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Westminster Hall

Volume 575: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2014

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 4 February 2014

[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair]

Gypsy and Traveller Policy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Lancaster.)

Order. There is a problem with the sound recording equipment. Without a recording of the proceedings, no Official Report can be produced, so I am suspending the sitting until the problem has been resolved.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

I ask all who speak in this important debate to do so in a calm and measured way as we discuss sensitive issues concerning our fellow citizens.

A separate planning system for Gypsies and Travellers has been developed in this country since part II of the Caravan Sites Act 1968 was enacted. That part was repealed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, but the Human Rights Act 1998 and section 225 of the Housing Act 2004 recreated a parallel planning system for Gypsies and Travellers. I have no doubt that that was done with the best of intentions, but it is no longer appropriate for the settled or Traveller communities. Many local councillors share that view.

We know from the 2011 census that 76%—more than three quarters—of Gypsies and Travellers live in houses, bungalows or flats, while only 24%—less than a quarter—live in caravans or mobile homes. Thus, the existing separate planning law for Gypsies and Travellers applies only to less than a quarter of their population in the United Kingdom. I cannot think of any other group in the UK, whether vulnerable or not, that we seek to ghettoise in such a way. We must look at whether such separation in the planning system has worked for the benefit of Gypsies and Travellers; I think that the evidence suggests that it has not.

At 47%, Gypsies and Travellers have the lowest level of work of any ethnicity. The comparable figure for the English and Welsh population is 63%. Of Gypsy and Traveller adults, 60% have no qualifications, whereas the corresponding figure for the rest of the nation is 23%. A compassionate case can be made for integrating Gypsies and Travellers into one assessment of housing need in every local authority. If it is necessary to provide places to park for travelling caravans and some fields for grazing horses belonging to Gypsies and Travellers to bring about one cohesive planning system for the whole population, I believe that that should be done.

When I look at Polish residents in my constituency, I note that they have an active social centre and, indeed, their own Polish Catholic church, both of which are close to my constituency office. We do not have a separate planning system for Poles, allowing them to live together with planning rights not available to the rest of the population, but they have managed to maintain their identity and cultural heritage by meeting together regularly.

I see no reason why there should be any loss of Gypsy or Traveller identity from what I am proposing. To achieve what I am proposing, I am calling on the Minister to introduce primary legislation in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech to amend section 225 of the Housing Act 2004, which requires a separate housing needs assessment for Travellers and Gypsies. I am also calling for the Human Rights Act 1998 to be similarly amended as well as, if necessary, those sections of the Equality Act 2010 that apply to Gypsies and Travellers.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I do not disagree with him about a single planning policy; we should not differentiate Travellers, or any other ethnic group. However, does he agree that it is important that, wherever it settles, the Traveller community should abide by the rules of the local community? We have had serious problems with the condition of sites in Northern Ireland. That issue must be dealt with as well.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are all equal under, and have a duty to obey, the law.

The current twin-track, separated planning system—one for Gypsies and Travellers and one for settled residents—greatly threatens and undermines community cohesion and causes significant fear, distrust and upset to both Travellers and settled residents. If someone can demonstrate, or simply declare, that they are a Gypsy or Traveller, they acquire highly lucrative planning rights not available to the rest of the population. Such rights are granted to some individuals who are very wealthy, or become so as a result; they are not all vulnerable individuals. That opens up the system to massive abuse from some people seeking to gain such lucrative planning rights.

Many able-bodied Travellers do not in fact travel for a living. Often, settled residents travel more, on business, than some so-called Travellers.

Is there not another point, which is certainly true in the case of Sussex police? If someone claims to be a Traveller, the police simply accept that as fact. No effort is undertaken to ascertain whether they really are of that ethnic identity.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The reality is that anyone can self-declare as a Traveller. I very much welcomed the written ministerial statement made by the Minister on 17 January in which he committed to looking at that issue.

I cannot believe that it is right that some schools, such as that in the village of Braybrooke in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), should be entirely occupied by Traveller children. I do not believe that that is in their own best interests, not least given Traveller children’s high rates of absence. For Irish-heritage Travellers, the 2008 national pupil database showed primary school absence rates of more than 24% and secondary school absence rates of more than 27%. I believe that if the children of Travellers were integrated across a greater number of schools, they would be more likely to conform to the higher attendance rates of the majority.

The current separate planning system for Gypsies and Travellers often takes no account of the proper provision of facilities in rural locations, specifically those for sewerage and sanitation. Harm is often caused to the local environment by hedgerows being illegally pulled out, pollution of the local water courses and farmland, and sometimes encroachment on others’ land.

The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting case. In view of the difficulties he is describing, does he accept that a lot of problems have been caused over the decades by a severe shortage of both permanent and transit Gypsy and Traveller sites around the country as a whole? If that shortage was addressed, we would not be having to deal with all the problems he has described.

I would welcome a proper analysis of how many transit sites we actually need. Many of my constituents have said to me that they in the settled community travel more, for business, than many Travellers. I am proposing a single, compassionate, overall housing needs assessment for everyone—everyone in this country needs housing. I would also point out that more than three quarters of Travellers already live in bricks and mortar houses, and that I would not take away their right to own caravans.

Many villages in my constituency, such as Billington, Stanbridge, Tilsworth, and Heath and Reach, feel very threatened by the large number of Travellers and Gypsies being sited in their communities to comply with current Government requirements. Specifically, the current requirement to accommodate a growth in the Gypsy and Traveller household net formation of 3% every year is causing massive problems. Although I would like to scrap the whole system, it is imperative that while it continues a more accurate figure is used, which I believe would be nearer 1.5%. I also believe that the Pat Niner review that called for a 3% figure was based on the arrival of large numbers of Travellers from Ireland after the Irish Government changed the law. The Irish Planning and Development Act 2000 made development without planning permission a criminal offence.

After that, in 2002, Irish law changed again to make trespass a criminal offence in certain circumstances, which I believe caused numerous Irish Travellers to come over to England and Wales, resulting in a spike in the numbers that led to the 3% figure that is causing problems at the moment.

The current law penalises authorities that have made significant Traveller provision, such as my own, Central Bedfordshire council, which had 197 pitches in November 2013. In addition, almost 60% of the total 247 pitches and plots listed in the Gypsy and Traveller local plan are within four miles of the village of Stanbridge, contradicting the Secretary of State’s statement on 25 November 2013 that Traveller sites should not dominate villages.

Large pitch numbers tend to produce large further needs assessments, leading to ever-increasing pitch requirements. The travellers on the unauthorised Mile Tree Farm site in my constituency are from Aylesbury, I believe, yet are counted against Central Bedfordshire’s needs assessment. That is wrong and unfair, as are the enormous legal costs that council tax payers must bear when local authorities challenge the unfair system.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is sometimes not only local councils but local communities that bear enormous legal costs? In one case in my constituency, an applicant at a planning appeal has sought costs against local residents, purely because they had the courage to stand up and speak about what they believed in for their community and their village.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting that point on the record. She highlights the fact that there are many legal disputes. They do not promote community cohesion and are expensive for all concerned, whether individuals or, as often happens, council tax payers through local authorities.

Paragraph 15 of the March 2012 planning policy for Traveller sites seems to blunt the impact of the Minister’s written ministerial statement of 17 January on the green belt; that is another reason why I believe that nothing less than primary legislation will do. I do not believe the current situation is tenable, because central Government are forcing local authorities to take many extremely unpalatable decisions that are causing a great deal of anxiety and anger in rural and urban communities. As I said, that does not aid community cohesion. I believe strongly that we are all equal under the law. That is an important principle, but many of my constituents in the settled community do not believe that equality under the law exists at the moment and feel highly discriminated against.

The education and skills of Traveller children are more likely to increase if they are integrated with children from the settled community over a much wider area, so that they do not dominate any particular school. I also believe that Traveller children and their parents would follow the example of the majority of children and have higher rates of attendance and a greater desire to achieve the qualifications and skills necessary to secure sustained employment.

I repeat my request to the Minister to introduce primary legislation to deal with the situation in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech and, in the interim, immediately to lower the 3% net household formation annual growth requirement for Gypsies and Travellers to around 1.5%, as I do not believe that the evidence supports the 3% figure and it is causing huge difficulty to local authorities and our constituents.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on keeping his speech short and relevant. Hopefully, we will fit in all Members who wish to speak.

On a point of order, Mrs Riordan. You will know that at the start of this debate, there was a 10-minute delay while the microphones were not working. This is an important and well attended debate. What advice have you had from the Chairman of Ways and Means about whether 10 minutes could be added to the end of this debate, and subsequently to the rest of the day?

I have no discretion as the Chair of this debate to extend the sitting, because question time begins in the House at 11.30.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate.

The term “Travelling people” covers groups found across the country, in Scotland, Ireland and England, and across Europe. All regard travelling as an important aspect of their ethnic and cultural identity. This debate is not concerned with certain other groups such as, for example, fairground travellers—show people—or new age travellers, although obviously some of the issues that we will mention, such as the education of children, affect all sorts of travelling people.

In my own area of the country, Scotland, references to the presence of Travellers can be found as early as the 12th century. There is a number of theories about the origin of Travellers: some people argue that Travellers can trace their roots to a Celtic or perhaps pre-Celtic population; others suggest that they may descend from Roman slaves brought over to Britain, although on the evidence that can be identified, that sounds improbable. The most recent estimate is that there are more than 1,500 Travellers in Scotland at any one time, but the true figure is unknown. The Scottish figure excludes thousands of Travellers living in housing for some or all of the year, and many people are afraid to identify themselves as Travellers because they fear discrimination. Travellers themselves estimate that there are more than 15,000 Travellers in Scotland at any one time.

We recognise that Travellers engage in a wide variety of employment, including in the world of entertainment. Famous people connected with Travellers include Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth, Bob Hoskins and Shayne Ward—it is even claimed that former US President Bill Clinton is descended from the Scottish Gypsy kings and queens—but as we know, it is not just famous Travellers who attract press coverage. Travellers are no longer a forgotten minority: both the local and the national media regularly cover stories relating to Traveller issues. Unfortunately, it usually results in the majority of people, who may never have met a Traveller, holding firm and often negative opinions about them. Although we should be concerned that press coverage is often unbalanced, we should also accept that Travellers are as diverse as any other group and recognise that, as in any other ethnic group, a small minority of individuals do engage in unlawful behaviour. In short, we should not be so gullible as to accept that they are all just misunderstood and hard-done-by angels.

For decades, Travellers’ accommodation needs have featured low on the priority list, and they have largely been the subject of heated debate. It would seem that in council chambers up and down the country, there are few subjects more hotly contested the provision of Traveller sites. Travellers require a range of accommodation provision, encompassing sites, housing and roadside camps, in order to meet their individual needs and circumstances. For many Travellers, travelling is not so much a lifestyle choice as a strong part of their cultural heritage. Traditionally, many Travellers had a wintering place and then travelled throughout the rest of the year, and some follow a similar pattern today, living in one place during the winter so that, for example, their children can go to school, and travelling during the summer.

The first council-owned site in Scotland was established only in 1978, in Argyll and Bute. During the 1980s and early 1990s, local authorities made use of a Scottish Office grant scheme to build sites, but some sites have since fallen into disrepair and others have closed. Existing council site provision in Scotland does not meet demand or the needs of Travellers, but many communities are still averse to supporting local Traveller sites—all agree that there should be sites, but not near them. In my constituency, we find that although we need to provide a campsite, local people object if it is to be situated near them. They all want an official campsite, but not beside them.

Recently, my council set aside moneys to establish a site, but communities disputed both the site position and whether it was the best use of money in these austere times. That is understandable, but money will still have to be spent to clean up unofficial sites used by Travelling people, such as roadside camps. In recent years, councils have blocked off many of the traditional roadside stopping places used by Travellers; as a result, Travellers have been compelled to camp in places that are closer to the settled population, which has often become a source of tension. Given the inadequate provision of council-owned sites and the difficulties in getting planning permission for private sites, roadside camping can be the only option for some families. As I say, roadside camping is often blamed for causing mess, which can incur rather hefty clean-up costs.

What of the UK-wide situation in sectors that affect Travellers, such as health and education? Many health services continue to exclude Travellers. Some GP surgeries refuse to register Travellers as patients, and doctors are reluctant to visit Traveller sites. Consequently, Travellers sometimes have no alternative but to seek care through accident and emergency clinics. Moreover, living conditions have a direct impact on health—more than 50% of Travellers have spent at least part of their life without access to running water. Travellers have one of the highest maternal death rates in the UK, and a study in Scotland estimated that the average life expectancy of Travellers could be as low as 55 years.

Attempts to meet the educational needs and concerns of Travellers are patchy. Some Traveller children are unable to attend school because they are concerned about their safety—in a recent survey, three quarters of young Travellers interviewed said they have been picked on or bullied, and some parents have even been advised by teachers to tell their children not to let the other pupils know that they are indeed Travellers. Interrupted learning as a result of travelling may also have an impact on Traveller children’s ability to access mainstream education, including further education. Few schools keep formal contact with Traveller pupils or record information about their attainment.

Clearly the provision of sites, including official sites, for Travellers requires the agreement and support of the communities who receive frequent visits from Travellers.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I congratulate him on giving a balanced picture of the challenges facing the Traveller community. He describes a set of circumstances affecting the Traveller community and explains the nature of their marginalisation, which was exemplified by the statistics cited by the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), but does he agree that what underlies this situation is that there are simply not enough lawful and official permanent and transit sites for travelling people?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is absolutely right to say that there are not enough official sites, and that is one of the causes of the friction and tension between the travelling community and the established community.

I will finish my remarks by highlighting that very point. It cannot remain the position that people say, “Yes, we recognise the need for sites, but not here.” Travellers will continue to visit areas of the country regardless of whether facilities are made available for them, which will result in calls for Travellers to be moved on from unofficial stopping sites as soon as possible. However, to remove them from unofficial sites, councils up and down the country will have to identify official sites and agree their use with the communities that they serve. Otherwise, they will forever pick up the cleaning-up costs.

Thank you, Mrs Riordan, for calling me to speak; it is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this morning. And I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this really important debate.

In my short speech, I wish to raise an issue that is causing many of my constituents deep concern: the siting of Gypsy and Traveller encampments by local authorities. My local authority, York city council, is in the early stages of developing its local plan, and in its first set of draft proposals, which were consulted on last summer, 63 Gypsy and Traveller pitches were suggested. Of those 63 pitches, 41 have been proposed in what I would class as inappropriate countryside locations in small rural communities in my constituency. A further 21 travelling show people pitches have been proposed, again in rural locations on the edge of village settlements.

All the Gypsy, Traveller and show people pitches allocated to proposed sites are on York’s established green belt. The council has promised that the remaining 22 Gypsy and Traveller pitches are to be allocated to “suitable” sites as they emerge during the next 10 years, but the council’s blatant disregard for the green belt gives one little faith about what they class as “suitable” sites. Sadly, when identifying sites the council has actively pursued a “green belt first” policy, rather than the “brownfield first” policy that is explicit in the national planning policy framework. I shall be grateful if the Minister clarifies or reiterates today what I believe to be the current position: that local authorities should pursue a “brownfield first” policy when allocating Gypsy and Traveller sites, and that they should consider publicly owned land before privately owned sites.

Disappointingly, in York the council appears to have used the willingness of the landowner as the only criterion for designating sites, much to the detriment of my constituents and the affected communities. Countless constituents have contacted me to express their deep concern about the ability of landowners to use the local planning process to coerce—some might even say “blackmail”—communities into accepting inappropriate housing developments by threatening to put the land forward for Gypsy and Traveller sites. As people can imagine, that does not help anyone involved in this process, from the Travellers themselves to the affected communities.

I will also touch on the question of unmet need for Traveller pitches. There seems to be some confusion among certain local authorities—I am sorry to say that mine falls into that category—about whether unmet need constitutes the “special circumstances” required to place new Traveller sites on the green belt, even when no other option is available. Will the Minister clarify that situation for me? I would also be grateful to learn whether he feels that the “five-year supply” rule on new pitches should apply to Gypsies and Travellers, who are nomadic in their living requirements and whose accommodation needs are likely to fluctuate greatly during the 15-year life of a local plan, as has already been mentioned.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern about how supply is determined? Salford university undertook a study, including in my own constituency, that basically asked the Gypsy and Traveller populations how many pitches they thought they would require during the next 15 to 20 years. Unsurprisingly, the number was very substantial: the Gypsies and Travellers deemed that they needed a 60% increase in the supply of pitches in quite a short period.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, he might have been reading my speech, because I will touch on that important issue when I talk about how local authorities have assessed future needs.

As we all know, under the national planning policy framework local authorities have sole responsibility for assessing the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in their area. I am not saying that it is an easy task—far from it; it is very difficult. However, I am concerned that there are insufficient checks and balances in place to ensure that these assessments are being carried out in an objective and proportionate manner.

As I said, York city council has assessed that it requires more than 80 pitches for Gypsies, Travellers and show people during the 15-year life cycle of its local plan, but when my constituents and I reviewed the figures and the methodology used for identifying that specific need, we found some disturbing inaccuracies and errors, which suggests the council is proposing to provide for well above the “appropriate level of supply” required. The council based much of its background research on the 2008 North Yorkshire accommodation assessment. The report identifies that York has a shortfall of 36 pitches, which the council astutely picked up on in its own assessment, but that 2008 document also states that the number of households moving off sites and into bricks and mortar housing has vastly outstripped the projected need from concealed Gypsy and Traveller households. It concluded that the trend in York was of declining need, with the total number of additional pitches required between 2008 and 2015 having gone into negative figures, standing at minus 17—an important fact that was strangely absent from the council’s own assessment. Under huge protest, the council is now revisiting its assessment process.

The 18 concealed households that city of York council included in its assessment included Gypsies and Travellers who are currently accommodated in bricks and mortar housing but wish to be on local authority-run Travellers’ sites. Will the Minister clarify the definitions attached to Gypsies and Travellers? I strongly believe that, as my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire so eloquently stated, those who reside in bricks and mortar housing and have done so for some time should not be taken into account by local authorities when assessing Traveller pitch requirements, regardless of whether they would like to be back on a pitch.

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. That is clearly the nub of how local authorities have assessed needs. I do not know about his local circumstances, but is he aware of any local authority or official site of pitches that is underutilised? How does he explain the many examples of unlawful pitch sites? Traveller people have no other alternative, because there are not sufficient lawful sites available.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I can only speak from my experience of my local authority and constituency. There is underuse on privately run pitches in my local authority area and we see few, if any, illegal encampments in the city of York. There are illegal encampments in neighbouring local authority areas, but none specifically in the York council area.

It would be sensible—this also applies to the point that I have just picked up on—of the Government to do more to encourage neighbouring local authorities to work together to carry out accurate assessments of Gypsy and Traveller needs, to ensure they are appropriately accommodated and that the responsibility for doing so is apportioned fairly. York, for example, is behind many other neighbouring local authorities in the local plan-making process. That has served to highlight the disparity between the needs assessments, with the council committing itself to far more pitches than any of its neighbours. I fear that that is because it is including the unmet need of surrounding local authorities in its own assessment.

I have a lot of respect for the Minister and the work he is doing on this issue, and I look forward to hearing his comments on the points raised in the debate. On the whole, I feel that much greater clarity is required about both the appropriate siting of Traveller pitches and the assessments of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs. That would provide much-needed transparency in a complex area of law and would prevent local authorities, such as city of York council, from the irresponsible and complacent conduct that has, sadly, caused my constituents so much distress.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) onsecuring this important debate and on his thoughtful speech. Having initiated a similar debate in July 2011 on Gypsy and Traveller planning, I am pleased to be able to contribute to this one, because this is a challenging area of constituency work for all right hon. and hon. Members in this Chamber.

The Minister will be aware that, like other parts of Essex and England, some communities in my constituency—I thank him for visiting it last week—have become blighted by the negative consequences of ill-thought-out planning policies, as well as illegal and unauthorised developments. The way those cases have been handled through various planning processes has alarmed many of my constituents, who take issue with that and now feel that there are two planning systems running in parallel—one for the settled community and one for travelling communities.

Let me provide some context. Three local authorities and a county council cover my constituency, so, as one might imagine, there are complexities relating to local development frameworks.

On that point, although certain matters are devolved in Wales, does my hon. Friend agree that the consequence is that, rather than enhancing and integrating the Traveller community, resentment towards that community has developed, along with a complete lack of confidence in the local authority, leading to the opposite effect of what was desired?

My hon. Friend is right. We are dealing with questions of public confidence. The planning system needs to address the many concerns that he and other hon. Members have raised, but there are endless examples where the planning system has been perceived as deeply unhelpful, particularly in respect of travelling communities and, of course, settled communities.

I have dealt with cases where human rights legislation has been used in favour of the travelling community. That legislation appears to provide a licence for planning developments to be granted on a particular scale, even though similar applications from the settled community would be refused. This is about ensuring that everyone is dealt with fairly and even-handedly within the planning system. Evidence seems to suggest that the planning process favours travelling communities over settled communities, and I have examples of that happening.

I praise Conservative Ministers, particularly the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), and his team, who deserve considerable credit for trying to resolve many historical problems associated with the planning system in relation to the travelling community. I praise them also for calling in some appeals and for some of the reforms that have been made since we have been in government. Much more work is needed to ensure that we have a single planning system that is fair and, importantly, has the confidence of the public in all our communities.

I shall highlight ongoing problems in the village of Great Braxted in my constituency. It is a small rural community with an amazing, strong community spirit. All the neighbours know each other and new developments are not only unexpected, but are more often than not unsuitable for the area. In a well known case, a road in the village, Lea lane, has in recent years become the focal point of a number of planning applications, planning appeals and enforcement actions.

One family, who have lived in Lea lane for more than 20 years, have been left terrified by the constant bombardment of planning activities and development taking place on the land surrounding their property. In recent years, they have faced more than 30 planning applications from members of the travelling community and their associates. Every couple of months a new application or appeal seems to be lodged. Some applications have been successful, particularly on appeal, and pitches have been approved but remain unoccupied, but when applications are refused, new applications of a similar nature are submitted or unauthorised development continues.

My hon. Friend the Minister is aware from my correspondence with him about this situation that there seems to be no mechanism built into the planning system to protect my constituents from this bombardment of planning misery. I urge the Government to consider introducing new powers that can be exercised locally, to prevent persistent applications of a similar type from being made for a period of time.

In one example, a planning inspector granted permission on appeal by disregarding my constituents’ concerns and putting the rights of the travelling community above theirs. The inspector’s judgment stated:

“any harm to the living conditions of”

my constituents

“would clearly be outweighed by the benefits arising from the provision of a site for Gypsies and Travellers.”

The Minister knows that judgments such as that one shatter public confidence in the planning system and exacerbate the sense of unfairness in settled communities, particularly when their rights and views are effectively bypassed. Furthermore, my constituents have incurred significant costs—we have heard about this already—as a third party in the planning appeals process, and they have no way of recouping those costs, even when the application is refused. Works undertaken at the site on Lea lane have been very inconvenient, and my constituents have suffered disruption to their utilities—on top of the misery the planning process causes them, their utilities are being cut off. What is more, the area’s planning history naturally makes if very difficult for my constituents to sell up and move on.

The local planning authority is Maldon district council. Its draft site allocations plan, a copy of which I have here, deems that Lea lane should host 11 of the district’s 54 pitches and that priority should be given to intensifying or expanding current sites to accommodate new applications, irrespective of the plot’s unsuitability. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will encourage the local authority to reconsider its approach to Lea lane. I offer him an open invitation to pop by and see the site for himself when he is passing through on the A12, which he knows well. I am sure he has a great deal of empathy for my constituents, who feel trapped by the situation.

This weekend my constituents launched a petition to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to ensure that the settled community is treated equally and fairly in the planning process. Within hours of the petition’s launch, there were more than 200 signatures. I have a copy of the petition here, and I would be delighted to hand it to the Minister. I hope he will take note of the concerns raised in the petition.

Business premises and industrial estates are also affected by Travellers who turn up totally uninvited. Witham Industrial Watch has had some horrendous cases. Thousands of pounds of damage was caused last summer alone, not just on one occasion but on three. Businesses are the engines of our economic growth, creating jobs, prosperity and wealth. It is appalling to see the extent of the devastation and damage that has been caused on our industrial estates in Eastways and at two other locations. Action was taken though section 61 notices. I commend Witham police, with which I spent some time two Fridays ago. We discussed the cases, and the police were on the ball. I praise Witham Industrial Watch, too, for working in partnership with Witham police. I think there will be some best practice and good learning that we can all use when dealing with such cases.

The Government have done the right thing by making squatting in people’s homes a criminal offence and I urge Ministers to consider introducing a similar criminal offence to protect businesses and landowners by deterring illegal occupancy of land.

I agree with what the hon. Lady says about commercial sites and businesses. In my constituency we have had serious problems in which companies have had to pay Travellers to move on because international visitors were coming in and the place was a mess. It is a disgrace that that has to be done.

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. That is a classic example of why the system needs to be changed. The status quo is not an option; we need to do something. I believe that we can have an effective planning system that addresses the needs of both settled communities and Traveller communities and addresses the tensions that we have discussed today, but we need to change the culture and the attitude within the planning system, which means taking robust action on some of the areas that I and other hon. Members have raised.

Before I call Mr Robert Syms, I remind Members that three hon. Members wish to speak. If they adjust their speeches, we might get them all in before I call the Front-Benchers to start winding up the debate at 10.40 am.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on introducing an important debate that touches so many of our constituencies. A general frustration has been expressed this morning that giving special status to one category of people tends to trample on the rights of many of our ordinary, law-abiding, tax-paying constituents who, frankly, get very angry when they see their lives, their children’s lives and their grandchildren’s lives being blighted. In the Bournemouth and Poole area, particularly in the summer months, we face a number of groups that move down to find work. There is a good general argument for reviewing the law and the status of such groups.

I recently had a meeting with the Minister and other representatives from Dorset, and I will repeat what we discussed for the record. I thank him for meeting us. We have a particular problem in that we have one Dorset constabulary that covers Dorset, Bournemouth and Poole, but Bournemouth and Poole are unitary authorities. Under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the police cannot move a Traveller group over a unitary authority boundary, which puts pressure on both Bournemouth and Poole to find provision. Because we have very tightly drawn boroughs, and because we have green-belt and heath land, it is terribly difficult to identify sites within the conurbation that are not next to settled communities. That causes a lot of difficulty and trouble, and it would be much easier if the issue were managed over in Dorset, Bournemouth and Poole, with all three combining to do their best to manage the problem in the summer.

Poole has always tried to be as sensitive as possible, and the health authority has always tried to be as good as possible by knocking on the door and asking after the health of the mothers and children of the Traveller community, but law-abiding people—local residents who pay their council tax—get very frustrated that there seems to be a special status. Sometimes, neither the police nor the local authority seems able to take action to address the problem effectively and efficiently.

At the moment, Poole is trying to identify a temporary site, and it has considered some 90 sites. Poole is thinking of putting in for planning permission on a site at Marshes End in Creekmoor, which is causing a lot of controversy and trouble. Marshes End may not even be the best site because it is near a fast road, is next to a fire station and has few facilities. Leaving that aside, because the planning process will sort out whether it is the most appropriate site, the real frustration is that it is expensive. Poole is not a highly funded authority, and people, again, get frustrated that resources have to be put in to deal with what they consider to be a difficult problem.

Generally, I think there is a case for modest reform in a Bill in the next Session. We need to reform sections 61 and 62 of the 1994 Act, and the Government should consider whether people ought to be treated fairly and equally, rather than having a privilege for one specific group that tramples on the rights of others.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate.

As a quick disclaimer, when I raised the subject of a constituent and endorsed the local authority, which referred to him as “unkempt,” it later transpired that that person claims to be of Traveller origin and a six-month criminal investigation against me by Sussex police ensued. The investigation of course got nowhere. When the case was dropped, I raised the matter in the House, at which point the references to “Traveller” were registered as a hate incident by Sussex police, and six months later I was served with a police information notice that has subsequently been the subject of a Committee of Privileges investigation. I put it on record that I will not be sending a copy of Hansard to anyone, which is what sparked the complaint.

I have no argument with Travellers, but I do have an argument with illegal encampments, which cause such devastation, angst, pain and cost to my constituents. They disrupt the leisure, education and business activities of legitimate council tax-paying constituents who just want to go about their business. In my constituency, Adur and Worthing have been the destinations of choice for illegal encampments for many years. I take issue with the fact that the residents of such illegal encampments seem incapable of vacating without completely trashing the site and leaving a heck of a mess for local people to clear up. One of my parish councils, which has been the subject of multiple illegal encampments, had to raise council tax last year by 28% purely to pay the bill for clearing up and reinforcing some of its public sites.

I will not give way because there is very little time.

The problem is that illegal encampments seem to have no consideration for the communities in which they park themselves. As hon. Members have said, there is a perception among our constituents that there is one law for Travellers and illegal encampments and another law for law-abiding citizens, who would have to fund the clearing up if they undertook such activity. My concern is that our police, and certainly Sussex police, seem to be engendered with a feeling of political correctness, such that when one challenges the legitimacy of people calling themselves Travellers, or the legitimacy of what they are doing, one is put in the frame by the police. That is just not fair, and it creates great resentment among constituents who have to pay to clean up the mess.

The situation in my constituency has got better, and that is largely because of our new police commissioner, Katy Bourne, who has made illegal encampments one of her priorities. She has made the police take the problem much more seriously. Adur and Worthing councils have certainly improved their responses enormously and there has been a much better team effort in dealing with the problem. Rather than the police telling us what they cannot do, the police and crime commissioner has compelled them to issue rather more section 61 and section 62 notices, which have moved many of these illegal encampments swiftly on. Those notices work. In one case last summer, 50 caravans turned up on an open public area where a church festival was being held. Within an hour they had been moved on. They went to a football pitch, and within 24 hours they had been moved on from there, because the police were prepared to use section 61 and section 62 notices.

In West Sussex, all the local authorities have come together to co-fund a transit camp for the whole county, which will improve the problem. We welcome the Government money made available to help fund that transit camp. I strongly agree with my hon. Friends the Members for South West Bedfordshire and for Poole (Mr Syms) that we need to reform the Housing Act 2004. Everyone should be treated the same in housing assessment, and we overestimate the real need. A recent census found that more than two thirds of Travellers have brick and mortar homes in other parts of the country. We must look at the vulnerability of these communities to very poor education, qualification, health and employment outcomes, and a long-term policy that addresses that is needed. Just treating them differently in the planning system is not the solution.

We need to use smarter measures to deal with illegal encampments. In my constituency, I am urging the police to ensure they have a hotline for constituents who see these encampments appearing, so that that can be reported quickly and a fast response by the police and the local council to stop that encampment getting bigger can be expected and achieved. I can never understand why, when an illegal encampment starts, the police allow further caravans and vehicles to enter the site. During the day, people will often leave the caravans in their four-wheel drive cars to do business of various sorts, and I do not understand why they are allowed back on to an illegal encampment in the evening. Why are we not using more disruption techniques and saying, “If you are going to leave the site—as we hope you will if it is an illegal encampment—you can only go with your caravan, and you certainly cannot come back in again in the evening”? Those are the sort of disruption tactics we should be using for better enforcement.

The problem in my constituency is that the council has spent an awful lot of money reinforcing entrances and putting down bunding, only for a whole fence panel to be taken out to provide an entrance or for bollards to be ripped out by the tow bar of a car. Recently, the bunding on one site, which had been put in specifically to stop illegal encampments, was removed by a bulldozer. Why do we not use CCTV more, once an illegal encampment has been set up, to see what further offences might be committed? Why do we not better check the number plates of these vehicles to see where they are registered, and whether the Travellers have other accommodation or are without any alternatives?

All those things need to happen, but, recognising the problem and the particular vulnerabilities of the Traveller community, we also need far better long-term planning, and we need the Traveller community to sign up to that. We need clarification of the law, joined-up solutions and, above all, a level playing field that is hopefully used for playing and not illegal encampments.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I join the chorus of praise for my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), not only for securing this important debate but also for the quality of his remarks and how he addressed this difficult issue.

We are fortunate to have a Minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government who knows what he is talking about. He has successfully done many things so far in his all too brief term of office, but three stand out. First, he has torn up 186 pages of equality and diversity Whitehall guff to do with Gypsies and Travellers and the planning system, which was produced by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Secondly, he has visited Kettering and Kettering borough council not once, but twice. The last time was specifically to discuss the problems caused by Gypsies and Travellers. The third thing, which I was pleased to hear but only heard today, was that on 17 January he published a consultation to tackle once and for all the issue of Gypsies and Travellers self-declaring themselves as Gypsies and Travellers when many of us know they are nothing of the sort.

The fourth thing he could do, which would crown his career so far, would be to accept my private Member’s Bill, the Planning Regulations (Removal of Provisions in Respect of Gypsies and Travellers) Bill. I wanted to call it the “Gypsies and Travellers (the Same Planning Rules as Everyone Else) Bill”, but I was told by the parliamentary authorities that that was not allowed. Basically, the Bill would do what we have all been asking for, which is to remove all special provisions for Gypsies and Travellers in the planning system so that everyone is on exactly the same level playing field when they make a planning application. Why should there be any special provisions for those calling themselves Gypsies and Travellers, especially when we have learned today that three quarters of those people live in houses like everyone else? I am not convinced that there are as many Gypsies and Travellers as everyone says there are.

Recognising that everyone should be treated the same on housing need, I point out that when a small built housing site was provided for the travelling community in one constituency in Northern Ireland, a well-noted family in the travelling community moved in and the rest of the houses were to be occupied by another family. However, the first family would not allow the other family to move in, so the authority provided another built housing site at the other end of the town for the other family. Would that be accepted in any other housing list?

No, it would not, and the hon. Gentleman is right to draw the House’s attention to that matter. This perversion of the planning system is reiterating itself through these absurd extra provisions that are bolted on. People in my constituency are being brought to tears worrying about the planning regulations on Gypsies and Travellers. It is not unfair to say that some parts of the rural and farming community are being terrorised by the threat of theft, crime, rubbish and antisocial behaviour from local Gypsy and Traveller groups.

In Kettering and other communities within my constituency, local people are understandably worried about where Kettering borough council, of which I have the privilege to be a member, will eventually decide to site up to 37 pitches by 2031. One area that is causing huge concern is the Scott road garages site right in the middle of Kettering, where there could be a number of pitches. A crucial council meeting is being held on 19 February, and local people will be paying close attention to its outcome. The issue is not Kettering borough council’s fault; it has to do what the Government are telling it to do. Government regulations say that the council has to provide sites for 37 pitches by 2031. Through my private Member’s Bill, I argue that that requirement should be abolished. There should not be pressure on local authorities to come up with a designated number of sites, and abolishing that requirement would allay a lot of fears in my community.

The village of Braybrooke has had particular challenges: 100% of the local school was occupied by Traveller children, and that school is now going to close. Braybrooke, which has 325 residents on the electoral roll, is being threatened with a growing number of unauthorised and authorised encampments that might eventually surround the village, including a greenfield site of 37 acres split into 60 plots, which Travellers are increasingly moving into. These important issues cause real concern to my constituents and, as we have heard today, to constituents around the country. I am only too pleased that we have a Minister in place who recognises those concerns, and I am confident he will do something about them.

It is a pleasure, Mrs Riordan, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this debate. It is clear that he and other hon. Members who have spoken care passionately about this matter and have sought to bring forward issues affecting their constituencies.

It has been suggested that primary legislation should be altered, but whatever is done, the needs of the Gypsy and Traveller community must be assessed and land must be allocated to meet their needs. The Minister may be surprised to hear me say that much of the March 2012 planning policy framework would address many of the issues that hon. Members have raised today if it were implemented for Gypsies and Travellers.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie) and the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George), who is no longer in his place, for their extremely measured and thoughtful contributions, which sought to balance the practical problems facing Gypsies and Travellers with the difficulty of securing enough sites to meet their needs.

I will briefly outline what the Labour Government did. I will not go as far back in history as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire did, but it is important to say where we are. As the Library briefing note outlines, the Labour Government pressured councils to make adequate provision for Gypsies and Travellers, partly through the Housing Act 2004 and partly through regional spatial strategies and local plans. That required local authorities, when reviewing housing needs in their area, to examine specifically the accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers residing in or resorting to their district. That was important because of the need to identify permanent and temporary sites.

Planning policy guidance circular 1/2006 put an obligation on local authorities to identify land in what are now local plans for three reasons: to enable Gypsies, Travellers and Irish Travellers to buy land and to develop sites; to enable registered council landlords to apply to the Housing Corporation for funds to develop sites; and for the Secretary of State to intervene, when necessary, to ensure that land is identified. The consensus seemed to be that that was making councils and communities find suitable land and that there were increasing opportunities for children to enter schooling. Some of the issues that have been addressed today were starting to be met.

Despite the coalition Government’s removal of regional spatial strategies, there is still an expectation that local authorities will make adequate provision for Gypsies and Travellers in their area. The March 2012 planning policy framework states that local planning authorities should make their own assessment of housing needs and sites for Travellers, and many hon. Members today made a powerful case for that need to be assessed objectively.

Local planning authorities should work collaboratively to develop fair and effective strategies and should be encouraged to plan for sites over a reasonable time scale, to protect the green belt, to encourage more private provision, to introduce measures to reduce unauthorised development and encampments, to have realistic and inclusive policies and to take action to reduce tension between settled and Gypsy and Traveller communities.

The policy raises several questions that I hope the Minister will answer today. What will happen if the local authority’s assessment of Gypsy and Traveller need is unsatisfactory and results in too little or too much land or too few or too many sites? How will he know that? What will happen if, as the hon. Member for Poole (Mr Syms) mentioned, local authorities do not work collaboratively to develop effective strategies to meet needs, and what mechanisms will enable them to do that? What sanctions will apply if they do not work together and, again, how will he know that?

What is a reasonable time scale? How will it be obvious and what will be the mechanisms if private Traveller site provision is not adequate, or is proving problematic in the range of ways that hon. Members outlined? How will the Department for Communities and Local Government monitor the number of unauthorised developments and encampments, and what action will be taken to address that? How many local authorities have developed realistic and inclusive policies, and how are they evaluated?

How many additional Gypsy and Traveller sites have been provided since the March 2012 planning policy framework? How is the Department supporting initiatives to reduce tension between the settled and the Gypsy and Traveller communities, which are important given some of the comments this morning? Is the Department monitoring the use of rural exception site policy and if not, given that it is specifically mentioned in the guidance, what action will the Minister take?

Hon. Members will realise that I have little quarrel with the policy in the 2012 planning policy framework and guidance. It is right that we should have a more localist approach to determining need for the Gypsy and Traveller community and try to get local communities and councils to be reasonable in meeting that need. However, I would like to know how the Government’s policy is working in practice, and how they can be assured that that need is being met.

Research published in The Independent in March 2012 stated:

“The Government is underestimating the demand for new Gypsy and Traveller sites, exacerbating the already dire shortage and making ‘a future Dale Farm inevitable’”.

In January 2013, the Homes and Communities Agency announced grants of £47 million for 170 improved pitches and 620 new ones in schemes throughout the country, but it seems that fewer than 300 new pitches are likely to be built before 2015, and that by then funding may not be available. Many identified sites simply do not get planning permission.

We seem to be concentrating on sites that are inappropriately located, sometimes in the green belt and sometimes where problems arise for local communities, but the Minister and his colleagues must tell us where sites will be and how to facilitate local authorities and communities to meet existing needs in their area and to do so within an inclusive framework. No one is saying that that is easy. The issues are difficult, as the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire outlined. However, the complexity of the issues must be reflected not only in national guidance but in local strategies and actions. Monitoring is necessary so that we know what is and is not working and so that best practice can be shared. I do not see the Minister or his Department doing any of that at the moment.

There is a striking mismatch between need and where the money has gone, with few applications from London, the east, the south-east and the north-west. Essex, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Surrey and Hertfordshire had the most Gypsies and Travellers but were awarded only 4% of funding between them. The information we have suggests that the Minister should take action, and I would be grateful for answers to the specific points I have raised this morning.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) on securing this important debate about the general Gypsy and Traveller policy. It has been a high-quality, reasoned debate with many excellent contributions and suggestions.

I want to make it absolutely clear that, as hon. Members have said, Gypsies and Travellers are as much members of our communities as anyone else and deserve the same protection and the same rights. The key word is “same”. It has been suggested that there may be one law for settled communities and a separate law for Travellers, but we need to ensure that everybody is treated equally.

I gently suggest to the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) that it is difficult for this Government to take lessons from the previous Labour Government, who left us with the farce of Dale farm, which was mainly down to top-down, regional strategy approaches; she tempts me to return to those by taking a centralist approach to assessing what people are doing. We will certainly not do that.

That leads me directly to the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire about the 3% growth rate in Gypsy and Traveller household net formation. He believes the figure to be closer to 1.5% and will know from his research that the 3% figure originates in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s 2003 report “Local Authority Gypsy/Traveller Sites in England”, which was probably written with the same pens that we still have many thousands of, paid for with taxpayers’ money back then. The figure was restated in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s 2007 report “Preparing Regional Spatial Strategy reviews on Gypsies and Travellers by regional planning bodies”. My hon. Friend makes a fair point, so, bearing in mind that we have moved away from regional spatial strategies, I will go away and examine whether we can reassess the guidance.

We want fair play in the planning system. We are committed to encouraging sustainable development, and it is important that local authorities plan for the needs of all in their communities, including Travellers. We should not, however, tolerate any abuse of the planning system. We have introduced a broad package of measures to ensure a fair deal for both Travellers and the settled community. Members have raised the different things that have happened in various areas and more work needs to be done to encourage councils and the police to use the powers that they already have. Good examples exist of where the police are now using the considerable powers that we have given them.

We have replaced the top-down planning policy with a new planning policy for Traveller sites, putting the provision of sites back into local authorities’ hands, in consultation with their communities. We abolished the undemocratic regional strategies and the top-down housing and Traveller pitch targets that they contained. We have limited opportunities for retrospective planning applications in relation to any form of development through the Localism Act 2011. We have provided stronger enforcement powers for local authorities to tackle breaches of planning control.

In addition, we have reminded council leaders of the strong powers already available to them to deal swiftly with illegal and unauthorised encampments. We are encouraging authorised site provision, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned in relation to Adur, with £60 million-worth of Traveller pitch funding on top of the new homes bonus, which applies to Traveller sites as it does to conventional housing. We have given residents of authorised local authority sites improved protection against eviction by applying the Mobile Homes Act 2013 to those sites. We have also set up a cross-Government, ministerial-level working group to address the inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers, particularly in health and education.

Does the Minister have any sympathy with my point about it not being helpful to have a large concentration of people among whom joblessness is high, skills training is low and rates of absence are high? That could become the norm for that group, and if we really want to do the best for this community, I ask him to consider the matter.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about ensuring that communities are mixed and balanced, and I encourage local authorities to be aware of that in their planning work.

We also revoked the legislation that limited the use of temporary stop notices against caravans used as a person’s main residence, which might well have stopped the farce at Dale farm that developed under the previous Government. We removed unnecessary national regulation and now allow local authorities to make their own decisions about temporary stop notices.

Our policy aims to increase the number of Traveller sites in appropriate locations. It seeks to address under-provision and to maintain an appropriate level of supply, which may help to reduce unauthorised sites. Our planning policy aligns more generally with that for standard housing. It expects local authorities to plan to meet their Traveller needs based on robust evidence developed locally and to identify and update their supply of specific sites.

Our policy strengthens protection of the green belt and the open countryside by making clear that Traveller sites are inappropriate for green-belt development and that local authorities should strictly limit the development of new Traveller sites in the open countryside. My hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) made a point about the balance between unmet need and the green belt. I am concerned that decision makers do not always afford the green belt and other areas special to us the level of protection that our policies seek to deliver, and I see that concern in the correspondence that I receive and in this morning’s comments. That is why I announced to the House in July last year that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government considers that the single issue of unmet demand—whether for Traveller sites or for conventional housing—is unlikely to outweigh harm to the green belt and elsewhere and to constitute the exceptional circumstances that justify inappropriate development in the green belt.

I also announced that the Secretary of State would recover for decision himself a number of appeals against the refusal of planning permission in order to test the relevant policies at national level. Earlier this month, I announced that those recoveries would continue and re-emphasised our policy position on unmet need and the green belt. I hope that that provides some comfort to hon. Members.

May I ask the Minister and his officials to re-examine paragraph 15 on page 5 of the “Planning policy for traveller sites” document? Although I welcome what he and the Secretary of State have said, I am concerned that the wording of paragraph 15 runs against what the Minister has just stated.

My hon. Friend highlights why it is important that we are calling cases in to make the Government’s position clear and to test the policy, but I will consider that specific issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) will understand that I cannot comment on particular cases due to the quasi-judicial planning issues, but her point about persistent applications was well made. I enjoyed my visit to her constituency last week, and I am sure that the residents of Little Braxted will be looking forward to its afternoon outing on ITV’s “Britain’s Best Bakery” this week.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr Syms) made reference to a meeting that we had and an idea that was put forward. We will be examining how we can take further that proposal, which may help to alleviate the problems that arise when things move back and forth in a small area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) always tempts me into new ways of dealing with issues, but I will deal with his suggestions when we come to consider his private Member’s Bill.

We want to ensure fairness in the system, and I stress that we announced our intention to consult later this year on whether the planning definition of Travellers should refer only to those who actually travel and have a mobile or transitory lifestyle. If someone has ceased to travel, it is right to ask whether they should be treated as a Traveller for planning purposes, and we will be seeking answers to that question. In the meantime, however, I am keen to hear the views of hon. Friends, Opposition Members and others.

I am keen to hear views on how planning policy for Travellers could be further refined to ensure that the green belt and other areas that we value are given proper protection. This debate has provided a welcome opportunity to pursue that discussion, but I hope that it will develop in due course. We have undertaken a range of things to ensure that councils have the powers that they need to deal with illegal encampments swiftly. We published some guidance last summer, and I am happy to provide copies of it to interested Members.

In conclusion, I stress that our planning reforms seek to achieve three things: an adequate supply of authorised sites to meet Traveller needs; a level playing field for all; and the protection of our natural heritage and open spaces. We are determined to ensure that everyone has the ability and aspiration to prosper and that we break down the barriers to social mobility through a planning system that is fair and equal to all.

Free Schools and Academies

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Riordan.

My interest in school choice is a long-standing one. On my bookshelf at home are pamphlets and books dating back to the ’80s and ’90s about the links between diversity, choice and standards. I helped to draft our education policy for the 2005 election, which had as one of its key tenets parents’ right to choose a school for their child. However, my interest is not purely political; it is personal, too—predating my interest in politics. My parents did not choose the nearest school to our home for me or my sisters. They chose state Catholic primary and secondary schools for us, which required a bus or car journey to get there. My nieces and nephew go to the same schools in Durham today.

I am proud of the Government’s work to expand the diversity of schools through the academy and free school programme, thereby creating choice for parents, but two things have been clear to me throughout. Choice is a reality only when there is diversity and capacity. It is real only when there are different types of school for parents to choose between; and there must be enough capacity in the system to enable parents to get their child into the school of their choice.

I want to highlight two barriers to choice: one that limits diversity and one that limits capacity. I am committed, as a matter of my political beliefs, to school choice, and I find it hard when a policy of the Government whom I support effectively prevents the next generation of Catholics from attending a Catholic school, in areas where there is neither a Catholic school nor adequate capacity. Our current policy encourages all new schools to be either academies or free schools, and that route should add to 243 existing Catholic academy schools. Unfortunately, there is a cap on faith-based admissions that inhibits the willingness of Catholics to sponsor a new academy or free school, and therefore limits the diversity of academies and free schools.

The current policy requires, in the interest of inclusion, that oversubscribed denominational schools be able to reserve only 50% of their places for children of the relevant faith. That flows from the coalition agreement:

“We will ensure that all new Academies follow an inclusive admissions policy. We will work with faith groups to enable more faith schools and facilitate inclusive admissions policies in as many of these schools as possible.”

That is a one-dimensional view of inclusivity; 34.5% of children in Catholic primaries are from an ethnic minority background, compared with 28.5 % nationally, and 17.3% of children in Catholic secondary schools live in deprived areas, compared with 12.2% nationally. Of course, Catholic schools are also popular with non-Catholics.

Why does the cap matter? A Catholic free school or academy is likely to open only in an area with a large Catholic community, where there is no—or limited—provision; given the popularity of Catholic schools with Catholics and non-Catholics alike, many will be forced, in practice, to turn away Catholic pupils to meet the 50% cap. The Church is concerned because, first, Bishops are required to ensure that where there is a demand for Catholic education it is satisfied; they feel that it would be a breach of canon law to support a school that turned away Catholic children. Secondly, there is a broader point about ethos. There is something different about a Catholic school and its values. There are aspects of school life that are bound up in the sacramental life of the school—participation in mass, a set of shared values, and reference points that relate to the Church and its teaching. It is hard to see how those shared values and ethos can be maintained if half the pupils cannot relate to the practice of the Catholic faith.

That is not to say that the schools in question should be exclusively Catholic. Indeed, three in 10 children in Catholic schools are non-Catholics. However, a point comes where the dilution of a school’s Catholicity means it loses its ethos, and it loses parental support. I will give two examples of that. In Oxford, St Augustine’s was a joint Catholic and Church of England school, but parents did not perceive it as Catholic from its admissions arrangements and therefore saw no discernible difference between it and other state schools in the area; they viewed them all as non-Catholic. Parents voted with their feet, and chose not to send their children to St. Augustine’s. The archdiocese closed the school owing to the lack of demand from local Catholics, and then founded a Catholic school called St Gregory the Great, with Catholic admissions arrangements, which remains successful and oversubscribed.

In Bromley, there is a gap in provision owing to the closure of an existing Catholic school, which Catholic parents did not recognise. St John Rigby was a small Catholic secondary school serving the local Catholic community. It became a grant-maintained school and, without the consent of the archdiocese, doubled in size, despite the fact that there was no additional demand for Catholic places. That meant that the percentage of Catholics in the school decreased massively and Catholic parents stopped sending their children there. Without support from the Catholic community the school entered special measures and was later closed by the local authority.

The faith-based admissions cap is a disincentive to the Catholic Church to set up faith schools, because it dilutes their ethos. I am sure the Minister will say that other faiths are less concerned about that. However, if a faith group establishes a school that is not oversubscribed by parents of the relevant faith or, indeed, other faiths, then the cap does not apply. Some people might be content with the working of the dilutive effect that I have described, but the experience of the Catholic Church has not been positive. The Minister might point out that the voluntary-aided route is still available, and he could give the example of the new Catholic school in Richmond, but councils are required to meet unmet demand through academies and free schools first, and funding is biased towards them. We would have a richer and more diverse set of free schools and academies if the cap were removed. It would give more parents the chance to give their children the education in values that they support.

As I said at the outset, to make choice real, we need some capacity in the system to accommodate parental demand; otherwise, we will need to turn children away. So, schools need to be able to expand. However, limited capital resources mean that only 142 of the 518 academies that applied for money from the Education Funding Agency to expand in the period June 2012 to October 2013 were accepted. In other words, almost 400 schools turned away children and their parents because of lack of capacity. I know we cannot write a blank cheque to fund the expansion of schools, but there must be something we can do to stop seven out of every 10 applications being turned down. I believe that the solution is to allow our best schools to build on their success and borrow to satisfy demand.

Schools used to be able to borrow. Cams Hill school in my constituency is a popular academy. It increased its intake last September from 210 to 240 and will take another 240 pupils this September, turning down applications from a further 30 pupils. However, in 2015, because of space constraints, it will have to revert to an intake of 210 pupils. Demand from parents will not diminish, but the school’s ability to meet that demand will. It has paid off its mortgage and in the past has borrowed money, to fund a new sports hall. It would like to do so again, so that it can permanently increase its intake to 240, but that route is now closed. The school cannot borrow.

However, things are actually not as clear-cut as that. In a written answer on 25 October 2013, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), said at columns 300W to 301W that, in the 12 months to 22 October 2013, 44 schools were given permission to borrow. Of those instances, 39 were for energy efficiency projects; none were to make it possible to expand. Schools can borrow, therefore—but not for expansion. Sixth-form colleges and further education colleges can and do borrow. The principal of one sixth-form college said to me that it was a vital freedom and that it enabled him to modernise and expand his provision to meet local needs.

Why, then, cannot academies and free schools borrow? According to parliamentary answers and correspondence I have had it is because the borrowing of academies and free schools would count towards Government debt and the deficit. The Secretary of State would therefore have to approve borrowing to fund expansion and, because he does not want to add to the debt, he will not do so. So how is it that sixth-form and FE colleges borrow? The explanation is that the Education Act 2011 scrapped the Secretary of State’s controls over their borrowing, and consequently the Office for National Statistics decided to take FE and sixth-form college debt off the Government balance sheet. There is a simple solution. If the Secretary of State scrapped his control over borrowing by academies and free schools, their borrowings would not count towards Government debt. Academies and free schools are already entrusted to make decisions about the terms and conditions of staff, curriculum delivery, term times and length of school day. The measure I suggest would give them another freedom: the freedom to borrow and to expand.

As the record of Cams Hill shows, schools can borrow and pay back without a problem. The record of sixth-form and FE colleges shows that they can manage their finances well. They do not fail due to financial pressures. They are subject to proper financial controls and scrutiny, as are academies and free schools. If we can trust our academies and free schools with our children’s future, why can we not trust them to borrow, so that choice becomes a reality for more parents?

I believe, as a Conservative, that we should support parents who have a clear vision of their children’s education. Parents who want to send their child to a particular school should not be held back when it is possible for their wishes to be accommodated. Popular schools should be allowed to expand, even if they have to borrow money to do so. Parents who want to send their child to a faith school should be permitted to do so, but our policy on faith-based admissions is a block on Catholics opening new schools to give parents that choice. Two simple changes could deepen the revolution in choice and standards that this Government have championed.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban) on securing the debate. I completely agree with him about the need for diversity and choice in our school system and how they lead to a raising of standards. Certainly, that was the outcome of a programme for international student assessment study, which shows that schools with a high degree of autonomy and accountability generally succeed in raising standards throughout the system.

As a Government, we recognise the important contribution made by Church and faith schools to the education system. Around a third of schools are Church or faith schools, and an increasing number are converting to academy status to take advantage of the freedoms offered by the academies programme. Church and faith schools are popular with parents—many are oversubscribed—and they are some of the highest-performing schools in the country.

The free schools programme represents a new approach to how schools are established and it is offering new opportunities, to groups of all faiths and none, to set up new schools in the community; 37 of the 182 open free schools are faith schools. Faith free schools and new-provision academies must be open and welcoming to the communities around them. Unlike voluntary aided schools or converted faith academies, they may only prioritise a maximum of 50% of places by reference to faith when the school is oversubscribed. Of course, if the school is not oversubscribed, more children of that faith may be admitted.

Catholic schools in particular have a long and proud history of championing high standards and extending opportunities. They consistently outperform other kinds of state schools. As my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham is aware, the Education Act 1944 brought many Church schools into the state education system, including from the Catholic sector, and we continue to benefit from that settlement today. The education landscape, however, has changed since 1944. Academies and free schools represent a new approach to creating new schools, including faith schools, and new faith free schools and new faith academies, when oversubscribed, may admit only up to 50% of their pupils according to faith.

If the Government fund new faith-school provision, it is right that a proportion of the places be available to the whole community, including those of other faiths and none. That does not mean that other places must be allocated to pupils who are not of the faith; as I mentioned earlier, they must rather be allocated according to other oversubscription criteria.

I acknowledge, as my hon. Friend pointed out, that the Catholic sector has objections to our policy on admissions to faith free schools. I know that the Catholic Education Service has been in discussion with Department officials. We remain committed to continuing our engagement with the CES, although I point out that we have no intention of changing or removing the 50% limit.

Why has a quota been set for admissions based on faith, but not for other characteristics such as social class, gender or ethnicity? Why has faith been singled out?

The quota was set so that we are able to ensure that a broad range of the community may attend those community-based schools.

On the point made by my hon. Friend about voluntary aided schools, I should say that local councils have an option, where there is oversubscription or high demand for faith schools, to set up new voluntary aided schools. The academy route does not have to be looked at first; if there is demand for faith-based education in a local area, a diocese, for example, may propose a new school outside the academy route. High demand for faith places therefore provides a diocese with the opportunity to propose a non-academy route. On funding, we ensure that funding to all schools is fair within each local area. Funding is not biased towards academies or free schools, as my hon. Friend suggested.

The point of the new academies and free schools is that they should have a broad base in the community, hence the limit of 50% on children from a particular faith when there is oversubscription. When there is strong demand for a faith school in a local area, however, the diocese can propose a new school not through the academy route; there is that option for such schools.

The second point made by my hon. Friend was about borrowing by academies and free schools. He made a good case and I acknowledge his point about further education, for example, and other types of public institution being able to borrow, but academies are restricted from borrowing without the express prior permission of the Secretary of State. The restriction is set out in the funding agreements and in the academies financial handbook.

The Department’s general position is that commercial borrowing is rarely considered to be good value for money, as the interest and finance charges are normally higher than rates available to the Government. I acknowledge, however, my hon. Friend’s point about the autonomy of schools and about the degree of freedom given to make such decisions. The result of that presumption by the Department is that permission to borrow is given only exceptionally, in part because academies are classified by the Office for National Statistics as public sector bodies. That is different from the classification of further education colleges. Any borrowing undertaken by academies therefore is also counted in measures used to calculate public sector debt.

FE colleges’ debt used to be on the Government balance sheet; once the Secretary of State scrapped his controls over their borrowing, their debt moved away from the Government balance sheet and did not count towards Government debt and the deficit. The Department can make a simple change to remove the debt from the Government balance sheet and put it into the private sector.

The issue is the way in which the Office for National Statistics carries out the classification, rather than the Department for Education.

I am sorry to be persistent, but having looked at the note from the ONS on the reclassification of FE colleges, it appears that one of the things that changed its view on whether the colleges’ debt should sit on the public sector balance sheet or a non-government sector balance sheet was control. When control in the FE sector was scrapped under the Education Act 2011, the ONS changed the classification and took that debt off the Government’s balance sheet.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, but that would require a change in our policy on academies and free schools, not specifically on borrowing, but more generally on autonomy. As I discussed earlier and as the PISA study demonstrates, there is always a balance to be struck between autonomy and accountability in the school system. The ONS says that the balance between autonomy and accountability dictates that academies are classified as public sector bodies, so any change would require amendment to the Department for Education’s legislation on the structure of academies.

The Government are committed to the careful control of public spending to bring down the national deficit and retain economic confidence. Under the status quo, in the 12 months to October 2013 five formal requests were received from academies, all of which were approved. Formal requests tend to follow an informal discussion with academies, which is the point at which most proposals are terminated.

We want good schools to have the flexibility to expand, and have taken big strides to allow academies greater financial freedoms—for example, the ability to carry forward surpluses—but we understand that academies would like to have more, particularly on borrowing. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the Office for National Statistics determines the classification of all bodies, and all academies are currently classified as central Government public sector bodies. The ONS makes decisions independent of Government, subject to international accounting standards.

My hon. Friend made the case that we should change the regulations for academies to give them more financial freedom. That debate is about the level of freedom and autonomy that academies are given and is separate from the question whether academies should be able to borrow.

This has been an extremely helpful debate. There are routes by which new faith schools can be set up with 100% admission from faith-based communities. However, new academies and free schools have a cap of 50% in cases where there is over-subscription, and we do not have any plans to change that at the moment. I am interested in my hon. Friend’s points about borrowing, and I will ask officials to look at the details of that, to see what would be required for the ONS to change the classification.

I asked the Minister earlier why the Government had not set quotas on ethnicity, gender and social class but had chosen to single out faith. Will she clarify why that is the case?

Obviously, we do not have schools based on social class. The question of gender is interesting. The cap is a specific measure to make sure that, as widely as possible, members of all the community are represented in new schools. There are routes by which faith-based schools can expand and new faith-based schools can be established, but the 100% route is not part of the academies and free schools programme.

Sitting suspended.

Regional Arts and Culture

It is a pleasure to open this debate, Mr Caton, particularly with you in the Chair. I am pleased to have secured it, not simply to highlight the disparity between arts funding for London and the regions, but to make the case for arts funding in general. I will argue not for regional versus national institutions, but that the whole country is strengthened by a more equitable distribution of funding.

We cannot consider the matter in isolation from wider economic trends. Last week, we saw reports that between 2010 and 2012, 217,000 new private sector jobs were created in London, whereas my city of Sheffield lost 7,500. We are clearly not alone: private sector jobs have been draining away from the north to London and the south-east. There is a direct relationship because arts funding is important not just for our social life throughout the country, but for our economic growth. The arts provide nearly 1 million jobs in the UK economy every year, and 67,000 cultural businesses contribute £28 billion a year. In addition to that direct contribution, the impact of a vibrant cultural offer has a decisive impact on those who are choosing where to invest, where to start businesses and where to study. It is hugely important.

The report, “Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital”, which was published just before Christmas, sadly contained figures showing what many of us already knew, but in much starker terms: that arts funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Arts Council is massively tilted towards London, which received £68.99 a head compared with just £4.58 in the rest of England in 2012-13. The issue is not just about the Arts Council and the DCMS, though. Those funding imbalances form part of a bigger picture of disproportionate cuts to local authorities in the most deprived areas, and disproportionate private investment between London and the regions.

I am sure that those of us here today do not need reminding of the contribution made by the arts, but it is worth stressing that the arts shape places and communities, regenerate and energise, and invest in and develop future talent, so it is a problem if the benefits of the arts are not shared equally. “Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital” highlighted that, but the tension between funding in London and in the rest of England is not new. It was one reason behind the appointment of Jennie Lee, the country’s first arts Minister almost 50 years ago, and it was certainly behind her pioneering White Paper, “A Policy for the Arts”.

A great deal has been achieved. In Sheffield, we have some fantastic arts and cultural facilities. Last week, Sheffield Theatres was recognised as regional theatre of the year for the second year running. It welcomed audiences of almost 440,000 through its doors last year; produced 14 shows on three stages, including five world premieres; presented 72 productions by visiting companies; and transferred a new play to New York, as well as touring a large-scale play across the UK—but that success will be challenged if there are continual reductions in public funding. Public funding accounts for only 17% of the theatres’ turnover, but there is a tipping point. Further cuts would force price increases that would push our theatres beyond the reach of many local people for whom travelling to London theatres is already unthinkable. The problem is the same for our museums.

Does my hon. Friend agree that regional theatres are important as incubators for young talent? In the north-east, in Newcastle, Live Theatre has been a great incubator not just of acting talent, but writing talent.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I am well aware of the importance of the cultural offering in Newcastle, and I will return to the point about incubating young talent.

Sheffield can report great success for our museums. Museums Sheffield, which is one of our two successful museum trusts, welcomed 1 million visitors across three sites last year, 96% of whom rated the museums good or excellent—but Museums Sheffield has lost 40% of its staff since 2012. It becomes more and more of a challenge to maintain standards against that background, with a declining core grant year on year resulting from central Government cuts to local authorities.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. This morning, I had a meeting at the National Portrait Gallery to discuss, among other things, its work with Tyne and Wear museums which led to the excellent Trailblazers exhibition at the Discovery museum last year and the current Laura Knight exhibition at the Laing. Does he agree that, although it is great to see such working together between London and regional institutions, we need strong, regional institutions with continued funding to foster regional talent and create exhibitions that can perhaps travel to London?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I will return to the point she makes in the context of my experience of some of our institutions in Sheffield.

There is also under-investment in the visual arts sector in Sheffield. I am told that Sheffield has the largest number of practising artists per capita outside London, but we have limited provision for the exhibition of contemporary and visual art and do not have the resources to take advantage or to make the most of the opportunities they provide. We need to invest to reap the rewards. Our core cities provide a platform for artists on the way up: three of the four Turner prize nominees for 2013 had exhibited at Sheffield’s Site gallery in the past six years.

The Arts Council is at pains to point out that 70% of lottery funding is spent outside London, but that does not take us back even to the 2009-10 level of spend outside London, which was at 76%, and lottery funding is one-off funding. The lottery has supported some excellent capital developments, not least the stunning Persistence Works in Sheffield, but Arts Council funding has not matched that ambition with programme funding, which would enable us to animate these spaces to fulfil their potential.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for this debate. I declare an interest as a director of the Hay festival. Does he agree that there is a difference between regional urban centres such as Sheffield, which have a distinct set of issues relating to the arts, and rural areas such as mine, where there is a need for an infrastructure to be maintained which would not exist without public support? I am thinking of Flicks in the Sticks in Herefordshire and the Monnow Valley arts centre—places that are very rural and do not have the advantages of an urban context.

I would certainly not want to counterpoise the arts in rural communities against those in urban communities. We face different and distinctive issues. One that we face is the challenge for local authority funding, because we are facing a disproportionate hit from the reduction of local authority funding.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that one problem for regional arts is that we are being hit hard not just by a combination of local authority cuts, Arts Council cuts and so on, but by the sequencing of funding? The Arts Council operates on one set of criteria and time horizons, local authorities face another set, as does lottery funding, and the combination means we are hit by a multiple whammy. The sequencing needs to be sorted out as well as the quantum of available money.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I will talk about private funding. The way in which different strands of public and private funding pose challenges for the arts is important, because it is often argued that we should look more actively for more private sponsorship of the arts. That is fine, but there too, the picture is weighted against the regions. Private sponsorship is exacerbating the problem, not solving it. In Sheffield, there are many deeply generous people, but we do not have major corporate sponsors. There is no private giving on any significant scale, not least because the London cultural organisations are hoovering it all up. In 2011-12, for example, 90% of all private giving to the arts by individual philanthropists was to London-based organisations. We need the Government and the Arts Council to redress the imbalance.

In its briefing for today’s debate, the Mayor of London’s office claimed that London needs the funds to compete with Paris, New York and Berlin, but Sheffield, too, is competing with European cities and beyond, and with decent investment, we can win. One of my constituents wrote to me with today’s debate in mind, saying:

“When friends and family visit they are always impressed by the quality of the performances in Sheffield. Often friends have never thought of Sheffield as a potential city break”—

quite wrongly—

“but after they visit they always want to come back.”—

quite rightly. It is not just London that needs tourism, and the point is that taxpayers from across the country are contributing to that London subsidy. To attract people to destinations outside London, we need action to rebalance our cultural capital. I recognise that the Arts Council is concerned with the issue, but what sort of message does it send out when the council’s 10-year strategy published in 2010 became the first public policy statement on the arts since 1965 to fail to acknowledge the scale of the imbalance in the distribution of resources?

The figures I mentioned at the start of the debate account for DCMS and Arts Council funding combined. Of DCMS direct funding to our national institutions, 90% goes to London. We can all accept the value of properly funding our national institutions—although they do not always have to be in London—but more can be done to ensure that national institutions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) said, irrigate rather than drain the arts elsewhere in the country.

There are some great partnerships: Museums Sheffield has great links with the British Museum and the V&A, and there is really positive work between the British Library and our central library. I was at our Weston Park museum for the launch of the “China: Journey to the East” exhibition, which brought some of the best British Museum exhibits together with our own collection, inspirationally presented by our local team, but that was two years ago and it could not happen now in the same way, because many of the jobs have been lost.

Does my hon. Friend also think that, although there are some good examples of collaborative working, there is a London snobbishness about the regions, in that there is a wish to retain certain artefacts in London? For example, the Lindisfarne gospels came to the north-east, to Durham, last year, which was a tremendous success. However, even though Durham university and Durham cathedral could adequately house them and have a permanent exhibition, there was the idea that it was somehow important that the gospels stay in London. Does he not think that moving some of our national treasures around the regions on permanent exhibition would be a way forward?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. My suggestion, echoing that of “Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital”, that national institutions ought to do more to irrigate the system could be fulfilled through that sort of initiative.

I am conscious that other Members want to contribute to the debate, so let me turn finally to the significance of the decline in local council funding. Local authorities have borne a disproportionate burden of the cuts, and those in deprived areas more so. With less money available and increasing demands for social care and other vital services, where will money for the arts come from? Arts Council funding is rightly based on the principle of additionality, designed to add to the base provided by local authorities, but local authorities simply do not have the resources to maintain core funding at the level we need.

One of South Yorkshire’s great cultural assets is brass bands, as is the case in many parts of the country, but at the moment we are losing out to the strength of the brass band movement in Wales. There is certainly a discrepancy in funding for brass bands as far as the Arts Council is concerned, but local authorities, such as Sheffield, are also cutting grants to small village brass bands such as those in my constituency, because they no longer have the funds to give them. Is not our brass band movement one of the most important parts of our cultural heritage in this country and should we not do something to help it?

I am grateful for that intervention from my hon. Friend, who is a fellow Sheffield and South Yorkshire MP. The culture of brass bands is tremendously important in our area. She describes the difficulty whereby relatively small amounts of funding are now beyond the reach of local authorities, which is pushing small cultural groups over the edge. That is a critical problem.

We are facing a real crisis in many of our big cities and in many other parts of England. I conclude with three questions for the Minister. What is he doing to convince others in Government of the threat posed to the arts by cuts in local government funding? What is the Government’s response to evidence of the cumulative impact of cuts hitting more deprived areas hardest, the lack of private investment in those areas, and the failure of public arts funding to redress that imbalance? Finally, what are the Government doing to rebalance the funding gap and ensure more equitable support for arts and culture across the whole country?

As Members can see, a great number of people want to contribute to the debate. I will not set a time limit at this stage, but I appeal for Members to show a bit of self-discipline. We will only get everybody in if we keep contributions from Back-Bench Members down to five minutes and I want to call the Front-Bench Members at 20 to four.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing the debate. It is always a pleasure to join colleagues from across the House in celebrating the huge contribution the arts make not only to our sense of well-being and pleasure, but to the economy, in the way that the hon. Gentleman laid out so well. Everyone in this Chamber and in the House will wholeheartedly recognise the huge contribution of the arts. I am delighted to have recently set up an all-party parliamentary group, along with Opposition colleagues, to recognise the huge and growing role the arts have in our health and well-being. I shall enjoy working with Members from both sides of the House on promoting a greater understanding.

I am here because I represent, in Cornwall, one of the most creative parts of the country. I am pleased to represent Falmouth, which has a wonderful arts university that this Government enabled to exist. The hon. Gentleman was right to highlight some of the statistics and on the face of it, they do not make very good reading. The south-west has 12% of the national population and contributes 20% of the gross value added, but Arts Council and lottery expenditure there is well below that. On the face of it, it looks like we are not getting a fair crack of the whip. Regions with remote, rural, sparsely populated communities such as the one I represent have to compete with great centres such as Plymouth and Bristol, so in percentage terms we probably get even a smaller share of the money. However, focusing only on those statistics does not really paint the whole picture.

Over the past year or so I have been pleased to meet our regional Arts Council representatives, who have developed a deep understanding of the challenges faced in enabling rural communities to access the arts in the broadest sense, and of the opportunities for places such as Cornwall. They have been enabling partnership working, which is key to the future, and such funding is enabling really positive changes in Cornwall.

I want to highlight two recent examples. Last year, the For Cornwall museum partnership scooped more than £250,000 from the Arts Council. It is a partnership between Falmouth art gallery, the National Maritime museum in Falmouth, Penlee House gallery and museum, and Porthcurno Telegraph museum. They have been joined by the Royal Cornwall museum, which got an additional £253,000 from the Arts Council strategic fund. In the words of the really excellent Alison Bevan, the director of Penlee House gallery and museum, who led the partnership:

“With support from Cornwall Council”—

so working with partners in Cornwall—

“we worked up a Museums Strategy for the county...The benefits of partnership working are obvious and we are trying to spread those benefits to other museums within the county. We have learned a lot from working together.”

Cornwall is well suited to such partnership working, which enables small and medium-sized organisations to work together.

I agree entirely with the powerful case my hon. Friend is making for partnership working. Our great institutions were founded on the basis of being universal—not just for this country but for the whole world. Despite the excellent work already being done by the Tate, the National Maritime Museum, the National Gallery and other places, is there not even more scope for the great collections to feed out more into rural areas? In Herefordshire, we would willingly and delightedly host a great work of art alongside the Mappa Mundi, for example, in Hereford cathedral. There is so much scope for partnership working to increase.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent case. I know from my conversations with the Arts Council that it very much has that in mind. There will be a lot more touring of exhibitions and theatre groups. As already mentioned, not only the London-based organisations will be touring the regions. We have fantastic theatre companies born and bred in Cornwall that are now touring the rest of the UK. Culture can be exported around the regions from anywhere that excellence is produced, and I understand that funds allocated by the Arts Council should make that possible. I am sure it will apply to works of art as well.

In January, we in Cornwall were lucky enough to benefit from a new sort of partnership working: the cultural destinations programme, which will make available sums of money for working with arts organisations in my constituency. We will receive more than £340,000 to build a new partnership that will add value, appeal to visitors coming into Cornwall and help us grow our local economy in a sustainable way. It will create a unique identity, promote the extraordinary cultural wealth we have in Cornwall and enable the people who live in Cornwall, as well as visitors, to benefit from increased access to the arts.

The organisation that secured the money, the Cornwall Art Centre Trust, is led by the excellent Ross Williams. He says that the huge investment in Cornwall will significantly increase the cultural engagement of visitors and those living there. As we can see from those two short examples, lots of small and medium-sized organisations are coming together, rather than competing as they have in the past. They are now collaborating and understand that by working together, they can leverage more funds into the area to the benefit of visitors and residents.

On 15 February I will be welcoming to Truro Sir Peter Bazalgette, who will accompany me to watch the English Touring Theatre’s acclaimed production of “Eternal Love”, and I will be lobbying hard for further investment in the excellent Hall for Cornwall and other arts organisations in Cornwall.

A lot more needs to be done to make sure that we attract investment into Cornwall, and we need to tackle the unfairness and some of the anomalies that have crept into our system. However, I am encouraged by the new approach taken by the Arts Council, as evidenced by the money we have received over the past two years. We will be able to grow and appreciate our arts even more in Cornwall.

Like other hon. Members, I do not want this debate to become a tit for tat between London and the regions. All of us who represent the English regions acknowledge the vital importance of London as a cultural hub and powerhouse for arts and culture. Other hon. Members have already described London institutions touring and going out to the regions, but many of our constituents in Cornwall and Devon enjoy the odd trip, if they are fortunate enough, to London to visit our wonderful museums and theatres.

The recent “Rebalancing our Cultural Capital” report revealed an imbalance in funding, and I am pleased that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which I am a member, agreed to my request to hold an inquiry into this issue. We hope to do so and to report in the next few weeks. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) has made absolutely clear, it is not only Arts Council and lottery funding that are a problem. The imbalances combine with the much bigger challenge, which he pointed to, of raising private and philanthropic support in the English regions. Compared with London, where huge financial services companies and others are based—they get the kudos from supporting the Royal Opera House, for example—we in the regions do not get the same capital and funding support from the private sector, however hard we try. When we put that together with local authorities’ withdrawal of support for arts and culture, we have a really serious imbalance.

I am sure hon. Members are aware that unitary and upper-tier authorities are in the process of deciding their spending priorities for the next three years, following the announcement of their funding in the next comprehensive spending review period. Some are already issuing dire warnings about having to retrench and fund only services for which they are statutorily responsible. As we all know, that would mean great peril for the arts and culture in many parts of our country. I am sure we all acknowledge the difficult economic climate the Government face, having had to extend their austerity programme, but I am sure the Minister and his Secretary of State are aware of the invaluable contribution to the nation’s well-being and to our economy that a flourishing arts and cultural sector makes. They will doubtless be making those points forcefully over the next months to the Treasury and to Government colleagues.

The symbiotic relationship between arts and culture, and social and economic well-being, is extremely visible in my own constituency of Exeter. One of the reasons why Exeter has become such a desirable place to live and work, and for businesses to relocate to, is the rich, attractive and varied culture we can offer. From our national award-winning museum to the sharp, edgy and award-winning Bike Shed Theatre, we have built up in recent years a cultural capital that attracts and keeps young talent and thrills and entertains residents and visitors. That is recognised by my forward-looking local authority, Exeter city council, which, despite suffering big cuts in funding from central Government, has managed to sustain its support for arts and culture in Exeter. That is in stark contrast to nearby Somerset, for example, which ended all support for the arts after the Government’s first round of cuts.

That leads me to the two requests I want to make to the Minister. The first is that he and his Secretary of State should use their offices over the next days and weeks to remind local authorities, as they face tough spending choices, of the value and importance of arts and culture. The leader of Devon county council, for example, has recently issued a warning about having to pare council spending down to mere statutory requirements. We do not want any more councils going the way of Somerset. We want more to learn from the example of Exeter. A further round of savage cuts in local government support will tip a lot of excellent and valued cultural organisations over the edge.

My second plea, through the Minister to the Arts Council, is that it use its funding clout to encourage local government to do the right thing. The Arts Council inevitably comes under huge pressure to step in, in areas where local government is withdrawing support, to ensure the survival of at least some cultural footprint. But I am afraid that—if that is what happens everywhere—all that would do is give the green light to philistine local authorities that want to withdraw support, giving them the impression that the Arts Council will simply step in and replace the funding. A far more sensible approach would be for the Arts Council to base funding decisions, where possible, on continuing support from local government. That would reward good councils such as Exeter and deter bad ones such as Somerset.

Finally, like the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), I welcome the commitment by Sir Peter Bazalgette, the new chairman of the Arts Council, to look again at the regional imbalance identified in the “Rebalancing our Cultural Capital” report. I look forward to his visiting Exeter later this month and to showing him—perhaps on his way to Cornwall—how the combination of a visionary local authority and a strong arts scene can create a virtuous circle from which our whole community benefits, even in these straitened times.

It is a great pleasure to contribute to this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing it. Arts and culture add to our quality of life, and we all recognise their importance at a national and local level.

Arts and culture already have a vibrant presence in the regions, and some arts initiatives do not require any commercial support. I pay tribute to the investment made by TV companies such as ITV and Channel 4, and by the BBC, which continues to fund productions by independent companies. I might also mention Glyndebourne, which manages to be rather successful without a single penny of subsidy, or the extraordinary Melvin Benn, who brings the greatest of modern culture to places around the country—including my constituency, where he stages the wonderful Latitude festival. Of course, I recognise that much of the arts requires substantial support from the public purse, or from the pockets of the public via funding redirected from their purchase of lottery tickets. I value the contribution that the lottery makes to bringing a wide variety of culture to large parts of the country.

I want to recognise the extraordinary cultural legacy in my constituency of a gentleman called Benjamin Britten, the centenary of whose birth we celebrated last year. In my constituency, we have sustained his extraordinary legacy, which has involved children and world-class artists. On 22 November, the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth, we held an event called Friday Afternoons. It is estimated that 100,000 children from around the world contributed to that celebration of probably one of the greatest ever British composers. In that vein, I will give a quick plug for the director of Aldeburgh Music, Jonathan Reekie. He has served with great distinction, and I want to thank him. He was recognised in the Queen’s birthday honours last year and is moving to take up the leadership of Somerset House in London. That will be a great loss for our regional arts and culture.

Other institutions that have been recognised by the Arts Council include Red Rose Chain and Eastern Angles. If anyone wants to visit the east of England, I urge them to come and see an Eastern Angles production, because they will be blown away by the creativity achieved on budgets that are, to be blunt, not very large. The Arts Council has made more money available to the regions, although I recognise that it is nowhere near as much as is available in London.

I completely endorse the comments from the hon. Member for Sheffield Central and the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) about how much more challenging it is to get philanthropic donations outside London. I hope that the Government take that on board. I was particularly pleased to see the autumn statement building on the great work that has been done on tax credits for film and high-quality TV—that has, by the way, led to a great renaissance in Northern Ireland, with the production of “Game of Thrones” and the development of the film and television industry in Belfast—by committing to launching a consultation this spring on the introduction of a tax credit to support regional play writing, which would benefit theatres that commission new work.

I turn to local government. The right hon. Member for Exeter is right that we should support creative local governments and say, in a pantomime fashion, “yah-boo” to the baddies—the philistines of local government. I do not want to be too political about this, but when certain councils announced that they would cut every penny of funding to libraries or the arts, there was a risk of shroud-waving. Councils around the country have recognised that investing in the arts locally is as important as investing in new roundabouts. In Basingstoke, where I used to work, the council took a decision in the ’60s to do something about that to attract businesses. The council recognised that Basingstoke needed a cultural offering to encourage executives to locate there and to make the town feel good about itself. I commend councils that have continued to recognise the importance of arts and culture funding.

Returning to central Government, I applaud the work done to try to secure the status of European city of culture. I congratulate Hull on winning city of culture this year; we know how much good that designation has done for Derry/Londonderry during the past 12 months. I also want to say “well done” to Alan Davey from the Arts Council. I was on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee at the start of the Parliament, and there was a deep intake of breath when it became clear that things would not be done as they had been before. I think that the Arts Council has done extraordinarily well. By focusing on quality rather than simply spreading money around, it has improved the quality of the offering available around the regions.

I want to celebrate what is happening in the arts and culture outside London. I recognise that there will always be a case for national funding, but we must encourage Sir Peter Bazalgette and Alan Davey to continue to think about those of us outside the M25. Long may culture and the arts rule!

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) and listen to her talking about the success of the Britten anniversary, which I think most people in this room appreciated. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) for securing the debate, because clearly there is a great deal of concern, across parties and around the regions, about the matter that we are debating.

I want to talk particularly about Plymouth. The city is home to one of the nine largest independent theatres in the country, which puts on some amazing productions. It is extremely concerned about the ever-widening gap between London and the regions and the serious financial imbalance that exists; London is assigned 14 times as much taxpayer money per head as the rest of England. As a Londoner, I also acknowledge that there has been a skewing of funding from some of the bigger institutions in the centre of London to those in the outer areas.

Institutions such as the Queen’s theatre in Hornchurch or perhaps even Greenwich theatre might make a case for revisiting the way in which funding is distributed. Will the Minister tell me—I genuinely do not know the answer—whether any detailed work has been done recently to look at all the individual funding streams and investigate whether investment in those areas resulted in economic growth? I was pleased to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee is going to do some detailed work on that. It is important that we understand better exactly where money is going in the regions and what the outcomes of such investment are.

Who is served by the arts and cultural events put on in Plymouth? Apart from Plymouthians, the evidence shows that the audiences who visit our theatres come from a vast rural hinterland that extends to Exeter, into Cornwall and beyond. Those visitors often stay overnight, which also helps our local economy. Audiences find that going to Plymouth is much better value for money than buying an expensive train ticket to London and a very expensive ticket to an event, for which they may almost need a bank loan. People in Plymouth simply cannot afford to do that. Cornwall is recognised by the EU as one of the most deprived regions in the UK, if not in Europe. It is unfair to isolate our region as the current arts funding set-up does, and I agree with all colleagues in the room that the matter really needs to be looked at again.

The transmission of live events on big screens and in cinemas has been a wonderful way of bringing live performances out to the regions and even into poorer parts of London. It has given people a way to see, for example, the Royal opera or the ballet. It is not the whole answer, however; it is something of a halfway house, and people would like to see the real thing.

As we have heard, the impact of cultural development on an economy is significant. We can see that by looking at what has happened in Gateshead or Glasgow, or with The Lowry in Salford. In Plymouth, we are looking at setting up a new cultural centre in the former civic centre, and a bid has been placed with the Arts Council for the necessary funding. That development would create international contemporary arts studios, independent film options, theatres of different sizes and outdoor festival performance space. That is a really exciting potential project that I hope the Arts Council will look at sympathetically, not least because 4 million tickets are sold for just those nine large regional theatres, as compared to 13 million in London. That is not an insignificant amount, but we could certainly do better. The regional theatres are faced with London’s getting 90% of philanthropic donations and 70% of business sponsorship. The match funding imbalance, which so many Members have already touched on, is significant.

I am afraid that I must come back to the cuts and the potential impact on Plymouth. I want the Theatre Royal, the Drum theatre, the Barbican theatre, the Plymouth arts centre and our museum to flourish. I want visitors to come, and to see our city as a real cultural treat. It was the home to Beryl Cook, Joshua Reynolds and Robert Lenkiewicz. We have a thriving college of art and design that is seeking to become a university—fingers crossed on that. We have production companies such as TwoFour productions, and a rehearsal space at TR2 used by west end productions. That is obviously one benefit of having links with London, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter touched on.

Our city council is facing swingeing cuts. It took the bull by the horns and has not thus far dug into the arts and leisure budget as much as other councils have. Instead, it bid to be UK city of culture. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) is here and I wish her city well for 2017. The leader of Plymouth council, Tudor Evans, felt that making our bid was the right thing to do. He said publicly that it would be an abdication of the council’s duty

“to readily accept its (Plymouth’s) cultural decline”

as a result of the cuts. That is absolutely right, but since he will have to find a further £60 million over the next few years, he will be pushed harder than ever simply to manage his core services.

The screws are being turned on Plymouth and on other local authorities, so I urge the Minister to consider fully the report, “Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital”, as well as the recommendations of the Select Committee.

Order. If we are to hear everyone speak, we need speeches to last less than three minutes, with no interventions.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this debate. He introduced it well. I may not be the popular perception of a luvvie, but my great-grandfather trod the boards at Covent Garden and, as Members would have heard during the pre-debate banter, I have two sons—one an actor and the other in training, both at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. I have been to many small arts centres and theatres around the country, following my elder son, Peter, to see how things are going on, so I have a bit of perspective.

I agree with most of what has been said so far. I must say that some things that have been mentioned in relation to the cuts are not new. I can remember one of the first things I did when I came to Parliament was to go on an all-party delegation to the Arts Council—probably in 1998—to try to save the D’Oyly Carte theatre, which was about to go under. Luckily, Lord Bishop stepped in to save it, and I believe that it is still doing very well, which is a great delight for fans of Gilbert and Sullivan such as myself.

We have heard about how productions move out of London, and that applies to exhibitions and orchestras as well. It is also absolutely true that some very good performances by companies and orchestras outside London should appear in this city, and they do. I take the point made by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who I think has just departed, about the Lindisfarne gospels. If an area has a particular relic or artefact that relates to it, that will be treasured a little more than all the other riches we can find in museums. There is obviously a limit to that, because we want national collections, but some movement could take place.

Other things encourage the arts as well. We have lots of US film production companies over here because of the tax breaks. The locations are not just in London; they are filming all around the country. That inspires people. There is also a lot going on in the regions. It is not just about theatres in regional centres, or those in rural settings—there is a whole load. I have been to lots of small theatres and arts centres. Some of them are good; some are excellent. Some struggle with some of the performances; some do not.

It is most important that, to encourage people to go to such places, we ensure that our young people are interested at an early age. They must not see theatre, music, dance or whatever as being elitist. That is why I would recommend that the Minister speaks to some of his colleagues in the Department for Education and elsewhere to ensure that such arts are not forgotten. We have heard that the arts are often the first to suffer cuts because they are not at the front line. I would say the same about education. People must learn the value of these things. If we put money into them now, we might not have to subsidise them in future because they will be self-sustaining.

Finally, we must also remember that the arts are not just about pleasurable experience. I have found that some theatre productions, films and satire put across an argument much more strongly than what we say in this place with our brilliant oratory. I finally decided that I was going to vote against the Iraq war when I saw Rory Bremner on the television, because the satire made me realise how absurd the idea was. My current crusade on modern-day slavery is well served by audiences seeing the reality of things rather than simply reading bland things in newspapers.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this debate. He has really shone a light on the disparities in regional arts funding. My constituency, Blackpool, has attracted under £1 million from the Arts Council over the period covered by the report, compared with the £23 million granted to London. Seaside and coastal towns such as Blackpool are often on the periphery, but there can be a determined focus on funding issues, such as occurred in the mid-2000s. Along with other MPs from seaside and coastal towns, I put points very strongly to the Heritage Lottery Fund regarding seaside parks and public spaces.

How we define things such as arts and culture will vary enormously, but for me they are about performance, the visual, the oral, the written and heritage. The north-west is a rich crucible for each of those; one has only to think of art at Port Sunlight, Anthony Gormley’s men on the beach at Crosby, the Liverpool poets, L. S. Lowry, the Hallé orchestra and Carol Ann Duffy—I have made my point.

Blackpool, in the north-west, is a paradigm for how those things can be done not just locally but opened out to all sorts of people across the country. Over the past 15 to 20 years, Blackpool has reinvented itself for the 21st century. We have done so via regeneration; via the development of the seafront and the public realm; by promoting public art such as the glitter ball; through works of art featured in St John’s square; and through the reinvention of the town and the winter gardens. All that was done through funding from the last Labour Government, the regional development agencies and Europe, with the co-operation of the council.

We have created new headlands with European money, especially the tower headland, and we have had major new art exhibits such as the Comedy Carpet, which celebrates the theatrical and showbiz history of Blackpool. We have the Grundy art gallery and the Carnegie library, which have fantastic local history collections, including the Cyril Critchlow collection of playbills. That was part of a determined programme of physical and cultural renewal. Those Members who have not recently been to see how the winter gardens have been restored to splendour or the major renewals to the tower are welcome to do so.

Throughout the process, the local authority and local bodies have played a crucial role in the vigorous pursuit of collaboration with the Victoria and Albert museum and the exchange of ideas and initiatives with York, and they have contributed significantly to the injection of cultural elements into the regeneration programme. For example, FYCreatives, funded with money from the Government’s local enterprise growth initiative, has design and art, and gallery space. There are initiatives in the centre of the town and I pay tribute to council officers and to the cabinet member for tourism, Graham Cain, and the leader of the council, Simon Blackburn. He, in particular, has put the heritage issue on the front foot.

The Civic Trust has been a major force for highlighting heritage. We have had incredible community support for oral history, and there is a marvellous war memorial in the town, supported by the Royal British Legion and the Comrades Club. There is a range of different things, but we depend on good bids being made to unlock the available funds. That is the reason, in crude terms, why we have failed to draw funds into Blackpool. Others have pointed out the same thing. The good work done in the community includes Wordpool, a literary festival that reaches out as an alternative for children and young people, the Fylde coast dance initiative, and in the next couple of weeks the Showzam project in the centre of the town—a display of circus, magic and new variety—as well as the illuminations themselves. All those things are magnets to bring people into the town, but we need support to succeed, and to make a reality of Blackpool’s heritage plans, including the excellent suggestion for a new museum of popular culture and the seaside, which has gone to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Places such as Blackpool do not need a handout; they need a leg up, from Arts Council England, from Departments, in recognition of the scale of the cuts, and from the Minister, whom we need to fight our corner.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing the debate. I note what the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) said, and unfortunately much of the debate portrays the issue as a battle between London and the regions. In reality, there are two aspects of the matter to take into account when decisions are taken. First, the arts and the creative industries are part and parcel of people’s quality of life; secondly, there is the question of promoting growth and enterprise. The simple fact is that 63% of people who come to this country as tourists come to London first, so it is only right for there to be investment in London, to encourage growth and prosperity.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

As I was saying before the Divisions, the key to economic growth is investment. Given that, what has been said about investment in London must be corrected. In “Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital”, the Mayor of London clearly states that the per capita spending in London for arts lottery funding in 2012-13 was £17.26, not the £86.40 that has been cited. We must have the correct facts and figures, so I look to the inquiry by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee to ensure that we have the right figures before we move forward. The subsidy in London is the lowest of any part of the country, and that needs to be understood.

I used to serve on the London assembly as deputy chairman of the Economic Development, Culture, Sport and Tourism Committee. In 2007, I commissioned a report on the state of theatres in London, and I am told that it is still the definitive report on the requirement for funding of theatres to encourage the creative industries in London and the creative culture that promotes so much of London’s tourism. Actually, very little spending is needed to enable many of London’s theatres to prosper, grow and bring in private sector funding. That needs to be addressed.

Even if the Mayor of London’s figure is right—personally, I do not think that it is, so I too look forward to the Select Committee’s report—the funding level in London is four to five times more than that in the English regions. How can that possibly be defended?

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, I remind Members that we need to keep our contributions down to something like three minutes and interventions will probably prevent us from doing that.

Thank you, Mr Caton.

In answer to my hon. Friend, the key is driving economic growth. The reality is that the creative industries in London account for one in 12 jobs in the UK and one in eight jobs in London. The point is that if we invest in London, we will create faster economic growth for the long-term benefit of the whole economy. The creative industries in this country are worth £71.4 billion, which is a huge amount of money. If we want to see investment, it must take place in that sector.

The Communities and Local Government Committee, on which I sit, is conducting an inquiry at the moment on devolution of funding, not only to London but to other cities and regions. With devolution comes responsibility, and I take the strong view that when the Arts Council or any other grant-awarding body is giving out money to invest in the creative industries—the arts, the culture or any other creative area—it should be done hand in hand with matched funding from local authorities, to ensure that we maximise the amount of money available. We talk about devolution to local authorities and beyond; with devolution comes the responsibility to invest in arts and culture, and not to say, “We’ll decimate the arts and culture, and we’ll invest in other areas.”

I think we have to be clear that this should not end up as a battle between London and the regions. The opportunity is there to invest in the creative industries in both London and the regions. We have to ensure that the facts and figures quoted by all hon. Members are correct.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton.

A remarkable milestone in the cultural heritage of my Stockton North constituency will be reached this August, when Billingham international folklore festival marks its 50th anniversary. The festival started with an Irish dance troupe dancing in the town hall, run by the late Phil Conroy, and we now have an internationally renowned event with a rich blend of the traditional and the contemporary. I hope that hon. Members from all parties accept my invitation to join us between 8 and 16 August, but if they cannot, they can instead come to Stockton between 31 July and 3 August, when Stockton international riverside festival takes place, showcasing the best in small and large-scale street theatre.

I do not apologise for making a pitch for those two events, which with other arts groups, including our fabulous ARC centre and Tees Music Alliance, have taken the widest range of cultural experiences to the widest possible audience. Yes, we have had tremendous success in arts and culture. The last time I had a debate in this Chamber, the Minister mentioned the richness he had heard about. Of course, much more could have been done in the north-east if the region had a fair share of the massive pot that is available for arts and culture.

The north-east is more typically associated with shipbuilding and manufacturing than with the arts, but the people in the north-east have a real passion for the arts. Since the late 1990s, the region has had budding significance in the creative industries, spurred by the finances made available under Labour and the regional development agency, as well as from the European Union and national lottery funding. A clever combination of investment and foresight has resulted in the north-east, one of Britain’s poorest and most deprived areas on many measures, establishing some of the finest creative arts infrastructure in the country. For instance, we not only boast international attractions, such as the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art and the Sage Gateshead concert hall, but national and regional establishments, such as ARC in Stockton and the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.

Despite all that, ease of access to the arts remains far from fair for the regions. Some two thirds of the population live beyond the reach of the productions and collections of the so-called national cultural organisations, and three quarters of decisions on arts funding are taken centrally rather than regionally—a proportion that continues to climb. There is another aspect to this: the vast majority of money spent on the lottery tends to be spent in poorer areas, but they do not get their return from the national lottery. They have a higher proportion of spend and, as a bare minimum, they should be getting a return on that investment.

I shall talk in the few seconds I have left about arts for ordinary people. The ARC in Stockton is a multipurpose cultural venue with hundreds of events a year. In a single year, it hosted 230 professional performances and 80 community performances, engaging more than 110,000 visitors. A hundred artists are employed to provide 1,000 creative learning opportunities, enjoyed by more than 14,000 children, young people, adults and older people. That is what the arts are about—not just fancy museums and opera houses in London. but what is actually happening out in the regions. It is time that we had a fairer share of the money that is available.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) in the debate. Let me quickly put a word for opera houses in London, of which I am very fond.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on the way he introduced this well attended debate, which has struck a chord with hon. Members from all parties. It is striking that every hon. Member who has taken part has made the good point, which I endorse, that this debate should not be about London versus the regions.

I was not surprised by the findings of the report, “Rebalancing our Cultural Capital”. It is right and proper that particular funding is provided to important institutions of national and international standing and it is logical that those will be located in the capital, but that point only goes so far. I was genuinely surprised by the extent of the funding and the ratio of £69 per head spent on the arts from all sources in London, compared to the £4.60 for the rest of the country, a ratio of 15:1, or 14:1, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) said.

I welcome the Select Committee inquiry. If these figures are contested by the Mayor of London or the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), or whoever, it is right that the facts are established, but I suspect that this report will not be far off the mark. Its authors have reflected carefully on the implications of their finding and have come up with a number of modest, sensible, workmanlike proposals. I hope that the Minister agrees at least to consider them and see if they are workable. The report recommends that, of the different funding streams administered by the Arts Council—the money from the Department, the Arts Council and the national lottery—the national lottery segment is hypothecated, at least in part, to a specific fund dedicated to the non-London part of England; in other words, to regional arts.

When one takes into account the private sector funding, 82% of which is spent in London, with the remaining 18% spent in the rest of the country, the thrust of the expenditure pattern is all too clear. The proposal in the report is modest and is all the more justified when we look at who is contributing into the lottery. Some 56% of households in the north-east region play the lottery. In London, the region with the lowest participation in percentage terms, 32% of households play the lottery. So it is possible to win the lottery without playing it: all you have to do is move to London. If the figures in the report are right, it is fair to find some way of altering the balance.

Let me make a plea for the north-east. We were able to get the Sage, one of the most wonderful concert halls—similar to the symphony hall that the people of Birmingham have—which is acoustically accurate and designed for the performance of great music, but it costs money to bring orchestras of worldwide distinction to venues of this kind and to the north-east of England. If we could have a little fund that would make up the difference between the amount of money that one can reasonably get from the sale of tickets and the cost of providing the orchestral concerts, that would go an enormous way to bringing the Sage building back to its original intended purpose and would boost the arts in the north-east of England.

It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown). He has laid down a powerful challenge, because this debate, and therefore its conclusions, falters on the uncertainty and ambiguity of the figures in two respects. He has made the point about the lottery, but when the claimed discrepancy between London and the rest of the country is interrogated, it does not take account of the postcode distribution of those figures. A cultural institution based in London but doing a lot of performance and so forth outside it will still count against the London tally.

I say to the Minister that there is a pressing need for figures that Members can have faith and confidence in. That would begin to deal with this sense that London is being set against the rest of country, when in fact its great cultural institutions are interdependent with those in other parts of the country.

I feel very proud of the previous Government, of which I was a member, for many reasons. One is the funding of regional arts and the restoration of funding for regional museums.

My second point, which the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) also made—unfortunately, he is not in his place—is that the figures are misleading. He has a rural constituency and therefore has an interest from that perspective. The regional nature of the figures means that the allocation to rural areas is subsumed in an overall regional average that is heavily dominated by cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle and Leeds.

Today’s debate, for which I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), is a welcome and important starting point, but we need an undertaking from the Minister that he will improve the quality of the data. To coin Jennie Lee’s phrase, the role of an arts Minister in relation to the arts community is money, policy and silence, but I think it should be money, policy and silence—but better figures.

I call Kerry McCarthy, but I have to ask her to resume her seat by five minutes past 4 so that the wind-ups can begin.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this debate. It is a great pleasure to follow not one but two former Labour Secretaries of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friends the Members for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell). It is very good that they have turned up to speak.

I will not spend a lot of time paying tribute to Bristol’s arts and cultural scene and creative industries, which are well known. Bristol has everything from the natural history unit to Aardman. We had the “Gromit Unleashed” exhibition, if I can call it that, in the city last year. There were some 80 Gromits dotted around the city centre, and more than 1 million visitors came. People came from Japan to take pictures of themselves with the Gromits, which shows that Bristol does not always do things in the established way. There is a big counter-cultural scene in Bristol, which for the most part operates outside the realm of Arts Council funding and is probably happy doing so. The Banksys of this world, for example, have no need for anyone’s money except their own these days.

As we have heard, arts in the regions have been disproportionately affected by cuts to arts and culture. The Bristol Old Vic’s artistic director Tom Morris described it as a “triple whammy” of national cuts, local cuts and the greater difficulties that places outside London have in getting philanthropic funding. We know from research published by the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government that the most deprived local authorities have suffered a disproportionately large share of funding cuts, which has a knock-on effect.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a similar situation in many constituencies? In Bolton, the crescent building, which has a museum, a library and an art gallery, has had to make 25 people redundant and sell 36 pieces of art so it can survive.

Cuts have a cumulative impact. Not just the Arts Council cuts but other cuts are having a real impact. The artistic director of the Nottingham Playhouse has said that cuts will particularly affect the theatre’s ability to commission new plays. He concluded that cuts are

“about centralisation....loss of identity and undermining of the regional voice”.

In the limited time that I have left, I will focus on the fact that not all parts of Bristol benefit evenly from Arts Council funding. We have talked about the discrepancy between London and the regions, but there is a discrepancy even within Bristol. None of the 15 national portfolio arts organisations in Bristol, which share the £4.3 million grant in aid that goes to the city, are based in my constituency of Bristol East. Of the 79 projects in Bristol supported by the Arts Council through its national lottery-funded grants for the arts, only four are based in Bristol East. That is partly because the city centre is home to historical and cultural buildings and activities, but we need to consider how we can use arts funding to take things out to the communities, and to bring the communities into the city centre, too. There is a divide, and many people do not feel that they share in the artistic spoils of Bristol in the way they should. I have been approached by the Arts Council’s south-west office on precisely that issue. We met a couple of weeks ago, and I am reassured that the Arts Council is committed to ensuring that Bristol’s imbalance is addressed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing this very important debate, which has been attended by 16 Labour Members.

One of the pleasures of holding the arts portfolio is being reminded of the excellent quality of the arts across the country. My right hon. Friends the Members for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell) and my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden), for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) have all attested to that fact. Nobody can doubt the quality of regional arts, the audience for regional arts or the talent that comes from regional arts, so we need to ask why there is such a funding disparity.

Much has been made of the independent report “Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital”, which found that Londoners get nearly £70 a head and the rest of the country gets £4.60 a head, a ratio of 14:1. The report’s figures do not include the spend on the Cultural Olympiad or the millennium dome, but they have been questioned this afternoon. Obviously one would expect more money to be spent on national institutions, which tend to be in capital cities. The National Gallery is bound to cost the taxpayer more than the Walker art gallery. Equally, it is true that some of the work undertaken by the national institutions directly benefits the regions, such as the National Theatre’s streaming of “Richard II” to cinemas across the country and the British Museum’s portable antiquities scheme. Given the questions, though, it is disappointing that, three months down the track, we have not had a clear analysis from Arts Council England showing the proportion of the benefits of spending that falls in London and the proportion that falls elsewhere, which would inform the discussion.

Even on the analysis that Arts Council England has provided, the picture shows a serious problem. Over the five years between 2010 and 2015, some £2 billion of public money will be spent on cultural institutions in London, excluding the British Library. The direct spend of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is £447 million, of which 90% is in London. In a series of parliamentary answers to me, the Minister has not justified the rationale for that support. It is an accident of history that the Liverpool museums and the Geffrye museum are nationally supported while the Laing art gallery in Newcastle and the Dulwich picture gallery are not. When people learn that Arts Council England supports 77 performing arts organisations in London but only seven in the north-east, it is clear that the imbalance is not just about a handful of elite institutions.

Arts Council England says that grant in aid funding is £22 a head in London and £8 a head elsewhere. As hon. Members have said, how can it be right that people in the east midlands and the east of England get only a fifth of what Londoners get and that the east midlands, a region of 6 million people, has no major partner museum? The lottery spend under Arts Council England’s control tells a similar story: £12 per person in London compared with £2.99 per person in the west midlands and £2.78 per person in the north-west—in other words, less than a quarter.

Arts Council England seems to think that it is some sort of triumph that just 31% of the lottery funding that it distributes was awarded to London’s institutions. That seems less commendable when one discovers that London accounts for only 10% of lottery ticket sales, whereas people in the north-east get 3.6% of the spend but pay for 7.6% of lottery tickets. The authors of “Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital” suggest that the rebalancing should begin with the lottery money. We need a proper audit of what is going on, taking account of DCMS support, Arts Council England grants, Arts Council England-distributed lottery funding and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It is notable that HLF’s distribution matches the population far more closely than Arts Council England-distributed lottery funding. London, with 15% of the population, gets 19% of the spend. The east of England, with 11% of the population, gets 10% of the spend. Yorkshire and Humber’s 10% of the population is perfectly matched with 10% of the spend. That proves that it can be done and suggests that there is a relationship with the institutional structures of the organisation. The Heritage Lottery Fund has a far more rooted, regional approach to decision making.

One thing I find worrying is this statement in the Arts Council briefing:

“The Arts Council cannot make up the shortfall and we want to work with local authorities who continue to value and invest in arts and culture”.

At first blush that seems reasonable, but then one takes account of the disparate and unfair funding settlements meted out by the Government to local authorities. Liverpool and Hackney, which are among the 10 most deprived local authorities, are seeing 27% reductions in spending power, while local authorities in Surrey, which has some of the 10 least deprived, are seeing 1% increases in spending power. In the real world, cash does not equate to commitment, whereas on the Arts Council model, despite having seven museums, a major orchestra and being the home of the Beatles and Daniel Defoe, Liverpool’s funding might fall and Surrey would become the most cultivated county in England.

Furthermore, the Arts Council proposed to take local authority investment into account in Manchester and Middlesbrough, but not in Kensington and Chelsea, which puts no money into the V and A, or in Westminster, home to the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, which has just axed its entire arts budget, despite all the cultural and economic benefits that flow to local communities from being home to those magnificent institutions.

Normally, public subsidy goes where the market fails, but that cannot be said for the arts. London has the largest population of the well-heeled middle classes, the most tourists and the most philanthropists. I am delighted that the Minister, in partnership with the Wolfson Foundation, has spread money across the regions, and I am not cynical enough to think that the Bowes Museum in my constituency has had a particularly large grant because it is the seat of the shadow Minister—it is obviously because it has the best collection of European paintings between London and Edinburgh—but will the £4 million make up for the discrepancy in the philanthropic spend per head? I doubt it. In London, the spend per head was nearly £60, but in the midlands it was only £1.83.

I end with one simple question for the Minister. He cannot continue to hide behind the Arts Council’s skirts. He has totally failed to persuade the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government of the need to take account of the value of the arts in local authority settlements. Can the Minister persuade the Arts Council to take radical steps to reverse that trend? If he does not, we will see an existential crisis outside the M25. In Somerset, the Brewhouse closed; in Darlington, the arts centre closed; and, in Richmond, the Georgian theatre is at risk. The losses will be felt not only now, but for many years ahead as young people across the country lose the stimulation and opportunities provided by the arts.

I am grateful for the chance to respond to this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) on securing it. It was apposite that during the debate, an e-mail arrived in my inbox from Sheffield Theatres inviting me to the premiere of “The Full Monty” at the Noel Coward theatre on 25 February. “The Full Monty” began in Sheffield a year ago and has since successfully toured what we call “the regions”—that is, the rest of the country outside of London. That is a good example of how theatres outside London continue to produce high-quality productions for the enjoyment of people living outside London.

I think Members in all parts of the House can agree that we have had a good debate. The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) pointed out that the last time we had a debate on the regional arts, hon. Members could not resist telling the House about the thriving arts organisations in their constituencies. The paradox in a debate such as this, when the message is that the arts and the arts outside London need more money, is that most of the messages we hear are about thriving arts communities outside London.

Exactly. That is the theme: arts funding is doing very well, but it could be better. We have had some fantastic contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) talked about north Cornwall museums benefiting from the support of the National Maritime Museum. Two former Secretaries of State—the right hon. Members for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell)—spoke in the debate. The right hon. Lady said that the figures perhaps did not give the full picture of how London and the regions are interdependent. The right hon. Gentleman asked the current Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to speak to local government. I am sure he will be pleased to know that my right hon. Friend will speak to the Local Government Association, and she will, no doubt, make it plain how important it is that local authorities continue to support the arts.

We have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) talk about Aldeburgh, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) talk about the Plymouth theatre and my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Sir John Randall) talk about the power of art to transform political debate. The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) did not mention the £3 million that is coming to Blackpool and Wyre from the Arts Council’s creative people and places fund. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) talked about the importance of the arts and the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown), perhaps the greatest culture Minister we never had, talked about the Sage Gateshead. The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who won the seat that I contested in 1997—I turned a 5,000 Labour majority into a 17,000 Labour majority—does not need to tell me about the thriving arts scene in Bristol.

We can trade statistics back and forth, but it is my understanding that 70% of lottery funding goes outside London or to projects that benefit the whole nation. That percentage has increased from 60% before the coalition came into power. It is important to note that the first act of the coalition was to increase the proportion of lottery funding going each to the arts and to heritage from 16% to 20%.

Simply to correct the Minister on his numbers, in 2009-10—the last year of the previous Government—the lottery spend outside London was 76.3%. It has fallen in 2012-13 to 68.4%.

My briefing from the Arts Council says the opposite: that it is 70% now and was on average 60% under the previous Government. We can trade statistics, but lottery funding has increased and additional funds are available: £45 million for the strategic touring programme, which helps organisations tour outside of London; £37 million in the creative people and places fund, which was specifically set up by the Arts Council to support the arts where they are not well represented in certain regions; and £15 million to support 6,500 apprenticeship places, many of which will be outside London. There is also the £171 million that I secured with the Secretary of State for Education for music hubs. For 2015-16 alone, the Arts Council will have something like £570 million to invest in the arts up and down the country.

It is important, however, to understand why in the pure statistics it looks like London is getting a disproportionate share of the funding. The national museums are based in London, but the Victoria and Albert Museum is opening a multimillion pound extension in Dundee and it works with Sheffield galleries, as I know from my visits. The British Museum only this week sent me a wonderful publication detailing all the work it does across the country with other organisations. Plus Tate works with 26 contemporary art museums in the UK. The Science Museum has homes in York, Bradford and Manchester. The Royal Armouries is based in Leeds. The Imperial War Museum has bases in Duxford and Salford, as well as in London. There are also organisations that tour, such as the English National Ballet. I spoke to the director-designate of the National Theatre, Rufus Norris, about his ambitious plans to support theatre and produce productions outside London and bring them into the National Theatre. That will no doubt be helped by the Chancellor’s generous decision to create a tax break for theatre specifically to support productions outside London.

The list goes on and I could go on and on, but I want to list some of the places that I have visited as culture Minister. I went to Durham to view the Lindisfarne gospels and saw the huge impact the exhibition had on the city. I have visited the Turner Contemporary, which has already welcomed 1 million visitors, the Hepworth Wakefield, Nottingham Contemporary, Sage Gateshead and Bristol Old Vic, which is one of the foremost advocates of arts policy in the country.

I thank the Minister for giving way. I am listening hard to his catalogue of stuff going on in the regions. Based on that, is it his position that the current balance of spending per head between London and the regions is about right and that the report and its recommendations for rebalancing are not a useful contribution?

I was going to go on to mention the Mary Rose museum in Portsmouth, Thinktank, which is the Birmingham science museum, Liverpool, which has been European capital of culture and contains one of our national museums, the Manchester international festival, Manchester’s plans for a new arts centre called HOME, Aldeburgh, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal, Opera North, the Lowry and the Bowes museum. It is no coincidence that the shadow culture spokesperson holds the Bishop Auckland seat given the huge philanthropic act of Jonathan Ruffer, who saved the Zurbarán paintings and opened up Auckland castle, which I visited a few months ago.

Rather than continue reading out a lengthy list of excellent regional arts organisations, perhaps the Minister could answer the question posed by the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) and reassure us that when the Secretary of State goes to talk to the Local Government Association, she will come armed with good practice examples of where local government supports the arts and cultural community in the way that so many have outlined in today’s debate.

It is important that the right hon. Gentleman has stopped me in my tracks, because I could go on until the end of the day about the superb regional arts centres found outside London. I could talk about the national impact of Cultural Olympiad or about world war one. I think the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) was well answered. We are doing brilliantly, but could always do better. That is what Sir Peter Bazalgette, chair of Arts Council England, said. He is confident that funding is available for our great arts organisations outside of the capital and that organisations in the capital work closely with those outside. He has, however, said “could do better” and “judge us in two years’ time,” which is right. To hon. Members who feel concerned, their message has been heard.

I honestly do not mean to be facetious, but when the Minister has discussions with the chair of Arts Council England and other Ministers, will he please ask that the museum, library and art gallery on Le Mans crescent in Bolton is given extra funding, so that it does not have to sell any more artwork to survive?

The hon. Lady is not being facetious in the slightest, but it is important to understand that Arts Council England is based on the arm’s length principle. The shadow culture Minister said that I cannot hide behind the Arts Council’s skirts, but what is her position? Will there be a fundamental change of policy by the Labour party? There have been rumours that Labour would cancel all funding for the big five, the Royal Opera House and the Royal Shakespeare Company and redistribute that money around the regions. Is that what Labour would do? It is all right to moan, but she really must come up with an alternative policy. Is it her position to direct Arts Council funding or to direct funding per head in the regions? What is the Labour party’s position? It is about to be explained.

It is. The Labour party’s position is most certainly not as set out by the Minister. I am enjoying his speech, but it is unfair to the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) not to give him the direct answer that he was hoping for.

I feel that I did give him a direct answer. I explained that the chair of Arts Council England had said that things were going well, but could always do better, that the message has been heard loud and clear and that judgment should be made in two years’ time.

I will not support the recommendation from Patrick Diamond, the former adviser to the previous Labour Prime Minister, to close the British Museum and move it outside London, probably costing several billion pounds. I will also not support Labour’s proposals to stop funding the big five. [Interruption.] The shadow culture spokesperson is going to rule that out.

I certainly am going rule out that we are going to end all funding to what the Minister calls the “big five”. I have not said it and I do not think it.

That is good to hear. I am glad that that rumour has been put to bed, but I remain in the dark on the hon. Lady’s regional policy. Labour has initiated a second review of the creative industries, so we will wait to hear its conclusions.

Independent Retail

The Waitrose website’s myWaitrose section states:

“A free cup of tea or coffee every day as a myWaitrose member.”

It goes on to say:

“Nothing says ‘welcome’ more than a lovely hot cup of tea or coffee, so let us treat you to a free regular tea or coffee every day! You can enjoy one cup a day—to drink in or takeaway. Simply present your myWaitrose card at the till and you won’t be charged a penny.”

In addition, Waitrose offers a free newspaper to customers who spend more than £5. The myWaitrose offer was drawn to my attention by Mr and Mrs Cairns, who run the village newsagent in Formby, which is near a Waitrose. They sell newspapers—or rather, they used to—but a few months ago people could suddenly get a free paper at Waitrose and no longer needed to visit the other shops in the village.

The impact on the newsagent has been disastrous, with a big drop in trade. Not only are newspaper sales down, but so too is their other trade. Neighbouring shops in the village have also lost out as customers of the newsagent no longer call in. As people drink their free coffee at Waitrose, they no longer buy from the range of independent coffee shops. Instead, they wait in long—sometimes very long—queues after doing their supermarket shopping. A similar point was made to me by a Mr Cant, a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford), who also has a Waitrose store near his shop. Colleagues from elsewhere around the country will have similar examples.

The proprietor of Formby Books, Tony Higginson, also tells me about the impact of supermarkets selling books at a much lower price than he can as an independent book shop owner. Speaking of bookshops, it is only fair that I mention Pritchard’s, which has bookshops in Formby and in Crosby. In addition to competition from the supermarkets, the bookshops face competition from online retailers such as Amazon.

We also have a Tesco in Formby, which recently opened a hand car wash which took most of the trade from the car wash on the industrial estate next door. Formby Tyres also operates on that industrial estate. National Tyres and Autocare recently set up nearby and can sell tyres for less than Formby Tyres can buy them. The ability of national chains to buy far more cheaply than small businesses is one of the many challenges facing independent retailers.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and congratulate him on obtaining this debate. I cannot help but wonder whether he has taken up Waitrose’s offer.

On a more serious note, he will agree that small independent retailers have been the backbone of the United Kingdom’s high streets for many years and that we certainly need to do more for them. We welcome the 2% cap on rates, but we perhaps need to look at other issues. The hon. Gentleman mentioned major supermarkets; perhaps we need to consider the whole planning structure in the UK.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will come to his points later, but I agree with what he says. I hasten to add that I buy my coffee from local independent coffee shops.

The Local Data Company has reported that some 66% of retail outlets in town centres were independent in 2011. To put that into context, however, I should say that since 1980, the number of butchers has fallen from over 40,000 to around 10,000 and the number of fishmongers has fallen from 10,000 to 2,000. Since 2001, we have seen a 31% rise in the number of large chains and supermarkets.

In Northern Ireland, there is a system of small business relief based on a net annual value of £15,000; in the UK mainland, the NAV is £12,000. Does the hon. Gentleman think that it might be a good idea for the Government to consider increasing the NAV cap on the mainland, thereby keeping shops open, rather than closing them, and creating employment, rather than unemployment?

I will let the Minister answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, but we should be taking the opportunity to look at all sorts of ways of supporting small independent retailers. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s answer.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in Bristol we have something called the Bristol pound, our own currency? More than 600 local shops and businesses now accept the Bristol pound; people can even pay their bus fares and council tax with it. It is an excellent way of supporting independent businesses and encouraging people to spend their Bristol pounds in independent shops, rather than the big stores. Perhaps Liverpool ought to do the same.

A Merseyside pound would be an even better idea.

I was aware of the Bristol pound. We need to look at innovative ideas that support small independent retailers and the local economy, and what happens in Bristol is an active example of that.

In addition to the buying power that I described earlier, the large chains have various other advantages, including the ability to buy or rent property in advantageous locations and access to enormous amounts of data on the behaviour of shoppers, enabling them to tune their offer towards what consumers want. Since the 1980s, out-of-town shopping centres have become more numerous. They offer large retailers more space than is available in traditional town centre locations, but retail units in such centres are often beyond the financial reach of small independent shops.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way—he has been incredibly generous with all the interventions this afternoon. Does he agree that it takes some imagination from town centres to attract small businesses into empty units? In my constituency, we have a town team that runs an empty unit scheme, which has helped to fund small businesses to occupy such units. So far, the team has two new businesses in place, with another three coming on stream. Will he join me in welcoming the good work of the town teams up and down the country?

I have two town teams in my constituency, in Crosby and in Maghull. In Maghull, the town team and the town council were instrumental in opening pop-up shops in an empty unit, which is a similar approach to that described by the hon. Lady. What she says is important.

E-commerce is up from around 2% of sales in 2007 to around 10% in 2013. Internet shopping offers independent retailers the opportunity to compete on a more level playing field with larger retailers, because the cost of overheads is massively reduced, but recognised brands still have an advantage in the online environment. In addition, footfall in town centres is reduced by internet shopping, meaning that independent retailers with a physical presence see less through traffic and fewer potential customers.

Down the road from Formby is Crosby, where Tesco now has two convenience stores in addition to a medium-sized Sainsbury in the village centre. Plans are being made for a further convenience store in College road in Crosby, near the existing Tesco and next to an existing Co-op. Plans for a further convenience store from a national supermarket chain have caused concern among local shopkeepers.

The National Federation of Retail Newsagents represents 16,000 independent news and convenience stores. The NFRN tells me:

“One of the biggest threats to independent news and convenience retailers has been the rapid growth of the supermarket sector.”

Tesco has more than 1,500 small stores, while Sainsbury has 594, according to The Daily Telegraph. Such stores are close to independent retailers and a third of NFRN members have seen a local or metro-style shop open near them in the last year alone. Often, little consideration is given to the impact on existing retail outlets.

Crosby village centre is very run down, like many town centres and high streets around the country, and the Sainsbury store in the village centre is the biggest attraction for visitors. I am optimistic that in the coming years a master plan for Crosby will be produced, but Sainsbury has to be part of that plan. The village desperately needs a complete overhaul, but this needs to be in partnership with the independent retailers.

The No. 1 issue raised by independent retailers is business rates. One retailer from Crosby told me that small businesses need help with bigger rate relief, as they find their rates crippling. Business rates date from a time when retailers had to have a premises and when land and property values were easy to predict. It is a system from another time, for another time—a time before out-of-town shopping centres, dominant national chains and the internet. That is why so many people are calling for a reform of the system to reflect the reality of retailing and business in general.

Amazon can sell books online and pay no tax on the profits generated in this country, and large retailers can set up shop on low-rated land. Local shops need to be where people will go, which generally means high street sites that are often expensive in terms of rent and rates. A first step to be requested is a full revaluation of the rates. Big retailers have many advantages, because of economies of scale, however, so a reform of the rating system is one way in which smaller retailers could be given an advantage to balance their lack of economies of scale.

In the autumn statement, the Government announced business rates support for retailers, and my party is committed to a cut followed by a freeze in business rates. The reality, however, is that small retailers need us all to go further; as the NFRN points out, those are all short-term measures. In some countries, business taxes are collected using a local sales tax. That is only one possible option, although no doubt the Treasury has reasons for rejecting such an approach—it usually does.

How many local shop keepers have good advisers and mentors to help them set up and support them over the years? Who is there to advise independent bookshops on how to make the most of the internet? Where is the support for small shops setting up online trading to help them grow and compete with the big players, despite their not having much cash to invest in a website? It can be done, as I discovered when I visited my constituent Helen Flynn at her shop, Gentle Cosmetics. Helen has both a shop and an internet presence. More retailers could do both, but they need advice and support. National Government have a role to play through the taxation and planning systems. The Government claim that they have made life easier by changes in planning, but whether independent retailers have benefited or high streets have been revived is another matter.

Other issues include parking and bank lending. The out-of-town supermarkets can offer free parking, while many town centres have parking charges. Sefton council offers a free half hour in Crosby and two hours in Formby. Meanwhile, in Maghull, town centre parking is free for half an hour in the privately owned car park in the town centre. In the run-up to Christmas, parking in Sefton’s council-run car parks was free on Thursdays to support late-night opening.

A system of local banks that work closely with their business customers would also help, hence Labour’s proposal for a regional banking system. There is already good practice that could be adopted to address some of the challenges I have mentioned in the debate. In the case of relationship business banking, the Cumberland building society already operates in this way. It is the only building society, so far as I know, to offer a full business banking service.

We face a cost-of-living crisis, and it is no different for independent retailers. Fifty-five per cent. of retailers tell the Association of Convenience Stores that they earn less than the national minimum wage. One of my constituents runs the post offices in Formby and in Crosby, but after paying her staff and her other costs she is left with next to nothing to live on. That story is repeated by many retailers I meet.

The experience of many is that being self-employed is a tough way to try to survive—something I can confirm from personal experience, having run my own business for many years. Government can help by making sure that the economy grows and by recognising the importance of the independent retail sector in our cities, towns and villages. Independent retailers are a key part of our economy and are significant local employers as well. Research by the Association of Convenience Stores suggests that 76% of new retail space given planning consent is located outside town centres. Far more planning consents are given to out-of-town developments than to town centre developments.

This debate is about balance. Yes, the big chains are a big part of shopping, and they need to compete with each other, but small, independent retailers are at the heart of our local communities, providing valuable services to local people and an alternative to the standardised approach of the big chains. The issue is about having a level playing field, and about fairness between large and small businesses. If the big chains wipe out the independents, we will all lose as the identity of our communities will suffer. Competition will be reduced if there is no one to challenge the big players.

The question is, who is on the side of the independent retailers? The big chains can and do look after themselves. In Formby, Crosby, Maghull and Aintree, I am supporting the “Shop Local” campaign and encouraging people to support independent retailers. There is room for both large and small retailers. We need both—our town centres and high streets need both, and so do our communities. However, a fair balance between large and small is not going to happen without intervention by Government. The Government say that they want to support our high streets, and, by implication, our local shops. The time has come for them to make sure that their actions speak louder than their words.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) on securing a debate on this important subject. We certainly recognise the value of the whole of our retail sector to our local and national economies. It employs some 3 million people and contributes around £80 billion to gross value added—almost 6% of our economy. Retail is a significant contributor to self-employment and independent shops are themselves often crucibles of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Research by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies discovered that for every £1 spent locally, around 50p to 70p re-circulates back into the local economy. Local shops provide hundreds of thousands of flexible jobs, particularly for young people and those who juggle other commitments such as child care. They are important hubs of social interaction and can provide vital services to their communities. Many operate in the convenience sector, which has seen real growth—there are now nearly 50,000 convenience stores on the UK mainland. The convenience sector is worth some £35 billion in turnover, adding real social and economic value to communities. More than three quarters of shops in the sector are independent, and almost three quarters of owners, interestingly, are the first generation of their family to own and run a business in the UK.

The economy is now growing for the first time since the recession, and the retail sector is contributing enormously to that. Significantly, it is small stores that are driving much of that growth. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that small stores are now seeing annual growth of some 8%. Figures released by the British Independent Retailers Association on 31 January show that more than half of independent retailers have had their best average growth since 2010. Nearly two thirds of respondents to BIRA are confident or very confident about the year ahead, and confidence levels are at their highest since 2009.

Our habits as consumers are changing. We are using local shops more—including independents—to top up our supermarket shopping. Independent shops make our high streets, town centres and local shops more diverse and vibrant. Shopping locally has a positive impact on the local economy.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the independent retail sector has faced challenges. It is simultaneously adapting to massive structural challenges driven by changes in consumer lifestyles and preferences, the impact of new and emerging technologies and the constant evolution in technology usage. Modern lifestyles demand a much more flexible and fragmented shopping style that combines physical with online retail, and leisure and convenience shopping. Furthermore, the shift to shopping online is reducing some retailers’ need for large and costly physical stores, as well as creating the need for new and different design roles such as web design. Technology is driving change—tablets and smartphones are making it easier for consumers to buy online and in any location, and new delivery options such as “click and collect” are reducing the problems customers face with home deliveries.

Verdict Research is predicting that as confidence in the economy grows and the population grows, consumer spending will increase. A bi-annual survey of 500 small businesses conducted by Aviva shows that they have a more positive outlook for the first six months of this year, compared with two years ago. Retailers that have a distinctive brand, focus on their customers and are well run are still managing to grow. That is true of independent retailers as well as larger ones, and there are many such examples from around the country. The hon. Gentleman referred to one such small business in his constituency to which he has given his support: Gentle Cosmetics, which has recently opened a store after successfully trading online.

We are seeing increases in local shopping because of consumer demand. Research by the Association of Convenience Stores shows that the fruit and vegetable sector has experienced considerable growth as people move away from doing one big weekly shop, and are instead increasingly using local stores and shopping more often.

I turn now to some of the issues the hon. Gentleman raised. If I cannot cover all of them, I hope he will allow me to write to him in more detail. I will first say what the Government are doing to help independent retailers. As he referred to, the autumn statement announced the biggest business rates support package for 20 years, including capping the retail prices index increase in business rates at 2% next year; doubling the small business rate relief for a further year, to 31 March 2015, which will benefit over half a million small businesses; a business rates discount of £1,000 for smaller retail premises for two years, benefiting around 300,000 shops, pubs and restaurants; a 50% discount for 18 months for new occupants of property that was previously vacant; and allowing businesses to pay their rates bills over 12 months, which will help every firm with their cash flow. In the spring we will publish a discussion paper on options for reform of business rates administration.

We have been working with the Department for Communities and Local Government on the town centre support package, which was launched on 6 December. That package includes a number of initiatives on car parking, a review of business improvement districts, consultations on new permitted development rights and other planning reforms, and a call for evidence on the red tape that could be hindering high street revival.

Before the Minister moves away from business rates, does he recognise the calls from a significant number of business organisations and individual businesses for a complete overhaul of the business rates systems? Bearing in mind my comment about business rates being from another time, what are his views on that issue?

I recognise the calls, which I have heard from business organisations such as the British Retail Consortium and the Association of Convenience Stores, whose conference I addressed. They would like a complete overhaul of the system. I have invited them to put their thinking caps on and to come up with some thoughts on longer-term radical reform of the system. Meanwhile, we have supported the Portas pilots with some £2.3 million. We have supported towns with high vacancy rates through the high street innovation fund and we have supported the “Love your local market” campaign.

We were very pleased to support the first ever small business Saturday. Just under half of UK consumers were aware of small business Saturday and nearly £500 million was spent on that day, an average of £33 per person. Almost one person in five said they had spent at least 50% more than they usually would. The day was supported by more than 100 local authorities who waived parking charges, including that in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I am delighted to say. Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends visited small businesses on that day, as I did, and saw their commitment and energy. We were proud to help small business Saturday to be a success.

I know that many in the independent sector are concerned about what looks like unfair competition between large and small, between grocery and other subsectors, between online and offline. We believe that consumers are served by open competition between commercial interests, so Government intervention should never be taken lightly, and any action must be evidence-based, proportionate and reasonable. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence of that not being so, it is a matter for the independent competition authorities.

Retail has always been highly competitive. Retailers are swift to change what they sell, where and how they sell it, and how they operate as businesses if that is what they need to do to drive success. However it is not for the Government to intervene in these matters. Changes in technologies and consumer habits are not something the Government or the House can stop or try to reverse, nor should we. The dividing lines between different subsectors of retail—the hon. Gentleman gave some good examples—are blurring as more and more retailers are innovating to serve customers as best they can.

Small retailers are not immune from these commercial pressures. They must adapt and innovate if they are to survive, and the best of our local stores are doing exactly that by trading online with a high street presence, by offering new products and services to customers, and by simply being the best at what they do in terms of customer service—whatever it takes. If a retailer takes market share from another retailer by doing something new or offering something different, that is the nature of the sector. I assure the hon. Gentleman that many small retailers are doing that and thriving as a result. Of course there are things the Government can do to help. Business rates and the planning system are two of the most obvious areas where the Government have a genuine role to try to help cultivate the spirit of enterprise that runs throughout the sector.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising these issues this afternoon, which I assure him are central to the commitment of the Government and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to the retail strategy, and to our refreshing of that strategy each successive year, working with the British Retail Consortium and the Association of Convenience Stores. I also assure him that the interests of smaller and local retailers are not being squeezed out.

Pavements

It is a pleasure, Mr Caton, to serve under your chairmanship in this debate, which someone I was talking to described as a quintessentially Liberal Democrat debate. That is why it is a great pleasure to welcome my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), to respond. I am sure that he shares in Bristol many of the problems we have in Cambridge. I know from talking to colleagues that the problem arises in many places. The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), is campaigning to try to improve the pavements in his constituency.

The issue may not sound important, but it is for people and communities. Poor pavements can trap people in their homes, making them unable to participate in the wider world and the community and society of which they would like to be part. Kevin Golding-Williams from Living Streets, the national pedestrian charity, says that

“the pavement is the most democratic piece of infrastructure a government can provide. Whether you're a pedestrian, cyclist or motorist—you will use the pavement at some point during the day.”

He continues:

“High quality pavements are important for encouraging children to walk to school, and for making places better for walking—which can boost footfall and trading by up to 40%.”

My hon. Friend the Minister might like to talk to the Secretary of State, who has often said that the only way of advancing trading is not to encourage cars, but to promote cycling and walking, which do a huge amount to promote trading. I hope that he will encourage his right hon. Friend to change the focus.

Bad pavements cause problems for many people, particularly those in wheelchairs, those with pushchairs, the elderly, those with mobility problems, the visually impaired and many others. They all struggle with a pavement that others could cope with, but our pavements should be more than something we can all cope with. I have heard numerous complaints about the problems caused by poor pavements in Cambridge and throughout the country. Last year, I was contacted by an impressive resident of Cambridge, Claire Connon, who is a wheelchair user and is tipped to row for Britain in the 2016 Paralympics. I hope she will succeed in that and bring home a medal for us. If so, she would be the first intravenously-fed Paralympian. Claire told me that she often falls out of her wheelchair as she travels around Cambridge, although she is an experienced wheelchair user. When she contacted me, it was because she had fallen out twice in 10 days, on the second occasion landing on her wrists. That could have ended her rowing career before it had had a chance to get going.

I had been involved in such matters as a councillor and a Member of Parliament, so I knew that there was a problem with potholes and other large obstacles, but until I met Claire, I had not fully realised how a small problem on the pavement could be a huge problem for many people. Molehills can be mountains when they are in the way of wheels that cannot get over them. Claire said:

“It isn’t until you experience using a wheelchair around the streets of Cambridge you realise how uneven they are. There’s the obvious great big holes, but also small dips with slightly raised edges that, in my wheelchair I don’t notice until you’ve hit them and then the trouble and accidents start.”

She continued:

“'Many areas have five or six different pavement types in a small area making for an uneven and dangerous pathway not just for wheelchair users, but anyone with mobility difficulties.”

After talking to Claire, I thought I should find out more, so I arranged to spend a morning in a wheelchair with Claire and two of her colleagues, M.J. Black and Naomi Hook, and a range of interested city and county councillors. It was hard work—much harder than I had expected. I had had experience of wheelchairs—I used to be a volunteer with St John Ambulance and had helped out at a care home—but I had usually pushed a chair on flat, often carpeted, surfaces. Pushing my own wheelchair through the streets was incredibly energetic, and I struggled to understand how people manage to do so day in, day out. We did not choose particularly tough areas, but went around the city centre.

Petty Cury, which I had always considered to be a reasonably smoothly paved shopping street, was a nightmare. I had not realised that because of the camber, going in a straight line meant constantly pushing with one hand while the other hand had nothing to do. That was not due to my incompetence or lack of physical fitness, because I saw experienced wheelchair users such as Claire getting stuck as they tried to negotiate and deal with poorly designed kerbs and other problems. After a few corners, the pavement would suddenly stop and there would be no ramp to descend, which was a huge problem. Cars or trees may be in the way. A whole series of things make it impossible for people to get by.

Claire and I launched a campaign, “Fix Our Pavements”, which is online at fixourpavements.co.uk, asking people to identify particular places where there are problems and to sign a petition to get those pavements improved. A lot of people have got in touch through that and signed the petition online and offline. I have to say, it is the easiest petition I have ever tried to run. People care very much about the issue, whether from personal experience—a number have experienced being in a wheelchair for some time or had to use crutches—or from their family’s, when there are ageing parents in particular. Time after time, people would say, “Yes, my mother-in-law had a problem with that.” It is a huge issue.

We have support from organisations as well, such the Whizz-Kidz charity; I am hugely honoured to be one of its parliamentary champions. It provides powered and lightweight wheelchairs and training and support for disabled children, young people and their families. It says that it is passionate about young disabled people having the freedom, opportunities and skills to fulfil their potential, and we know that the ability to travel independently and safely is an enormous part of that. Providing people with a wheelchair does not make sense if there is no way of getting around with that wheelchair. I applaud the charity’s work, particularly in providing lightweight wheelchairs, because working with a full, heavyweight, normal, NHS standard wheelchair was far too much work for me.

This is not only a problem for wheelchair users. On a number of occasions I have been contacted by a visually impaired constituent who is involved with the Cambridge walk-in cycling liaison group and Cam Sight, a local group that works with people who are visually impaired, to talk about the issues that people with visual impairment face. I have tried to find out about some of the challenges for blind and visually impaired people trying to go around the streets of Cambridge. Back in August, I was blindfolded for about 30 minutes and I walked around the city with a guide dog. That gives one a very different sense of what it is like, what the challenges are and what people face. Small things such as cracks and lumps can cause a problem. They can trip people up and get in the way, but so too can big things. Bins left out in the path can simply block the pavement, as can cars parked on pavements. Cars and trucks, of course, are one of the very reasons why pavements are cracked in the first place, causing the problems initially. To quote a guide dog owner, because Guide Dogs has been very involved in the campaign:

“My main problem is parked cars etc. on pavements, and also on the road near junctions where I need to cross. In general, lack of safe crossing areas means I rarely go out on my own...I cannot cross safely.”

That is a serious alarm that we should care about.

Guide Dogs has proposed that the London law that bans parking on pavements except where explicitly allowed should be expanded to cover the rest of the country as well, and it should be enforced. Living Streets research found that cars parked on the pavement was the single biggest issue when people asked about clutter in the streets: 41% of people said that was an issue. We need to tackle that problem. It would help to clear the ways and help not to damage the pavements.

There are lots of other obstacles, such as A-boards left out in the path. We have even seen cases involving safety signs—even though they may be put up for sensible reasons, they can cause harm themselves, as in the case of Cambridge resident Dr Peter Lawrence. A road sign was put out to warn people that works were coming along. He did not see it in the dark, because it had been knocked over, and he ended up falling over, causing himself significant injury and harm. There are lots of obstacles, but most of us simply are not aware of them most of the time. When parking, most of us would not think about making sure that we are not blocking off access to a pavement, whether that is about somebody is getting on or off it. When leaving a bike by the side of the road, I now always try to ensure that there is space for people to get by, but not everybody thinks of that—whether it is with their bins or anything else. There is a clear problem and a large number of national organisations are keen to see action. Age UK and many others have commented on that.

What is the solution? It is not just money. I absolutely appreciate that times are tough, but money for repairs is needed. It is helpful that the Government have top-sliced £50 million a year to encourage maintenance of cycleways and footpaths. That will be worth a huge amount. In fact, better than that, it can help to avert the costs that are incurred otherwise. Research by Guide Dogs in 2011 asked a range of councils how much they spent on compensation claims to pedestrians who had injured themselves by tripping and falling on badly maintained streets between 2006 and 2010. From the people who responded, it found that well over £100 million was paid out in compensation. The estimate of the amount paid out in compensation, if we cover all councils and include ongoing cases, is to the order of £300 million. Surely it would be better to spend £300 million and more fixing the pavements than to pay it out to people after they have been injured.

The solution is not only about money—although if my hon. Friend the Minister announced extra money, that would be welcome—but about attitudes and ensuring that things are done correctly and properly the first time. I was told of one area, near where I happened to be door knocking last week, close to the local shops on Carlton way, where the pavements had been fixed seven times. The slabs were picked up seven times, sand was put underneath, they were relaid, and the sand was washed away again—and the cycle repeated. Time and again, people were unable to get past the blockage. The underlying problem, which I think is a blocked drain, was not being solved. A lot of effort was put into trying to fix the surface at great expense, instead of fixing the core problem.

We see that in other areas. Work is happening on Mill road in Cambridge—it is a wonderful area that I urge you to visit, Mr Caton—to try to repair the pavements that are very damaged, affecting an area with a huge range of successful independent shops. Piero D’Angelico, the chair of the Mill road traders association, has done a great job in getting that work to happen, but delivery lorries are still parking on the pavements, still blocking the road as they do so, and still cracking the pavements that have been freshly laid. We have to get out of that cycle. Slabs are laid on sand but that cannot resist the weight of those trucks. It will look very nice for a short time, but then it will start to break down again, I am afraid.

Similarly, when roadworks are done, reinstatement is rarely as good as it needs to be, which is one of the major causes of potholes on the roads, as well as on the pavements. I have been talking to the Local Government Association’s street works task force, which is doing a piece of work—I was involved at the launch, and it will report soon—as well as county experts to try to find ways of ensuring that that does not happen, because the constant cycle of fixing things is not an efficient use of money. We have to try to avoid those scars.

There are problems with trees, as their roots can really push up the pavement and make it impossible for people to get past. Nobody is suggesting cutting down all the trees, but new surfaces, which are much more flexible and rubberised, can be used, so that we do not get huge mountains where the tree has grown. That would be a nice way forward so that people can get by and we still get to keep our trees.

There are many other problems that we should try to deal with, and I encourage people to report them. My colleague, the mayor of Cambridge, Paul Saunders, has now reported more than 500 problems that he has observed around Cambridge through the wonderful FixMyStreet website. Not all those have been repaired yet, but that shows the sort of scale involved. It also shows the value of civil society in ensuring that those reports can be made, so that people are aware of them. I urge other MPs, councillors, highways engineers and even Ministers to do what I did with Claire and with the guide dogs: to experience what it is like to get around in a wheelchair or if unable to see. Anyone who tries that would soon see the new surfaces that they are responsible for with new eyes and with the sort of determination that I now have to ensure that they are sorted out and improved. That would make a huge difference.

One of the top priorities of the Department for Communities and Local Government is to bring people together in strong, united communities. One of the key priorities for Liberal Democrats—part of our constitution —is to champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals. We cannot deliver on either of those priorities if people cannot get about, because the pavements will not let them do so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) on securing the debate this afternoon. He opened his remarks by saying that the issue is probably one that I am familiar with in Bristol. I listened carefully to what he was saying; many of his points resonated with me not only in connection with my almost nine years as the Member of Parliament for Bristol West, but more directly with when I was a county councillor for the city centre ward in the 1990s.

Such issues were raised constantly by constituents at that time, particularly the obstruction of pavements by shops’ and cafés’ A-boards. Indeed, we had annual, almost perverse debates when setting the county’s budget—later on, the unitary authority’s budget in Bristol—about the insurance premium that the council had to pay to deal with accidents on the highway and whether that could be mitigated by extra investment in pavements.

I commend my hon. Friend on his direct approach to researching the topic and on his work with Guide Dogs for the Blind and other charities, and on even sitting in a wheelchair. I also commend him on giving people a solution. I had a look at his website before coming into the debate, and I saw the link to the website that he mentioned in his speech: fixourpavements.co.uk. Officials have pointed out to me—I am not suggesting that he changes the domain name; I am sure he has gone to great trouble to secure it— that in highway engineering terms, the correct term is “footways”, because pavements are apparently classified as what we would normally call roads. Whatever he has chosen to call it, I hope his website is a great campaign success in Cambridge. It is perhaps a model that other constituency Members will be adopting around the country.

Walkable neighbourhoods are typically characterised by having a range of facilities available to all residents that can be accessed comfortably on foot. Making the local environment convenient and attractive to walk in can help enhance the vibrancy of a community and reduce reliance on motor transport. So it is important that local highway authorities, which are responsible for footways, recognise the importance of keeping them in good order.

The Highways Act 1980 states clearly that the footway is an integral part of the highway. I note with interest the various initiatives being undertaken by my hon. Friend and the 2016 Paralympics hopeful, Claire Connon, in respect of setting up the campaign that I referred to earlier. Local highway authorities—in his case, Cambridgeshire county council—are responsible for repairing their highway networks. That includes ensuring the repair and renewal of everything from major bridges to potholes. Of course, there will be a lot of that after the recent, and continuing, wet weather. As part of the service, they are also responsible for maintaining footways—from removing weeds to repairing or replacing broken or missing slabs. Central Government help in that process by providing funding. The Department for Transport leads by providing capital support to authorities through what is known as the highways maintenance capital block grant.

Between 2011 and 2015—the current spending round—the Department for Transport is providing more than £3.4 billion to local highway authorities for highway maintenance. The funding includes additional expenditure that has been provided to help assist authorities to deal with problems they have encountered on their transport networks, caused by extreme weather events that the country has encountered since 2010. So it is not just this year; it is the previous extreme weather events that we have experienced as well.

Over that four-year period, we are providing Cambridgeshire county council with more than £48 million. Perhaps my hon. Friend will interrogate county councillors and highways officers from the county council on how they are spending that £48 million. I am sure he will want to ensure that Cambridge gets its fair share.

The Minister is absolutely right. It is the county’s role. He may not be aware that there was a scrutiny review of work with pavements led by a Liberal Democrat councillor colleague, and I will be taking the matter up further with the county council.

Does the Minister accept that there is a question about priority? He is right to say that a lot of money goes into the maintenance. Does he think that people always put pavements—or footways, as he correctly calls them—in the same category as roads? There is always a lot of discussion about fixing roads or building new roads, but never quite as much attention to the footways, which seem to get neglected.

My hon. Friend makes an entirely reasonable point. As well as being the Minister for Communities, I am also responsible for the localism agenda. I know he will agree, as a good localist himself, that it is up to local authorities to decide what their priorities are. Indeed, the money that Cambridgeshire county council gets—£48 million—is not ring-fenced; it is up to democratically elected councillors on that authority to decide what priority they wish to give to certain issues and how to spend that particular budget. Of course, county councillors, just like Members of Parliament, can be responsive to constituents’ views, but that is an issue for Cambridgeshire rather than for my Department.

In June last year, the Government announced, as part of the 2013 spending review, that they were committed to providing a further £5.8 billion for local highways maintenance to local authorities in England, outside London, between 2015 and 2021. That equates to £976 million per annum and highlights the Government’s continuing commitment to help make sure our roads and footways are fit for the future.

The Department for Transport has recently published a document that seeks views from highways authorities such as Cambridgeshire and other key organisations on how best to distribute the £5.8 billion to ensure that we get the best value for money for the taxpayer. The document suggests a number of ideas on how the funding could be allocated to local highway authorities, including one that would set aside part of the funding from the £5.8 billion for the maintenance of cycling and walking facilities. I know that cycling is a huge passion of my hon. Friend’s, and I commend him for the work that he has done in promoting safe cycling.

The Government also work with sector organisations, including the UK Roads Liaison Group, to encourage authorities to help develop asset management plans. Such plans are vital if local authorities are to take proper care of their highway assets. That will help authorities ensure that the highway infrastructure, including footways, is maintained efficiently. Asset management plans should not be documents that engineers write and then put on a shelf, although I am sure a lot of that goes on; they should provide a clear statement of the local authority’s highway assets, their condition and the level of service that the council wants to deliver. Again, I suggest my hon. Friend takes that up with officers on the ground in Cambridgeshire.

My hon. Friend alluded to the many benefits of well-maintained footways and pedestrianisation in relation to the environment in Cambridge. I have seen such benefits in Bristol. Evidence certainly suggests that investment in walking and the wider public realm can increase economic value and economic activity in local areas. A United States study undertaken in 2012 suggests that well-planned improvements in the public realm can help to boost footfall and trading by up to 40%. In addition, people on foot also tend to linger longer in key shopping areas in towns and cities and spend more than those who travel by car.

People-friendly streets, including good cycling and walking networks, benefit everyone and provide benefits for our health, as well as boosting local economic growth. My hon. Friend mentioned the Olympics and Paralympics, and all of us still have different memories of those occasions that inspired us. One of the legacies that the Government definitely want to see from those events in London is that more children and adults should get active and become more healthy as a result.

That is a cross-Government aspiration. Last August, the Department of Health announced a £5 million initiative to encourage children and families to exercise more. As part of that funding, £1 million is being provided simply for walking initiatives, to help people get more active. I understand that Cambridge will benefit from the funding in the form of a new footway and cycleway route between the train station and Cambridge science park, to which I am sure my hon. Friend is a frequent visitor, as he is one of the few scientists in the House of Commons. The science park is also a major employment centre for the city economy.

The Department for Transport has also supported “walk to school” week, which is an excellent opportunity for schools to engage with children and parents and to encourage walking to school. In addition, the £600 million local sustainable transport fund includes a range of schemes designed to help improve local facilities for pedestrians, including better routes and signage, improved crossings and new footbridges.

My hon. Friend mentioned dropped kerbs and obstacles on the pavement. Under the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, public authorities have a general duty to promote equality, and those who design, manage and maintain buildings and public spaces have a specific obligation to ensure that people can play a full part in benefiting from and shaping an inclusive built environment. We encourage local authorities to consult representatives of various user groups to help inform the design of local streets.

Not all disability relates to difficulties with mobility, so it is important not to overlook the needs of those with sensory or cognitive impairment, the elderly and young parents with pushchairs. I find it helpful to think of people not simply as being disabled, which is the language often used, but as being disabled by the environment in which they must operate. Politicians at all levels must try mitigate those problems as far as possible.

The Department for Transport promotes guidance for practitioners involved in the planning, provision and approval of new residential streets and modifications to existing ones. The guidance highlights the importance of street design’s being inclusive to accommodate all people regardless of age or ability. It advises on a number of appropriate surface level crossings that might be provided, where practicable, to connect pedestrian networks to one another, particularly where those networks are separated by heavily trafficked roads.

The guidance also explains that street furniture, which is typically sited on footways, can be a hazard for users and suggests that it be minimised wherever possible. In Cambridge, Bristol and other places, I believe that the local authority might benefit from an audit of its street furniture—a highway engineers’ term for clutter, which denotes signage, railings and so on—to see what might be cleared away, with a particular focus on the supposedly temporary signs that linger for a long time after the events that they advertise have happened. People are keen to put things up but not always so keen to take them down.

I turn finally to parking on footways, which my hon. Friend mentioned several times. Cambridge has many narrow streets in which that will always be a factor. We fully appreciate that parking on a footway or verge can cause serious problems for pedestrians—particularly those in wheelchairs, those who have visual impairments and parents or grandparents pushing prams and pushchairs. Indiscriminate pavement parking may also damage the verge or footway, and the burden of repair costs normally falls on the local highway authority. In some streets, parking on footways may be inevitable to maintain free passage of traffic while meeting the needs of local residents and businesses, and traffic signs are prescribed for this purpose. It would not be possible to get a refuse wagon, let alone an emergency vehicle, down some of Bristol’s narrow streets if that were not the case. That is often left to the common sense of local residents.

Local authorities outside London have wide-ranging powers under sections 1 and 2 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to make traffic regulation orders that prohibit pavement parking on designated lengths of highway or over a wide area. Such pavement parking bans outside London would need to be appropriately signed so that motorists were aware of the restriction. In areas where the local authority has obtained civil parking enforcement powers, civil enforcement officers can enforce pavement parking bans on designated highways by issuing penalty charge notices. In February 2011, the then Transport Minister, our hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), wrote to all local authorities outside London prompting them to use their existing powers to prevent people from parking on the pavement where that was a problem.

In conclusion, the Government recognise the importance of ensuring that pavements are not obstructed by vehicles, street furniture or other privately-owned paraphernalia. It is not simply down to Government, however; I always say as a Liberal that Government and the state are not always the answer. It is up to all of us to encourage responsible behaviour, exercise common sense and show basic courtesy for the road needs of others.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.