results.
When I applied for this debate before Christmas, I did not know that I would spend a large part of the next two weeks experiencing the health care system with a close relative, who was admitted to hospital on Christmas day. We went through the whole process of ringing 111, of paramedics, of the ambulance, of A and E and of spending two weeks in St Mary’s hospital. I can confidently say two things on the basis of that experience.
First, I have seen, and my relative has experienced, nothing but kind and efficient health care at St Mary’s and within the health care system in general. It is true that, over the years, there have been instances of the health care system falling far short of the standards that we expect, but it is also true that most health care professionals and auxiliaries are doing a stunningly good job for the people of London and the rest of England.
There is kindness and the effective delivery of health care everywhere we look in our health service. We must be careful not to succumb to the tendency—I see this too often from Government Members—to talk down the health service’s achievements. It is completely right that Sir Mike Richards of the Care Quality Commission said in his comments on the first wave of inspections that
“there are some very good hospitals in this country, and it is possible, within the NHS, to receive good, excellent, even outstanding care.”
Secondly, from my observations this past fortnight, I can say that the health service is under extraordinary pressure. One would expect not to have the level of staffing for the two-week period of Christmas and new year that one might have outside the holiday period, but it has been alarming to note instances of health care auxiliaries being two thirds below planned staffing levels and nursing being down by one third. Incidentally, I was also shocked to discover when talking to health care assistants that they sometimes work an 11-hour day for a £90 day rate, which is not the London living wage—it is the minimum wage. How can we expect people to provide the intensity and quality of care that we want when we do not pay them even the living wage? That causes me great concern.
Pulling back to the wider picture, as our experiences have demonstrated, the health service is under extraordinary pressure, particularly in the emergency service. Some of that is unsurprising in London, because the capital has the fastest-growing population and has had the fastest rise in the over-65 population of any region in the country. It also has the highest demands on mental health care services and an overwhelming concentration of rarer and more difficult conditions, including tuberculosis, which places particular pressures on London.
Unsurprisingly, those facts are showing themselves in A and E attendance and waiting times. Just before Christmas, the London assembly found that more than half of London’s A and E departments failed to meet their waiting time targets for more than half of last year. Across the capital, Londoners had to wait for more than four hours on 202,000 separate occasions. A and E attendance has soared in London since 2010 and is up by 47% at St George’s hospital in Tooting, 46% at St Bartholomew’s hospital, 33% at West Middlesex university hospital and 35% at Hillingdon hospital. For my own Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, even a relatively modest increase of 19% equates to an extra 44,812 people seen last year compared with 2010. Cancelled operations were running at a 12-year high even before the winter, owing to pressure on hospital beds. One London hospital, Barts, topped the national list with 649 elective operations cancelled in the first half of last year.
Vacancy rates are a particular concern in London. Regionally, 11% of nursing posts are vacant, compared with a national average of 6%. At some London trusts, the rate is more than 20%. The regional total represents more than 6,000 vacant nursing posts in London. The Royal College of Nursing, which kindly briefed me for this debate, says:
“Our worry is that the hard work of some trusts in protecting posts is being undermined by a lack of available, suitably qualified nurses to take vacant positions, raising obvious questions about whether training is being commissioned at the level needed.”
Given that pressure, it is beyond dispute that there is a need to carry on changing how health care is delivered, which we all accept and have accepted for many years. The broad principles mapped out by Lord Darzi in 2007, which were not new, proposed a greater concentration of high-level surgical services to save lives and better community and primary services to reduce unnecessary admissions and enable speedy hospital discharge. Both the demand side of the equation, which is driven by an ageing population and the challenge of chronic conditions, and the delivery side, which utilises the opportunities of new drugs and surgical techniques, push us to the same conclusion. There is clear agreement in principle that we need to carry on with the changes.
The central thrust of my argument, which will be echoed by colleagues, is that managing change of that scale requires that essential preconditions are met. Those preconditions are, however, not being met at the moment, and in some cases the means of delivering them are going into reverse. First—all are important, but this is the first—there must be public confidence in the process, and that confidence is so catastrophically lacking.
Labour colleagues who are facing the closure or downgrading of their A and Es will know what their own communities are telling them, which is that closing A and E units in the midst of an A and E crisis is utterly perverse and should not happen until and unless trusted alternatives are in place. In that context, clause 118 of the Care Bill confirms everyone’s worst fears, because, having failed to win public confidence in London and other parts of the country, Ministers want to give powers to special administrators to override local opposition.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate her on her brilliant speech, which hon. Members understand from our experiences.
If clause 118 of the Care Bill goes through, every hospital and potential patient in the country will be faced with a situation in which no regard is given to clinical standards or clinical needs. The service will be based entirely upon accountancy. That is what the challenge was in Lewisham hospital. That was what was overturned. The people who knew about it—the consultants, the patients and the commissioning groups—all utterly opposed the trust special administrator proposals. We were right and we won the case. With the new powers, however, all that would be set aside and no one would be heard.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Dame Joan Ruddock) is completely correct. Lewisham hospital brilliantly exemplifies the argument.
Secondly, there must be effective partnership working between hospitals, primary care providers and local authorities in the delivery of services. It was the failure even to inform partners that elective surgery had already moved from St Mary’s hospital to Charing Cross hospital that prompted my debate some weeks ago, to which the Minister replied, and which subsequently prompted an apology for the breakdown in communication. That was not only a matter of leaving someone off an e-mail circulation list, but a complete unwillingness to collaborate even within the national health service, let alone with outside bodies such as the local council, which is responsible for social care delivery.
Furthermore, those three boroughs—Kensington, Westminster and Hammersmith—are part of a pilot scheme to demonstrate integration, yet what happened in the relationship between the Imperial College trust and those local authorities could not have been further from integration—it was like something written for a comedy sketch.
Even worse, fundamental confusion remains about how north-west London hospitals are to be configured with Hammersmith—my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) is in his place and I am sure will comment—which has a different spin on its hospital provision from Westminster, even though they are joined in a tri-borough arrangement. Even after the Secretary of State has blessed the restructuring of west London hospitals, just weeks before Imperial concludes its outline business case, we cannot even have a clear agreement on the status of Charing Cross hospital or, by extension, of St Mary’s. That goes to the very heart of whether we can have confidence in the new structure of the national health service.
Thirdly, everyone needs to keep focused on the key issues, and that takes me to the devastating impact of the Government’s ill-considered reforms on the strategic management of London’s health service. The service should be focused like a laser on delivering the vision set out by Lord Darzi, but instead it has been fragmented, diverted and injected with rules on competition when integration should be the key objective.
The King’s Fund report of only some months ago, “Leading health care in London”, stated that the recent NHS reorganisation and the abolition of strategic health authorities and primary care trusts have resulted in an “absence” of health care system leadership in London. The report states:
“The NHS reforms have created a much larger number of organisations in London and their purposes are not always well aligned; the risks of incoherence and inconsistency are high…Reorganising the NHS in London in such a fundamental way has made a challenging situation much more difficult”.
That is so significant that the country’s top emergency doctor has said that the current A and E crisis could have been averted two years ago had the Government heeded warnings of a looming collapse in casualty ward staffing.
The president of the College of Emergency Medicine has said that Ministers and health chiefs were “tied in knots” by the challenges of implementing the coalition’s health reforms from 2011 onwards, leading them to ignore the first warnings from the college of imminent crisis—that the NHS was failing to recruit enough A and E doctors. Therefore, London, which possibly has the most complex challenges and the greatest need for integrated strategic leadership, actually has the least such leadership. Had leading health care managers and professionals been able to concentrate on dealing with such tasks, we might have had some opportunity to build public confidence, carry people with us and make the changes. In fact, the exact reverse has happened.
Finally, we need community and social care and other support services that minimise unnecessary admissions, especially for chronic conditions, and facilitate early discharge. Again, we can all agree on the principle. There are some excellent specific examples of integrated practice and of people working hard to deliver it, but there are also some harsh truths of individual experiences and the funding of social care.
The reality is illustrated in letters from my constituents in response to the moving of elective surgery from St Mary’s. One letter states:
“When I had my mastectomy I was sent to Charing Cross Hosp. After the operation I went home by bus and underground holding my drainage…bottle…from my operated breast. In the same way I travelled after my cardiac arrest on my second lumpectomy due to anaphylactic shock!”
That is only one hazard of putting patients with no family far from where they live. A second letter states:
“They took my City of Westminster Taxi card from me and so I have to pay for taxis to take me to St Marys Hospital and…Charing Cross. I pay £6.50 there and the same coming home (£26 one way to Charing Cross). I cannot walk far”—
—she is unable to use public transport—
“as I get out of breath. I am 84 this year”,
“have had one breast removed with cancer.”
Another constituent told me:
“I have lost my…home help”—
due to the cuts in social care—
“If I’m ill, I wait for it to go away.”
London as a whole faces a £1.14 billion shortfall in social care funding as a consequence of the pressures on adult social care and of the extra costs likely to arise because of the cap—in principle, that is a good thing, but obviously revenue is necessary to fund social care costs. That situation is London-wide and has been set out clearly in a London Councils report. My local authority also set the situation out clearly in a report to the health and wellbeing board, which states:
“As a result of reductions in local government funding Adult Social Care…has to deliver substantial savings in 2013/14”—
£4.4 million in Hammersmith and Fulham, £2.1 million in Kensington and Chelsea, and £2.9 million in Westminster. The report continues:
“These are very large savings; the cumulative effects are much bigger than any other savings programme delivered in the local authorities in the past.”
That is on top of £8 million in cuts to the adult social care budget already coming into effect since 2011. The report states:
“Amongst big reductions to back office and support functions, the savings programmes also include reductions in the use of packages and placements, the greatest area of spend for ASC.”
Rather sweetly, it adds:
“Some of the savings projects may be difficult to deliver or may take longer than anticipated.”
“Funding growth for packages and placements arises mainly in the Learning Disabilities, Mental Health and the Young Disabled care groups where client numbers are growing, but also in Older People, as people live longer and are supported in the community.”
There is an important point. There is an integration care fund, which is shifting money from the NHS into social care, but, as Westminster council’s report on the pressures on social care funding states, that funding will mainly be used for purposes that include:
“To sustain services, otherwise at risk from savings plans”.
We are in an extraordinary position. There is a transformation fund designed to put in place the services that would allow us to make changes in hospital care, with which in principle we agree—we would argue in some specific cases—but that funding is simply going to fill the gaps caused by the cuts in social care, which are the result of cuts to local authority budgets. In London, as we know, there has been a 25% cut in local authority funding, with a further 10% cut as a result of the Chancellor’s autumn statement. Much of that new money is simply sustaining services that would otherwise be at risk from savings.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the estimate made by London Councils for the future? Between 2016 and 2020, we might see adult social care departments facing budget pressures of £1.1 billion, owing to rising demand and some of the changes proposed by the Government. Does she agree that the future looks extremely bleak?
I agree totally. A thoughtful and planned process throughout London that would allow us to build up community and primary services, reduce unnecessary A and E admissions, speed up unnecessary discharges and concentrate some of our specialist services in fewer sites is sensible, but the means to realise it have been pulled out because of the pressures on social care funding. Furthermore, the strategic leadership that would allow us to make changes has been undermined by a completely unnecessary, £3-billion, top-down reorganisation that we were promised would not happen.
I entirely associate myself with the earlier comments about the quality of my hon. Friend’s address so far. She talks about trying to have a logical and sensible planning process. Is she aware that London boroughs such as Ealing, ably led by Councillor Julian Bell, have had to divert intense amounts of resources to oppose something that is the antithesis of good planning? That is an additional double whammy against responsible local authorities, which have to divert scarce resources and face up to a desperately uncertain future.
I totally agree. Local authorities are on the front line of delivering the social care made necessary by some of the planned hospital changes and they are under pressure. The councils have expertise and knowledge and they are, as my hon. Friend says, sensibly involved in planning services, so they are making thoughtful objections when they see that services cannot be delivered as we want. Indeed, they have to divert resources to make the case on behalf of their populations.
In conclusion, London’s NHS continues to save lives and to provide the same quality of care it currently provides. That is a tribute to tens of thousands of men and women on the front line, whether in the NHS or employed directly by local authorities, but it owes absolutely nothing to a Government who have let us down with a change process that we should have been able to work through. They have done that by the way they have treated local authorities and by the way that, through this unnecessary reorganisation, they have diverted attention and resources from the leadership that could ensure that London’s health care is delivered in line with the wishes of Londoners. The Government have let down London’s patients and the men and women who deliver health care to them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing this valuable debate. Although her conclusion was perhaps a little more hyperbolic than mine would have been in the circumstances, we work closely together, along with her hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), to do our best for all our constituents. Over the past year or so, as we have tried to put our constituents first, we have had concerns about elements of the negotiations on this matter.
For all the lively debate about health care provision here in the capital, there is one thing on which we can all agree, as the hon. Lady made clear in her contribution: the pressures on the national health service here in London are huge and getting bigger. They are set to increase substantially, not only because the population is ageing but because of the hypermobility and hyperdiversity of that population. In the past, that was perhaps typical of inner London alone, but it now applies to the entirety of the capital.
At times, the national health service can seem a little like a national religion, whose traditions must not be questioned under any circumstance. In my view, if one good thing has come from the terrible events in Mid Staffordshire, it is that we can perhaps start to have a more honest and less ideological debate about where the NHS is performing well, where it is letting people down and how it can better tackle the future challenges to which the hon. Member for Westminster North referred.
I have enormous respect for the Secretary of State for unashamedly refocusing the NHS around patients rather than protecting the sanctity of the system. Thankfully, the patient experience at some of our central London hospitals is, as the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, a world away from what happened in Mid Staffordshire. The diversity of population and the presence of top-flight medical schools and universities, particularly in central London, inevitably draw global talent to our local hospitals.
I am often staggered by the quality of facilities here, whether the state-of-the-art birthing unit in St Mary’s or the Royal London, the beautiful Maggie’s cancer centre at Charing Cross or the brand new oncology unit at Barts in my constituency. Only yesterday, a constituent wrote to me about his young nephew’s recent stint in hospital. He said:
“Given it seems it is ‘in vogue’ to be ‘anti-NHS’ I wanted to let you know that my recent experiences with the high dependency unit at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital”—
that hospital is outside my constituency, but obviously caters for a lot of my constituents in the south of Westminster—
“were nothing short of exemplary. I am sure that my nephew’s speedy recovery was probably all down to the standard of care he received.”
More often in my constituency, non-emergency services fail to be so patient-focused. Londoners are spoilt for choice in so many aspects of their lives, and as a result they have the idea that they should expect to get a full choice in everything. Why should they not expect a similar consumer-driven, flexible and responsive system when it comes to primary care—one that allows them swift access to a GP or provides small surgical procedures outside hospital?
We have read a lot in recent days about the number of non-emergency cases being presented at A and E departments. I think that that is in part due to the hassle factor associated with the existing GP system. With the hypermobility of population in London, many people never bother to register with a GP, and those who do all too often find that they cannot get an appointment for days or at a time that is convenient for someone with a busy working life. It is therefore often a perfectly logical decision for those people to spend a few hours in A and E, where they are at least guaranteed to be seen.
Thankfully the story is rapidly improving for my constituents. The Central London clinical commissioning group has just extended its seven-day GP opening service from three practices to five. People are able to walk in and book a same-day appointment at those practices. They do not have to be a member of the practice to use the service, and registration with their own GP will not be affected. I also know that plans are afoot to locate more GPs within hospitals in London. That type of modern and practical response really needs to be rolled out more widely.
There are problems with the health service in central London, which my colleague the hon. Member for Westminster North has so carefully outlined. My own constituency will hopefully be affected for the better by the huge changes to be brought in by the “Shaping a healthier future” programme. That programme began some five years ago to respond to the challenges of a rapidly increasing population and the variation we were seeing in the quality of acute care. It has caused most controversy in its proposals to close a number of A and E departments.
My constituents are grateful, as are the hon. Lady’s, that St Mary’s hospital in Paddington has been confirmed as one of five north-west London hospitals to provide advanced comprehensive acute care. I am assured that there is a strong business case for even greater investment on that site and exciting plans are afoot in that regard.
The Minister needs to be aware, however, that there have been issues of communication over the relocation of elective surgery, as was raised earlier. I accept much of the wisdom in the reconfiguration of services in north-west London to allow for specialist centres, rather than having hospitals that are jacks of all trades.
I accept that that is easy for me to say, given that two local hospitals in my constituency, Chelsea and Westminster and St Mary’s Paddington, are not affected, and I know that the issue is a great concern for many Members, who are hearing such concerns from many constituents. But I suspect that the perceived success or failure of any reorganisation of this sort will come down to smaller things: how well plans are communicated; how quickly alternative, out-of-hospital services are in place; and how transportation is organised for patients, many of whom are impoverished or will have to travel further and rely on public transport.
On the acceptability of reconfiguration, we should never forget that many communities in London have a strong emotional attachment to a hospital that could have been in existence in some shape or form since the middle ages. That is why reconfiguration must go forward carefully and on a purely medical basis if it is to succeed in London.
That is right to an extent. I know that the hon. Lady spoke in a debate that I led in the House almost a decade ago on Barts, which is located in my constituency and has a special place in the hearts of many millions of Londoners—and, indeed, of people throughout the United Kingdom. The truth is that at that juncture, the private finance initiative was the only funding game in town and we all went along with it, but that £1 billion PFI has now caused major financial issues that, I am afraid, affect not just Barts but hospitals throughout the north-east of London, as the hon. Lady is well aware. We all feel a bit depressed about that knock-on effect.
We have to accept that in London, broadly speaking, we do pretty well as far as hospital care is concerned. Being absolutely candid with everyone, because I know what it is like, in central London we have a very good service, and it is partly outer London that suffers as a result. That is because of the strength of the links to which the hon. Lady rightly referred—the passion that we have for our historic hospitals—and the amount of resource that is pushed into central London because the hospitals there are teaching hospitals with consultants, former consultants and alumni who are willing to make a strong case for the existence of those hospitals. Dare I say it, that makes it easier to make the case for Barts than for a hospital out in Romford or Whipps Cross, or one in the hon. Lady’s constituency.
We all have to face those issues. They have not arisen as a result of the reorganisation of the past three and a half years; this has been the situation in the capital for probably 40 or 50 years. I am aware that even in the latest reconfiguration there has been a sense that central London has got off slightly better than the middle portion of outer western London.
I turn to finance. There was a good outcome before Christmas for north-west London on commissioning allocations, as all of our CCGs received an uplift to offset inflation. However, I want to raise concerns about the funding formula used to determine allocation. The formula fails to take into account the needs of the large homeless population in Westminster, which places massive pressure on acute services. Rough sleepers are far more likely to attend accident and emergency; they attend six times more often than any normal member of the population. They are admitted to hospital four times more often and stay in hospital three times as long.
The formula also ignores the fact that CCGs are responsible for all attendances at urgent care centres or walk-in centres and for the costs of patients covered by reciprocal funding arrangements with other countries. Westminster welcomes more than 1 million commuters and visitors each and every day, many of whom will need health advice and care while they are here. It is important that a future funding formula recognises the impact of that on local health care services.
The proposed formula will exclude spending on community care. That cannot be correct considering the important move to provide more high-quality care at home and in the community rather than simply in hospitals. I welcome the Government’s assurances that the Advisory Council of Resource Allocation formula will not be accepted in its current state and that changes to the funding of CCGs will be fully consulted on in future.
I turn to public health spending. A draft formula for local authorities was set out in the “Healthy Lives, Healthy People” consultation, which was published on 14 June 2012 and recognised that further work was needed on adjustments for age, fixed costs and non-resident populations. However, initial modelling by London councils suggests that Westminster would have a drop of 57% in public health funding. Central London and Westminster have unique population characteristics that make it more difficult to make public health improvements. They include the age structure, with a greater focus on working age and children, and levels of mental health problems and homelessness. Those are not properly reflected in the current formula.
The formula also fails to take account of substance misuse services, many of which fall outside the pooled treatment budget, which focuses on opiates and crack treatment. It also ignores the wider health and local authority investment needed to manage the individual family and community impact of drugs and alcohol on health and well-being.
Westminster experiences a high level of population churn—I accept that many other London boroughs are in that boat—and that leads to additional demands for services, including NHS checks and other screening programmes.
Other hon. Members want to speak so, if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will finish with a request to the Minister. I would welcome an indication from the Government of when we can expect more clarity on how future public health allocations will be determined. I would also appreciate confirmation that the formula consulted on in June 2012 will not be used to determine public health funding allocation in future.
I will take the suggestion with the severity with which it was meant, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing this debate.
I want to reflect on some of what my hon. Friend said at the beginning of her speech and on the sentiments of a letter to The Guardian before Christmas from GPs, emergency doctors and nurses, midwives, physiotherapists, psychotherapists and NHS trusts. Their plea was for a page to be turned in the way we talk about the NHS. We need to talk about the failures in patient care, but we must also recognise that we have some extraordinary abilities in the NHS to reach and look after our communities as well as they do. Sadly, I have been close to the NHS in the past three years, and I have seen excellence and the pits. However, in general, the people who work in our hospitals do a fantastic job.
I wholeheartedly endorse the sentiments of that letter because I fear that the driver for the relentless daily trashing that the NHS receives comes from base political motivation—the softening up of public opinion so that marketisation and privatisation become acceptable. It will not be acceptable. It is not acceptable now and I do not believe it will ever be acceptable, so let us just stop it.
I am not the only one to mistrust the motivation and outcome of the coalition’s top-down, unwanted and wasteful reorganisation of the NHS. I did a survey of my constituents—I like to find out whether my impressions are the same as theirs—and 97% of those who responded said that the NHS would undoubtedly get worse under the new system. When they were asked about their main concern, 60% thought that the money intended for NHS staff and services would end up as profit for private companies. My constituents are very astute.
I want to turn to local circumstances before I am coughed at. In 2006-08, life expectancy for men in Newham was 75.8 years, lower than the London average of 78.2 years. In the same period, life expectancy for women was 2.3 years below the London average at 80.4 years. Even within my borough, there are variations that make the local situation much more complex and challenging. Life expectancy in some wards is 8.1 years shorter than in others. That is massive.
In primary care, the recommended ratio of GP provision is 1.8 GPs per 1,000 of population. In Newham, the ratio is appalling and equates to not much more than half that, at 0.56 of a GP per 1,000 of population. It is small wonder that in my survey, 35% of respondents reported that it is never easy to get a GP appointment, and just 10% said that it is always easy. Many practices—too many—are operated by single GPs, so it is no surprise that the patient experience in Newham is the worst in north-east London.
The primary care trust, before its abolition, had a clear plan for tackling that challenging situation and I enthusiastically endorsed and participated in it. Now, there are no mechanisms in place to root out poor practice and promote the best. I would like to hear from the Minister how she will ensure that Newham has the number of GPs to which we are entitled and that we have performance and outcomes that are the same as other areas of London.
Incidentally, I would be interested to hear whether other hon. Members here are experiencing the new phenomenon that we have in Newham: dial a diagnosis. When people contact their GP to arrange an appointment, they are initially offered a telephone conversation with the GP. Is that because GPs must bolster the failing 111 non-clinical service, which is now contributing to the difficulties of our A and E departments? Is it to save money, to sift out or deter patients or to ration GP time? Has there been a risk assessment of what that might entail, and does it contribute to the problems that my community is facing? Again, I would like to hear from the Minister about that.
Another statistic from Newham that should be good news is that the incidence rate for breast cancer is 104.6 per 100,000 of population, significantly lower than the UK average of 123.6. However, disturbingly and distressingly, the percentage of women alive five years after diagnosis—the five-year survival estimate—is, at 75%, also significantly lower than the UK average of 83.4%. The reason in part is the take-up rate of breast screening services, but there is anecdotal evidence of women who were part of Barts hospital’s preventative health services being encouraged to go away and become part of the general population, and to present sometime in the future. That encouragement not to continue to attend for breast screening gave a rosy picture of health needs.
The London Health Commission, under the chairmanship of Lord Darzi, has a remit that includes healthy lives and reducing health inequalities. I will be interested to hear what the Minister says in anticipation of the commission’s report, and what assurance she can give that the Government will act on health inequalities.
Let me refer to the Barts health care trust, which is the largest in the country and incorporates Barts, the Royal London, Whipps Cross and Newham general hospitals. Our patch is the growing part of London, with growth in population, complexity, the number of homes and, of course, opportunity. I was therefore grateful to hear the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), who made a well balanced speech, talk about resources being sucked into the large university hospitals in the centre. Even though those of us on the far-flung borders of the east belong to the same trust as one of those hospitals, we experience the difficulties he talked about in relation to Romford.
Rumours abound at the moment that Newham general, as part of the Barts trust, is under threat of reconfiguration—a fascinating new word—to secure the viability of the trust as a whole. When I talked to the trust’s chief executive, he told me that the PFI represented only 10% of the trust’s entire budget and that, given that the budget was large, he did not see the PFI as having major consequences for the delivery of services.
However, there is an accusation that the trust is being a little disingenuous in its public statements that the A and E at Newham general will not be closed. Assurances have been sought that there will be no downgrading without full consultation, but those look weak in the face of a shortage of anaesthetists, for example, who are essential to support a viable emergency service.
Almost half of London trusts are struggling to achieve the 95% standard for patients waiting in A and E. Barts trust is just about achieving that target, but that is because Newham general performs well and helps the trust’s overall performance—a good example of how a local acute hospital catering for a place such as Newham can perform well, while larger hospitals struggle. Given that the future of Newham general’s A and E is under threat, the irony of the situation is not lost on me, and nor will it be lost on my constituents.
In that scenario, it is essential that we maintain Newham general as a fully functioning major acute hospital with a full range of services, including A and E and maternity. Given that we are seeing growth out to the east, it would be irresponsible and downright dangerous for us not to do that. It would also be a complete distraction from the absolute priority of putting in place improved, integrated care services in the community and in primary care.
Finally, I seek assurances from the Minister about the funding formula for CCGs being rolled out across England. In the London context, it is shifting resources from inner-London boroughs, with their younger populations, to boroughs further out, which have older populations.
Newham just happens to have the youngest population in the whole of Europe, apart from some tiny canton somewhere that is almost irrelevant. We will therefore lose substantial amounts, while London as a whole is losing 2.3% of its funding to other areas. I would like reassurance from the Minister that the funding formula will fully take account of deprivation, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, as well as of our population’s high mobility, with the health problems that brings with it, and diversity, with the specific demands that that puts on health care.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing this important debate. I will keep my comments brief because I want to be fair to other Members who want to speak, not because I do not care deeply about this subject. Previous speakers have talked ably about a lot of the statistics, so I do not need to go over them.
I was actually born in a London hospital, across the river in St Thomas’. I was pleased to go there again recently to visit my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood)—I hasten to add that I was visiting the maternity ward because his wife had given birth to their new son, Oscar. It was lovely to be back at St Thomas’, albeit after so many decades.
Some important issues have been raised in the debate. Health care is critical to all of us—it touches each and every one of us, our loved ones and our constituents. It is crucially important and we must get it right. In London, there are specific problems, as has been said.
I was pleased that in 2010 the Government made £2.7 billion extra available in real terms in the NHS budget across the UK. That has allowed us to have 440,000 more clinical staff, and we also have 23,000 fewer administrative staff, including 7,700 fewer managers. That was absolutely the right approach and what the NHS needed.
The average stay in hospital is shorter than in 2010, although that puts pressure on community care, so we must make sure that that is dealt with. The cancer drugs fund is also critical to the debate, and we have helped more than 38,000 patients through it.
The debate is about London and the issues specific to this great city. In my constituency, in west London, the key health care issues tend to be focused on tuberculosis, obesity—including in children—diabetes and alcohol-related harm. As Members might expect, we have above average problems with healthy eating, given the issues with obesity. Other issues include smoking during pregnancy, smoking deaths and skin cancer. There are therefore specific issues in west London, and I will focus on them.
In my constituency, we have one main hospital—the West Middlesex university hospital, where two thirds of my constituents go when they need to. My Chiswick residents—about a third of my constituents—tend to go to Charing Cross hospital. I want to reiterate what previous speakers have said: we have some excellent patient care and services across our London hospitals, but there are, absolutely, also areas we should focus on.
The West Middlesex has outstanding maternity and midwifery services. One of the best parts of our job as Members of Parliament is rewarding people who have done incredible work in the health service, whether they are clinicians or support staff, and I recently handed out awards at the West Middlesex, which is ably led by Dame Jacqueline Docherty.
I also want to pay tribute to London’s air ambulance service. During the Christmas period, there was a fire and a massive explosion in Chiswick, and the air ambulance was called. The service deserves as much support as possible, because it serves 10 million residents in London, and it has only one helicopter. It is world class, providing high-trauma, acute care. Everywhere else around the country has one helicopter for 1.5 million people, but the figure in London is 10 million, so there is an absolute need for another helicopter. I would push everyone to support the London air ambulance service, which has its 25th anniversary tomorrow.
The London air ambulance service is an amazing organisation, so I would not change its structure. It rightly gets some funding from the NHS, but it also derives funding from many other sources, and it is important that we support that. The service does an incredible job, so if the hon. Gentleman knows anyone who can give it a spare helicopter, it would really appreciate that.
My local CCG is chaired by Dr Nicola Burbidge. It started early, it has been absolutely focused on patients and it has been very responsive to any issues I have raised with it.
On reconfiguration, I was recently thankful when, after a lot of campaigning by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) and others, the Secretary of State announced that the A and E at Charing Cross hospital would not be closed, thus helping residents in my part of London. Saving lives and improving patient care is paramount.
I apologise for not being here for the opening speech. Does my hon. Friend agree that one challenge now facing London is the increasing complexity of diseases and the treatments that are required, which means that additional money and expertise are needed? Such diseases often cannot be dealt with at a local level; they must be dealt with nationally. Although we have supported those suffering from cancer and other diseases, much more complex diseases remain to be resolved.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I hope the Minister will respond to the issue of how we take up such challenges in London and get the necessary funding.
I shall list some issues on which I would like more improvement. We heard how difficult it is to get appointments at general practices—we call up and know that the answer is going to be no before we say anything. There are also issues with getting to see a specialist as quickly as possible. We want an effective complaints process in hospitals, changing the culture to allow people, whether staff or patients, to complain. There is an issue with how patients are moved around London, and the hon. Member for Westminster North made an important point about having to use public transport to get home. Mental health and community public health are other important issues.
My final comment is about dementia, which is a growing concern in London, as it is across the country. About 30% of patients who go into the West Middlesex hospital have dementia. They do not go there because of dementia, but they have it. There is a lot to be done, and the West Middlesex hospital has just opened a new dementia ward. There needs to be a greater focus on dementia, given our ageing population nationally, and the size of the population in London. We must ensure that we work together to support those who really need and deserve care and support in London. That will improve the NHS for us all.
Given the time constraints, I shall limit myself to one issue, which is the current threat to the emergency hospitals in my constituency, but I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing this timely debate. She made her arguments very well.
This morning, I received an e-mail from the Secretary of State that is pertinent to the debate. There was an agreement for him to meet the three Ealing MPs, two of whom—my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and for Ealing North (Stephen Pound)—are here, and me next Monday evening. The Secretary of State has withdrawn from that meeting, pleading other engagements, and asked us to meet officials instead. I hope that he will reconsider. The meeting is specifically about the threat to two of London’s major hospitals, Charing Cross and Ealing, and I hope that the comments I am about to make will lead the Minister to intervene and ask that the meeting go ahead. We understand that the Secretary of State has pressures on his time, but it is entirely unacceptable for him not to meet Members on an issue of such crucial and central importance.
It is sad news, but we know—
I would rather not because of the time. I am sorry.
We know what is happening with Hammersmith hospital because it has been announced that the A and E department there is going to close after the winter crisis—as if the crisis is not a continuing one. I have been told informally that it will close two weeks after the local elections to avoid any embarrassment to the Government. We were also told that there might not even be an urgent care centre there; it may be moving. That would mean no emergency access to Hammersmith hospital, unless it is still to receive emergency blue-light coronary cases. At least Hammersmith hospital will continue as a major specialist hospital, and a very fine hospital it is indeed.
The situation regarding Charing Cross hospital is far less clear. I will précis where we are and explain the matters that we wish the Secretary of State to deal with. In February last year, the decision, which is still extant, was made to close completely and sell off the Charing Cross hospital site, leaving an urgent care centre on 3% of the site. At the same time, there was to be an outline business case, to report in October last year, that might preserve 13% of the facilities and 40% of the site. That business case is now due in March, but we understand—through the Imperial College Healthcare foundation trust process, not any other process—that there will also be elective surgery on the site. That might mean there will be elective surgery as well as primary care and treatment facilities, and some form of emergency centre on the site, with perhaps 50% of the land preserved. That gain, in so far as it is a gain, is St Mary’s loss, because we understand that 50% of its site will be sold in any event. Of course, any amelioration in the position is to be welcomed.
I praise the cross-party Save Our Hospitals group for campaigning tirelessly in both my borough and Ealing on the issues I have mentioned. However, the point it would want me to make very clearly is that what I have described is not what we want. Of course we want good elective care, primary care and treatment services, but the issue of capacity must be addressed.
It is not feasible to close two of the largest emergency hospitals. I use the word “close” advisedly. As emergency hospitals, they are closing: there will be no emergency surgery, no blue-light A and E, no stroke unit and no intensive treatment on those sites. I am afraid that the Secretary of State’s intervention so far has been genuinely unhelpful and done for political reasons. We have invented a second-tier A and E, as it is called. A second-tier A and E is an urgent care centre. The only differences that clinicians could identify for me were that at a second-tier A and E there would be GP cover and X-ray services, and for elderly and vulnerable people there might be some beds for recuperation after minor treatment. Otherwise, it is an urgent care centre or a minor injuries unit.
Let us not play political games. I am not saying that we can keep politics out of the NHS—of course we cannot—but this is dangerous because it will mislead people. If people think that there is an A and E at Charing Cross or at Ealing when there is not, they will go there when they should have gone elsewhere. We will continue to campaign to save emergency services. It is not feasible for the Imperial family to go from three major emergency departments to one. All three are currently under pressure and overcrowded. The decision has to be taken by Ministers, so I implore the Minister to go back to the Secretary of State and ask that he meet us.
The level of politics is not acceptable. Politics comes into these matters all the time. Before the last election, when there was no threat to the hospitals, the Conservatives kept saying that there was—I have their election literature here. We now have taxpayers’ money being spent on campaigns saying that hospitals are staying open when, in fact, departments in them are not. Let us at least tell our constituents the truth. There may be unpalatable decisions to be taken, but as far as Charing Cross is concerned, the health service is clear that it will be a local hospital. It will not be an emergency hospital. That is not acceptable in any way to my constituents. It is not feasible to run a health service in west London on that basis.
I have made my points to the Minister clearly, and I look forward to her response. I also look forward to the meeting with the Secretary of State where I can put my points in more detail and more forcefully.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. We have already heard that the NHS in London is most definitely straining under the weight of demand for services. The problem is related to the constrained financial environment, but fundamentally it is about the increasing needs of our population. The population of London has grown by 12% in the past decade and is likely to grow by another million in the coming decade. That is why the plans to downgrade and close desperately needed and often very successful emergency and maternity departments in London are met with such incredulity and anger.
I would like to make a few points to the Minister today. First, I ask her to consider the overall shape of maternity services in London. Much of the debate focuses on big arguments about the reconfiguration of emergency departments, but maternity services are often a victim of those reorganisations, because as soon as an intensive care unit is taken away from a hospital, it is unable to provide full maternity services. Does the Minister really want to ask women in the capital to travel even greater distances to give birth to their children, when they want to be close to home and family? Will she look at some of the sacred cows that have built up in the wisdom on maternity services?
I know there is an aspiration to provide 168 hours of consultant cover every week in maternity departments, but I understand that that currently happens at only one trust in the whole country. I ask the Minister whether it is achievable, affordable, or necessarily in the best interests of women to continue to aspire to reach that standard in all our hospitals in London.
Another point I want to make to the Minister—it has already been made—is on the crucial importance of the public being involved and having a genuine say when hospital services are being reconfigured. In Lewisham, we saw the exact opposite of that, with the unsustainable providers regime. The Government are trying to augment that process and apply it more widely, which has very serious implications for trust in politics and in our health service.
I am very conscious of time and that two other Members wish to speak. I ask the Minister to look very hard at the existing evidence on centralising all hospital services in London. I know there is a lot of evidence for creating centres of excellence for stroke, trauma, and vascular disease in big hospitals. However, I wonder whether the same evidence exists for other acute medical emergencies and whether there is evidence, for example, for centralising mental health services or maternity services.
I have one final point—I will sit down very shortly. There are currently plans at many hospitals in London to flog off hospital sites. That land should not be used to create playgrounds for the rich and the international jet set. Public land is a very precious asset in London, and if we are going to use it for anything, could we please explore the possibility of using it for housing for elderly people, providing communities of care? Provision of suitable accommodation is one of the crucial things we need to get right if we are to tackle some of the underlying problems in the NHS.
Thank you, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing this very important debate. I share the concerns expressed by my colleagues earlier, including those about the Secretary of State cancelling the meeting that I and the leader of Ealing council requested. We were looking forward to expressing the views of the residents of our constituencies.
Multiple A and E departments in the capital have been under threat of closure or set for closure, from Lewisham, where a hard-fought campaign has saved the hospital from closure, to south-west London, Ilford, and the four A and Es in west London, two of which have been marked for closure and two of which are still effectively closed—they are being called A and Es when they are not. One of them is in my constituency in Ealing hospital. In a city of more than 8 million inhabitants, where the population growth is twice the national average, those closures and downgrades will have a huge impact on the lives and safety of local residents, leaving many residents miles from their local A and E.
Accident and emergency services are already under tremendous pressure and will be subject to increased strain with local closures. We know that the number of blue-light ambulance diverts increased drastically in London, by almost a quarter, proving that A and Es in London are over capacity. One of the hospitals that has regularly turned away ambulances is Northwick Park. With the closure of A and Es at Central Middlesex and Hammersmith hospitals, and with Ealing and Charing Cross hospitals seemingly unable to receive blue-light ambulances in north-west London, Northwick Park will be under even more strain as patients are sent there for emergency treatment.
Northwick Park is already overburdened and is one of the worst-performing A and Es in the country. It will simply not be able to cope with the four other local A and Es closing and will be unable to accept blue-light ambulances. Journey times for patients will be longer and they face the risk of travelling elsewhere if the ambulance is turned away. That will be the difference between life and death for emergency patients—an unacceptable situation.
Back at the end of October, the Secretary of State confirmed the closure of A and Es at Central Middlesex and Hammersmith hospitals, and announced that A and Es would remain at Charing Cross hospital and Ealing hospital, in my constituency, the shape and size of which would be subject to a review. His statement, which was supposed to remove uncertainty about the future of our local hospitals, only further increased confusion.
It has, however, been made clear, through the Keogh review and Dr Mark Spencer’s subsequent comments, that the review would in fact reduce the size of Ealing’s A and E, and that Ealing would be unable to receive blue-light ambulances. The Secretary of State, who pledged to keep the A and E services, has in fact downgraded Ealing hospital, while keeping the A and E in name only. The Secretary of State promised an A and E for Ealing, but delivered only more disappointment to local residents. There are many other concerns, not least of which is the fact that many of my constituents in Southall are the poorest and most vulnerable members of society, with specific health needs that are met by nearby Ealing hospital. They will have to travel considerable distances, putting their lives at risk.
With the population of west London growing, those decisions seem, at best, unsafe and, at worst, dangerous. The concerns that we have in my constituency and in west London will obviously be replicated across London with the threat of more closures in the midst of an A and E crisis. There needs to be more of a concerted effort from the Secretary of State and the Department of Health to help Londoners receive the best health care, rather than making this existing crisis worse.
Thank you very much, Mrs Main. I had intended to talk for slightly longer than two minutes, but the central thing I wish to say is about mental health. Other contributors to this very important debate have touched on that, but it seems to me that for us, as a nation, it is essentially a Cinderella service, and certainly has been all the time that I have been in the House.
The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) referred to the pressures on central London. That is not only to do with the churn of people moving into London and moving out, but, as he rightly said, it is most markedly about people who are dependent, or over-dependent, on drugs and alcohol, and people with mental health issues. A peripatetic patient cohort—I hate that word, but I cannot think of anything else at the moment—is virtually not being regarded, let alone something on which the multifarious bodies and boards that are now responsible for delivering health care in London are working together.
I hope the Minister will take that away and put it at the top of her list, because the enormous damage that is done to individuals when they are allowed to go over the cliff of their crisis is reflected in the damage inflicted on their families and their wider community. I am firmly of the opinion that the right provision, as we have had in my own constituency, is a house that is open 24/7, 365 days a year. People who felt that they were going to go over the edge of their mental health crisis could walk in through the door. There were people there all the time to care for them. Yes, such facilities are expensive to set up, but I am firmly of the opinion that the money we save by having them could be put towards the sharp end of delivering a high-quality health service to people who are not suffering from mental health problems.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing this very important debate about health care in London. I hope that hon. Members will forgive this Mancunian for gatecrashing the debate to respond for the Opposition.
The future of health services and especially accident and emergency services across London is an important issue of genuine concern to a great many of the constituents of hon. Members present. It is definitely an issue of real significance right across our capital city. I pay tribute to all the hon. Members who today have made contributions, long and brief, on a wide variety of matters.
Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the staff working in the national health service for their commitment in providing a first-class service to patients in what has been a very trying period for the NHS. As we know, there have been important changes in the provision of hospital care in London. We have had “Health for North East London”, “Shaping a healthier future”, the Barnet, Enfield and Haringey clinical strategy, the trust special administrator’s review of South London Healthcare NHS Trust and the NHS in south-east London and “Better Services, Better Value” in south London, to name a few of the reconfigurations that have taken place in the capital.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North is right to point to extreme financial pressures on hospital services. North-west London hospital services must accommodate a £125 million reduction in service between 2011 and 2015. The people who use hospitals in London are rightly concerned about the changes to the services on which they rely. We have heard about the proposals that will lead to the loss of accident and emergency departments at Charing Cross, Ealing, Hammersmith and Central Middlesex hospitals.
However, it is not only my hon. Friends who are concerned about the future of A and E departments in London; local authorities are, too. Local authorities such as Ealing have voiced their concerns about the downgrading of their A and E services. As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), A and E facilities that both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State had promised to save across north-west London and elsewhere in the capital will be closing. I hope very much that the meeting between the Secretary of State and the hon. Members who represent Ealing and Hammersmith can be reconvened as requested.
Of course, all this is in direct contradiction to what the Prime Minister said during the general election, when he promised to halt the closures of hospitals, accident and emergency departments and maternity units. Why does the Minister think that there is such widespread concern about the lack of leadership in the health service in London at a time when the NHS is dealing with unnecessary upheaval?
Frankly, it was a disastrous decision on the part of the Government to spend billions of pounds on an unnecessary top-down reorganisation, which has led to a loss of financial grip in the NHS. Now, more than 6,000 nursing posts have been lost, waiting lists are getting longer and we are seeing the return of patients on trolleys in corridors. Indeed, we are now seeing A and Es not just in London but across the country facing a winter crisis after an unprecedented summer A and E crisis. At the same time, local authorities are having a huge cut to their social care budgets. More and more elderly people are therefore ending up in A and E, because there is no one at home to care for them, adding even more pressure to a pressured system.
Labour Members warned Ministers repeatedly during the passage of the Bill that became the Health and Social Care Act 2012 that the legislation would lead to the break-up of the NHS. The public rightly expect to have easy access to health services, and Ministers have a heavy responsibility to show leadership and to act to prevent people’s lives being put at risk. Ministers must also tell the House today what action they propose to take to ensure that London’s growing population will continue to have good access to hospital and other health service provision in their local areas. Those points were made eloquently by a number of hon. Members, but I have to mention my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) in relation to Newham.
Of course, Labour Members do not oppose all the changes to local health services. Surely, it is right that hospitals and services evolve and change. However, it must be change based on good clinical reasons and not just financial necessity.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue in London is not just provision for its size of population, but the extreme diversity and complexity of the population? It is a very mobile population. There are large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, and London has the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in the country. That is what people have to pay attention to if they are reconfiguring services.
My hon. Friend is right. London is a global city. It has people coming in from all over the world, not just from elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It is a diverse city. It is an exciting, vibrant city—I am probably over-egging it for a Mancunian, but it is a great place. Those complexities are what makes London fantastic, but they are also what makes delivering health services a real challenge.
To make the change work, there must be clarity and partnership. Everyone must understand what is being proposed and how the decisions are to be taken. That brings me on to the issue of Lewisham and clause 118 of the Care Bill. We saw in Lewisham the power of an effective campaign in the face of unpopular change to health services and what that can achieve.
I pay tribute to the Lewisham MPs and to the campaigners, who fought tirelessly for their local hospital. The proposal to close their A and E department was rightly met by a strong local campaign, which included protest marches and a successful legal challenge to the closure. Indeed, the Court of Appeal ruled that the Health Secretary did not have the power to implement the cuts at Lewisham hospital. If only he had listened to my hon. Friends in Lewisham—they had been arguing that beforehand.
Clause 118 should give very real concern to all hon. Members in the debate, because in future it will give carte blanche to the Secretary of State and the Department of Health to reconfigure services right across the country as they sought to in Lewisham, disfranchising the communities that have spoken out very loudly across London against some of the changes. Labour Members are rightly concerned about that measure and we will be opposing it during the next stages of proceedings on the Care Bill.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North and to all my right hon. and hon. Friends who have taken part in the debate. Hospital services are very important to the capital. We must make sure that there is proper strategic planning across London, not the piecemeal approach to reconfigurations of services that we have seen, so that the complexities in health needs—including mental health, which my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Glenda Jackson) mentioned—are taken on board fully for the betterment of people living in London.
What an amazing debate! I congratulate the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck) on securing it; a lot of issues have been covered. Many London colleagues have contributed, made interventions or simply been present to listen to it. As a London MP, I am particularly conscious of the unique challenges facing health care in London, and many of the issues raised apply as much to my constituents as they do to those of colleagues across the House. As hon. Members have said, London is an amazing city with world-leading expertise and services, but it has unique challenges. Whichever party was in government, it would have to respond to those challenges.
I will do my best to respond to some of the points that have been made, but there were such a range of points, and some of them were so specific, that I may need to write to colleagues after the debate. I hope that hon. Members understand that. I will ensure that I follow up those points personally or ask NHS London to do so. Forgive me for having to make that health warning.
I start by echoing the praise from the hon. Member for Westminster North for our NHS staff in London. They work under many interesting and unique pressures, and they respond, for the most part, magnificently. We all realise that no service is above criticism, but our starting point is that we have some amazing people working very hard under difficult circumstances. I am particularly glad that the hon. Lady and her family experienced good care at a crucial time.
The hon. Lady is right to caution that debates about health need to acknowledge, but not to exaggerate, risk. We always teeter on the brink of exaggerating points for political effect, and it is really important that we keep some sense of perspective. Several hon. Members have referred repeatedly to an A and E crisis. I want to put on the record that for the week ending 29 December 2013 last year, the figures for A and E waiting times in London demonstrate that 96% of patients were seen in under four hours in all A and E types, against a standard of 95%. For the third quarter of last year, 95.3% of patients were seen in under four hours in all A and E types.
I am not saying that we do not have problems and challenges, but let us be clear that in many places, the NHS is responding well to those challenges and meeting targets. Work force statistics show that the number of community health service doctors increased by 8.5% from 2010 to 2013. Let us make sure that we keep a sense of perspective on where we are.
Some of the comments during the debate referred to reconfigurations across London. We are quite clear that reconfiguration of front-line health services is a matter for the local NHS, precisely for the reasons that some hon. Members have given. We are trying to make sure that they are led by clinical decisions. That was acknowledged in the opening speech, as was the need for change. The hon. Member for Westminster North made that point.
Forgive me, but I really will not have a chance to respond to any of the points made if I give way. I will catch up with the hon. Lady afterwards if there are points that she specifically wants to discuss.
All the reconfigurations must focus on delivering modern health care, better patient outcomes and services as close to home as possible, but, most importantly, they must focus on saving lives and improving quality of life. Those service changes are best led by clinicians, with all of us getting involved and engaging with the process, as we must do. That is what we all want for our constituents, and there are different ways to achieve that.
Change is inevitable, as most, but not all, hon. Members have acknowledged. We have debated questions such as the changes to stroke services in London, which many campaigners predicted would have dire and dreadful outcomes. In fact, the opposite has been true, and London clinicians believe that hundreds of our constituents’ lives have been saved by the concentration of excellence in certain centres. We must be realistic about the fact that reconfiguration can bring great health benefits, as long as it meets the important tests set out by the Secretary of State, and is clinically led.
The health service has to respond to growing demand. Much of the debate has focused on the long-term challenges to the health service in London and across the country. The Government are trying to respond to those huge long-term pressures. We are looking at GP opening hours and at access. That could not be a bigger issue in London, which has a highly diverse and highly mobile population in a 24-hour city. People need to be able to access health care at a time that suits their work patterns and lifestyle, and we are pushing for changes to contracts in that area. There will be named GPs for over-75s. We are looking at the integration of social care and public health. We know that there are big challenges around that, but a big project is under way to try to tackle it.
Ring-fenced public health budgets will empower local authorities to do the very thing that many hon. Members have drawn our attention to, which is to look at the needs of local communities and respond to them at the most local level. We do not want to take a “Whitehall knows best” approach; we want to tell local authorities, “We have ring-fenced your local public health budget so that you can look at the needs of your local population and work with health and wellbeing boards and clinical commissioning groups to devise services that help people to live longer and healthier lives without the need to resort to acute services.”
There has not been much recognition of the need for the changes made to public health budgets, but of all the measures raised in the debate, those changes have some of the most exciting potential to tackle the challenges that we face.
I have touched on health and wellbeing boards. The challenge around Newham GPs would be ideal for discussion at a health and wellbeing board, where all the key people are present. It is a big challenge, and one of the first questions I asked as a Health Minister is why we struggled so badly to get GPs in our most deprived areas. There are varying answers to that, but it is a problem across the country.
The health and wellbeing board is exactly the right forum for discussion because the right people are around the table. Tackling health inequality is now built into statute through the Health and Social Care Act 2012, which must be given due attention in all parts of the health service. The Darzi-led London Health Commission will be interesting. I spoke to Lord Darzi about it just before Christmas to improve my understanding of its objectives. As a Minister with responsibility for public health and as a London MP, I will be looking closely at the commission’s outcomes and I will be keen to work with people on that. It is a big opportunity.
To touch on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field), the formula does not currently reflect non-resident population or the homeless, but that is something that the Advisory Committee on Resource Allocation and NHS England continue to consider. I will ensure that I draw my hon. Friend’s concerns to their attention and that those are fed into the ongoing process of looking at formulas.
For the first time, the formulas for CCG patients and public health allocations take into account health inequalities, and they look at GP populations rather than census-based populations. The formulas are also designed to be more locally sensitive. As the hon. Member for Westminster North and I know particularly well, in a city such as London areas that appear to be quite affluent can contain pockets of tremendous deprivation. The new formula allows for that by enabling consideration of sub-areas and the real health inequalities that they suffer. I hope that hon. Members feel some reassurance about that. We keep the matter under close watch.
Several detailed concerns were raised by the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) about Lewisham, the south London reconfiguration, maternity services and accommodation. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) referred to clause 118. I will ensure that I draw his concerns to the attention of the Minister who is leading on that Bill. No doubt that point will be responded to when the Bill is brought before the House. The Court of Appeal overturned the decision to make service change in Lewisham, and we respect that. The Secretary of State has put that on the record.
Several points were raised about the north-west London reconfiguration. That was debated in this Chamber on 15 October, after which a letter was sent by the local NHS to the hon. Member for Westminster North. If other hon. Members have not seen that letter and would find it helpful to, I am happy to put it in the Library. I note the ongoing concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) about the reconfiguration, and I will relay to the Secretary of State the detailed points that he has made and his desire for a meeting.
Other hon. Members have made comments about the same reconfiguration. For all the criticism of the plans and the analysis, I note that the shadow Minister did not commit his party to changing any of the reconfigurations or to changing NHS funding levels. If I may say so, his speech was long on analysis and short on commitment.
I conclude by saying that the issues raised today are important to all of us as London MPs. There are some big long-term challenges and the Government are trying to respond to them in the best interests of all our constituents.
Before we commence the debate on Scotch whisky excise duty, I should say that we are expecting a vote—hence my glances at the Annunciator screen. Should that happen, I will call for the sitting to be suspended until the vote has taken place.
Scotch Whisky Excise Duty
I am grateful to you, Mrs Main. I am aware that we are to vote at 4 o’clock, so we will find ourselves in a short adjournment. As I speak, I am waiting for the vote to come. [Interruption.] There we go.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
It is a pleasure to see you back in the Chair this afternoon, Mrs Main. It is just a pity that you do not have a glass of whisky in your hand, with which, at this time of the year, we would share a toast. Water will have to do, I am afraid.
It is quite incredible that we should have to have this debate, particularly in this very important year for the Scots, who are voting on whether to remain in the United Kingdom or to have a separate Government in Scotland. I shall pose a question: can anybody tell me how much taxation there is on a bottle of whisky that costs about £12.70?
I will take interventions towards the end of my speech, if I may. I will give everybody who has made a representation to me an opportunity to speak. I also have an eye for the chair of the all-party group on Scotch whisky and spirits.
As I said, this is the year of separation, so it is important to have this debate as we move towards the Budget on 19 March. I fully support the “UK okay” campaign. One of the areas of vulnerability is the current disproportionate tax on Scottish whisky compared with English beer or cider. Whisky is taxed at 48% more than the same amount of alcohol served as beer. That is the difference in terms of the taxation on whisky and spirits. The beer duty escalator was abolished last year, but the spirits escalator continues at 2% above inflation. That should be addressed and I will come to the reasons why.
Excise duty on Scottish whisky is now 44% higher than in 2008. The escalator in 2014 will mean an increase in duty of 4.8%, or, in terms that I understand, 38p per bottle. That is what the escalator will bring. As I said, taxation as it stands now is more than £10 a bottle. Scotch whisky exports are growing, but the home market remains important, and the UK is the third largest market for Scotch whisky by volume.
However, volumes in the UK have declined by some 12% in the UK since the escalator was introduced—as a result of it, I would argue, and I am sure some of my colleagues would, too. The UK tax on spirits, which of course includes Scotch whisky, is the fourth highest in Europe. When we compare that with Sweden, Finland and Ireland, which have particular reasons for having high taxation, we can see the unfairness of the tax for the spirits industry.
The Scotch Whisky Association, which helped the all-party group, has called on the Chancellor to freeze duty on Scotch whisky in the 2014 Budget and to scrap the escalator. It should be scrapped because UK consumption has declined since it was introduced, and we want to see the UK market expand. Ernst and Young research shows that scrapping the escalator in 2014 would boost the drinks industry contribution to public finance by some £230 million in 2014 alone.
Consumers should be treated fairly across the range of alcohol products, but Scotch whisky drinkers are being heavily penalised. The sales of Scotch whisky form a significant part of the pub trade. Scrapping the escalator would boost UK sales, and therefore UK jobs in the industry. The industry is good not only for Scotland, but for the whole of the United Kingdom, because it accounts for more than 25% of all UK food exports. That is a significant figure that should not and must not be lost on the Treasury. It is good to see the Minister in her position this afternoon.
In 2012, the industry generated £4.27 billion for the UK balance of trade and 35,000 jobs. I can see there are Members present from the remote areas of Scotland; the industry has been the main employer in many small towns and villages in their constituencies. It has always been a major contributor to the support of the infrastructure within such communities, and I do not think that that has been taken into account by the Government.
Some 10,000 of those jobs are directly within the industry. Most of them, if not all of them, are in areas of most need, and they have supported the towns and communities for many years. The jobs are in rural and urban areas, and the industry is the sole employer in some of the smaller areas in Scotland.
The Scotch Whisky Association has called on the Chancellor to freeze duty on Scotch whisky in 2014—I am sure the Minister has seen that request—and also to scrap the escalator. The Chancellor took the decision last year on the basis that he would cancel the escalator for beer and cider, but not for spirits. I think that that is unfair and it does not really stack up when one considers that the reasoning was to safeguard the jobs in the pub industry. In fact, 40% of the pub industry is down to the sale of spirits, so the matter of unfairness between the pint and the wee dram needs to be looked at.
Taking action on Scotch whisky would show that the Government support that major industry both at home and abroad—that they support the jobs it creates and do not disproportionately penalise Scotland’s national drink.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point about the benefits of the Scotch whisky industry to the Treasury and to Scotland in terms of jobs. Does he recognise the broader benefits that accrue from jobs in transportation and shipping? South of the border, in my region in the north-east, jobs are derived from transporting Scotch whisky to Teesport and there are jobs in shipping as the product is exported all over the world.
I am not the representative of Irish whiskey, but I do have the Bushmills distillery in my constituency. It employs 102 people, but it also supports a vital tourist industry; there are more than 140,000 visitors each year to the distillery. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the tax impacts on jobs not only in Scotland, but in my part of the United Kingdom? Indeed, 90% of what is manufactured in my constituency’s distillery is exported globally, but if the Government continue with the escalator, we are going to have high taxation on products that are exported. That is a bad signal to send to an industry.
I am grateful, Mrs Main. I hope that Members will note what you have said. What the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said is important. He is from another part of the United Kingdom and correcting this wrong tax at the Budget is as important to him and his constituents.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He will be aware that the whisky industry is very important for jobs in West Dunbartonshire, too. Does he share my concern that the concessions previously given to beer and cider are mainly based on the fact that those industries ran a good campaign? I would not take that away from them, but we need a more coherent look at excise duty across alcohol products.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and also for what he said earlier about the importance of the whisky industry for jobs in remote communities, such as the Isle of Jura and other places in my constituency. It is very unfair that whisky is taxed far more highly than beers and wines. We must be about the only country in the world that taxes our own product more highly than imported products such as wines.
I want to take my hon. Friend back to the important issue of jobs. One of the significant factors of the Scotch whisky industry is that the jobs that it creates are excellent, well-paid, quality jobs. It is possible to tell that by the turnover of staff, which is very low.
One of the crucial points that the hon. Gentleman highlighted about the export industry is that the way we treat our own whisky at home sends a signal to foreign importing markets. It is important to send the right signal to those markets, so the Treasury needs to consider the impact that the issue has on the importing countries.
That is a very important point. If we go to the European Commission and argue with it, there is that divide between the north and south of Europe; until a few years ago, the Commissioner was very pro-wine and anti-spirits. It is an indicator of the seriousness of the situation that we are discriminated against—the Commission throws at us the level of taxation in our own country. That is an element that must be addressed by the Chancellor at the Budget.
The Government are arguing that the duty on whisky has gone up by 37% compared with a rise of 42% on beer. The trouble with that argument, of course, is that, because the Government have eliminated the beer escalator, that division will be eliminated very quickly. The point that we have to maintain in export terms is that this is a home-based industry. If something is good enough for beer, it is good enough for whisky; the escalator should go and we should ensure that our most successful industry is supported competitively at home and abroad.
I could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman.
I have taken all the interventions that I will take. I will finish by putting four questions to the Minister. First, can the Treasury explain why it was that, when it stopped the escalator on beer last year to save struggling pubs, it failed to look at the situation as far as spirits and wines were concerned? As I said, they account for some 40% of the sales in those very pubs and the rest of the hospitality sector. Given that the Chancellor wanted to help that sector, it seems strange that the rise in duty on whisky was set against that.
Secondly, what assessment—if any—has the Treasury made of the impact on pubs of last year’s announcement on beer? I hope I can get a response to that question. Thirdly, can the Treasury provide reassurances to the Scotch whisky industry that the annual attack on Scotch whisky will come to an end in the Budget in 2014? Finally, does the Treasury acknowledge that the home market for Scotch whisky, which remains the industry’s third largest market, is diminishing due to excessive tax rises each year?
Sales of Scotch whisky in the UK have dropped by 12% since the duty escalator came into being. Is it possible to hear today what is likely to be in the mind of the Chancellor? I am sure that the Minister is aware that we, as an all-party group, have made a representation to him for a meeting. I hope that what she says today will include an agreement to that meeting.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) on securing this debate and I note the wide interest in it, as shown by the number of Members here in Westminster Hall.
In the time available to me, I will be hard pressed to answer all the questions, however nicely Members indicate to me from a sedentary position that they would like to intervene. However, I shall do my best and if I do not address all the points that have been made today, I will write to the hon. Gentleman to do so, and he can perhaps share that information with other members of the all-party group and others who are interested.
I start by highlighting the Government’s continued commitment to the Scotch whisky industry. First, Scotch whisky is a protected spirit drink, which helps to maintain its high reputation both at home and abroad. Secondly, and related to that, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will shortly be launching its spirit drinks verification scheme. Within the first two years of that scheme, every single business involved in the production of Scotch whisky will be verified to ensure that they are creating a genuine product. This will help to protect the industry’s deservedly high reputation. In fact, the Scotch Whisky Association has praised HMRC’s commitment to deliver a scheme that fits its needs.
Thirdly, I am proud to report that Scotch whisky of course featured as one of the first products in the food and drink element of the GREAT campaign. This helps to give Scotch whisky high visibility internationally in key export markets, the importance of which we have already heard about. The Scotch whisky industry is to be congratulated on its export success. The Scotch Whisky Association reports that the value of exports increased by 11% to almost £2 billion in the first six months of 2013. That is something that I think everybody in Westminster Hall today will support. I think that people will agree that those measures leave no doubt about the Government’s commitment to the Scotch whisky industry, and I want that message to be heard and understood by Members from all parts of the House.
I turn now to duty, because that is the issue that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members, in their interventions, focused on.
The Minister may or may not be aware that I have the onerous responsibility and the pleasure of representing the heartland area of single malt production, with more than half of all Scotland’s distilleries based in Speyside. I just wanted to ask her about a basic democratic point. We have heard interventions from Labour Members, the Liberal Democrats and now from the Scottish National party, and Members from those parties make up 58 of the 59 MPs from Scotland who are at Westminster, with all of us saying that we want tax fairness and duty fairness. Is the Minister prepared to confirm that the Government will actually listen to the views of the overwhelming majority of democratically elected representatives in Westminster Hall today and deliver on tax fairness, or not?
I hope that the message is going out that this Minister is always willing to listen and that she is willing to engage. I am also very willing to have the meeting that was suggested by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire. However, I would be a foolish new Minister if I were to commit to announcing Budget moves now. Nevertheless, I shall certainly listen; I have listened; and I shall continue to listen to the debate that we are having and to the wider representations that have been made to me. I thank the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) for his intervention. As he said, he has a very onerous task in representing his constituency; I am sure that his constituency Fridays are filled with much fun and spirits.
I return to the duty escalator, including that on Scotch whisky. I am aware of the industry’s views on the pre-announced alcohol duty rises for 2014. It may be helpful if I explain the background to these increases before addressing the specific issues that were raised by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire. Of course, the previous Government were responsible for introducing the spirits duty escalator and are therefore responsible for this year’s increase in spirit duty. The inflation plus 2% rises were first announced at Budget 2008 and they were extended for a further two years, until 2014-15, at the March 2010 Budget. These rises were for all alcohol duties and, as I say, were legislated for by the previous Government.
This Government made changes to beer duty at Budget 2013 to support pubs, which, as we all know from our constituencies, play an important role in local communities. The hon. Gentleman asked about the impact of last year’s Budget on pubs and I shall address that issue in a moment. However, he also talked about 68% of the alcohol that is sold in pubs being beer, so the changes to beer duty were, overall, a measure to help pubs. I can also tell him that although spirits and wine account for 41% of sales by value in the off-licence trade, they account for only 23% of sales in pubs by alcohol volume.
I do not know where the Minister got that last figure from. I ran licensed premises, and although it is perhaps different down here in the south-east, I can tell her that in Scotland whisky accounts for at least 40% of sales in the pub, and in the pub that I ran the figure was 60%. [Laughter.]
The hon. Gentleman’s pub sounds as though it was a very interesting place, and I am very happy to listen to representations on the figures.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the impact of Budget 2013 on pubs. The British Beer and Pub Association survey showed that, following a reduction in beer duty, 76% of the pubs would increase investment and 61% would employ more staff. That is why this reduction was targeted particularly at pubs. That is not to say that I have not listened to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments.
Given the Government’s commitment to ensuring sustainable public finances, it was not possible to end the escalator on all alcoholic products, so they made a targeted reduction in beer duty. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government had failed to consider other alcohol duties. I was not in the Treasury at that point, but I do not think that that was so. However, the decision to reduce the duty on beer was taken in 2013.
I have heard the views of hon. Members and I assure them that I will consider these as part of the Budget process.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) on securing this debate. The Minister may not be aware that there is a considerable number of whisky producers in my constituency, including the North British Distillery in West Calder, Glenmorangie and Glen Turner in Livingston, and Ian MacLeod Distillers in Broxburn. This last wrote to me recently to express concern about the fact that, in the past five years, while we have seen a 44% increase in taxation on whisky, there has been a 12% reduction in UK sales.
Mrs Main, I take the hint that you want me back on my feet and moving towards the conclusion of my speech.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will give this matter serious consideration in the run-up to the Budget. I shall certainly discuss it with my colleagues in the Treasury, including my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I want to make progress and I am keen to get some further points in before the end of the debate, but I will try to take the hon. Gentleman’s intervention if I can.
The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire mentioned that spirit duty had risen by 44% between 2003 and 2013. I should point out that beer duty in that period rose by 56%, while still wine duty rose by 68%. We can trade as many numbers as we want, but I take the overall thrust of the arguments made today.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid) asked about the spirits duty rate having risen by 37%. Duty on Scotch whisky has risen at a slower rate than beer duty over the medium term. The spirits duty rate was frozen between 1998 and 2008, and during that time duty rates on other alcoholic beverages increased. However, between the introduction of the escalator and 2013, the spirits duty rate rose by 37%, while other alcohol duty rates rose by 42%. I just wanted to put that on the record for the benefit of the House.
I want to put it on the record that Islay, not Moray, is the heartland of the Scotch whisky industry.
We can all trade figures, but the point is that under the current duty escalator policy, the duty on spirits will rise in the next few years at a much greater rate than that on beers and will make the already unfair situation even more unfair.
The hon. Gentleman is tempting me down the path of speculating on the Chancellor’s alcohol intake, which I really do not want to go down. Of course, I notice that my glass is not in front of me this afternoon.
I thank hon. Members for this debate and thank the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire for securing it. I will be happy to study the written report of it. I hope that this debate shows the Government’s continuing commitment to the Scotch whisky industry and that we will help it where we can.
Rural Broadband (North Yorkshire)
It is a proud pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Main. I am delighted to have been given this opportunity to debate rural broadband in north Yorkshire.
Before speaking specifically about York and north Yorkshire—the most beautiful area within God’s own county—may I touch briefly on the wider broadband roll-out? I am pleased that, as part of their long-term economic plan, the Government have recognised that the future of our economy rests on the ability of our infrastructure not only to cope with the demands placed on it, but to exceed those demands and facilitate new opportunities for growth. This is no less true of superfast broadband than it is of our rail, road and air infrastructure.
The Government’s investment in superfast broadband is, to my mind, one of their greatest and most important achievements in this Parliament, yet sometimes it does not get the plaudits that it deserves. It has by no means been an easy task. It has required huge investment from the Government, totalling roughly £1.6 billion, and some hard work from all those involved in organising the roll-out, including the people physically on the ground, upgrading the telephone cabinets with the fibre.
However, all the hard work and commitment has been worth it. The recent findings from the UK broadband impact study reveal that for every £1 the Government invest in broadband, the UK economy will benefit by £20. That represents fantastic value for money in the short term. In the short term, the network construction will add around £1.5 billion to the economy, creating 11,000 jobs this year alone. In the longer term, it will increase annual gross value added by £6.3 billion. Its benefits will be spread across the country, with approximately 89% of that in areas outside London and the south-east, such as York and north Yorkshire. That vindicates the Government’s commitment to investing so much in this programme and shows that all the hard work that is being put in on a local level is delivering real results.
The roll-out has not been without its problems and it has faced some public criticism for the degree to which one company has achieved a monopoly over the roll-out contracts. There is also some concern about the apparent shortcomings in the contracts, with BT being obliged only to upgrade telephone cabinets with their fibre-to-the-cabinet approach. Some of my constituents have expressed concern that, because they receive their telephone lines from an upgraded cabinet, they are being counted by BT as though they were part of the 90%, despite being too far away from the cabinet to receive the upgraded superfast internet speeds.
However, I have received assurances from the chief executive of BT Openreach that that is not the case, and that only those who receive superfast speeds are counted. Superfast North Yorkshire has subsequently clarified that, although there may be issues about how coverage is measured in other parts of the country, the north Yorkshire contract only counts those who are capable of receiving superfast speeds.
Locally, the roll-out so far has been a roaring success. The project, which has been overseen by Superfast North Yorkshire, has been run well. When it first set out on its mission, it had a total of 670 cabinets to be upgraded—I think the technical term is “deployed”—but, to date, 350 cabinets have been upgraded, which marks 52% of the total. However, it is expected that this figure will rise to 370 next week, ensuring that the project is well over halfway to completion.
In north Yorkshire, roughly one cabinet is updated per working day. As a result, phase 1 of the roll-out is expected to be completed by October 2014, well ahead of the national target, which originally intended to provide only 90% of all households with speeds of up to 25 megabits per second by the end of 2015. That target now appears to have been pushed back, and phase 1 might not be achieved nationally until the end of 2016. Will the Minister clarify that? What might that do to the expected release of phase 2 funding?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He paints a positive picture, with which I agree, of how north Yorkshire is delivering superfast broadband because of the Conservative-led Government’s money. Does he agree that the National Audit Office report, which was very critical of the Government and BT, surprisingly did not even consult on the north Yorkshire example and that in future the NAO should look more closely at what we are doing in north Yorkshire?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. North Yorkshire’s achievements are a glowing example of what can be done at local level. I am surprised that north Yorkshire was not part of the investigation.
Take-up of superfast broadband in north Yorkshire is outpacing the national average by a considerable margin. After 12 months, take-up in the north Yorkshire intervention area is 13.4%, which proves that Superfast North Yorkshire’s demand-stimulation activity is working extremely well. It also demonstrates that there is latent demand for superfast broadband in the rural areas around north Yorkshire and York. I am sure that north Yorkshire colleagues here today can testify to that and have many examples from their constituencies.
The achievements of Superfast North Yorkshire are remarkable given that it is dealing with one of the country’s most rural counties. The county’s rurality, however, also has its drawbacks. Although I have no doubt that Superfast North Yorkshire will meet its 90% coverage target well before the rest of the country, I remain concerned that there is a deepening digital divide between the 90% and the 10%, who appear to be being left behind by phase 1 of the roll-out.
I see the divide first hand in my constituency. Communities such as Haxby, Wigginton, Dunnington and Elvington are already enjoying the benefits of superfast speeds, which are coming soon to areas such as Wheldrake. Even small, quiet villages in my constituency, such as Rufforth and Stockton-on-the-Forest, have recently had their cabinets upgraded, yet there remain a number of small communities in my constituency that are sadly too far from the local cabinet to benefit. Those communities include Askham Bryan, Askham Richard, Hessay, Acaster Malbis, parts of Naburn and Holtby to name a few.
A constituent of mine from Askham Bryan informs me that the maximum download speed he can obtain is 1.2 megabits per second, which is typical of the rest of the village. He says:
“1.2 mbps permits basic web usage such as email and relatively slow browsing. However, any attempt to stream data-hungry applications such as live TV are not possible. Multiple users online at the same time in the same household also seriously compromises the performance of even basic applications.”
My constituent relocated to Askham Bryan from London without moving jobs, under the presumption that the investment in broadband in the region would enable him to access facilities such as web-based video conferencing, which have become the norm for many and would suit the flexible working arrangements that he has put in place for himself.
True to form, Superfast North Yorkshire has been excellent at engaging with our local rural communities, and the chief executive officer has met Askham Bryan parish council to discuss the problems it faces and the potential solutions. In the specific case of Askham Bryan, it is increasingly likely that other technologies, such as fixed wireless, 4G or satellite broadband, will need to be deployed to provide the village with the speeds it needs and deserves. The parish council has contacted independent wireless broadband providers, which have explained that the technology is available to the village and is relatively simple to implement. The lack of certainty on the future direction of the roll-out, however, has prevented the parish council from going any further.
That point is important because the wireless broadband providers appear to be willing to invest their time and money if there is a chance that BT will subsequently upgrade the village’s cabinet. As such, much greater clarity is needed on the future of the roll-out, so that communities on the wrong side of the digital divide are able to plan their next steps based on certainties rather than possibilities.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I strongly support his argument on the success of the roll-out of superfast broadband across our county. He makes a powerful point on extending the roll-out beyond the 90% target. Does he agree that we now face the question of how we achieve that next stage? Superfast broadband makes an enormous difference, and he has articulated the challenges that face the broadband have-nots, including some of the villages in his constituency. The same applies to villages such as Lower Dunsforth and others in my Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency, and it is important that such communities are able to access broadband as quickly as possible.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. All Members representing north Yorkshire and York will have examples in their constituency of communities that are suffering from the digital divide and that are among the 10% rather than the 90%. It is important that we have clarity on where we are going, and I am sure the Minister will set that out, as he has in the past. We need that clarity for the future so that we may build on the success of what has already been achieved in north Yorkshire.
We must not forget the role of local authorities. In my constituency, I have been encouraged by the levels of communication between Superfast North Yorkshire and City of York council. Superfast North Yorkshire is encouraging the council to contribute to an intermediary project that will enable Superfast North Yorkshire to continue extending coverage to some of the most rural areas.
Superfast North Yorkshire has successfully pulled together a further £8 million for the project to extend phase 1 of the roll-out, which will potentially increase coverage to between 92% and 93% of the county. That sum is made up of £3 million contributed by North Yorkshire county council, £3 million from the European regional development fund and £2 million from Broadband Delivery UK’s contingency fund, for which my north Yorkshire colleagues and I, ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), assisted in lobbying.
Given the pace of the roll-out in north Yorkshire and the European regulations that are in place, the additional pot of money will not get Superfast North Yorkshire past the summer of 2015 before its hugely successful programme comes to a grinding halt. All that will be left is a wait for the next tranche of Government funding for phase 2. Given the complexities of procurement, planning and the roll-out, it would be a tremendous shame for Superfast North Yorkshire to have to kick-start the roll-out again in 2016. During a 12-month shutdown Superfast North Yorkshire would, due to its own success, lose many of the skills it has built up.
Whether City of York council’s executive chooses to contribute to the £8 million project is entirely at its own discretion. I am led to believe, however, that of the £530 million granted to local authorities from central Government, City of York council was allocated some £1.4 million. I therefore call on the council’s executive to honour its responsibility to the communities in my constituency that I have mentioned and to ensure that that important Government funding is well spent.
I finally come to the central purpose of the debate. From the Minister’s recent response to my question, I am aware that the finer details of the phase 2 roll-out are still being worked out. Given the fantastic work of Superfast North Yorkshire and its partners, however, I ask the Government to look seriously at granting the region an early release of the next phase of funding.
I have already touched on the several strong reasons for doing so. Take-up in north Yorkshire is well ahead of the national average, which proves that there is latent demand for rural broadband in the region. Superfast North Yorkshire has achieved great things across the region and the hard work that has been put in deserves to be rewarded. It has not let the absence of further funding hold it back, but even after taking the initiative and securing extra money for the interim period, it is unlikely to get beyond the summer of 2015. Finally, considering the fantastic pace that the roll-out has gathered in north Yorkshire, it would be an awful shame for those who have worked so hard to have to kick-start the roll-out again in 2016 after an indefinite pause.
To those points, I would like to add a further call on the Government to provide greater clarity over the future of the roll-out—I hope the Minister can do that in his remarks—so that those communities left behind by the digital divide can plan ahead for how they will try to bridge it. While I welcome the additional £10 million for broadband as part of the national infrastructure plan announced in the recent autumn statement, I appeal to the Government to continue to support that hugely important programme with the necessary resources and to ensure that we make the most of the new technologies available to us.
I am again thankful for the opportunity to speak. The Government pride themselves on rewarding those who work hard and want to get on. Superfast North Yorkshire has worked tremendously hard, and I hope that the Government will give it what it needs to finish the job.
Thank you, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy)—my constituency neighbour —on securing the debate. I also refer the Chair and hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I start by congratulating Superfast North Yorkshire, BT and the Government—for the cash—as we have made good progress in a relatively short space of time. With the project now halfway through and the target of 90% of homes having access to superfast broadband well down the track, the problem is that some villages will achieve only 2 megabits. They can see that that is the case and feel that they are being left in the slow lane. A constituency such as Selby and Ainsty faces real challenges. There are well over 100 villages. Many of them are on the border with other local authorities, where the exchange is across that border. Residents in villages such as Ryther, which currently has a 365 kilobit download speed, Newton Kyme, Catterton, Bickerton, Kirkby Overblow, Ulleskelf, Fairburn and many more have all expressed frustration at the pace of roll-out.
The problem appears to be the lack of a transparent plan to deliver the committed 2 megabits to the remaining 10%. The fact that the people who currently get the worst speeds have no visibility on when or whether they will be upgraded gives rise to considerable concern. I understand that Superfast North Yorkshire is about to leaflet every home in north Yorkshire to ensure that people are aware of the need to order the upgrade, because if they do not order it, they will not get it. Doing so might make the last 5% highly visible. It is now clear which areas are at risk of not being upgraded. They are the areas with the strongest support for the roll-out programme, because speeds are currently the lowest. They are also the areas that would have been the most supportive of the spending of the additional funds to upgrade the service. They might now be realising that they could see no improvement from that investment.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in addition to clarity on the 2 megabit issue that he so eloquently articulates, BT’s feet must be held to the fire with regard to the cabinets across north Yorkshire that it originally said were commercially viable? It now says that they are not, leaving communities such as Cononley in my constituency stuck between what they thought was going to be commercially viable and being outside the intervention area.
As usual, my hon. Friend is spot on. His remark leads quite nicely on to my next point. One of the features of the contract is that if take-up is high, money can be clawed back and then used to extend the project to further cabinets. For that reason, encouraging people to sign up for faster speeds is extremely important.
I take issue with something that my hon. Friend mentioned. Take-up has actually been relatively modest. Good areas typically have 25% to 30%. I am quite happy to be put right on that, but I am sure that take-up has been significantly less in other areas. That may be partly due to the lack of clarity about needing to place an order, which will hopefully be put right, or it might be that people who already have 10 megabits or more simply think that there is no need to upgrade to get 40 megabits.
Finally, the vision for this excellent project was to provide superfast broadband for 90% and at least 2 megabits to 10% and to revitalise rural economies. That vision generated support and enthusiasm for the project. Just because it is hard does not mean that we should be walking away from delivering something that was initially so enthusiastically received. In the next of my regular communications with Superfast North Yorkshire and BT, I hope to be given some comfort as to how the remaining 10% will be addressed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing the debate, and I am pleased to see him joined by my hon. Friends the Members for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) and for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams). As one can see as the camera pans around, God’s own county is represented by four of the finest elected representatives to be found in any legislature in the world. It is a testament to their power and influence that not a single member of the Opposition has dared to turn up to challenge anything that my hon. Friends have to say.
Now that I have taken my tongue out of my cheek, I must say in all seriousness, for the edification of their constituents and any local journalists watching the debate, that my hon. Friends have been assiduous in lobbying for their constituencies and to secure the best settlement to deliver the best broadband deal for their constituents, because they understand its importance. They have been aided and abetted by John Moore, the chief executive of NYnet, which is the company set up to deliver broadband to North Yorkshire, as well as the excellently led, Conservative North Yorkshire council. It is important to explain to those who might be new to the broadband debate that North Yorkshire was one of the first councils to participate in the Government’s rural broadband programme, because it was oven-ready, as it were, when the programme was announced. That is why, while I will go on to talk about the general success of the rural broadband programme, North Yorkshire stands out as one of the most successful areas.
Just to extend the mutual congratulations slightly, I want to put on the record our thanks to the Minister for being so responsive over the past few years to relentless e-mails and letters from all of us. His responsiveness has made a massive difference.
I am grateful, but perhaps we had better stop there, Mrs Main, and get to the substance of the debate, or people will start to turn against us.
North Yorkshire is one of the largest rural broadband projects in the country. It was the first to get under way under our rural broadband programme. We have put almost £18 million into the project, together with more than £8 million of European funding—if I am allowed to say that in public—and £9 million from BT, making a total investment of more than £35 million. The project is now on track to be completed by October this year, which is ahead of schedule. We also recognise the need to do more, and partly in response to the relentless e-mails, letters and conversations, we allocated a further £3 million to North Yorkshire, because that leveraged an additional £5 million of funding from the local council and in European money, allowing coverage to be extended further.
As for what we have achieved so far, the current contract will get 670 cabinets enabled for superfast broadband, which will deliver 168,000 premises as passed. Mindful of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer about distinguishing between access to fibre and getting superfast speeds, I can say that that means 150,000 premises achieving speeds greater than 25 megabits. It is important to stress that we distinguish between those who have access to cabinets that have been enabled for superfast broadband and those who actually receive the speeds, because we recognise that some premises are too far from the cabinets to get the designated speeds.
More than half the cabinets have been deployed so far, which is 350, or 52% of the total; 95,000 premises have been passed, or 57% of the total; and 86,000 of those premises receive speeds of 25 megabits or more. By the end of next week, we expect 370 cabinets to have been enabled, so the project is going well. It is important to stress that this has been helped not only by the assiduous nature of the MPs’ holding the Government to account, but by NYnet on the ground and a proactive council, which have been vital. Some people have criticised the way in which we have gone about working with local councils, rather than having a national tender, for example, but having councils that are partners with BT has made a huge difference, because it joins up with things such as planning to ensure that broadband is rolled out all the more speedily.
Despite criticism of the programme, the results are now beginning to speak for themselves. For example, in Rutland more than 9,000 premises have been passed, and we expect that project to conclude by the summer; 95 more communities in Norfolk are now accessing fibre broadband, thanks to the programme; and in Suffolk, 90 miles of fibre cable have been laid, and 10,000 homes and businesses are getting broadband three months ahead of schedule, with a further 2,500 premises in 16 communities getting it in the autumn.
Many authorities are going further than our original target of 90%: Cambridgeshire is going for 98%; Lancashire 97%; Rutland 94%; and Wales, which has passed 100,000 premises and is now six months ahead of schedule, 96%. By the end of 2013, with 43 out of 44 projects signed, half of them already had live coverage. Superfast Cornwall has seen more than 194,000 premises passed by fibre and is aiming for 95% of fibre coverage. Northern Ireland has more than 90% of fibre coverage.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to BT and its engineers. Over the Christmas period, all of us have seen, or experienced, the horrendous weather that led to trouble with power lines and so on. The flooding still afflicts a great many areas of the country. Throughout that entire period, however, BT engineers were working to meet their milestones. I have been told stories of engineers working with water up to their shoulders as they were preparing to lay fibre, or working in holes where the pumps had to be kept on permanently to keep the water from flooding them, so that the milestones could be met. BT gets a lot of criticism for the programme, but most of it is unwarranted. It is worth our pausing to pay tribute to the work of the BT engineers, in particular over this Christmas period.
On the core points made by my hon. Friends, I would characterise the tone of their remarks as, “It’s going well, but could do better.” We could do better in two or three areas, the first of which might be the allocation of the next £250 million. It is worth making the point that, having allocated a little more than £500 million to reach 90% superfast broadband, the Chancellor has allocated a further £250 million to reach 95%. We want to get that money allocated as soon as possible.
I was not in a hole up to my shoulders in water, but I can assure my hon. Friends that my officials and I and BT were all looking at the issue over the Christmas and new year period. We hope to make an announcement shortly, but I know that they appreciate that we have to get it right and ensure that the money is allocated properly and fairly. I can be certain, however, that good partners like North Yorkshire will, I hope, receive appropriate funding to carry on their good work.
Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge, as I have already done, that there is a difference between a fibre-enabled cabinet and people getting superfast access. I reassure my hon. Friends that we make the distinction. They also mentioned the concern about BT first saying that a cabinet is commercially viable, but then saying that it is not and that it should be part of the rural roll-out. Detailed planning is undertaken, but circumstances on the ground can change, so there needs to be a degree of flexibility and give and take. I can, however, again assure my hon. Friends that when BT finds that a cabinet is not commercially viable and seeks to put it into the rural programme, we do have detailed discussions. Likewise, sometimes there are parts of the rural programme that become commercially viable.
As for clawing money back from BT when take-up is higher, I assure my hon. Friends that where the take-up of broadband exceeds the target set under the contract, we do claw money back. That money is put back into the programme to extend coverage further.
Finally, I assure my hon. Friends that we are also looking at the £10 million that the Chancellor has allocated to us to take superfast broadband from 95% to 100%. That is money for test-bed experiments. It is important to stress that, in particular in rural areas, prices rise exponentially for that very last 5%.
Does the Minister have any experience of hard-to-reach areas in other parts of the country implementing wi-fi solutions? Does he have any knowledge of the take-up, or experience of how well such solutions work? In one of my villages, Ulleskelf, I helped to launch a wi-fi service more than a year ago. My understanding is that the take-up has been low—
There are individual solutions and it is important that we remain open to them. I receive e-mails from individual providers which claim that they can provide commercial solutions for the last 5%. It is important that we hear from all potential providers, which is why we have set aside that money to stress-test solutions before making that final allocation to get us to 100% superfast broadband.
Question put and agreed to.