[Relevant documents: Fifteenth Report from the Transport Committee, Session 2013-14, Better roads: Improving England’s Strategic Road Network, HC 850, and the Government Response, Session 2013-14, HC 715.]
I must inform the House that I have selected amendment (b)—[Interruption.] Quite why that prompts an “Ooh!” from the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) is yet to be explained. The fact is that I have selected amendment (b) in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
What a joy to perform once again in this theatre of dreams. What an honour to speak for the Government introducing this important Bill. What a responsibility this House has to create the future our nation needs, to build a Britain fit for generations to come and to plant trees for those born later.
Governments of all persuasions tend to neglect the long term. Perhaps that is the legacy of the post-war preoccupation with Keynes, who after all wrote:
“In the long run we are all dead.”
Perhaps the necessity of popular payback within five years discourages public policy that looks sufficiently forward. To speak candidly, it is more likely that we—those of us with power—are frightened to anticipate what might be, fearful of misjudging what is to come. Sometimes, in respect of some things, that does not matter too much, because some of the business of government is necessarily reactive. But when it comes to infrastructure, failure to face the future is catastrophic and devastating.
Thinking for the long term widens an appreciation of consequence and deepens an understanding of effect. The absence of strategic vision not only leaves us with exclusively reactive responses to need, but reduces policy to piecemeal, tiny steps when giant leaps forward are needed. That reflects a small view of government. That is not your view, Mr Speaker, I hasten to add, and nor is it mine, but it is a pessimist’s view of politics—a politics reduced to dull, technocratic managerialism.
By contrast, the Bill that I introduce to the House today is urgent and ambitious about long-term plans and a bolder view of what Government can do: urgent because Britain sits uncomfortably low, at 27th, in the global infrastructure rankings; ambitious because, as this Bill demonstrates, the Government are focused on the future. This Government understand that the future of our country depends on investment for the long term that must and will be ambitious.
Does the Minister recall that we both fought on a Conservative manifesto that said that we should get rid of quangos and not create new ones, and that Ministers should be responsible and accountable—something that I entirely agree with? Why is he proposing two new quangos on highways instead of the excellent arrangements for accountability through him?
My right hon. Friend has made that point to me previously. Let me tell him, with a candour equal to that of my earlier expressions, that I am absolutely determined that the lines of accountability for the strategy we have in place should be clear and that Ministers’ lines of reporting in this House should be palpable and known. Indeed, I have missioned my Department to make sure that that happens.
I will make available in the Library of the House, not only for my right hon. Friend’s benefit but for that of the whole House, a description of precisely what those lines of accountability will look like. When he sees that clear description of how the House and Ministers are going to exercise their proper authority in the name of the people, I think he will be more than impressed and will feel that this Government and this Minister have gone further than even he expected us to.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; it is good to see that he is on his usual courteous form. He talks about the importance of facing up to the future, but the question is what kind of future it is. Why does this Bill lock us into such a high-carbon future at exactly the time when we need to be shifting towards being able to meet our climate change objectives?
As the hon. Lady suggests, the kind of future that I anticipate is very different from the one that she sees, for my kind of future is ambitious for Britain and virtuous in its intent; I am not sure that that is true of hers. I do not mean to be unkind in any way. However, as I said, I will come to invasive species by those that are apparently ornamental when they first arrive but turn out to be nothing but a nuisance.
Hon. Members will see a virtuous pattern that demonstrates my and the Government’s unrelenting commitment to delivering better infrastructure. At the heart of the autumn statement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor last week was the biggest and most far-reaching roads programme in decades, with over 100 improvements to our major roads. As the House knows, that extra capacity will be underpinned by £15 billion of investment. Better infrastructure means more jobs, more opportunities and more growth. Those things will ultimately help to build a better future, drive down the deficit and inspire our people.
On taking office, we produced the first ever national infrastructure plan. We have made big calls on HS2, on Crossrail—the biggest construction project in Europe—and on shale gas exploration. We have got Britain building, with over 500,000 new homes built since April 2010.
The broad sunlit uplands that the Minister is describing mean absolutely nothing to people in my constituency threatened with the untried technology of fracking without sufficient safeguards, which would wreck many of our villages and suburbs. Does he think that that is all right because it is going to happen in what his noble Friend Lord Howell calls the “desolate” north?
The hon. Lady is, of course, right to defend the interests of her constituents and to say that, when such innovations occur, it is vital that the communities affected understand what is going to happen and are involved in the decision-making process. When as Energy Minister I set up the office for unconventional gas and oil, part of my intention was for it to ensure that good information was provided, that some of the misinformation that prevails be put aside, and that local communities could be as engaged as much as possible in the process. I understand the hon. Lady’s championing of her community and she can be assured that this Government take exactly that kind of open-minded, generous, communitarian approach.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I am on the same side as him when it comes to the potential development of unconventional oil and gas. With that in mind, and given his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), will he explain why the Government rejected Labour amendments in the other place that the industry are quite relaxed about?
The hon. Gentleman will have the chance to make that case as the Bill makes its passage through the House. I am not in the other place and it is not really for me to anticipate the amendments that he or other Members might table. Of course, we will listen—this is a Government who listen and learn, as I shall describe in a moment. Given the hon. Gentleman’s record in this House, I know that he would be the last person to turn his back on innovation and stand in the way of progress. Indeed, he has been one of this House’s greatest advocates of innovation and scientific progress.
My constituency includes the community of Barton Moss, where a six-month exploration for shale gas took place from November to May. That was dumped on frightened communities and people as a result of a 2012 planning application for coalbed methane gas. There was no reassurance.
Even worse, the Government have changed the planning process, shortened time scales, and taken some vital aspects of planning consideration away from local planning authorities and given them to the Environment Agency; that made it so much more difficult for communities such as mine to comment and be involved. They were not involved and they did not comment. The things the Minister has said about reassurance just did not happen.
I do not want to be unnecessarily partisan, because that is not my way, but I can say only that the hon. Lady has either misread the Bill or misunderstood the Government’s intention. After my explanation of that aspect of the Bill, I hope the hon. Lady will leave the Chamber if not convinced, at least with many of her worst fears assuaged. If I am imperfect in making the argument, so be it, but I will give it my best shot. I will say no more than that.
The hon. Lady and others know that, because of our commitment to long-term delivery, unemployment has dropped below 2 million for the first time since 2008 and we have produced the first ever road investment strategy, which has been warmly welcomed not only by Members of this House, but by the RAC Foundation director, Professor Stephen Glaister, by Richard Threlfall, the head of infrastructure at consultants KPMG, and by many others. I will not tire the House by listing the many supporters of the Government’s approach. That would not be entirely fair to the Opposition, either. I do not want them to start with such a profound disadvantage; I want to give them a fair shot on what is, after all, an extremely sticky wicket for them.
I genuinely believe that our impressive commitment to the long term, which stands in sharp contrast to the record of the previous Government, is one of the hallmarks of this Administration. According to the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness survey, under the Labour party—as I have said, I do not want to dwell on this for too long—our roads and railways plummeted from seventh in the world to 33rd.
We know that if Labour had been re-elected in 2010, things would have only got worse. Mr Miliband admitted to the BBC after the election that Labour had planned to cut investment in rail and road by 50%, telling Radio 5 Live that
“we’re going to halve the share of national income going to capital spending.”
That was, of course, Mr David Miliband, Mr Speaker, as you probably remember.
The sharp contrast between anyone called Miliband and Benjamin Disraeli is of course clear to all in the House. That great Prime Minister once said:
“In a progressive country, change is constant;…change…is inevitable.”
The role of Government is to prepare for change, and to plan for the long term. The various measures in the Bill will help to bring about such changes and make a real difference to people’s lives and livelihoods. Let us look at the changes in turn.
First, on roads reform, the Government have announced hundreds of extra lane miles on motorways and trunk roads, and action to improve some of the most important arteries in our country, such as the A303 to the south-west and the A1 Newcastle-Gateshead western bypass. It is fair to say that our work at Stonehenge—the bold engineering work to be done—is probably the most ambitious scheme there since the stone age. It is totemic, as it were, or emblematic of this Government’s willingness to tackle matters that have been neglected for a long time by successive Governments.
Major roads run by the new strategic highways company will create better connectivity and minimise environmental impact. The new name for our strategic highways company will be Highways England. I intend to set it up as soon as possible. The Government have already committed more than £24 billion to upgrade England’s strategic road network through to 2021.
The people of Elkesley are going to be a little perplexed. The previous Government got rid of the six roundabouts on the A1 within three years of my taking the then Minister there to show him the problem; yet the Elkesley bridge on the A1—I agreed it with the Government in 2009, with the work to begin in 2010—has only just begun to be built during the past year. Why has there been a delay by this Government on a key part of the A1? Is it not because they have not been prepared to spend the money on our roads?
The hon. Gentleman knows that Nottinghamshire is dear to my heart, as it is to his. He says that the work has only just begun; well, I have only just become the Minister, haven’t I? I do not say that that coincidence is entirely a correlation between his desire and my effectiveness, but it is certainly true that our improvements to the A1—along its length, actually—will make an immense difference not only to motorists, but to hauliers from my constituency and many others who need to get their goods to market.
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have added more than 1,300 new lane miles, and that we will fix some of the most notorious and long-standing problem areas on the network, such as the entire A303 and the A358 to the south-west, including the tunnel at Stonehenge. The 84 new road projects will improve connectivity across the UK. In addition, we are investing to improve the lives of local communities affected by road upgrades.
We considered all the options. My right hon. Friend will know that we undertook considerable research, discussion and consultation on that matter. The scheme we have ended up with has been welcomed by several environmental bodies, such as English Heritage. Of course, each option has pros and cons—I would not be straightforward with the House if I did not acknowledge that—but I think that we have got the right solution.
As with all such schemes, what characterises the Government, above and beyond the desire to think strategically and put funds behind the strategy, is a willingness to look empirically at a range of options. It is very important to be ambitious, but also to be precise, and the way in which we measure the effect of the money we spend has allowed us to allocate funds not only to areas of the road network that have the greatest need, but where we can make the most difference.
The fact that there is £100 million to improve cycling provision at 200 key locations across the network reflects our understanding that it is not just motorists and hauliers who count. There is a £300-million environmental fund to mitigate carbon emissions and reduce the number of people affected by serious noise by up to 250,000. There is £100 million to unlock growth and housing developments.
I have missioned my Department to look closely at the look and feel of what we build. It is absolutely right that the aesthetics are taken into account. If that was good enough for earlier generations, it should be good enough for ours. What we build does not have to be ugly. It can serve a purpose and have an edifying impact on the localities affected.
Having condemned the Transport Ministers of the last four years for failing to do the Elkesley bridge and taken all the credit for retrieving the situation, the Minister will know that it is the one bridge that will create a strategic cycle route across the A1 in Nottinghamshire—and, indeed, the east midlands. Will he, therefore, consider how funds can be allocated to ensure that that strategic cycle way is properly incorporated into the cycle path infrastructure of the future?
On the general point, the hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have instructed the Highways Agency to look at the impact that all new road schemes will have on the interests of cyclists. That had not been done previously. On the particular point, because I never want to neglect the opportunity or waste the chance of an interface with the hon. Gentleman, I would be delighted to invite him to my Department for a cup of tea and a biscuit—[Hon. Members: “What sort?”] A digestive biscuit. I invite him to the Department to discuss the precise matter that he raises.
May I return to the fundamentals of the Bill? Does the Minister agree that a key issue in the Bill is the implementation of the Wood review? That will have a huge impact on the recoverability of oil and gas—not only in Scotland, but in the north-east of England, which has an oil and gas sector that is growing tremendously.
Order. I simply note, in passing, that the Minister of State has not offered his hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) a cup of tea or a biscuit, which he proffered generously in the direction of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann). Whether the House will read anything into that, I do not know. Perhaps he has it in mind to present the hon. Member for Hexham with a copy of “Coningsby”, “Sybil”, “Tancred” or some other Disraelian creation. We do not know, but we will learn in due course.
I may have revealed a prejudice in favour of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, which, as you know, Mr Speaker, are deeply ingrained on my heart. I will seek to counter that when my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) next visits me.
Alongside the transformational investment, we propose to turn the Highways Agency into a Government-owned company, with the Secretary of State as its sole shareholder. The company will have stable, long-term funding that is set through a road investment strategy. Our ambitious programme of investment can be delivered only through a road operator that is fast and efficient and that provides a better service to road users. As a result, it will be able to plan ahead more effectively and deliver best value for money to the taxpayer. The changes are expected to save the taxpayer at least £2.6 billion over the next 10 years. Hon. Members will be familiar with the impact assessment that makes that clear.
The impact on the supply chain of creating a Government-owned company with greater certainty over funding and a clear relationship with Government will be positive. In the past, the construction industry has reacted to new spending on a case-by-case basis, and has not invested in the equipment and skills that would create long-term jobs in road construction.
If I may depart from my script at this point—although the Secretary of State will not worry about that, I can see that civil servants might, but I am going to do it anyway—I should say that I think there is a challenge in delivering this strategy. The Government can devise a strategy on the basis of the empiricism that I mentioned earlier. Bold Governments put money behind that, which is precisely what this brave and bold Government have done, but delivery will be a challenge and we will need to work with a whole range of organisations. The Highways Agency, of course, works with a number of private sector organisations. There are big issues relating to the supply chain and the skills necessary to make this happen. Those challenges would face any Government and they need to be considered carefully. They will require a new energy in respect of the acquisition and development of necessary skills. However, the Bill gives us the opportunity to do just that: the chance to give the construction industry the certainty it needs to invest in people and skills for the long term.
We have also listened and learned on a range of other issues. The British Transport police told us that the drafting of the Road Traffic Act 1988 did not allow it to require vehicle owners to disclose the identity of drivers who committed road traffic offences on the railway. We will change that. We have listened to calls to extend the BTP’s jurisdiction beyond the railway environment to help to protect people.
The provisions on invasive non-native species will allow our environmental officers to address the few cases each year where owners do not allow access to their land to eradicate new species that threaten to spread across the country. Invasive non-native species are estimated to cost the UK economy £1.8 billion a year. They are indiscriminate: they damage gardens, private land, public land, farmland and infrastructure sites.
We have introduced a number of measures designed to help to get Britain building. The small changes we are proposing speed up the approval of nationally significant infrastructure projects, such as the Thames tideway tunnel, road schemes and other major schemes, and will send a clear message to investors and developers that the steps to deliver transformational projects are as simple, sensible and straightforward as possible.
Those who believed that the coalition Government, with all the inevitable pressures and tensions, could not be bold, have been proved, wrong have they not? Among the many examples of boldness, some stand proud. Hinkley Point C, a scheme approved under the improved nationally significant infrastructure projects process, took 17 months to receive planning consent. That compares with more than six years for Sizewell B, including a public inquiry that lasted three years. We think we can do more and that we can improve on that. It is vital that we do so, because these schemes are hugely important. Hinkley Point C will deliver more than 900 skilled jobs for 60 years.
On deemed discharge, we have all seen a piece of land that has been bought, fenced off and ready to be developed, and felt a pang of frustration due to a seemingly inexplicable delay. The measures to discharge planning conditions will ensure that planning applications can get on and be delivered. The Government have already taken action. We have delivered a clear policy in the national planning policy framework and provided fresh guidance, but we need to go further. Recently, a major house builder identified that more than one third of its entire land bank was tied up in the planning system, awaiting reserved matters approval or the discharge of conditions. As a nation, we simply cannot afford to accept unnecessary delays to much-needed development that has already been subject to local scrutiny and granted planning permission.
The Minister talks about deemed discharges and refers to the national planning policy framework. Where a local authority has set a condition that is in conformity with the national planning policy framework, does he believe that it should be subject to deemed discharge?
That is a fair question, and one which has already been put to me by those in local government. I will look closely at that, but I am anxious—the right hon. Gentleman is a great expert, given his experience as a Minister and, beyond that, his understanding of house building—and keen to ensure that this does not create unnecessarily bureaucratic or over-regulatory delay. The point he makes is a good one and I will certainly go away and consider it during the passage of the Bill. I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham—who has intervened twice and might have another go in a minute, who knows?—that this is a very good example of the Government taking action to make the system more straightforward and less bureaucratic, so that decisions can be made in a timely way and be acted on with appropriate promptness. Wise as they are on these things, I am sure the Opposition will not disagree. Likewise, when they reflect on much of the Bill, I suspect they will appreciate it is the right thing to do in the national interest—but we will hear from them in a few moments.
Public sector land is an important source of land for development, and we have already released land with the capacity for 90,000 new homes, but to make that happen we propose to allow a Government arm’s length body to transfer disused surplus land directly to the Homes and Communities Agency or the Greater London authority, rather than having first to transfer it back to the parent Department. This measure will once again reduce bureaucracy in the transfer of land, meaning that disused Government-owned land can be brought to the market more quickly to build homes and improve communities.
As you know, Mr Speaker, the Government are committed to England’s public forest estate remaining in public ownership—[Hon. Members: “They are now.”] I know Labour is in the woods, but we are committed to the past, present and future of our forests. Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), have raised their constituents’ interests several times in the House and have influenced the decision to amend the Bill to ensure the measure will not apply to them.
The move to digitise and centralise local land charges and free up the Land Registry to take a wider role will ultimately help people buying and selling their homes. The Government aim to make dealing with property quicker, cheaper and easier. The Land Registry is well placed to help achieve that aim because it is already at the centre of the conveyancing process and is the largest single source of property information. The changes in the Bill will stop the wider disparities in charging, currently ranging from approximately £3 to £76, and will lead to a more efficient service for searches as people access a single provider rather than one of 348 separate providers. We need modern systems to underpin the property market.
On zero-carbon homes, we have already tightened building regulations to make new homes more energy efficient. Today’s new homes save people about £200 on average—
Given the Minister’s concern for linguistic exactitude, will he reflect that he is talking about “zero-carbon homes”, yet he must be clear that the provisions in the Bill mean that no zero-carbon homes will be built now or in the future? Would he care to rephrase his contribution to something such as “slightly less energy leaky homes”, or some such locution, to make his language exact?
Even if I believed that, such an ugly turn of phrase would fit ill on my lips, and I could not possibly bring myself to issue it. To that end, I will stick with my own choice of words.
The hon. Gentleman knows, because he is a great expert on these matters—far more expert than I am, I have to acknowledge—today’s new homes save £200 on average on their energy bills compared with homes built before the coalition came to power. He knows that new homes are more energy efficient. I want that energy efficiency to grow, however, so new homes will have net zero-carbon emissions from energy used to heat and light them, and there will be a higher efficiency requirement that may be augmented by on-site renewable energy measures such as solar panels.
Where that is not possible, however, to abate all carbon emissions on-site, the Government will allow developers to offset remaining emissions through off- site carbon abatement measures known as “allowable solutions”—precisely what the hon. Gentleman was referring to—which is a cost effective and practical way of dealing with carbon. I know it does not appeal to the purists, but it is deliverable. Either we want to hit these targets and get to our destination, or we do not.
We are doing it on the grounds of practicality. The hon. Lady and I, during a recent session of the Committee she chairs, exchanged thoughts on the issue of emissions. She will know that there is always a balance to be struck. She refers in her intervention to the preferred threshold of 10 units, but as I say there is always a balance between inhibiting or even preventing development at all and achieving our desired outcomes on carbon. I am happy to hear representations on all these matters, as I want this Bill to be as good as it can be. We are trying to strike that balance, which is the frank answer to the hon. Lady—and I am known in this place for giving straightforward and frank answers.
The Minister speaks of striking a balance, but I wonder whether he will help us by saying what assessment has been made of the overall impact of the Bill in its entirety on the Government’s ability to meet their legal obligations under the fourth carbon budget?
The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the impact assessment. I have a copy here and I would be happy to let him read it. It is available and if he looks at that impact assessment he will be able to gauge how far we have performed the analysis he describes. If he feels that we have done so insufficiently, I shall be more than happy to correspond with him directly on the matter. I know that he always brings fresh thinking to the consideration of this House.
The Bill will enable communities to be offered the chance to buy a stake in new, commercial renewable electricity schemes in their local area, so that they can gain a greater share in the associated financial benefit. We would consider using this power only if the voluntary approach to community shared ownership in renewable energy did not bear fruit. A right to buy would give communities the opportunity to have a real stake and sense of ownership in projects happening in their area. The Shared Ownership Taskforce recently launched its voluntary framework, and we brought forward an amendment to the Bill in the other place in order to provide greater certainty on the minimum time scales for this voluntary approach to take effect. We are proposing, too, to allow changes to the renewable heat incentive to provide more flexibility in financing arrangements for renewable heating systems.
Let me come on now to what I described as the exciting part of my speech, which deals with the Wood review. We recognise that increasing renewable energy sources is important, but we realise that a dynamic and flourishing oil and gas industry remains important, too. It can contribute to our energy security and to the economy, supporting around 450,000 jobs and showing record capital expenditure in 2013 of around £14 billion.
The Government agreed with the findings of Sir Ian Wood’s independent report, which concluded that changes to the recovery and stewardship regime in the North sea could deliver around £200 billion of additional value to the UK economy. We intend to deliver all of Sir Ian’s recommendations, but further work is required with stakeholders on a number of detailed aspects and parliamentary time is scarce. We are therefore starting by introducing two measures: one will put into statute the principle of maximising economic recovery of petroleum from UK waters; and the second will introduce a power so that the costs of funding a larger, better resourced regulator can be paid for by the industry rather than through general taxation, as is currently the case.
We need to explore all our energy options. This is the age of increasing costs, uncertainty and insecurity in overseas energy suppliers. The shale gas industry in the UK is at an embryonic stage, and the changes in the Bill would simplify the procedure by which onshore gas and oil and deep geothermal developers can obtain underground drilling access, and are accompanied by the industry’s commitment to pay communities in return for the right to use deep-level land. We do not yet know what is commercially viable, but we are encouraging exploration. These provisions will help us to address this question to ensure that the regulation is compatible with these new methods of underground drilling.
There has been a great deal of unfounded scaremongering on the environmental impacts of shale gas, much of it based on examples from other jurisdictions. The Bill does not alter the involvement of local authority planners; nor does it erode in any way the strength of our regulatory regime, the effectiveness of which has been demonstrated over 50 years of development, which is one of the strictest and safest in the world.
I am sure that a number of Members are concerned about it; I am not the only one, although I may be one who has been disturbed most recently by this sort of development in my constituency. The Government should be determined to do the right and the safe thing by communities, but they are not doing so. They are determined to have this rushed through. Indeed, the Prime Minister is determined to win the debate on shale gas. My constituents suffered for the best part of six months from exploration for shale gas. Businesses lost money and people could not sell their homes, yet the whole issue of compensation was never dealt with, and it was the same with the policing of protests. The community in Greater Manchester suffered by having to pay for the policing of the protests, and local people were really damaged by what went on at Barton Moss.
The key point is that none of the arrangements up to now has helped to compensate people in that position by one jot. Random schemes that provide some funding here and there are not the answer; the compensation should go to the people who were hurt.
The House has had no greater advocate of the interests of communities in respect of shale gas exploration than my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), who has brought their concerns to the notice of the House on at least two occasions. When I was Energy Minister, I debated those issues with him twice from the Dispatch Box. I made it clear then, and I repeat now, that I am absolutely determined that these things should be done safely and properly, and in tune with the interests of the communities that are affected. That commitment lies at the heart of the Government’s approach, as the hon. Lady should know. I do not want to fall out with her, but she can, I hope, see that my determination—to do the right thing and the safe thing—at least matches hers
The Minister is right to point out that I have been campaigning on shale gas regulation for the last four and a half years. I urge him to take this opportunity to reflect on the need for an independent panel of experts. We need to ensure, above all, that all the regulations are viewed impartially and independently, and that, if this goes ahead, we have the safest shale gas regime in the world.
I think that my hon. Friend and I should share a secret with the House. Not only did I debate this matter with him in the House, but I visited his constituency, looked at the sites involved, met some of the people who—like the constituents of the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley)—were concerned, listened to and learned from them, and determined to do this thing right, on the basis of the empiricism that my hon. Friend has once again recommended.
With—I hope—your permission, Mr Speaker, I shall now proceed with my speech rather more rapidly, because I know that a number of other Members want to contribute to the debate. I do not want to eat up too much of their time, nor do I want to shorten the exciting conclusion of my speech.
Is the Minister aware of a new report by Anna Grear of Cardiff law school, which was commissioned by the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, which deals with the rights to, in particular, a fair hearing and public participation, and which casts some doubt on the Secretary of State’s bold statement on the front of the Bill that all human rights legislation is complied with in the case of fracking?
I have no doubts about the Secretary of State for Transport. I am proud and privileged to serve under him in the Department. However, I should be more than happy to debate the issue of natural rights with the hon. Gentleman on any public platform. Perhaps he will invite me to do so at our mutual convenience.
The Bill does not alter the involvement of local authority planners, nor does it erode in any way the strength of our regulatory regime, the effectiveness of which has been demonstrated for a considerable time. In Scotland, “oil and gas” is a reserved matter, and the consent of the Scottish Parliament for the Bill is not required under the Sewel convention. Deep geothermal and petroleum exploration are not included in the 20 subjects on which the Welsh Assembly is currently entitled to legislate. As such, the proposals for oil and gas will apply across the whole of our island nation.
Will the Minister give way?
The Smith commission, which is engaged in a cross-party process in Scotland, has made the case that powers over onshore oil and gas licensing should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Over the weekend, the Welsh Labour Government made the case that they should have similar powers. Will the United Kingdom Government use this Bill to enact the promises made to the people of Scotland and the wishes of the Welsh Government?
It is a fair question, and the amendment—which was not selected—in the name of various nationalists is understandable, but the fact is that the Government have to legislate for what is now, not what might be or could be, and we are indeed legislating for what is now.
I am going to make progress. I have been incredibly, and typically, generous, and I want to draw my remarks to a conclusion. [Hon. Members: “One more!”] Members are testing my generosity, but I do not want to lose my reputation for being the nicest man in the House, so I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way; I think I am the only Member he has refused to give way to thus far in this debate.
The concern we in Wrexham have is not whether fracking is dealt with by the Welsh Government or the UK Government but whether it is safe. This is a novel process, and the right hon. Gentleman keeps referring to the planning process not having been changed. Does he understand that this new process is causing genuine concern to many people, and that we need to work much harder to persuade honest people that there is no cause for concern, if, indeed, that is the case?
With a certain elegance, the hon. Gentleman has conflated three matters and I shall try to deal with each of them. He talked about the planning process and he is right that it is not directly affected by this Bill, but it is also right that we need to make sure that information is made available in digestible form. He then mentioned safety. The Environment Agency continues to have responsibility for safety in this regard, as it always has, and some of the particular issues, such as waste water, have been dealt with by the EA—as they are in all water-intensive industries, by the way—and will continue to be so. Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman talked about broadcasting the right kind of information in the right way to the right people, and that is precisely why as Energy Minister I established the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, but he is right that we can do more, we must do more and we will do more to assuage doubts, to scotch those false assumptions that people have, and to make it clear that this can be done properly and safely in all our interests.
The Bill will allow Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to participate in the extractive industries transparency initiative and meet the UK’s commitment on higher international transparency standards.
Some of the changes in the Bill, like driving forward development of our shale gas reserves or reforming the Highways Agency, are potentially hugely transformative, while others may right smaller wrongs, but taken together they will undoubtedly deliver benefits that can be felt by people and communities right across the UK. In this Bill we have measures from seven Government Departments—which is why I have taken rather longer than I might have done ordinarily to make the case for this important measure. That is evidence that the Government see infrastructure not through a single lens, but as a kaleidoscope of interconnected elements. Whether it is building and maintaining our strategic roads, major schemes such as HS2 or nuclear power stations, housing developments such as new garden cities, or new industries such as shale and geothermal, or existing ones such as North sea oil, we must never lose our focus on the big prize—invest, improve, build, develop, and ultimately prosper.
Let us no longer look back in anger on the bad days of under-investment and mismanagement. I am not going to focus on the previous Government’s many failures; let us instead focus with the anticipation of a long-distance runner on the exciting road ahead.
Too often the stance of the Labour party on these matters brings to mind the conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat as envisioned by Lewis Carroll. Alice asked to know
“‘Which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don't much care where—’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn't matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.”
Sadly, the Labour party remains in Wonderland: stuck down the rabbit hole, and presenting the economy with a bottle labelled “drink me.” In contrast to Labour’s shrinking potion, the measures in this Bill promise an effect similar to the cake labelled “eat me”: measures that enable the economy to grow at the same burgeoning pace.
I simply say this to the Opposition: they must be careful. As Disraeli once said:
“It is easier to be critical than correct.”
There are times for clever criticisms and there are times for meaningful scrutiny; times for short-term hard-edged politics, and a time for the long view. The Opposition should recognise that the time for this Bill has surely come.
This is a Bill fashioned by a Government determined to do the people’s will, and a Minster who, as the Opposition know, is the people’s voice. This Government with this Bill confirm our courage and our willingness to put long-term thinking at the heart of our programme. This Government with this Bill concrete our confidence—confidence in a vision that is bold and ambitious for Britain. This Government with this Bill cement our reputation as a regime. There is hope for our nation’s future, a future for our people as glorious as our past. I commend the Bill to the House.
I thank the Minister for those few brief words of introduction to the Bill, and I look forward to debating its contents with him. If he will forgive me, I will not quote Disraeli quite so extensively as he did. I might not even quote “Alice in Wonderland” quite so extensively, although he might like to think about his own party’s performance as I remind him of another quote from the book, in which a character says that when he uses a word,
“it means just what I choose it to mean”.
That seems to typify the Government’s flip-flopping on infrastructure up to now.
The Minister has had criticism for Opposition Members today. Interestingly, he has also had some veiled criticism for his predecessors from those on the Government Benches, which surprised many of us. Perhaps that shows that infrastructure policy was not really in shape until he came along. Also, I could not help but notice that he kept referring to “my Department”. The Secretary of State for Transport, who is sitting alongside him, might need to be a bit careful about who is after his job.
This is a complex and wide-ranging Bill. It contains extensive provisions covering a whole range of Departments, which is why I am pleased to be joined on the Opposition Front Bench today by the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher), as well as by my hon. Friends the Members for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) and for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods). The Library briefing on the Bill describes it as a “portmanteau” Bill, and we are pleased to welcome the Minister and his portmanteau to the House today.
The Bill comes nowhere near to meeting the challenges faced by transport, energy and housing, despite all that the Minister has said today. There is cross-party consensus on the importance of infrastructure to our economy. Economic and population growth and the need to decarbonise our economy will all add further strain to an infrastructure that is already creaking. There seem to be different views about that. I imagine that, while we might disagree on a number of aspects of the Bill, hon. Members on both sides of the House will have raised an eyebrow on hearing the leader of UKIP explaining that the problems with infrastructure were all down to immigration, but I guess that that is a matter for him.
The Minister said that the Bill proved the Government’s commitment to investing in infrastructure. We have heard a lot of talk from the Government on infrastructure over the past week or so. We have heard the re-announcement of a £15 billion road programme—two thirds of which, surprisingly, has been earmarked for coalition Members’ constituencies—yet this is happening after the Government scrapped £4 billion-worth of strategic roads investment on entering office. We have also heard another garden city announcement, yet Ministers have presided over the lowest peacetime level of house building since the 1920s. And we have had yet another infrastructure plan update, promising yet more schemes, when the reality is that less that a fifth of the projects are in construction and infrastructure output is down more than 10% since 2010.
Let me give the House an example of one of the supposed achievements of the plan that the Government have published. The Dartford crossing is a major bottleneck, with serious congestion. One of the achievements of the Government’s infrastructure plan is—wait for it!—to narrow down three options for improving one of the worst traffic bottlenecks in the country to two.
I have a feeling that in this debate Conservative hon. Member after Conservative hon. Member will stand up and ask me about this scheme or that scheme, and will say, “Come on. Will Labour go ahead with this or not?” We are not in the business of cutting long-term investment in our roads infrastructure in the way that the present Government cut long-term investment in infrastructure. But if we are looking through individual scheme after individual scheme, we are going to scrutinise them. We are going to see if they are all they are cracked up to be.
Let me give other examples. In many cases the Government’s figures do not add up. In some announcements there is £3.5 billion-worth of investment for 20 new schemes; in other announcements, that becomes £3.4 billion. In 2013 we read that £8.5 billion had been set aside for 26 schemes; that now appears to be £6 billion. In some announcements there has been £15.1 billion for 2015 to 2021, but in answer to a parliamentary question that I asked the Minister last week, the figure was £15.2 billion, and it is still unclear whether this is entirely Government money or whether the Department for Transport is still waiting for third-party contributions to make up the total. I shall not be able to give answers on individual schemes because as far as I can tell, those individual schemes do not add up, but we will scrutinise them. We will ask the difficult questions, because those are the questions that the public expect us to ask.
Now that the shadow Minister has seen the projected overall levels of capital expenditure laid out by the coalition Government in the autumn statement for the period up to 2020, does his party think they are the right levels, or are they too low or too high?
As I said in answer to the previous question, we are not in the business of saying that we wish to cut back on capital investment. For goodness’ sake, we have been saying for four years that the Government have not been investing enough in infrastructure. It seemed from the Minister’s opening remarks that he was criticising the previous Government for not having spent enough. That is a bit of a change from what we have heard before—usually we are accused of having spent too much. Labour spent a total of £93.7 billion on our road network between 1997 and 2010. That is because we are interested and we are committed to repairing our creaking infrastructure. That will not change.
It is nice to hear how much Labour spent on roads, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it took 60 years to get a bypass in my constituency, and for 13 of those years under Labour rule the scheme was knocked back and confused? It took me to get £123 million from this Government to build the road. It has been built.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman has been a great advocate for his constituency, as are hon. Members across the House. That does not alter the fact that, as I said, I want to check that these Government announcements are all they are cracked up to be. Even a few examples indicate to me that there are a lot more questions to ask.
Investment in infrastructure needs to be long term. That is key, and that is why Labour is backing the proposal by Sir John Armitt, the man who delivered the Olympics—in practice, not just in theory—for a national infrastructure commission. That looks not just five years ahead, but 20 or 30 years ahead to produce an evidence-based assessment of national infrastructure needs. That should establish a cross-party consensus on priorities, breaking electoral cycles and ending the stop-start announcements we have seen up until now. It can also hold the Government to account for delivery. That would help the Government and it would help Parliament’s decision making. That is why it is backed by more than 89% of businesses surveyed by the CBI. For all that the Minister said about wanting to build a consensus on these things, words have, again, not been matched by actions. The Government had the chance in the other place to accept the idea of a national infrastructure commission, a cross-party body to plan infrastructure for the long term, and what did they do? They voted down such an amendment, and that commission is nowhere in the Bill today.
Let me now deal with some specific parts of the Bill. On highways and transportation, Labour supports long-term roads funding and we want to end stop-start funding. We want to give the supply chain the confidence to invest in skills and equipment, and enable the Highways Agency to negotiate better contracts and make efficiency savings. We want to see those contracts create new apprenticeships to train young engineers, as Britain will need 780,000 to meet demand by 2020. I am very pleased that the Minister has mentioned these matters in his opening remarks, and I am sure that if the Bill gets to Committee we will press him further on them.
There are three problems to discuss. First, Ministers have failed to prove why a top-down institutional reorganisation of the Highways Agency is needed to deliver long-term roads funding. After extensive debate on the rationale for this in the other place, the fact is—this came across clearly there—that the Highways Agency can deliver a five-year roads programme without being turned into a wholly owned Government company. The Alan Cook review showed that it can make £1.2 billion-worth of efficiency savings. That can be delivered through funding certainty, not because it should be a wholly owned Government company or because of institutional change. The cross-party Transport Select Committee has concluded that it is “not convinced” by the need for a new company. It is the roads investment strategy that will enable an efficient and faster delivery of roads, not necessarily an arm’s length body, and we will be looking for clear evidence from the Government of why this move is needed. I do not mean anecdotal evidence or what Benjamin Disraeli might have predicted; we need facts on why this is going to be needed to deliver long-term investment, as all we have seen to date is conjecture and confusion.
The Bill previously included clauses to set up more than one highways company. Fortunately, Ministers have rowed back from that, but the model is still confused. The body is to have a licence but officials recognise that it cannot have a “licence to operate” as it has no income stream or revenue-raising powers. With such a shaky rationale, is it any wonder that the Government proposal to set up a wholly owned Government company has met widespread concern from organisations ranging right the way from the Alliance of British Drivers to unions like the Public and Commercial Services Union and Prospect, who see this as a precursor to privatising an asset worth £111 billion?
I do apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. The right nomenclature momentarily went from my mind, but I am very happy to refer to the Leader of the Opposition—the honourable Leader of the Opposition. [Hon. Members: “Right honourable.”] The right hon. Leader of the Opposition. The point is that what he wrote about climate change is not in harmony with what we are hearing now, which is the Labour party saying that we need more roads. Roads are responsible for more and more CO2 emissions, which cause climate change.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right on this point: protecting our planet and our environment has to be centre stage for any serious Government at the moment. It is also absolutely right that in a whole range of areas we need to look for the most effective and environmentally sensitive forms of transport. Does one conclude therefore that all road building is wrong and that congestion does not need to be tackled? No, because all those things must be done as well, but they must be done sensitively and in harmony with our environment. That was said by the Opposition in the other place, and we will be exploring all those areas if this Bill gets as far as Committee stage.
Does my hon. Friend think it would be helpful for the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) to attend a meeting of the all-party motor group and to arrange a visit to Nissan in Sunderland to see the Nissan Leaf, an electric, non-petroleum-driven motor car, to see the innovation being taken forward by the motor industry on a real green agenda?
My hon. Friend is right on that point. As well as being a shadow Minister with responsibility for roads, I have the honour of chairing the all-party motor group. Fortunately, the days of seeing the motor vehicle as an inevitable enemy of environmental protection are long gone. There is a great deal of innovation going on in the automotive industry. Although the hon. Lady has some very serious points to make, she should understand who brought in the Climate Change Act 2008, and who was Energy Secretary when some of the best initiatives on preserving the environment were taken in Britain. That should give her a little more confidence that the Opposition take our environmental responsibilities seriously.
Another area that the Bill does not tackle is that of local roads. The Minister talks about a roads revolution, but in reality this Bill addresses just 2% of the road network, as 98% of the roads in this country are local roads. Two-thirds of traffic is on local roads. Motorists, pedestrians, cyclists, HGV drivers and motorcyclists all rely on roads to get around. Nearly all our journeys start and finish on local roads, but it is those roads that are the most creaking part of our road infrastructure. A third of local roads are in urgent need of attention. There is a £12 billion pothole backlog that will take 12 years to fix, and congestion on local roads is set to rise by 61% by 2040. A record 91% of the public are dissatisfied with the condition of local roads. Nearly 90% of businesses surveyed by the CBI expect local roads to get worse, not better. That is not surprising, because spending on local road maintenance is down 11% since 2010. Under this Government, it will decline further in real terms by 2020. There is a risk that the Bill will make the situation worse.
Local government and transport campaigners have warned that giving strategic roads management to an arm’s length company could create a two-tier road system, pushing traffic on to local roads and into our towns and cities. We need proper joined-up planning between strategic and local road networks, with devolved bodies and local authorities having greater powers over local transport and traffic management to tackle congestion. That is why we on the Opposition Benches are committed to English devolution. City regions face huge congestion pressure between now and 2040. They are planning their 20-year growth strategies, and need confidence that the Highways Agency, or whatever it is called, is working to similar horizons. We need an independent commission to take that long-term view.
Ring-fencing money for environmental protection, innovation, cycling and safety is important, which is why I am pleased that there is a £100 million budget for cycling on strategic roads. The problem is that it is yet another one-off announcement. It is not the long-term commitment to funding to get Britain cycling. As far as I can tell, the Department for Transport still has no clear budget for cycling, and funding is set to end by 2016 when the local sustainable transport fund finishes. It seems ludicrous that we will have five years of that.
After two years of calling for safety targets to be reinstated, I am pleased that the Government have finally recognised that axing them was a mistake. It is good to see in the road investment strategy a target to cut deaths and serious injuries by 40% on strategic roads by 2020. However, if it is right to have road safety targets for the strategic road network, why cannot we have safety commitments and targets for all UK roads?
It seems ludicrous that we will have five years of road and rail plans that will not be joined up. One of the most pressing transport problems is that, too often, decisions on road, rail and airports are taken in individual silos. Investments are not joined up and maximised. The Government’s proposals to study the options for HS3 include a tunnel under the Peak district and other trans-Pennine road improvements, but they are being considered separately when they should be looked at together. Where is the requirement for the new company and Network Rail to share forecasts, and to map and plan investment in a co-ordinated way?
I am grateful to the Minister. I am sure we can pursue and discuss the matter in Committee if the Bill gets that far.
My final point—perhaps the Minister has reassuring words on this—is whether the new agency will have adequate accountability, which the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) mentioned. Passenger Focus will be renamed Transport Focus because it will have a responsibility for roads as well as for rail and bus. Why is there still a silo mentality on the Office of the Rail Regulator, even though it will have a monitoring role? After pressure from the Opposition in the other place to give the new body more powers, it cannot be a regulator of roads. In the Bill, Transport Focus can represent only people who use strategic roads—it will not represent pedestrians or cyclists who use local roads, or motorists who are frustrated with conditions on local roads. I hope we can look at that if the Bill gets as far as Committee. With the recent ruling on the UK’s air quality infraction, should not a watchdog consider the environmental impact of any new company?
What about the Minister’s accountability to Parliament? Will hon. Members be able to table parliamentary questions and have proper debates on roads, whether in the Chamber or in Westminster Hall, or will we get letters from the chief executive of the new body instead? The chief executive of the Highways Agency has said that the reform will enable it to “set its own destiny”. The public depend on roads for daily life, so is that what we want? We will want to look at that closely in Committee if the Bill gets that far, and I hope the Minister reflects on it.
The Opposition support the extension of powers for the British Transport police to obtain driver information and take enforcement action outside the railways. That proposal was tabled by Lord Faulkner in the other place, with the Opposition’s support. It is an absurd situation when trained and effective British Transport police officers have to ask permission to take enforcement action on land outside railway jurisdiction. That makes no sense to the public. I hope the Minister will comment, today or later, on how that relates to the Smith commission recommendation that the British Transport police should be devolved.
The Opposition support a proper control regime for invasive non-native species, but we do not believe the Bill is fit for purpose. After the badger cull chaos, the Government listened to pressure from animal rights campaigners, wildlife groups, the National Farmers Union and Labour, and it is good that they included animal welfare protections in the regime. However, although there are three distinct categories of species in the Bill—native, former native and non-native—the definitions still seem problematic. We expect the Government to look at the EU habitats directive for those definitions, and will seek assurances that specific species such as the beaver will be given legal protection.
The Bill also includes a number of changes to the planning regime, none of which seem to go anywhere near addressing the housing crisis facing Britain today. Effective and efficient planning is vital, and we will support sensible changes to deliver a timely planning system, especially for nationally significant infrastructure projects. We want the Bill to define what the public can expect from garden cities in terms of high-quality design and sustainability for strong and inclusive communities for the future. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham will expand on that point later, say why the Bill fails to ensure that building standards reduce CO2 sufficiently, and explain our position on deemed discharge, land transfers to the Homes and Communities Agency, and the Land Registry. Suffice it to say that a trend seems to be emerging with the Government’s Land Registry reforms, which still seem rather confused, and they appear to have made a U-turn on putting those at arm’s length. Perhaps the most glaring omission on housing and land use is the fact that the Bill contains no acknowledgment of the housing crisis our country faces, of what the Lyons review said, or that Labour is right to call for ambitious reforms and 200,000 extra homes to be built a year. This Bill is a far cry from that.
Part 5 sets out a number of provisions on energy. Getting energy policy right is critical to our economy and vital to enable all infrastructure sectors to function. It is therefore a shame that the Bill contains no ambitious commitment or strategy to ensure that the UK will meet growing demand in a sustainable way. The Bill sets out a new community right for a stake in renewable energy schemes—that is fine, although we do not think it goes far enough—and it is good that it implements Wood review proposals for increasing oil and gas extraction, which have cross-party support. However, the issue that I am sure generates the most interest, both inside and outside the House, is in clauses 38 to 43 on underground access to shale and geothermal energy—there have already been questions on that.
Is my hon. Friend aware that in constituencies such as mine people are concerned not only that there are no adequate safeguards in the Bill, but that even the Government’s minor concessions, such as the requirement on companies to notify people of their right to land use and of the payments that can be made, will be reviewed after five years? Does that indicate that the Government are not serious about putting sufficient statutory protections in place?
My hon. Friend makes an important point that was repeated in the other place and if the Bill gets to Committee, and we will be seeking a much more robust regulatory environment. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) said that securing public confidence is not just important to us as parliamentarians when representing our constituents, but it is also important to the industry, which needs public concern about this issue like a hole in the head. If questions are to be answered they should be answered, and we should have transparency and a proper regulatory regime.
The planning process for shale gas was changed on the first day of the recess last year—a day after we had debated it here—and there was no chance to comment. As my hon. Friend says, it is important that the public have confidence, which they cannot have at the moment. Planning authorities such as that in Salford should not have been denied the chance to comment on and take into account certain measures that were removed by the Government last year, and the time scale should not have been shortened. People need time to get their heads around this complex process, and planning authorities have fewer staff than they once had. I mentioned the payment scheme, which is totally unsatisfactory. People whose businesses lost money or who could not sell their homes will not be compensated by giving small amounts of money to the scout group down the road. This must be dealt with—
I am grateful Madam Deputy Speaker. Let us give it another five months.
It is difficult on Second Reading to go through the specifics of what is needed, but my hon. Friend has mentioned some important issues. There is a whole range of areas where we can tighten regulation. To give the Government some credit, they have so far accepted a number of our proposals—we put forward six—which is good, but there are still areas where they need to sharpen up. She mentioned timing. Our view is that, where there is monitoring, there is no reason why it should not take place over a proper 12-month period.
The Minister ignored what happened in the other place, although I understood it to be part of the constitutional process. My hon. Friend will know that one of the amendments was about baseline monitoring. It seems to me that we cannot have a proper, scientific assessment of any process without proper baseline monitoring. Will he give a firm commitment that Labour will press that point to the nth degree in Committee if we get that far?
The important thing in relation to these provisions is that regulation is robust and effective and that it happens at the most effective and correct level. We know that the Smith commission has made some specific suggestions, which we will be considering, and there are other issues that we can talk about. The important thing is that it works. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) was absolutely right to say that what the public want to know is whether it will work.
I think that a pragmatic approach is the correct one. My personal opinion, on the point the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) raised, is that it makes sense for this to be devolved, since so much of the planning regime in Wales is devolved.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I understand what he says about tighter regulation, which is welcome. However, the Smith commission has recommended devolution of these powers to Scotland. Planning already rests with the Scottish Government, whose attitude has perhaps been different from that of planners south of the border. Would it not make sense, before fracking is fully established, for all the powers to rest in the same place so that this can be looked at properly?
I must say that I am a little confused by the hon. Gentleman’s point. As I understand it, the current situation, even without this Bill, is that shale gas extraction can happen in Scotland only with the approval of the Government in Holyrood. I also understand—perhaps he will correct me if I am wrong—that the Scottish Government, despite having an effective veto over any development in Scotland, actually voted against a shale gas moratorium earlier this year. He is right that the Smith commission has recommended the devolution of mineral access rights and the licensing process to Scotland. If this goes as far as Committee, I am sure that the issue will be explored there.
Labour is committed to the decarbonisation of the power sector by 2030 and to reducing our carbon emissions in line with the Climate Change Act 2008.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on from shale gas, and leaving aside the issue of where power is exercised and how close that is to its effects, let me repeat that we recognise that this is an embryonic industry. We are very happy, during the course of the Bill’s consideration, to listen to reasonable overtures about safety and other matters such as those that have been raised in this House.
I am grateful for the Minister’s comments.
As the Committee on Climate Change has said, within our legally binding carbon targets, gas can have a role to play as part of a balanced energy mix, along with renewables, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage. With 80% of our homes reliant on gas for heating, and in the context of declining North sea oil production, indigenous shale gas production may have a beneficial impact on our energy security. However, only by fully addressing legitimate environmental and safety concerns about fracking, with the kind of robust regulation that I have been talking about, with comprehensive monitoring and strict enforcement, will we give people confidence that the exploration and possible extraction of shale gas is safe and a reliable source that can contribute to the UK’s energy mix. That is why we are seeking to amend the Bill in Committee to ensure that any fracking could happen only under robust safety and environmental standards.
The issue of underground access rights is separate from the environmental and safety framework. It does not affect the requirement for consent to be sought for exploration and extraction through planning and relevant environmental permitting processes. Any application sanctioned by local authorities will require a strict environmental assessment. Other industries requiring underground access—such as coal mining, water, sewerage, and gas transportation pipelines—already have underground access rights without requiring the landowner’s permission. In principle, we do not oppose the reforms to underground access. However, we will continue to push for the environmental framework to be strengthened, and for assurances that the responsibility for clean-up costs and the liability for any untoward consequences rest fairly and squarely with the industry, not with taxpayers or homeowners.
Important regulatory questions must be answered before large-scale extraction can begin, but Conservative Ministers have so far chosen to ignore those legitimate environmental concerns rather than address them and provide safeguards for communities. That is why we will table amendments to close a number of loopholes in the existing regulatory framework. My hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West will set those out in detail in Committee. We are taking a responsible approach. People will have confidence that shale gas is a safe and reliable source only if this Government provide robust regulations, set out a comprehensive monitoring process, and ensure strict enforcement of exploration and extraction. Sadly, we heard no such assurances from the Minister.
The Bill has some important provisions to help to facilitate and improve national infrastructure planning, but too many parts are weak or confused. Above all, it is no match for the infrastructure challenges that face the UK in transport, in housing, and in energy. That is why Labour wants an independent commission to set out the priorities and strategy that we need to deliver—not just announce, re-announce, and re-announce again—the infrastructure that the UK so urgently needs.
My mistake, Madam Deputy Speaker. I can let you into a secret: I received a note from my colleagues saying, “Don’t forget to move the amendment”, and I did precisely that.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:
“this House declines to give a second reading to the Infrastructure Bill because, whilst welcoming efforts to further enable necessary infrastructure projects and acknowledging that long-term strategic planning and investment for transport infrastructure is urgently needed, the Bill fails to establish an independent National Infrastructure Commission to set out an evidence-based analysis of future infrastructure priorities in sectors including transport, waste and energy, and to hold governments accountable for delivery, because the Bill creates a new Strategic Highways Company, which could result in an increasingly two-tiered road system when there is no evidence that a new company is needed to deliver a road investment strategy, because the Bill fails to address the deteriorating condition of the local road network due to the cuts in spending since 2010 on local road maintenance, because the Bill does not ensure that unconventional gas extraction could only happen in the context of robust safety and environmental standards, comprehensive monitoring and strict enforcement, because the Bill fails to give communities new powers so that they can build the homes they need locally in the places they want, and because the Bill fails to include Garden City principles to underpin the next generation of New Towns, fails to strike the right balance between communities and developers in the discharge of planning conditions, and fails to properly plan ahead to ensure that building standards address CO2 emissions and climate change.”
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. In case the House thinks that you have mis-titled me as you did the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), I should point out—I thank you for drawing attention to it—my professorship at Edinburgh university, which you and I were very pleased to attend; I should make it clear to the House that you were there some decades after I was. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in relation to some of these subjects.
This is a very important Bill. As my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, it has a kaleidoscope of measures. It is positive and encouraging to see so many different measures brought together in one Bill; that shows the Government’s determination to make progress on many different fronts. Bringing the measures together in this way is eminently sensible.
I wish to focus primarily on the energy issues in part 5. I welcome the changes being made to improve the extraction rates in the North sea. We should pay tribute to Sir Ian Wood for his report and the work he did in identifying the real challenges in optimising the returns from the North sea basin. I also welcome the proposals on the extension of community ownership. It has always been my view that renewable energy projects will stand a greater prospect of being approved and endorsed by their communities if there is a significant proportion of local community ownership. We all hope that that will be done in a voluntary way, but the back-stop approach proposed by the Government is very sensible indeed.
The meat of much of this Bill relates to shale gas issues, which I want to focus on. Recognition of the continuing role for gas in our energy mix will be of long-term importance in electricity generation. We need to have a flexible source of generation to make up for the peaks and troughs of renewable sources of generation. That is also vital to heating our homes.
It is clear to me, as president of the National Energy Action fuel poverty charity, that the biggest distinction in fuel poverty is between those whose homes are on the gas grid and those whose are off it. If we do not see greater use of gas in heating our homes, there will be more avoidable winter deaths. The Bill’s proposals recognise the contribution that gas can make in terms of both electricity and heat. There is a focus on security of supply and issues of affordability, and, because new gas will replace dirty old coal, it will also help us reduce our carbon emissions.
Security of supply issues will also be determined by the extent to which the gas will come from our own indigenous resources and the extent to which we will need to import it from elsewhere. If there is a significant source of gas under our ground, we need to quantify and measure it and consider the extent to which it is extractable—the two do not necessarily go together—and whether that can be done in an economical way. The extraction must then take place only if it meets the highest standards of environmental protection and safety.
The Labour party, whose amendment was reported in this morning’s Financial Times, is mistaken in its understanding of the core strength of our regulatory approach. The regulation of our oil and gas reserves—which, along with that of Norway’s, is considered to be the best in the world—is successful not because it is frozen in legislation, which can be changed only by another piece of legislation, but because it evolves and changes as new technology is introduced and new challenges emerge. It evolves because the onus is constantly on the producers—the companies involved—to use the best practices available to them to ensure environmental protection and safety.
That is why the European Commission wanted to replicate the British model elsewhere and why, after what happened in the gulf of Mexico, the Americans considered which elements of the British model they could import into the American system. That process of “best in class” has driven this forward and given us the toughest standards of regulation in the world.
When the hon. Gentleman was Energy Minister, he and I had some interesting conversations about the oil and gas industry. How can we have a regulatory structure that gives confidence to the public about potential methane leaks if there is no baseline monitoring?
We can certainly get into some of the specifics, and the hon. Gentleman may well have a good point on baseline monitoring. We need to be able to reassure people on such issues, where public confidence will be essential. The shale revolution in America has been possible because there are huge open spaces—for someone with 2,000 acres of North Dakota, it makes sense to explore the reserves of shale—but in a much more tightly compact country such as the United Kingdom, an entirely different debate is needed to reassure the public.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the fact that such extraction will take place on land in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland differentiates it from extraction in the North sea? We must satisfy the public by being much more open about the regulation. Is that not why we need a different approach?
We need to satisfy the public, but the principle remains the same: the best way to deliver the toughest standards is by putting an unlimited obligation on companies to meet them, and by using the best technology and skills available to do so. That has put us in a position where our system is trusted, and people from across the world look at it to understand how well such a system can work. I hope that in this debate and in the wider debate on shale, we can start to differentiate the legitimate concerns about the transportation of liquids, what is injected and water management from the wholly bogus claims that are often made.
I want to make a point about open spaces. We have been through that issue in my constituency; there is a school secure unit a quarter of a mile from the site and residential streets just over half a mile from it. That is not an open space situation. Companies such as the one at Barton Moss can go around and select sites that are grossly unsuitable—right on top of schools and where people live. That should not be allowed.
I hope that those issues are entirely legitimate to raise within the planning process. Those matters should be looked at in that way to decide whether an activity is or is not appropriate, and I believe that the right processes are in place to ensure that that happens.
As the shadow spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield, said, the proposed underground access is not exceptional; it already happens for cables, gas pipelines, tunnels and coal mining. As the debate is taken forward, I hope that we can reassure people that we are not doing something draconian or very different, but simply allowing a change that brings the activity into line with others.
I hope that the Bill can still be amended in one area, however, so that it addresses an issue of gas security at the same time. The focus on the North sea and shale gas highlights our vulnerability on energy security. As a country, we are already dependent on imported gas. Historically, the North sea was our gas-storage capability—when we needed more, we pumped out a bit more—which is why we have never stored the same volumes of gas as the French and the Germans. As we move into a period of dependency on gas imports, we need to look again at gas storage.
That is particularly true in the current climate, with the oil price where it is. The risk from the oil price’s being lower than it was just a few months ago is that the North sea will be harder to sustain in the longer term. It is one of the most expensive basins in the world, and there is therefore a risk that some fields will be closed down earlier. They will be abandoned, and it will not be possible to reopen them. At the same time, a low oil price—the gas linkage comes into that—means that UK shale may, because of its cost, be harder or simply not economic to extract. We therefore need to consider how to preserve our security of supply, which means looking again at gas storage.
We should pay tribute to, and recognise, the tremendous difference made by the liquefied natural gas terminals in the Thames and in south Wales, and the important contribution made by pipeline infrastructure from Norway—Langeled, for example—and what it has brought to this debate. However, looking back at gas issues over the past eight years or so, I think that we came too close for comfort during four winters, overwhelmingly because of factors over which we had no control.
The first time was in 2006, when there was a fire in our main gas storage facility at Rough. In 2009, there was the Russia-Ukraine dispute. Even though we were as far away in Europe as we could have been from those issues, gas was coming in through one interconnector and the same volume was going out through the interconnector next door to meet the demand in continental Europe. Eighteen months ago, the winter before last, we came within a few hours of running out of gas because the winter was so long and cold. We cannot leave the situation to chance. We need to take action now to guarantee our energy security for the future.
I believe fundamentally in market principles and approaches, but the market approach has not delivered the level of new investment that we would wish to see in this area. My right hon. Friend the Minister, who introduced the debate, well knows my views on this matter. We had a discussion a day or so after he took over from me as the Minister of State; I said that the one thing on which I wished we had done more was gas storage. I still hold that view today—perhaps even more strongly.
The hon. Gentleman is being extremely generous in giving way and is making an exceptional speech. Does he agree that the storage issue becomes more vital when one looks at the needs of our heavy energy using industries, some of which use gas as a feedstock? If we are not careful, they will be forced to close down in a bad winter. We have to attack this problem soon.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. The head of the British Ceramic Confederation, Laura Cohen, and a group of its members, who employ thousands of people in this country in important industries, wrote to the Prime Minister last year to highlight just that point. They said that there was much greater volatility in prices for industry in the United Kingdom than elsewhere and that that volatility was unacceptably high. They said that the solution was more gas storage and that a public service obligation on gas storage was required.
My hon. Friend and I have battled on the same side on this issue for a number of years. In fact, I have been battling on this issue for most of the time I have been in this place. Does he, like me, hope that we will hear something more positive from the Government this evening than we have heard to date? The Labour Government and this Government have prevaricated consistently on the issue of storage. We want to hear something definite about it—tonight, hopefully.
I seek, on most issues, to be on the same side as my hon. Friend; we do not always manage that, but we often do. The Government introduced a new market mechanism, which we hoped would introduce more gas storage, but it has delivered only a small amount more. There are projects that have essentially been abandoned for the time being because, if they are to be funded on market principles, there has to be a bigger difference between the summer price and the winter price. That does not exist at the moment in a way that would enable those facilities to go ahead.
The Government have rightly looked at market mechanisms, but my conclusion is that we need to look more fundamentally at what is necessary to move this matter on, especially given the time it takes to build such facilities. It will be five years before a big facility can be brought on stream. Some have planning permission and could start very quickly. Billions of pounds of investment are ready to go into them, but a public service obligation on gas storage is needed to make that happen. I hope that the Government are prepared to look at an amendment along those lines in Committee or on Report. I will happily work with them on that.
In conclusion, we are right to explore market options. Normally, in most winters, that will be enough. However, too much of our energy policy in this area in recent years has depended on luck. We have always been on the right side so far, but one day our luck will run out. Taking steps now, with the support of the energy industry and the major companies that use gas, would be a fitting amendment to a Bill on infrastructure. It would help us to go forward with an even more robust infrastructure in the years ahead.
I draw the attention of the House to my interests as declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and to my non-pecuniary interests as a trustee of the Town and Country Planning Association. I was pleased to listen to the speech by the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry). He made a number of very important points. I hope he will forgive me for not following on directly from what he has said, but I will refer to him later in my speech.
This is a very diverse Bill that covers a very wide range of issues, but I want to focus on specific issues in part 4. It is not just a disparate Bill with a huge range of clauses; it will also have different impacts in different parts of the United Kingdom. We have been debating devolution quite a lot recently and a number of Members have advocated the case for MPs not being able to vote on measures that are devolved for local decision in the areas they represent. That is an issue we need to think about in relation to the provisions in the Bill. The explanatory notes give a pretty good feel on this matter:
“The provisions in Part 1 extend to England and Wales only, save that clauses 14 and 16 to 18 extend to the United Kingdom…In Part 2, clause 19(1) extends to England and Wales only and clause 19(2) extends to England, Wales and Scotland…The provisions in Part 3 extend to England and Wales only. The provisions in Part 4 relating to nationally significant infrastructure projects under the Planning Act 2008 extend to England and Wales and (in relation to certain oil and gas cross-border pipelines) Scotland.”
And so on. However, if we look at the Bill in detail, we can see that in clause 27 the provisions relating to the Homes and Communities Agency apply to England outside London, and that there are separate provisions relating to the Greater London authority in the London area. I therefore have to put it to Members who advocate voting rights being restricted to Members who do not represent an area with a separate devolved authority taking decisions, that I would like to hear how they propose the House should consider the provisions in the Bill and which particular sections would be open to voting by Members from different parts of the country, whether they come from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, London or the rest of England, because parts of the Bill relate only to each of the areas I describe.
I intend to restrict my comments to part 4, which itself contains diverse provisions, not because the other parts are not important but because there is simply not time to do justice to them all. Clauses 23 to 25 relate to the planning regime for nationally significant infrastructure projects. There are some modest amendments to improve procedures. I personally have no objection to them, as I believe they are helpful. I merely reflect that when the Planning Act 2008, which introduced the nationally significant infrastructure planning regime, was debated in the House, the present Government were extremely critical of it. I am glad that they have now decided that this initiative, introduced by the previous Government, is worth while, and that they are supporting it and taking it forward.
Clause 26, however, raises an altogether more problematic issue to which I have already alluded. It allows the Secretary of State to pass regulations by statutory instrument that would allow specific planning conditions to be deemed to be discharged if a period of time elapsed without the planning authority having reached a decision. I accept entirely that delays in discharging conditions can prove highly problematic and burdensome for developers, and I am not arguing against sensible measures to accelerate the discharge of planning conditions. However, the clause is a blunt instrument and could well result in measures being arbitrarily prevented from mitigating the serious adverse impacts of developments on local communities. In its briefing, the Town and Country Planning Association says that the Department for Communities and Local Government technical consultation on planning
“reflects this dilemma by recognising classes of condition whose function is too important to be subject of any deemed discharged. The question must be whether any NPPF compliant condition can be regarded as so trivial as to have no impact on the wider community.”
I put that question to the Minister earlier, and I was pleased he agreed to reflect on it.
The TCPA continues:
“Paragraph 206 of the NPPF states that ‘planning conditions should only be imposed where they are necessary, relevant to planning and to the development to be permitted, enforceable, precise and reasonable in all other respects’. The tests of necessary, relevant and reasonable provide a strong framework and logically imply that there should not be a body of conditions which are in some way frivolous or unimportant.”
That is a telling point on which I look forward to hearing the Minister’s view when he has had a chance to reflect on it, because it concerns a very significant issue. Ministers used to be vocal in their support for the principle of localism—of allowing local communities the power to promote their interests and reject proposals that damage the amenity or well-being of the area or its residents. I hope, therefore, that when they have had a chance to reflect, they will assure us that no planning condition relating to the material amenity of residents or the wider community will be subject to the deemed discharge provision.
One planning issue that surprisingly is absent from the Bill is an updating and clarification of the remit and role of the new town development corporations, which were established in the 1940s and played a key role in developing the substantial number of new settlements subsequently created in our country. Now that the Government have given their approval to the creation of a new generation of garden cities and have agreed that a development corporation is the appropriate vehicle to promote the projected new settlement at Ebbsfleet, it is time for a new statement of the purposes of new town development corporations.
Simply seeking to apply the urban development corporation model, which was devised for different circumstances and with no clear statement of its social and environmental objectives, is not adequate. In the other place, the concept of a new definition of the role and purposes of a new town development corporation was considered, and I hope that if the Bill is examined in detail in Committee, an appropriate new clause can be introduced to achieve this. The TCPA has undertaken substantial work in drafting an appropriate statement of the purposes and objectives of the new town development corporations, and I hope this can provide the basis for an improvement to the Bill.
The third weakness in part 4 that I would like to highlight relates to the low and zero-carbon agenda—another area in which the last Government made important advances. The ratcheting up of the energy requirements in part L of the building regulations, the creation of the route map to zero-carbon housing through the code for sustainable homes, the establishment of the zero-carbon hub and the setting of a target for reaching zero carbon in new homes by 2016 were all significant initiatives that have had a very positive impact. Our new homes now achieve much higher standards of energy performances than they did a decade or two ago.
I have first-hand experience of that. I live in a new home built in Greenwich millennium village, which was designed to be an exemplary development. It was pioneered by the last Government and set high energy efficiency standards. My flat is now eight years old, so it is not at the cutting edge of new energy performance, but last winter I did not need to have the heating on at all, so good is its energy performance. The hon. Member for Wealden referred to the previous winter, focusing rightly on the issue of energy supply, and said it was a very cold winter. In that very cold winter, I needed just 42 hours of heating.
My argument is this: just as important as energy supply —I entirely accept the emphasis of the hon. Member for Wealden on it—is energy efficiency to ensure that we are not wasting energy unnecessarily and that people have the benefits of warm sustainable homes in which they can afford to keep warm through winter. That is the great benefit of the whole low and zero-carbon programme. It is not just about helping to achieve our carbon reduction targets, but about improving people’s quality of life so that they live in better, warmer and more economically maintained homes.
That is why I find it very disappointing to see yet further evidence in the Bill of the Government backtracking from their previous position and indeed their predecessor’s ambitions—first by resiling from the previous ambition to meet code level 6 by 2016; then by watering down the standards to be met on site, even before offsite allowable solutions are invoked; and now by exempting small sites entirely from the obligations.
The UK Green Building Council had some fairly pithy comments to make:
“We see no reason why a development of 10 units should be treated differently from one of 11. Creating a disparity between the treatment of different sites opens up the possibility of unforeseen and undesirable outcomes, and possibly exploitation, where larger sites are broken down to qualify for the exemption.”
I wholeheartedly agree. It is very much the case that we should put the emphasis on helping small builders to meet the more demanding standards of high-energy performance homes rather than on providing exemptions not to meet those standards.
The right hon. Gentleman and I have had opportunities to disagree about things, but on this matter I wholeheartedly agree with him. Does he agree that there is no benefit—either to builders or the users of the buildings, let alone to the Government—in backtracking in any way whatever on the recommendations of the zero-carbon hub?
I could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman, and I hope he can exercise some influence on his coalition partners.
Amid the many mixed metaphors and rhetorical flourishes that characterised the speech of the Minister who introduced the Bill, perhaps the most telling was his characterisation of the Government’s vision of infrastructure as “looking through a kaleidoscope”. I think he meant to imply a colourful view of the world. That would certainly be in keeping with his character, and I am sorry that he is not in his place to hear these remarks. If the Minister and his colleagues thought about it for a moment, however, they would appreciate that the view through a kaleidoscope is one of fragmentation, in which clarity and order are shattered into thousands of disjointed pieces.
There could be no better metaphor for this Bill—a veritable tessellated pavement of ill-assorted measures, some of which may have beneficial consequences, many of which will not. The sum total will not add up to the comprehensive framework for infrastructure development, as advocated in the Armitt report, which is so clearly needed in Britain. This is a wasted opportunity to provide a coherent, long-term commitment to infrastructure in the UK. I wholly endorse the critique presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) from the Front Bench: this Bill fails to meet our country’s infrastructure requirements.
Unlike the last speaker and the official Opposition, I welcome the Bill and its focus on the importance of speeding up infrastructure delivery. I would like to speak to three aspects of the Bill: part 1 on highways, part 4 on planning and part 5 on the proposals for fracking. I shall also identify one other aspect of infrastructure provision that I think is missing from the proposals and needs to be addressed.
On highways, it has been a huge step forward that the Government announced a roads investment programme for our strategic roads network. The time period for the programme is defined and the Government are providing the resources for it. I disagree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) who implied that the local roads network was somehow more important than this and was being neglected. In fact, in my constituency in West Sussex, it is the strategic road network that has been in need of significant investment, and the failure to provide it over past decades has put great pressure on our local roads network as traffic is forced up through the rural network, including through beautiful parts of my constituency in the South Downs national park. That causes environmental damage.
Up until now, proposals to deal with this problem, particularly relating to the A27, which is a major coastal route, have either not been developed, have been developed piecemeal or have been cancelled when they were initially taken forward. That is what happened in respect of the Arundel bypass, which was cancelled by the last Labour Government. I thus strongly welcome the Government’s major investment in roads, including a £350 million investment in the A27 and an Arundel bypass. It is precisely this kind of long-term vision for national infrastructure that will help to generate the necessary prosperity. If the creation of Highways England will assist in delivering that long-term vision and some accountability to ensure that these roads are built to time, it is welcome.
I agree with what the roads Minister said about the importance of aesthetics. I have already mentioned the fact that my constituency of Arundel and South Downs is a very beautiful one. The proposed Arundel bypass would run at the bottom of the national park across the Arun valley and through a very small piece of the national park if it is to take the preferred route, which achieved a great deal of local consensus when last proposed. I believe there is a powerful environmental argument for this bypass, but the design of this road and of a bridge across the River Arun would do a great deal to mitigate any concerns about the impact of the road on the aesthetics and beauty of the local area.
The French have done this very well in the past in the provision of some of its national infrastructure. We could think of notoriously stunning bridges that have been built in France such as the Millau viaduct over the River Tarn. That is a stunning piece of work by a British architect, and many would argue that it adds to the beauty of the area and does not detract from it. We should seek to achieve the same thing in the design of our roads infrastructure in the same way as the Victorians impressed us with their design of rail infrastructure—Brunel’s bridges, for example. In doing so, we would win much more public support for our roads proposals.
My second topic relates to planning. I agree about the importance of speeding up the provision of nationally needed infrastructure, but as a Government we also promised that we would deliver localism to communities. In fact, local communities are very concerned when planning permissions are given that local infrastructure should be sufficient to meet the needs of the new development. Too often in my constituency, the development of houses has not been matched with sufficient provision for schools, local roads or even basic things such as sewerage provision. This has resulted in placing great pressure on local infrastructure, and it undermines support for local developments.
The Government announced new guidance last year—I was grateful for it—that emphasised the importance of planning authorities ensuring suitable infrastructure provision before housing is delivered. It is important to enforce that guidance if we are to continue to build houses on a sustainable basis. In that respect, the provision of localism through the Localism Act 2011 was important in giving communities control through local plans and neighbourhood planning. Where that has worked well, with the early adoption of neighbourhood plans in my constituency, for example, it has commanded strong local support and even built support for development that would otherwise have been absent.
That process, however, can be undermined when speculative planning applications are granted by local authorities or overturned on appeal by the national planning inspectorate. The consequence is that development that would not have been permitted in the emerging neighbourhood plans or the local plans can be insisted on by that inspectorate, which I think can gravely undermine the localism we promised.
My constituents are very excited about the idea of localism—local decisions made by democratically elected councils—but does my right hon. Friend agree that there is not much localism in action when a distant planning inspector is allowed to ride roughshod over local decision making?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and I share his concern. While all four of the district councils in my constituency are preparing responsible plans for the delivery of substantial numbers of houses, speculative applications are being made by developers who are circling villages like hawks. They want to get in quickly and secure planning permission that would otherwise not be given under the local plans but is being allowed in this instance because the planning inspector is taking a view of the provisions for five-year land supply that is excessive and unrealisable.
The inspectorate has just examined Horsham district council’s plan. It makes substantial provision for housing in the area to meet local need, but the five-year land supply provision presumes that building could take place at a rate that has never been achieved by the local authority and never could be, because it does not take account of the fact that developers did not build using the existing permissions that were given by the local authority in the years of the economic downturn. The five-year land supply provision is resulting in the allowing of developments in villages in my constituency that will damage the villages and erode green space between them that should be maintained, and runs against what local people seek in their neighbourhood and local plans.
If we are to deliver the localism that we promised, it is important for top-down intervention by the planning inspector to be prevented. After all, in our Conservative party manifesto we made this pledge:
“To give communities greater control over planning, we will…abolish the power of planning inspectors to rewrite local plans”.
If we believe in localism—if we want to put power and responsibility in the hands of localities through neighbourhood and local plans, which is already proving very successful, and which does not produce fewer houses but produces them by consent in the places where people want them—we should not allow a body that is based in Bristol to come in and effectively rewrite those plans, because that undermines the localism that we promised.
I suspect that there is something in what my hon. Friend says, and that the purpose of pursuing a tough approach is to ensure that local authorities produce their plans as swiftly as possible. The four district councils in my constituency are proceeding as fast as they can, making very difficult and sometimes controversial decisions about where development should take place. Villages in the constituency are beginning to write neighbourhood plans which require a great deal of local effort from volunteers, which are complex, and which take time. It is unfair to penalise bodies that are making responsible decisions by allowing speculative applications that harm the process of building consent.
Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that the Secretary of State and the Government changed the system when they issued national planning guidelines last year? As a result, 95% of local plans have not been adopted by the planning inspector, who works on behalf of the Secretary of State. What the right hon. Gentleman is moaning about is Government policy which is intended to force through more housing more quickly.
Opposition Members are calling for much more local housing as well. What we are discussing is the right way to deliver that. I am arguing that localism, if properly delivered, will empower local communities to make responsible decisions, and will produce the housing that is necessary. I do not believe that the planning inspector’s intervention will help to bring about consensus, or will produce the houses that are needed. I urge the Government to keep faith with the localism that they promised, to continue to back the development of local plans, and not to allow the inspectorate to make heavy-handed decisions that can undermine it.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his generosity in giving way. Will he be opposing localism this evening by voting in favour of a Bill that limits the rights of local people in respect of shale gas exploration, and takes away their rights to the expression and acceptance of their views?
I shall deal with precisely that issue in a second. Let me say first, however, that if the Bill is given a Second Reading, I shall table amendments to restrict the power of the planning inspectorate to rewrite local plans, as we pledged to do, and, indeed, to abolish the inspectorate so that we can have a proper discussion about how localism should be delivered.
I, too, thank the right hon. Gentleman for his generosity. Are councillors in his constituency starting to feel that developers see no need to obtain local permission for any new development because they know that the planning inspector will overrule any decision made by the councillors?
Local authorities are clearly nervous. They fear that if they do not give planning permission in response to a speculative application—although their plans are in the process of being developed—if that is overturned by the planning inspector, costs will be awarded against them. They feel that there is no equality in the process.
I do not resile from the importance of providing a great deal more housing, because it is clearly needed. The issue is how that can best be provided. I think that the early adoption of neighbourhood plans by consent shows that, given power and responsibility, communities provide the necessary housing, while top-down intervention of the kind that Government Members have always criticised can undermine that provision.
The third issue that I want to raise relates to the proposals in part 5 of the Bill to provide access to subterranean land for the purpose of fracking. This is a live issue in my constituency. An application to drill in an area of beautiful countryside that is very close to a national park was turned down by West Sussex county council, but is the subject of an appeal by the company involved.
Two sets of issues related to fracking concern local communities, and I think that we should try to separate them. First, there are the environmental concerns about the impact of the activity that takes place below ground. As many Members on both sides of the House have said, those concerns need to be addressed by means of proper regulation and controls, and we should discuss the importance of ensuring that they are adequate.
Secondly, there are the issues that relate to what happens on the surface, and the choice of sites for drilling. In my constituency, the choice of sites has been crucial. Opposition to the drilling does not just come from communities who are concerned about the environmental impact below the ground. Rural communities fear that they will experience significant lorry movements through their villages—which they would not otherwise have experienced —over an extended period. Wise site location which minimises disruption to communities on the surface is a second way in which the industry could address much of the concern about these proposals.
We now have a specific proposal in this legislation on trespass, which seeks to deal with the land ownership issues. That comes against the background of great concern about the activity. It is true that members of the public have largely misheard the proposals so far. In my constituency, I fear that many people believe that the proposals will license invasion on the surface of their land by those who wish to drill, without them giving permission and without any of the regulatory controls which exist. The Government must continue to reassure local people that in fact these proposals relate to deep subterranean activity and do not change any of the requirements for permission to be given by a landowner as to whether they want drilling on their land, nor any of the regulatory requirements.
I will give way in a moment
On the specific proposal for subterranean drilling, there is a question mark over the way in which compensation is to be given to landowners via some kind of community fund, and one of the issues that needs to be explored is whether the compensation should go directly to the landowners who are affected. I think that might be a better way to ensure there is confidence in this procedure. It has been proposed not only by the Country Land and Business Association but by one oil company, INEOS. I hope the Government will consider that proposal carefully as a means to ensure that communities and individuals are properly compensated for these activities.
I have been generous in giving way to a number of hon. Members.
There is one aspect of infrastructure provision that I do not believe is covered in this Bill but which I believe merits serious consideration, and that is broadband infrastructure. This is essential if we are to ensure continuing economic growth and is equally essential in rural areas. There will need to be further discussion of how we can close the digital divide that is in danger of opening up in rural areas that do not have access to superfast broadband. There are encouraging plans by the Government in co-operation with local authorities to deliver superfast broadband by 2017, but they still leave a gap. It sounds small, as it is intended that only about 5% of the population will have broadband access but not superfast, but in rural areas it becomes quite a big gap. This is a question for another day, but there must be a plan to close that gap and ensure that all parts of the country have access to superfast broadband in future.
Order. The right hon. Gentleman was indeed generous in giving way—I make no criticism of him whatsoever; he was perfectly in order in his speech—but Members will be aware that many colleagues are seeking to catch my eye and a limited, although generous, amount of time is available. I am not going to put a strict time limit on speeches at this stage, but if everyone who wishes to speak takes approximately 10 minutes out of courtesy for everyone else who wishes to speak, then everybody will have the same opportunity. We will see how it works.
The longer this debate goes on, the more interesting it gets. The contributions so far demonstrate to me that the Infrastructure Bill should be the means whereby we balance economic development with environmental and social responsibilities. We should be working out how to align the required long-term planning for the infrastructure needs of this country with what is coming out of the sustainable development goals, which this country, as well as others elsewhere, will have to adopt. The more contributions we have had, the more we realise that there are live issues, and that this has not been thought through. However much of a “kaleidoscope” this Bill might be, it does not provide the means of reconciling and balancing these different issues. It will be interesting to see to what extent the Secretary of State for Transport, who is not in his place, takes on board the genuine concerns that have been raised, and I would like to mention some of them briefly.
I did not agree with what the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) said about regulation, and I will come to that later, but I did agree with his comments on gas storage. This is an issue that I and other Members of Parliament representing north Staffordshire and the potteries have raised, including with the previous Minister at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon). We have repeatedly raised issues about gas storage, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I am sure there would be support for seeing how we can get this addressed. It certainly has long been on the agenda of the British Ceramic Confederation, of which Laura Cohen is chief executive, and it could easily be addressed, if there is a political will to do so, through this Bill. The extractive industries are also an issue.
Other matters relate to the work of the Environmental Audit Committee. Only today we launched a report on air quality and, in terms of investment in new roads, we clearly need to be looking at design and engineering, and we must take sustainable transport into account. We heard about the importance of cycling and walking and making sure, through the planning regime and the national planning policy framework, that new developments go where they need to be. This Bill does not allow the planning considerations to sit side by side with the long-term economic investment decisions that need to be taken. For that reason, I am pleased to be voting for the Labour reasoned amendment.
On road investment, I genuinely hope that throughout the Committee stage the Secretary of State for Transport will be looking at what will happen with the new successor body to the Highways Agency. It is critical that it takes on board regulation and environmental considerations, especially in the light of representations from the Woodland Trust, which is very concerned about ancient woodlands. I am sure that is a concern in constituencies all around the country, and we have not got assurances that these areas can be properly protected. We would be a little more confident if the Government could tell us when they are going to bring forward legislation for the public forest estate. In the absence of that, it is difficult to see how we are going to apply these higher standards to such areas of exceptional beauty.
I made an intervention on the Minister about zero-carbon homes, and I am sure many of my hon. Friends will refer to that later. Why have the Government decided that the right balance is to have higher standards for a development of over 11 properties and lower standards for developments of 10 or under? That is completely wrong and there is no logic to it. I say to the Minister that the Government have got this wrong and there is an opportunity to see whether amendments could be brought forward to deal with that.
I want to focus on clauses 38 to 43, which will, if passed, change trespass law to allow companies to frack under homes without notifying the landowner. This move comes at a time when there are a number of very significant unanswered questions about the impact of fracking which have not been addressed by the Government. Broadly, these relate to climate change and the current—inadequate—regulatory framework.
We know that we do not need new fossil fuels; far from it, because in order to avoid a rise of more than 2° C from climate change, only one fifth of existing global fossil fuel reserves, not including UK shale gas, can be burned. Talks are going on in Lima but Government Whips are apparently preventing our energy Minister from going out there to take part in those important discussions.
Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, recently told a World Bank seminar that the “vast majority” of fossil fuel reserves should be considered “unburnable”. Those remarks were made in the context of the benefits of integrated reporting and highlighting the costs and benefits of tomorrow to inform the investments and credit decisions of today. That information has been shared with the Environmental Audit Committee by the Governor of the Bank of England.
BP has stated:
“We agree that burning all known reserves would probably cause global temperatures to rise by more than 2°C—and that addressing this issue will require the efforts of governments, industry and individuals.”
Shell, Barack Obama and the International Energy Agency have made similar statements. It is therefore unclear why the Government are giving huge incentives to, and deregulating, a new fossil fuel industry that will either add to the stock of unburnable carbon or threaten climate change targets. The former chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Professor David Mackay, wrote last year that without a global climate deal,
“new fossil fuel exploitation is likely to lead to an increase in cumulative GHG”—
“emissions and the risk of climate change.”
So why are the Government doing this?
We often hear claims that shale gas is low carbon because it will replace coal. Indeed, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that the only way in which shale gas could reduce emissions is by replacing coal. However, the best industry estimates state that shale gas will not be online until the 2020s. Meanwhile, the Committee on Climate Change has told us that coal must be offline by the 2020s. So by the time a shale gas industry is up and running in constituencies all around the country, there should be no coal to replace it. However, the International Energy Agency has warned that instead, shale gas
“could muscle out low-carbon fuels such as renewables”.
The time scale just does not add up.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that shale gas needs to replace coal, but that condition will not be met. It also states that methane leakage from shale gas wells must be “low”. However, there is a growing body of evidence to show that those emissions are not low. In fact, new reports have shown that methane leakage occurs during parts of the process that were not previously thought to be problematic. The IPCC recently revised upwards the global warming potential of methane, which, over a 20-year time frame, is 108 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. We therefore risk significantly increasing emissions at exactly the time when they should be rapidly reduced. So, given that fracking will add to unburnable carbon and that it will not meet the two key recommendations from the IPCC on coal and methane, the claims that shale gas can reduce emissions do not stand up to scrutiny.
Clauses 38 to 43 represent a lurch towards the further deregulation of fracking. We heard a lot about regulation from the hon. Member for Wealden. If passed, the clauses would give unprecedented rights of use to fracking companies. This would include activities that had not been assessed for their environmental safety, such as the keeping of substances or infrastructure within the land, with no limits on what could be kept or for how long. It is also worth noting, especially as we come up to the general election, that this change in the law is highly unpopular, with 99% of consultation respondents—and 74% of people more generally—opposing the change. Why have the Government decided to proceed when the outcome of the consultation was so stark? I do not believe that they should be doing so, given the response to the consultation.
It is also extremely worrying that the Government are pressing ahead with further deregulation when the evidence points to the need for a stronger, not weaker, regulatory framework. In last week’s autumn statement, the Government announced a new fund to reassure the public on fracking regulations. I believe that the public would be more reassured if the Government took steps to fill the gaps in the regulatory framework. Let us be clear: the evidence exists to show that fracking regulation is not fit for purpose. The often-quoted Public Health England report states that fracking could be safe if the regulatory framework were stringent. However, in the last two years, little progress has been made towards meeting the Royal Society’s recommendations on regulation.
It is not yet known whether fracking can be done safely. As highlighted by the United Nations environment programme, fracking could result in unavoidable environmental and health impacts if extracted properly, and more so if done inadequately. Other countries, such as Bulgaria and France, have introduced moratoriums. We should also take a precautionary approach in the UK. I am proud to be a lifelong member of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, which advocated in a recent report that we should adopt such a precautionary approach, and that a
“comprehensive research programme should be commissioned for the UK”.
The report goes on to state that the Government’s plans should go ahead only
“if/when there is a satisfactory evidence base that suggests operations could safely commence without causing unacceptable adverse environmental, economic, public health or wider social impacts”
and that a
“full, independent environmental impact assessment should be a prerequisite to any initial exploratory operations commencing.”
It also advocates, as I did in our debate on the Water Bill before it became law, that
“Full land remediation must be a non-negotiable condition of any such approvals.”
To conclude, the risks from fracking are high and there are a number of significant questions that the Government need to answer before storming ahead with fracking in the UK. The risks are too high for them to proceed without addressing the big ifs. One thing is certain: if we had this level of political support behind energy efficiency, it would do much more to bring down fuel bills, create jobs right across the UK and reduce dependence on imported gas. However, the Government have overseen a collapse in energy efficiency installations. Instead of smoothing the path for an untested and risky new fossil fuel industry, they should be making energy efficiency an infrastructure priority in the Bill. I would like the Bill not to receive a Second Reading until those concerns had been addressed, but I hope that there will be an opportunity for a real debate on the issues in Committee.
I hope that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) will forgive me if I do not pursue the points that she has raised, because I want to concentrate on part 4 of the Bill. It is an important Bill and, overall, one that I welcome; I shall be supporting it tonight. I shall concentrate on planning and related matters.
My first point relates to the arrangements for national infrastructure policy. I welcome the changes, which represent a logical development from what is currently in place and fit logically with the work that has already been done on the national planning policy framework. I should like to make a few observations. I have taken an interest in this area, both when I was a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government and subsequently. Professionals to whom I have spoken, including representatives of the National Infrastructure Planning Association and of the Compulsory Purchase Association, welcome the steps that the Government are taking in the Bill.
It is worth noting that development consent orders are a key element of the process, and it is valuable to tighten up the way in which they operate. There is a feeling, however, that we should be prepared to go still further in due course. I am not suggesting that that should be done in this Bill, but I hope that Ministers will bear in mind that, helpful though these changes are, there is a strong feeling among many professionals in the sector that they will not be a substitute for a comprehensive review of the operation of our compulsory purchase and land compensation legislation and its associated case law, and that such a review should be undertaken before too long.
Some of the legislation is fairly elderly by now and I hope that in the next Parliament we will take a comprehensive look at the way in which land compensation works. My right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) pointed out that other jurisdictions, such as France, deal with major infrastructure projects partly through quality of design and partly through much swifter and sometimes more generous land compensation arrangements when compulsory acquisitions are required. We may need to consider that in this country.
Clause 26 deals with planning conditions and deemed consents, which we discussed when I was a Minister. On balance, I support the proposed changes, which are necessary. It is worth taking a step back and remembering that planning conditions are an important part of the system. They are imposed essentially to make what might otherwise be unacceptable development acceptable, so they have a legitimate and proper role. The issue that arises here is not the legitimacy of the role, but the efficiency thereafter. There is a genuine issue that needs to be addressed.
Concern was flagged up as long ago as the Killian Pretty review of 2008 that one of the worst causes of delay is the post-consent process. There will come a time when conditions either have been complied with or are no longer necessary for various reasons and ought to be discharged. There is no reason, therefore, why speeding up the discharge of conditions should be a problem in terms of the principle of planning law. We need to make the process more efficient. Killian Pretty was clear about the problems that remained, and my right hon. Friend the Minister, in introducing the Bill, highlighted the fact that that remains a difficulty.
As well as looking at deemed consents imposed by the planning authority, we should pay particular attention to the situation where the planning authority has imposed a condition at the behest of a statutory consultee. It is sometimes difficult for planning authorities themselves, who may be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea—the legitimate desire of a developer to get on with important development. There are all too often delays by the statutory consultees in responding to the inquiries made of them. Part 1 happens to deal, in a different context, with one statutory consultee, but frequently the Highways Agency and the Environment Agency have been among the worst offenders in this regard, and local authorities are in a difficult position.
As well as doing what the Government are doing, which I support, I hope we might consider going further and deal with a situation where, in relation to applications, discharge of conditions and potentially also appeals, a statutory consultee fails to respond by the time limit. In such a case, why should there not be a provision deeming that the statutory consultee has no objection to the proposal involved? Such deemed assent by the statutory consultee would speed up the process and remove a pressure from the local planning authority that it cannot otherwise effectively control. Another mechanism that might be considered is some cost penalty against statutory consultees that delay the process.
During my time as Minister for the Thames gateway, I was repeatedly frustrated by the delay in getting decisions out of the Highways Authority about important aspects such as removing the tolling booths at the Dartford tunnel, when we were using technology that any Londoner had known about for many years, or the necessary improvements on the A13 between the DP World site, a nationally significant infrastructure site, and the Dartford crossing. I hope that whatever new arrangements we have for the highways company, as it is now to be, there will be a greater sense of the commercial imperative to speed up decisions.
I remember one important housing site, which everybody agreed was the right site for housing; an otherwise properly prepared and robust local plan by the planning authority for the area was suddenly thrown into disarray at the very last minute by the Environment Agency’s raising an issue about habitats, which ought to have been foreseen much earlier in the process. We need to put more pressure on statutory consultees not only to do their duty, but to do it properly and efficiently. I hope we might be able to strengthen the provisions of that part of the Bill.
I turn to two more technical areas, which are important. The first relates to easements, which I racked my brains about when doing planning law, but I eventually got to the bottom of it. These are particularly important in the context of London, so I speak now as a London Member of Parliament. Clause 28 makes changes to easements affecting land. The changes are good as far as they go. A particular problem arises in London, and I draw it to Ministers’ attention in the hope that we can address it in Committee. We all know that it is important that easements run with the land; that is a fundamental concept. I refer to the overriding powers of the Greater London authority, the Homes and Communities Agency and now mayoral development corporations, which I hope we may see replicated with joint authorities outside London. Allowing these bodies to benefit their successors in title will be hugely important for unblocking development, as is already the case in the capital.
Developers and specialist lawyers in the field have significant concerns that the law threatens development sites. That was an omission from the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008, which clause 28 is designed to tackle—and it does so, up to a point. However, it is not retrospective. Usually I am not a fan of retrospective legislation, but in London we have a specific issue. Some key development land, in particular land in the docklands area, was transferred from the London Development Agency in 2012. A lot of land around the Olympic park, the lower Lea valley, was part of the land for debt swap that some right hon. and hon. Members will remember.
As the Bill is drafted, that will not be covered so there will not be the legal certainty that successors in title will benefit when the land is sold on down the development chain. I hope the Minister will look specifically at the Mayor of London’s request that the Government delete subsections (11) and (12) of clause 28. That will enable it to operate retrospectively in relation to those areas of development land in London that had already been transferred, before the Bill becomes operative. It is a technical matter but a very important one, because it affects some of the most significant housing and commercial development land in our growing capital.
The final technical area to which I shall refer relates to clause 32 and the allowable solutions arrangements for offsite carbon abatement measures. Clause 32 is a sensible clause and very useful, as far as it goes. The principle of allowable solutions is a fair one because not every site will permit a mitigation measure onsite, so a degree of flexibility is sensible. However, there is an issue in relation to the geography. Again, it applies particularly to a large strategic planning authority, such as London. Unless there are some additional protections from London’s point of view, the Mayor of London and the Greater London authority are concerned that the scheme could see investment draining out of London, because it would be cheaper for developers to provide their offsite alternative solutions in areas of lower land value—in other words, outside the capital, rather than within it.
I shall give way in a moment, when I have developed the point.
It is important that there is some means of making sure that the investment is captured within the capital. There is some evidence to support that. Unintended consequences have occurred under the energy companies obligation scheme, so that the capital has received proportionately less in funding than it should receive. For example, about 13% of the national share of housing is in the capital but in the first year of the ECO scheme London received only 6.4% of the spending. That system, once in place, could generate about £90 million per annum, so it is important that London gets a fair share of it.
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman resumes his comments, may I say that it was pointed out by the Chair some time ago that 18 Members are still to speak and 10 minutes each would get us comfortably to the wind-ups? It seems that Members are ignoring the request for 10 minutes, which means that other colleagues will have their speeches curtailed. May I ask again that Members behave in a collegiate way, at least for today, and allow all their colleagues to speak in the debate? Mr Neill, you might like to look at the clock and see that you have been speaking for 12 minutes.
I had almost finished, Madam Deputy Speaker. I simply observe, out of courtesy, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) makes a fair point. Most of us would always prefer that the mitigation should take place on site, but where I slightly differ is in my view that there will be sites where that is not possible, and so the Government are right to introduce the flexibility.
In large planning areas—we have them in Greater London and we may be seeing them develop with the growth of joint authorities, which may take on more strategic planning powers elsewhere—it may be sensible for us to reflect on a means through which more of the investment can be captured within the local authority planning area, so as to give those communities an incentive to take on board the low-energy development that we want.
This Infrastructure Bill is perhaps best described as infrastructure bits and pieces; it contains little on the infrastructure of the country and what we need for the next 50 or 100 years. It contains nothing on broadband and airports—nothing even on gas access, despite the fact that the very villages that do not have access to gas are the ones nearest the potential shale gas sites. The Bill contains nothing on cycleways. I am not a cyclist, but it is palpable that over the next couple of decades we are going to need bespoke cycleways separate from roads such as the A60, which goes through Bassetlaw, to allow people to cycle. The planning process needs to be skewed to incentivise that and make it happen sooner rather than later.
The Bill contains nothing on green energy, for which there are not only environmental arguments but a fundamental economic argument: we will lose a competitive advantage if other countries have large amounts of green energy and we have little, both in terms of our national accounts and our industry.
No, I will not give way just now.
The Bill contains nothing on energy efficiency. Again, the current capital level and its efficiency into the future is fundamental to how we define infrastructure. The Bill does contain things on housing, but not all the right things. The local development frameworks, the localism and the neighbourhood development planning ought to be causing such mutiny on the Government Benches. Middle England is revolting over the issue and Bassetlaw is having an uprising, because 95% of local plans have either been aborted or rejected in the past year.
Virtually no local development frameworks are in place, because the Government changed the guidelines last year so all the housing targets, forced on councils previously, have had to be scrapped, with each council now having to consult its neighbouring authorities. Virtually no council has done that, so every council—having prepared for two or three years, with huge amounts of consultation, including a vast amount in Bassetlaw, to determine where the housing the Government are forcing on us needs to go—has to start the entire process again because it has not consulted the neighbouring authorities. That is the case across almost all the country and it is an absolute farce.
Let me deal with the concept that we all need more housing regardless. The Government inspector has been cited, but the Government inspector is the Secretary of State, instructed on the basis of Government policy. It is this coalition Government who are forcing housing on areas that do not want it. When we have developed our neighbourhood development plans in my area, people say, “Well, we will accept a bit of housing here. This bit of land is wasted and we could do with a bit of housing there.” When local people are in control they will rationally allow their areas to develop in ways that they want and which are popular.
Instead, what we get is, as in Retford recently, everybody, including the council, saying that we do not need housing outside the area of the town, but the Government saying, “You’ve got to have it.” If the council does not vote it through, the developer will win on appeal, citing Government policy, and the council has to pay £300,000 a pop in costs. Councils across the country, particularly Tory ones, are dealing with this problem day in, day out. That is total nonsense. Whether by backing amendments from the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) or by framing better ones myself, I will ensure that there are amendments allowing an approach that gives local people control over the planning system on housing.
The approach should allow us to define the kinds of housing. In my area, we could have 500 or 1,000 bungalows —some for rent, perhaps council bungalows, and some for sale, rather than five-bedroom, six-bedroom or seven-bedroom houses that nobody wants locally. That approach might be popular, but it is not popular with the developers. I hope this coalition understand that it is going to lose a lot of votes if it does not listen to me on this.
The second issue I wish to cover in the short time available is fracking and shale gas. I am not an extremist. I have a simple view, which I have put out there to the public: there should be nothing within 2 km of a settlement. There is enough land; those who are speculating for shale gas are saying that pretty much the whole of England can be covered, so it does not need to happen near any of the villages, hamlets or conurbations in my area, thank you very much. The public agree with that, and it would be a nice little amendment to slip in, although it does not satisfy those who say shale gas is bad.
We have another problem with fracking in my area: our water comes from the aquifer. People think, “This is a problem”—even the industry says it is a problem, pointing to the regulations, safety and its competence in dealing with the problem. We do not want the aquifer damaged in any way. So, again, we must let local people decide. By all means throw bribes at people in my area, because the bribes ought to go to the local community, not to landowners. As I have said, if there is a bribe it should be in the form of the green retrofitting of schools, churches and community buildings. If there is a bribe to be thrown in and the community wants to vote for it, that is fine; I do not have a problem with that. But if my communities say that they do not want any fracking—they do not want any shale gas or coalbed methane to be taken from a certain area and that it should be done somewhere else, we should have the right to make that decision.
The Government said they were in favour of localism, but on housing developments the opposite has been the case, as they have stabbed their own MPs and councillors in the back—all of them know it. It is the same with shale gas. We should allow local people to decide, but ensure that they cannot decide something that is going to damage aquifers or any other part of the infrastructure that affects everything else, which is why amendments relating to water will be important in the Bill.
Let us give local people the say rather than have the man from the Ministry—the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government—giving the instruction and saying, “Here’s what will happen.” Then we can deliver infrastructure in a way that is popular. That might save the Government the election, but they will be too stupid to do it. Labour should vote for such a move, because the people would like it.
I will be brief, because I am meant to be in the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Bill Committee—I am sure that everyone here wishes that they were in there with me.
I welcome many of the provisions of the Infrastructure Bill, but I will focus mainly on those issues pertaining to transport, as that is the brief my party colleagues, in their wisdom, have given me.
The road network is vital to the economic sustainability of the UK, yet many Governments over many years have under-invested in it. We need a road network that is fit for the 21st century and consistent with broader economic, environmental and safety goals. It needs to be fit for the environment as much as for the economy. By reducing congestion, any major road projects must seek to reduce carbon output as much as drivers’ frustration. This year is set to be the warmest on record. It is no longer credible to pretend that global warming is not, at a minimum, enhanced by human activity.
Almost 90% of businesses say that the quality of transport networks impacts on their investment decisions. More than 70% of the members of the Federation of Small Businesses said that the use of a car is crucial to their business operations. It is sad that we live in a world in which that is the case, but that is the reality. Seven in 10 businesses obviously identify investment in road infrastructure as an important future Government priority.
In my constituency, we have a road that is incredibly loud, but improvement work is under way on some of the junctions on the M27, which is great because that should reduce congestion. We must consider any type of road building in conjunction with an ability to get people off the roads and on to public transport.
Investment in infrastructure is central to a Liberal Democrat ambition of creating a stronger economy and a fairer society. We need to ensure that economic recovery is based on that solid long-term investment. Liberal Democrat influence on Government policy has ensured that we have already invested more in railways than at any time since the Victorian era, but our major trunk roads and motorways are under increasing pressure, which does not help small businesses.
A well-functioning transport system must incorporate all modes of transport rather than look at each mode individually. Problems have come when we have treated rail as one thing, buses another, trams another and so on. Some of our Conservative colleagues insist that we should focus on only upgrading roads. The Liberal Democrats have pushed for greener, faster public transport throughout the country, but we need to do more, especially in rural areas where people are suffering from a failure in our public transport systems. There are some areas in rural counties where people cannot survive without a car, which makes it difficult for poor people and for those who believe in the environment to get about.
The Opposition have already mentioned electric cars, but we need to establish a full network of charging points for electric cars. We need to incentivise greener travel choices; update planning law to ensure new developments are designed around walking, cycling and public transport —we have seen a big investment in cycling—invest in major transport improvements to create a northern economic corridor to go along with the northern powerhouse; set out 10-year rolling capital investment plans so people know what is going on; develop a comprehensive plan to electrify all suburban and all major rail routes; reopen many smaller stations; restore twin track lines to major routes; and proceed with HS2, HS3 and perhaps even HS4. We also need to consider light rail and ultra-light rail schemes; continue funding for local economic and sustainable transport infrastructure; support the expansion of smart card ticketing systems; and make progress on the “Get Britain cycling” campaign.
As my time is limited, let me say briefly that I support much of what is in the Infrastructure Bill, but I do have some reservations, especially on the fracking proposals. None the less, this Bill will provide more jobs and an improved transport system for all of us. I urge the Government to give further consideration to public transport, especially in rural areas.
This Bill covers a wide range of topics, some of which do not affect Scotland, but those that relate to energy most certainly do, and it is those areas on which I shall concentrate my remarks.
Part 4 of the Bill opens with provisions relating to community energy. By and large, we support the efforts to allow communities or community groups to buy a stake in renewable energy facilities in or close offshore to their communities.
I hope that those provisions will lead to more communities taking a stake in such important facilities—indeed, some community organisations are already making efforts to raise funds to invest in local renewable energy—and to greater involvement and acceptance of renewable generation. Should the Bill succeed, I hope it will lead to alternative visions of how we deal with off-gas grid properties, which are so often left out of the thinking on energy costs and energy efficiency.
I also hope that more community involvement will encourage energy companies to consider the wider interests of the community when proposing new developments, such as encouraging economic regeneration by supporting other businesses or by looking at ways in which they can help to deliver better broadband services to allow businesses to prosper.
I also note that amendments are proposed to the Petroleum Act 1998 that are designed to implement the recommendations of the Wood review to maximise offshore oil and gas extraction. I would disagree strongly with the Minister on what should be done with oil and gas revenue, but we are inclined to support the relevant parts of the Bill because both the Scottish Government and the UK Government strongly endorsed the Wood review.
Unfortunately, there are other aspects of the Bill with which we do not agree. New clauses were introduced in the other place relating to the process of hydraulic fracking. I have raised my concerns and asked specific questions on this matter at least twice in this House but have yet to have a clear answer, so I will try again—third time lucky, but I am not holding my breath.
In his introduction to the debate the Minister said that oil and gas was a reserved matter. That is true, but, unfortunately, the clauses on fracking cut across Scottish land law as well, which is very much a devolved matter. Given that the Smith commission proposed the devolution of those proposals to Scotland, it strikes me that now is the right time to do that. We should get all these provisions in one place while fracking is still at a very early stage. If we do not do that, it will be much more difficult to deal with it at a later stage. I should make it clear at the outset that I do not support fracking. Although we have heard much about its potential, I note that even in Denton, Texas, the very home of fracking, a recent referendum voted to end it. Other states in the US are turning against it because of environmental concerns. We should take note of such concerns, because if there are concerns about the impact of fracking in the wide open spaces of the American west, how many more would there be in densely populated islands such as these?
I wish to concentrate today on some specific questions relating to the process of fracking. Although development is at an early stage in Scotland, it is already causing a great deal of public concern. A large area of central Scotland, stretching through to my own constituency in Angus, has been identified as having potential for shale gas extraction. Much of the power over such developments lies with the Westminster Government rather than the Scottish Parliament. Westminster has the power to grant licences under the Petroleum Act to search for and develop shale gas, while local authorities and the Scottish Parliament have powers in respect of planning, which clearly give them some powers to restrict fracking. In his opening statement, the shadow Minister made the point that the Scottish Government have not introduced a moratorium. My understanding is that it is very difficult to do that, because planning is initially carried out at local authority level, and any such moratorium or attempt to put in standard conditions would lead to judicial review and endless litigation. It would be much simpler if all the powers relating to fracking were in one place. In that instance, the Scottish Government could take action by refusing the licences.
I am pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he agrees with the Smith commission’s proposals, as I do. Does he accept that the Scottish Government could, if they wished, issue planning guidance that would prevent fracking, as they have in relation to nuclear power?
My simple answer is no. If the hon. Lady had listened, she would have heard me say that nuclear is completely different. Section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989 gave the powers directly to Scottish Ministers, so the situation is not the same.
The UK Government seem determined to have fracking. The changes proposed by the Bill remove the right of landowners to object to fracking under their properties. It has been reported that the UK Government are funding the British Geological Survey to carry out investigative boreholes to demonstrate the viability of fracking. Will the Minister confirm whether that is true?
Interestingly, the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed in his autumn statement last week to give, in effect, a sovereign wealth fund for fracking to north-east England. I note that, for many years, he refused even to consider such a thing for Scotland’s oil and gas. That has not gone unnoticed in Scotland.
As well as giving the right to grant licences to persons seeking to explore for shale oil, the Petroleum Act provides, in section 7:
“Subject to the provisions of this section, the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) Act 1966 shall apply (in England and Wales and Scotland) for the purpose of enabling a person holding a licence under this Part of this Act to acquire such ancillary rights as may be required for the exercise of the rights granted by the licence.”
The 1966 Act includes the right to
“enter upon land and to sink boreholes in the land for the purpose of searching for and getting petroleum”
and to use the land for such specific purposes as erecting buildings and laying pipes, and ancillary rights. The right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) made the point that there is no right to enter on to land—there is no such right in the Bill, but there is in the 1966 Act. The definition of petroleum in the Petroleum Act includes natural gas. There is a right in other regulations under which people can enter on to land. The ancillary rights laid down cover such rights as lowering the surface, the conveyance of gas or oil, and the right to occupy the surface of the property, among other things.
That illustrates the confusion and difficulty resulting from planning law, the Bill and the 1998 Act. Those are extensive rights for the licence holder. Rightly, under the 1966 Act, those ancillary rights need to be set out by a court if agreement cannot be reached with the landowner. That right is being taken away by the Bill. No longer would that disagreement have to go before a court—those doing the fracking will have an automatic right to frack.
I am not clear where planning law is involved in fracking. If someone has a UK Government lease to seek shale gas in a specific part of Angus, would they be entitled to go on to ground to do so even if the landowner objected? Do those rights override planning permission, or would people still need planning permission from the local authority? If so, where does the landowner stand? Is his only right to object to the planning permission?
There is a further difficulty. In any event, the planning process could cover only the area in which there is infrastructure for boring, but it will be very difficult to be sure where or how far any drilling into adjoining land will go until such time as the operation gets under way. Planning permission will not cover that. At most, it will cover the infrastructure for starting the bore. What happens once the hole is bored? What happens when the bore follows the gas deposits? No one knows where it will go once it has started. That is the difficulty.
The Scottish Government have powers over planning in Scotland and have taken a much more cautious approach to fracking than the UK Government have taken. They have called in the application from Dart Energy in Falkirk, and have introduced changes in planning guidelines for unconventional oil and gas. Another Member has made the point that the Scottish Government have confirmed that, for the first time, the concept of buffer zones should be applied to all proposals. They have asked for the additional requirement to prepare risk assessments to ensure a transparent and evidence-based approach for assessing the acceptability of proposed buffer zones. They have made it explicit that buffer zones will be assessed by the planning authority and statutory consultees, with a strong expectation that planning permission will be refused if they are unacceptable. They have ensured that operators are up front about their plans, and that communities are consulted on all unconventional gas developments, including close involvement in the risk assessment process. As an Opposition Member said, the Scottish Government require a fresh planning application and public consultation if permission had not been sought for hydraulic fracturing but developers subsequently intended to undertake the process. As the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) has said, the Scottish Government have also convened an expert scientific panel to review the scientific evidence on fracking.
I believe that all powers relating to fracking, and indeed everything else, should be moved from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament. The Smith commission recommended that powers over onshore oil and gas should be transferred to the Scottish Parliament. The political parties in Scotland agree on that, at least. It would be right and proper if all aspects, including planning and licensing, were dealt with in Scotland. That would reflect the views of the communities of Scotland where fracking might take place.
As I have said, fracking is at an early stage. Now is the time to transfer those powers. If we do not transfer the powers now, and if we wait until a Bill is prepared in the next Parliament after a general election, the transfer of the powers will, with the best will in the world, be at least a year down the line. A lot can happen in fracking in a year. We have the opportunity to have a proper look and ensure we do it right from the beginning, rather than transfer the powers in the middle of the process when it could be too late to stop some of those developments.
I get two kinds of letters about infrastructure. The first kind says: “The infrastructure in this country is inadequate. It is the cause of congestion, housing shortage and economic inefficiency. We must invest heavily and speedily in more infrastructure.” The second kind objects to any specific item of infrastructure being built or proposed. Those letters say: “A new road? No. We should be investing in rail,” or “A new rail line? No. We should be relying on short-haul aircraft,” or, “More airport capacity? No. We should be staying at home,” or, “Build more homes? No. We can’t build more homes because we haven’t got the infrastructure to support them.” We suffer from infrastructural schizophrenia in this country. To some extent, that has been exemplified in the debate.
I congratulate the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who has responsibility for roads, on finding the one piece of infrastructure that does not arouse antagonism: the widening of the A1(M), for which my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) has campaigned so hard with my support. That has won near-unanimous support in our part of Hertfordshire, not least because it is economical, it will be done on an existing hard shoulder, it involves minimal disruption and it can be done rapidly.
I want to focus on the element of the Bill that empowers drilling under other people’s land. When I initially heard those proposals I was worried, although I am sympathetic to promoting and developing the shale oil and gas industries in these countries. The proposals sounded like an unprecedented invasion of people’s property and an act of trespass, but they are far from unprecedented. The London underground runs under the street where I live in London. I can often hear the rumble, even though we live a couple of floors above it. I doubt whether the owners of my property should have had the right to prevent the building of the London underground.
The tube is a maximum of 100 feet beneath the ground. Coal mining involves massive and relatively shallow tunnels, which can cause subsidence. Sewerage, water and other underground networks also run under other people’s property. By contrast, a lateral gas or oil well is usually just a 7-inch bore about 1 mile below ground. It can cause no conceivable disturbance to the surface landowner.
Well, 300 metres is 10 times as deep as the London underground. The Bill states that deep-level land is at least 300 metres down, but normally drilling will be about a mile down because—as the hon. Gentleman will know from serving on the Energy Committee—about 7,000 feet of rock is needed to compress the shale sufficiently to turn it into gas or oil.
Rightly or wrongly, mineral resources in this country were nationalised before the war and, unlike in the USA, landowners do not have the right to extract them. I do not see why landowners should have the right to prevent the extraction of a national resource that is collectively owned by us all. After all, we do not have the right to prevent aircraft from flying over our property, although frankly the chance of an aircraft falling on our property is rather greater than that of anything welling up through a mile of rock and affecting our homes.
In theory we could revert to the pre-war situation, as in America, and give landowners rights over subsurface minerals and their exploration. If we did so, the general taxpayer, who stands to benefit from a 61% tax on profits from any shale gas, not to mention royalties and fees, would be the loser, while landowners lucky enough to own land above any of that natural resource would become richer—I am not sure whether that is the direction in which the parties of Keir Hardie or the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) are going, but I think we should keep things as they are. The resource is collectively owned; let us open it up for sensible, properly regulated and environmentally sound exploitation.
In the USA, when landowners are given the choice between preventing or allowing the exploitation of land from which they will profit, they overwhelmingly say yes. Despite strong campaigns to discourage the development of the fracking industry in north America, 2.5 million wells have been drilled and not a single person has been poisoned by contaminated water, nor a single building damaged by the minute seismic tremors that fracking can cause.
A lot of letters I receive say, “But this is against the laws of trespass. This is terrible. You’re trespassing under my land, which is as bad as trespassing on it.” Actually there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the law of trespass. My father did not have many political opinions but he was a libertarian. When we went out in the country and saw a sign saying, “Trespassers will be prosecuted”, he would say, “My son, as a free-born Englishman, you have the right to go anywhere as long as you do not cause damage. The landowners are bluffing and cannot stop you.” He was right, of course. Subsequently, Mr Fagan wandered into Buckingham palace and the Queen’s bedroom, but he could not be prosecuted because he had done no damage.
Indeed. Why on earth is it a sin to drill a hole a mile from where we live and separated from us by a mile of rock, when we do not prevent people from walking through woods as long as they cause no damage? I think we can dismiss the trespass argument. Of course, if there is damage on the surface from such activities, it is right and proper that people are compensated for that disturbance.
The organised opposition to shale gas drilling is part of a wider attack on fossil fuels. There is a legitimate case for opposing all drilling for oil and gas if we believe that hydrocarbons should be left in the ground to prevent emissions of carbon dioxide, and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley)—I do not know whether she is still in her place—honestly and frankly made that case. She does not want the stuff extracted because she does not want it to be burned, the energy used, or the CO2 emitted. I respect her and those who openly argue for that, but they know that they will not convince the people of Britain to give up using fossil fuels because our whole economy is based on them. If we were to try to transform our economy and move away from fossil fuels—well, we have been for 50 years, but with remarkably little impact—it would impoverish us and would be enormously disruptive. Those who cannot get that argument across therefore make it their duty to deploy unfounded scare stories and exaggerate them. They claim that fracking will harm the water table and trigger earthquakes, that it will use vast amounts of water and be of no advantage to society.
People with those fears should read the report by the Royal Society—our principal scientific body—and the Royal Academy of Engineering, which in its opening words concludes:
“The health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing…can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation. Hydraulic fracturing is an established technology that has been used in the oil and gas industries for many decades. The UK has 60 years’ experience of regulating onshore and offshore oil and gas industries.”
Why do eco-alarmists say that we must believe the Royal Society when it tells us that CO2 may increase the temperature by a degree or two in a century’s time, but ignore it when it says that we can frack safely in this country as long as we adhere to regulations that we have developed over 60 years, with some sensible amendments that have been proposed?
A number of Members have said that fracking is a novel technology, but 2.5 million wells have been drilled and fracked since the process was developed in 1948. As the Royal Society report states,
“more than 2,000 wells have been drilled onshore in the UK”,
of which 200 have been fracked, although relatively modest amounts of water and pressure were used compared with what is now proposed. I am not aware of any objections to those 200 wells. On the use of water the report states:
“Estimates indicate that the amount needed to operate a hydraulically fractured shale gas well for a decade may be equivalent to the amount needed to water a golf course for a month…and the amount lost to leaks in United Utilities’ region in north west England every hour.”
In other words, the idea that we do not have enough water in this country for fracking is an absurd exaggeration.
On seismic threats, the report states that we have “naturally occurring” seismic tremors, which infrequently reach force 5 in this country and force 4 rather more frequently. There is consensus that the maximum seismic tremor that could be caused by fracking would be less than force 3. Forces 3, 4 and 5 sound close together, but for each move from force 2 to force 3, or from force 3 to force 4, power is multiplied 32 times. We have “naturally occurring” tremors in this country, and, as Members will know, 32 times 32 is just over 1,000, so those tremors are 1,000 times larger than the largest seismic tremor likely to be triggered by fracking.
In truth, shale gas represents a tremendous opportunity for this country if it exists in the quantities that we hope it does and it is economic to extract—we do not know that, and will not know until we have tried. Either shale gas will bring down the price of gas in this country, or if the price remains at the same level as on the continent, the profitability and tax revenues to the British taxpayer will be enormous. If successful, we will reduce either households’ energy bills or their tax bills. What is more, it will create jobs in the areas of the country that need them most, and in the areas of our economy—manufacturing and related industries—where that is most important, and it will improve the security of our supply.
I hope that we will continue, using the powers in this Bill and in other legislation, to develop this industry with proper environmental and safety controls, not throw it away because of scare stories spread by people whose ultimate objective is simply to prevent it from ever getting off the ground, even if it would cause no damage in this country, as it has not done anywhere else it has been applied.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), who I think has many certainties where I have many doubts. If his understanding of the law of trespass is anything to go by, my doubts are well founded, and I doubt his certainties, because trespass is a civil wrong that can indeed be the subject of a civil action. Although it is impossible to prosecute people for trespass, it is a civil wrong and so does in fact exist. I am sure that his father was a wonderful man, but he was not right about trespass.
My constituents also have worries. They are worried about an application for boring in a place called Borras, just north of Wrexham. Planning permission was lodged locally, dealt with by the local authority and rejected. That decision was overridden by the planning inspector and the boring process went ahead, which has created a very febrile atmosphere locally. People are upset because a local decision has been overridden and there is genuine concern about the fracking process. That honest concern is based on the fact that it is indeed a novel process for us.
It does not appear to me, either from this debate or more generally over the past few months, that the Government have listened at all to what our constituents have been saying. The Government seem determined to pursue shale gas extraction whatever the consequences. I am sorry that they have not shown the same enthusiasm in their pursuit of renewable energy goals.
Wrexham has a strong culture of using renewable energy. We have a company, Sharp UK, which in 2004 commenced production of solar cells in the town, and at one stage more than 1,000 people were employed in that. Visitors to Wrexham often observe that a large number of homes in the constituency have solar cells on their roofs, which is a tremendous example of renewable energy in a local community, and that is supported by all parties locally. Unfortunately, this Government’s policy on feed-in tariffs, which contradicts the far-sighted policy introduced by the Leader of the Opposition, undermined the market. As a result, Sharp’s solar cell factory in Wrexham has closed its production line, so those 1,000 jobs have gone, as have the local jobs created in the construction industry for putting the cells on roofs. That renewable energy had an immediate and beneficial impact for our local economy and community.
People in Wrexham are much less convinced about the benefits of fracking. The Government, however, have resembled a runaway train on the issue, with their latter-day “dash for gas”. Their cavalier attitude to public concern about safety is feeding into a widely held view that they are pursing this process with scant regard for public safety.
The hon. Gentleman, whose constituency neighbours mine, is speaking eloquently, but he must realise that the licences that cover both Chester and Wrexham are the same and that they were granted in 2008 by the previous Government. Did he speak so eloquently against their decision to grant those unconventional gas licences?
I am speaking about the application in my community currently, which is leading to large-scale demonstrations, which I will be pleased to take the hon. Gentleman to see if he is so interested. All I am talking about is responding to the public concerns that are being expressed to me.
I live less than a mile from the Borras site and know from speaking with neighbours and people who live locally that there is broad concern about the issue. I try to deal with these matters pragmatically and approach people in a straightforward way, and they are expressing genuine concerns to me. There is real frustration that local decisions have been overridden—a concern we heard earlier from the Government Benches—and replaced by those of the planning inspector.
The Government need to make it absolutely clear that they will not countenance fracking unless it can be shown to be a safe process. That is not the message they are sending at the moment. I understand that the Labour party will be tabling amendments to the Bill specifically to require environmental impact assessments in all cases; public recording of well-by-well extraction of frack fluid; and all sites to be monitored for methane and CO2 leakage. Such amendments are vital if the process is to continue. They appear to me to be eminently sensible, perfectly reasonable and the type of amendments that would build public confidence in the process.
I entirely agree with that important suggestion.
I would also like to see a much clearer process for addressing community concerns in individual cases. For example, the Borras site is only a few hundred metres from the scene of the 1934 Gresford mining disaster, which killed 266 coal miners. Sincere, legitimate and profound local concern has been expressed about exploration in the immediate area, where the bodies of the deceased miners lie. At present there is no process for those views to be taken properly into account. Will the Minister please explain how such local concerns will be addressed by the planning and regulatory process that will be put in place for fracking?
I am also unconvinced about the local benefits that will accrue to Wrexham as a result of the process. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) that the benefits should attach not to the landowner, but to the local community. Wrexham, as an industrial town, still bears the scars of its industrial past, and not only the memories of events such as the Gresford disaster, but physical scars such as slag heaps, quarries and spoiled land. If fracking can be shown to be a safe process, then before it goes ahead I want to be sure that Wrexham and the local area will benefit. Fracking is not a sustainable energy process, and before the Bill passes into law I need to hear far more about how my community will benefit from the extraction that is taking place locally and causing a great deal of controversy.
I urge the Government to listen much more closely to the concerns about fracking being expressed up and down the country and to make it much clearer why they think it is so important that the process goes ahead. It is a non-renewable technology that can be of benefit to our community, but it is not being projected to our constituents in that way or with the intensity that it needs to be if it is to carry public support.
I support every part of this Bill. Like many Members, I want to focus on part 5 and talk about energy security and fracking.
As far as I am aware, there is no possibility that we have a great shale reserve under the estuarial mud of Castle Point. However, residents in my constituency have enormous experience of living very close to two major top-tier COMAH, or control of major accident hazards, sites and have a connection to the UKOP and GPSS—United Kingdom oil pipeline and Government pipeline and storage system—networks. Some hon. Members—I do not think any of them are in the Chamber today—might remember an exceptional speech given by my illustrious predecessor, Sir Bernard Braine, who talked out a previous infrastructure Bill, the British Railways Bill, in order to prevent an oil refinery from being built on Canvey Island. We have enormous experience of what it is like to live near critical infrastructure and to be concerned about it and campaign on it.
Energy security is rightly a key concern of this Government, but it is also vital that communities support the resulting new infrastructure, especially if they may have to live with it for many decades to come. We have talked a lot about safety, security and trust. We need two things for buy-in from local communities: first, to ensure that they benefit from the presence of the infrastructure or the extraction of the resource; and secondly, to ensure that they have complete confidence in the safety of the operation and the risk management regime that is in place. Clause 40 and the various community profit-sharing agreements cover the first requirement quite nicely for fracking activities, but it would be valuable to have such compensation schemes for all newly registered top-tier COMAH sites and infrastructure sites. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who is no longer in his place, spoke about the need for more gas storage, which is a pertinent thing that the Government should be looking to make sure we achieve.
Needless to say, my constituency would have benefited enormously if such a scheme had been in place many decades ago when the oil and gas tanks sprang up on Canvey, although the current owners of the sites, Calor and Oikos, have become, with a little gentle prodding from me and Councillor Ray Howard, very good neighbours that give generously to the community. They have gone to great efforts to remove tanker movements from our roads after the very cold winter of 2012 when a lot of that was going on.
If these sites are to go forward, we need, from the absolute outset, clarity about the location, about the proximity to schools and to homes that will be acceptable, and about whether tanker movements will be required. We need the Government to have a very clear safe-siting policy, as advocated by my constituent George Whatley, who is a founder member of the former People Against Methane campaign in my constituency. Whichever areas are chosen for any critical infrastructure, local communities must know what to expect from the very beginning, and must be on board with that.
It is most important that we secure confidence in the safety regime, which is the hardest thing to achieve. We have a complicated safety regime in this country. We hear that it is the best in the world. I have investigated it many times, and that definitely seems to be the case. However, it is complicated and confusing. People always fear that faceless bureaucrats or profit-hungry businesses are not telling them the whole story, and that in any regime where the operator is doing the monitoring, a tick-box exercise is occurring and there is no transparency in the system. We can talk about bringing in new regulations and higher standards, and of course we want to have absolutely the highest standards, but they mean nothing if the public do not understand them and cannot make sense of them, and there is a lack of transparency about the process.
With fracking, in particular, it is vital that people living in residential properties have confidence in what is a new and popularly controversial process, because it is going on right under their feet. During a debate in the media on fracking in Scotland, the trade body Oil & Gas UK asserted:
“The underground activity of fracking will not be noticeable at the surface and will not impact on the enjoyment landowners have of their property.”
The first part of that statement may well be perfectly accurate, but I can certainly see that the loss of peace of mind someone may have if they are not confident in the safety of this could result in quite a considerable loss of enjoyment of their property if it is happening under their feet. It is vital that we instil confidence and do not just say that we have a great safety regime, but make people understand that and see it. Complete transparency and accessibility for the community is required.
The regulatory regime on fracking, which is administered primarily by the Health and Safety Executive in collaboration with the Environment Agency, with heavy involvement by the Department, seems to be extensive, but because a number of agencies are involved in different regulatory roles, it could hardly be called particularly transparent and easy for the public to understand. I suggest that at some point the Government consider a way of bringing in local reps or intelligent observers who can provide local confidence. We need not just men with clipboards and letters after their names, but a local rep who is totally independent, and who is not even a member of the council, because that might be interested in administering some of the planning gain from these sites.
The HSE’s 2012 guidance on fracking makes reference to “other interested parties”. I wonder whether there is the capacity for those people to attend meetings with the operators and the regular on-site inspections held by the HSE and the Environment Agency, because these have the greatest capacity to boost the transparency of safety and risk management operations. Perhaps the Minister could confirm whether there is scope for such local representatives to count as other interested parties under the regulatory document. I urge the Government to include that provision in the regulatory regimes for all significant sites in our nation’s infrastructure policy in future. Without a clear, transparent, understandable regime, no amount of officialdom telling us that we have the best regime in the world will satisfy local communities if they do not understand it.
Unlike the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), I do not rise to support every single part of this Bill.
Earlier in the debate, the Bill was described as a kaleidoscopic vision. I would prefer to describe it as a rag-bag. One dictionary definition of “ragbag” is “a confused assortment; a jumble”. Perhaps that is a little harsh, so I prefer an alternative definition: “a bag in which small pieces of cloth are kept for use in mending”. I am afraid that time prevents me from pulling more than a couple of pieces of cloth out of the ragbag to examine. I will therefore concentrate my remarks on just two pieces, neither of which seems to have been designed to mend anything in particular.
The first piece of cloth I want to pull out is the question of the so-called moves towards zero-carbon homes. I say “so-called” advisedly. The explanatory notes to the Bill clearly state:
“The Government is committed to introducing a zero carbon emissions standard for new dwellings in England from 2016.”
However, the Government have now made three attempts to knock down the original version of what would have been moves towards zero-carbon homes by 2016. As hon. Members will remember, that arose from the 2006 code for sustainable homes. There were rising levels of sustainability going up to code level 6, and homes were supposed to be getting towards that level by 2016. I accept that there could have been allowable solutions under certain circumstances when it might have been difficult to get homes up to that level, but they should have been the exception. The code level should have got as close to 6 as possible before those allowable solutions came about.
This is a very important infrastructure issue. If one is pursuing a major project to try to make sure that all the homes that are standing by 2050 are as energy-efficient as possible—as the Government claimed they had been doing with the energy companies obligation and the wider issues of energy efficiency in homes—it seems nonsensical and perverse not then to seek to build new homes that are as energy-efficient as possible to replace the ones that they were trying to make as energy-efficient as possible in the first place. However, that is what seems to be on offer in this Bill.
The Zero Carbon Hub is a group consisting of, among others, the National House Building Council, the Federation of Master Builders, the Home Builders Federation and major house building companies, all of which said that allowable solutions should be put in place only after the code for sustainable homes went up to something like a 60% improvement over part L of the building regulations. Yet the Government have simply said, “That’s not feasible—there’s no evidence. Lets put it down to 40%-odd over part L.” Indeed, the explanatory notes state:
“The intention is therefore to set a maximum on-site carbon dioxide emission standard for new homes and for the remainder of the zero carbon target to be met by house builders supporting off-site carbon abatement measures”.
What that means is that those homes will be built to nowhere near the zero-carbon-emission standard. Relatively modest improvements will have to be made over and above the part L building standard commitments and it will be possible to pay money to get out of that particular commitment.
Although the Government appear to be arguing, despite having no evidence, that the standard is unobtainable, the additional cost of building zero-carbon homes has halved since 2011. The payback for that additional cost takes only a few years in terms of the lower energy bills in homes built as close as possible to a zero-carbon standard, but the Government have decided that they do not wish to pursue that course.
Let us be clear that, under the Bill, a major element of infrastructure—new housing—is moving away from being zero or low-carbon in the future. The allowable solutions suggested by the Bill are not just applicable to circumstances in which it is not easy to make the homes zero carbon, but act as an excuse for making sure that those homes are nowhere near zero carbon. Moreover, the regulations are very unclear about the amount of money builders will have to put into the fund if they do not make their homes zero carbon. As we have heard, that may leak out from planning authorities and may not go towards alternative zero-carbon proposals for retrofit. That rag needs to be looked at.
A number of other hon. Members have addressed the other rag that needs to be seriously examined, namely fracking. We need to be clear that the relevant clauses are all about trying to make sure that fracking can be undertaken as speedily and with as little examination as possible, as opposed to making sure that there are proper environmental safeguards and that concerns are properly addressed if fracking is to go ahead at all. I mentioned in an intervention that fracking usually takes place at least 1 mile, possibly 2 miles, underground, so what could be the harm in that? Unfortunately, however, the Bill suggests that anything below 300 metres—a third of a kilometre, not even a third of a mile—will be regarded as deep underground and therefore available for fracking.
It will be possible for there to be access beneath the land on which people live. As we have heard, regardless of assurances about safety, there are no proposals for any kind of baseline or environmental impact assessment. Even if concerns are correctly expressed, such as the question of what might happen to the land should there be a fault with it that could lead to some damage being done, we do not know who would be responsible, because there will not be that baseline assessment.
We also do not know—there is nothing about this in the Bill or elsewhere—what the position will be regarding the accumulation of such holdings. It appears that the regime envisaged will simply enable drilling after individual planning permission is given and accumulation will not be an issue as far as water or fracking fluid are concerned. Indeed, it is not even an issue with regard to where fracking goes.
The Bill’s proposals fall far short of the very minimum that one might expect from any sort of regime that would make fracking an assuredly safe procedure as far as the public are concerned. It is of paramount importance that public concerns about the safety of the fracking process should be addressed. If we persist in putting through legislation that appears to suggest the opposite to the public, it will not be surprising if they continue to raise very serious objections about what is going on behind the whole process and ask whether the design of the process is in their interests at all or in someone else’s interests entirely.
I am more optimistic about the Bill than some colleagues who have already spoken. It is common sense: it releases a huge amount of economic growth, jobs, houses and building potential. It gives us a vision for the future in which Britain is building again and moving forward.
A huge part of the Bill is the road investment strategy, which has not been discussed as much as it should have been. The strategy is a massive testament to what this nation is going to do. The strategic road network makes up only about 2.5% of all paved roads, but it accounts for about 30% of all road journeys. However, in my constituency in my part of Hertfordshire, which I share with my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), the network accounts for a lot more than 30% of all journeys. Junction 6 to junction 8 of the A1M runs from Welwyn Garden City to Hitchin, and it goes down to two lanes along that route. For more than 30 years, my constituents and others in our part of Hertfordshire have been stuck in huge tailbacks, which has put a massive chokehold on the economic potential of Hertfordshire.
To put that in context, I should say that my constituency builds 25% of the world’s telecommunications satellites; has GlaxoSmithKline’s largest research and development facility in the United Kingdom; builds complex weapons systems; and houses the headquarters of the Institution of Engineering and Technology. We have more than 10,000 scientists and engineers, more than 800 apprentices starting work every year, and unemployment is at about 2.6% at the moment. The reality is that economic growth in Hertfordshire is being choked by the stranglehold on one of our main local arteries, and that has been a huge problem for a huge number of years.
I was absolutely delighted to hear the Secretary of State announce in his statement last week that the A1M is going to be widened and that there are plans to make our section of it a smart motorway. That will include widening the two-lane sections so that there are dual three-lane sections and hard-shoulder running, which will be absolutely amazing for my constituents and those of my neighbouring MP. This massive investment in our local roads will allow our constituents to get to work, and that is important.
On the importance of rail, Stevenage train station alone—it is one of two train stations in my constituency—has 4.2 million passenger journeys a year. We are 26 minutes from King’s Cross. About half of my constituents work in London and they make that journey either by rail or by road. It is incredibly important for our part of Hertfordshire that we now have a great railway system with more carriages, more seats and more services. We also have the huge opportunity to allow our constituents to get along the roads in Hertfordshire. The potential for economic growth from the huge investment in our road strategy is absolutely unimaginable, and I fully support the Bill in relation to that wonderful strategy.
On some of the bits and pieces, I understand that it will cost about £8 million a mile to do those two sections, so it is a huge commitment. Smart motorways were first introduced in 2006-07, a positive step by the previous Government. They have been trialled, and we very much look forward to their introduction in our section of Hertfordshire. That will be done quickly and with the least possible disruption for people who currently get stuck on those two lanes.
In relation to the Highways Agency being turned into a Government-owned company, I want to make a tiny point about non-offensive graffiti. I have had correspondence and discussions with Ministers about non-offensive graffiti on the strategic road network. Although it may seem a small matter, one of my constituents, Steve Prince, has campaigned for several years for its removal. Sadly, Ministers always say that there is a duty on the Highways Agency to remove it, but the Highways Agency’s employees and contractors say that they do so only in areas near where work is already being done. To put this in context, many people use the strategic road network in my constituency, which means that the entrance to such a high-technology area is sometimes affected by graffiti that is not usually removed; offensive graffiti is removed, but non-offensive graffiti is not. I hope that the new Government-owned company will take that matter a little more seriously than the Highways Agency does currently.
One provision in the Bill relates to speeding up the sale of public sector land. I am proud to say that Stevenage was the first new town in the United Kingdom. It was developed from 1946 to 1980, when the Stevenage Development Corporation ceased to exist. For us, there is still a huge amount of public sector land, and there is a huge opportunity to build houses on such areas. While I have been its Member of Parliament, the population of my constituency has grown—from 69,000 electors to nearly 73,000 electors. We are building the expected number of homes, and we are trying to ensure that there is a great opportunity for young people to have somewhere to live.
I am also proud that the local Labour council is building its first council houses for more than 30 years because of the investment that the Conservative Government have provided to enable that to happen. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) is not in his place, but I am sure that he would be delighted to know that five of those houses are bungalows.
I asked the Cabinet Office some questions for written answer about providing a full inventory of local and national public land and property held, and about the timetable for when that might be published. Earlier today, I received an answer in good time, as always, which referred me to the Government property finder website. One aspect of the Bill relates to the Land Registry. Although the Land Registry building—a very large site in the centre of Stevenage that has been empty for a number of years—is owned by the Government, it is not actually on the website, and I was surprised that a range of other buildings and bits of land that I know are owned by the Government or the Homes and Communities Agency are not on it either. I am talking about a property in excess of 300,000 or 400,000 square feet, with seven floors and 300 car parking spaces—it is bigger than the Tesco next door—so its being left off is quite a big deal.
In discussing getting value for such a property by selling or releasing it, for me the question is about whether we should get economic value by trying to sell it for what it is worth or social value by handing it to an affordable homes provider, such as North Hertfordshire Homes, to develop it into affordable apartments for local people, who would then be able to work and reside in the community. When there is talk about selling a property, I want a better understanding about the distinction in relation to its true value: is there just an economic value or is there a social value? I have sites in my constituency that have been empty for a number of years; one has been empty for 16 years, and is also about 400,000 square feet. For us, such a step would make a huge difference by increasing the number of affordable homes in our area.
Finally, I want to talk quickly about the community electricity right in part 5 of the Bill. A number of solar farm applications are currently being made in my villages. The community electricity right will not kick in until June 2016, I believe, but will Ministers say whether local people can exercise that right in relation to solar farms that have not yet been given planning permission or been built?
Hon. Members’ comments have illustrated the very wide-ranging nature of the Bill. Mine will concentrate on the proposals for the strategic road network, and their implications for transport planning and regeneration.
I very much welcome the attention the Bill gives to the strategic road network. More than 65% of all journeys take place on that network. It is used on more than 65% of freight journeys. The Department says that more than 47% of English road users use the network at least twice per week. In estimates for future congestion and traffic increases, it is thought that traffic on the network will have increased by 46% by 2040.
It is therefore extremely important to look at the network, and to see whether investment in it can be made efficiently and effectively. We certainly need to end the current stop-go of announcements being made about road investments that simply do not happen, with maintenance being cut, which is greatly to the detriment of motorists. We need something better.
It appears that the proposals for the road investment strategy and the five-year funding packages could offer prospects for change and could bring some stability in funding, but I have major concerns about them. Such concerns are echoed by the Transport Committee’s recent consideration of the issues.
The plans for the strategic road network have not been put in a wider context that would allow us to look at different types of transport and consider not just different proposals for road schemes but whether road is better than rail or whether there are alternative ways of addressing the problem. The link between local roads —the role of local authorities and local enterprise partnerships—and the strategic sector is unclear. Decisions are increasingly made through city deals or by combined authorities, and there are proposals for further devolution; yet the Bill does not make it clear how such plans or proposals relate to investment in the strategic network. On the face of it, the road investment strategy plans mean firm commitments to an investment programme, but it is not clear whether that is the case. Will statements about what is going to happen simply be followed by stops and starts?
In the recent statement on road building—part of the autumn statement—there were many welcome announcements. However, many of them were old announcements in relation to which there had been cancellations and postponements, and much of what was said in Parliament is in fact for the future. The statement was not therefore what it seemed. Will the new regional strategy statements be what they seem, or will they in fact be more of the same?
The Bill contains a controversial proposal to replace the Highways Agency with a Government-owned company. Serious questions must be asked about whether that is the best way forward, or whether it would be better to reform the existing Highways Agency to have better management and relationships. Changing the structure by moving from an agency to a Government-owned company can be very disruptive and costly. The remit of the company would not be substantially different from the agency’s. It must be questioned whether the predicted £2.6 billion of savings, to be achieved over 10 years, will actually happen. That very big change has big implications, and it is not at all clear whether it is the right way to go.
There are outstanding questions about the accountability of the proposed company. It is planned that the Office of Rail Regulation will monitor what happens and that a reorganised Passenger Focus will be a watchdog. During the passage of the Bill through the other place, changes were made that might have made the situation better than it looked initially. However, there are still questions about how it will operate. Will all road users be involved? Will it just involve motorists, or will it involve pedestrians and cyclists as well? Will all people who have an interest in our road structures be able to have a say and to have some influence? That is not clear.
There is a wider question about the availability of the necessary skills to promote transport investment—investment in our roads and rail. That is a major question that is not fully addressed in the Bill.
My comments are a contribution to the discussion about the strategic road network. It is an essential artery for road transport in this country, but it is vital that it is looked at together with the need for investment in rail. There must be a proper assessment of what is the best mode of transport to deliver what is required. The Bill, as it stands, will not produce that end.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman). I, too, will speak about highways, but I will also speak about land use planning and fracking. The link between the measures on all those issues is that they will improve the competitiveness of the UK economy and provide the conditions for growth, which will mean more jobs and will enable us to fund the many things that we want Governments to do.
Part 1 of Bill relates to road transport, which is massively important to businesses in my constituency because Rugby is, of course, at the centre of the UK and at the crossroads of the motorway network, with the M1, the M6 and the A14 meeting at Catthorpe. I want to put on record my gratitude for the recent announcement of new flyovers and underpasses on the A46 at Binley and Walsgrave, which will be of great help to my constituents who suffer from congestion in that area.
Rugby is in a strategic location, which has meant that the logistics industry has developed apace over recent years. We have the Daventry international rail freight terminal—DIRFT—where Eddie Stobart and Tesco are big occupiers, and where Sainsbury’s is developing the UK’s largest warehouse. Immediately adjacent to Daventry is the Rugby radio site, which will become a large housing development with 6,200 new homes and will provide the workers for the many distribution sites on the eastern side of Rugby. There is significant warehouse development adjacent to junction 1 of the M6, where Gap and Pearson Education have substantial units. Nearby, there is the Gateway site, the first occupier of which will be H&M, the clothes retailer, which will have a substantial site. At other sites, we have DHL, which delivers for the NHS, and companies such as Premier Foods.
The logistics industry is massively important to Rugby’s economy. It was previously thought of as a low-wage, low-skill industry, with big lads lifting boxes, but nothing could be further from the truth. I recently spent time at Premier Foods, which has had notoriety in recent days for other reasons. It is a big supplier to our major food retailers. At its distribution site in Rugby, it was introducing jobseekers, many of whom had been out of work for some time, to the modern workplace. It was preparing them for interview and for the environment that they would find on going to seek work. I saw forklift truck operators moving products around the warehouse using barcode readers. They had computer screens attached to the forklift trucks to provide maximum efficiency in the warehouse’s operations. Logistics is far from the low-scale, low-skill industry that many people paint it as.
Logistics is an industry that I am familiar with because I ran a small-scale wholesale distribution business that took advantage of Rugby’s excellent location and connections. In addition to efficiency in the warehouse, the logistics industry depends on an efficient trunk road network. I want to draw attention to two issues. The first is how the transport provisions of the Infrastructure Bill will assist us in dealing with congestion. It is believed that congestion will cost £10 billion by 2040. We need more capacity on the strategic road network to minimise bottlenecks and avoid congestion. The second issue is the need for prompt reopening of the strategic road network, whether it is an entire motorway or A road or lanes thereof, after catastrophic events.
On the first issue, if there is insufficient capacity, the logistics industry is able to make fewer deliveries per vehicle, which leads to an increased cost per delivery, a higher price for the customer and smaller profits being available to businesses for reinvestment. Often, the consequence of the slow reopening of a motorway or other road on the strategic network after an event that has caused it to close is that set-day deliveries cannot be made on the allocated day, leading to customers getting goods a day late, which can lead to problems with production processes that operate on a just-in-time basis. In businesses such as the one that I ran, if one day’s deliveries did not get out, it was necessary to hire a vehicle and employ a temporary driver for the following day to get the goods out. Of course, that adds to the cost of getting the product to the customer.
All those issues make improvements to the management of the strategic road network essential. It is for that reason that I support the creation of a strategic highways company in the Bill. The improvements need to take place at the right time to avoid the stop-start approach that we have had in recent years. I was interested to note the view of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which stated:
“Transforming the Highways Agency into a government owned company will facilitate a welcome shift away from the costly and inefficient stop/start pattern of investment that has plagued the development and operation of our road network.”
That will deliver an upgrade to the important logistics businesses in my constituency, enabling them to operate more efficiently and keep costs to the consumer down.
The businesses in my constituency expect the Government agency to be more accountable, in the same way that they are accountable to their customers. I am therefore pleased that clause 5 gives the Secretary of State the power to impose fines when the strategic highways company fails to meet the requirements of the road investment strategy. I am also pleased that clauses 8 to 12 provide oversight through an independent road users’ watchdog, which is currently known as Passenger Focus. That will provide more transparency and accountability and drive costs down, which is of great importance to businesses in Rugby.
I am interested to note the Labour party’s criticism that there is a lack of any reference to local roads. Strategic roads make up just 2.6% of the road network, but account for 60% of freight and business traffic. It is therefore entirely right that the Bill focuses on them. Local roads are a matter for local authorities and local communities when they determine their priorities.
The second set of proposals that I want to refer to are those on planning, land use and buildings. The Communities and Local Government Committee is looking at the operation of the national planning policy framework to see how that revised system, which was introduced just three or four years ago, is bedding in. Members will have to await our report, but during the evidence sessions we found no evidence that an overhaul was needed. It is interesting that the Opposition have no proposal to change the national planning policy framework fundamentally. Clearly, the system is bedding in and needs more time. The introduction of further uncertainty would not be helpful at this stage.
There are two areas where the Bill introduces proposals to the national planning policy framework. The fundamental principles of the NPPF are localist, right down to neighbourhood plans where small communities have their say on the types of development that can take place in their areas, but there need to be processes for the developments that we would describe as bigger than local. Much of this is currently dealt with under the Planning Act 2008, and refers to nationally significant infrastructure projects. I was interested to hear a Member earlier referring to the Thames tideway tunnel and Hinkley Point C power station as the kind of development that would be dealt with through the national significant infrastructure projects. That does not mean a great deal for my constituency, but of course we all need roads, water and waste projects. Traditionally, we have been glacially slow in dealing with planning applications in this area, and there is no question but that we need to speed up the process in the interests of making our economy more efficient and our manufacturers and businesses better able to compete with their overseas competitors. The Bill proposes to speed up the existing powers by appointing inspectors more quickly and by reducing bureaucracy and the cost of inspection through fewer inspectors on a panel. That will enable the country to get on with it, once principles for development are established.
A second area where the Bill would help to enable development get under way more quickly is on the discharge of planning conditions. These are delays caused once the planning process has been gone through, once the principle of development has been given on a site. The NPPF gives developers more certainty by directing development to those areas where the local planning authority has determined that planning should take place. Often, however, that certainty is replaced by an uncertainty over when the regulatory burden, through conditions, might be discharged. Development has been agreed in principle, but the developer is unable to make a start pending conditions, such as the preparation of a report. I was interested to hear, I think, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) mention a builder who pointed out that a third of his land bank, a total of 5,000 plots, is currently awaiting reserve matters.
I am the first to acknowledge that planners are keen to see good development take place. Planning has a positive role, and the role of planning is not to frustrate developers. There are many good planning officers who hold regular meetings with developers, so that developers can understand well the priorities of a local planning authority. I single out as a very good planning department that of my local authority of Rugby borough council, which I know has a tradition of meeting developers. I am as keen as they are for good development to come to my constituency, because good development provides jobs and prosperity from which all my constituents benefit. I would expect a developer, faced with excessive conditions causing a problem with getting development under way, to meet local planners to resolve those conditions. That is the approach the Local Government Association, in its representation, is looking for.
Often, the local planning authority takes too long to respond to a request from a developer to be released from a condition. That can have the effect of delaying development from taking place, so I support the provisions for deemed discharge. I was interested to note the criticism from the Labour party that there are no garden city principles in the Bill. I think most of us can accept that the garden city principles are favourable principles, but it is a matter for local communities, if they wish to see them introduced in their area, to build them into their local plan to require that to take place.
On fracking, many years ago I studied land law and I seem to remember the principle that, “He who owns land does so up to the heavens and down to the centre of the earth.” That broad principle cannot exist in a general environment. We need to put this issue in perspective. Most fracking takes place at a minimum of 300 metres deep, which is 10 times deeper than the deepest London tube station. This is an important issue, because we need to get our energy costs under control. In my constituency, we have a cement manufacturer, and the most expensive place in the world to produce cement is the UK. We need to address fracking to get our energy costs down and to allow our businesses to be competitive with those in the rest of the world.
I shall speak briefly, because I am having some difficulties with my voice. I want to raise two or three points, the first of which relates to fracking.
Fracking is a cause for concern in my constituency in the north-west of England. Neighbouring constituencies have already experienced exploratory drilling, so local people are concerned and anxious about what might take place in their neighbourhood. I endorse some of the comments that have been made across the House, in particular by my hon. Friends the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead). There are a number of components, which have been overlooked and are not addressed well in the Bill, that need to be right before there is a rush for shale: the need for adequate safety regulation that offers people reassurance; and the need for transparency in that safety regime. Frankly, in our experience there has been far too much denial and secrecy where exploratory drilling has taken place. That secrecy, or non-acknowledgement of activity, understandably fuels alarm and anxiety further. Transparency is therefore a very important element of the safety regime that the Government need to introduce. My hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) pointed out—she has had particular experience of this in her constituency—the need for proper preparatory work before any exploratory drilling, let alone extraction, takes place. That is not just in relation to safety issues, although they are vital, but to transport links, local amenities, policing and so on.
I want say a little about missed opportunities in relation to housing. There has been too little attention to what it is that will be built. I think that all parties share an ambition to expand considerably the number of homes, but it is important that those homes respond to our changing demographic and to maturing ideas about people’s right to live independently and choose the kind of life they want for themselves. We suffer not just from a lack of homes, but from a lack of accessible homes that people can live in throughout their lives and can grow old in. If their circumstances change and they become more frail, or if they have an accident that reduces mobility, people should be able to continue to live in their own homes.
Demand for disabled facilities grants massively outstrips supply. One report suggests that demand is 10 times greater than the funds available. A lot of our current housing stock could not be adapted—indeed, my own home probably falls into that category. It is very important that, as we look to expand significantly the development of new homes, we ensure those homes are built, from the outset, to accessible lifetime standards. That has been happening in London since 2004 and has been very successful, producing good value for money, exchangeable, accessible properties that people can remain in. I would very much have liked to see that learning taken forward in the Bill in relation to infrastructure development. There is concern that we will end up with optional national housing standards that are subject to very narrow viability criteria. We need standards that are mandatory and challenging, which local authorities are cognisant of, and that are integrated holistically in the planning and development process while we deliver our ambitions for significant numbers of new homes.
On roads, some of the exact same issues apply. We need to think from the outset, but also as road networks are developed and modernised, about how they serve people and places, and make places accessible in the widest possible sense. I appreciate that the Bill deals only with strategic highways, but they feed into and are fed by local roads, so it is obviously important that they, too, meet the highest possible standards, and that they meet people’s needs too.
I hope we can use the Bill to address access issues on our local streets and roads, especially the need to ensure that people with mobility issues and other impairments can safely access our entire road transport network. Shared vehicle and pedestrian spaces can cause significant difficulties for people with certain impairments—visual impairments, for example—as, too, can some street furniture design. It is a pity we will not be able to consider those issues, unless Ministers are prepared to think strategically and holistically about the road network, which I think they need to do. No one thinks their journey on a strategic highway starts when they get on the motorway; first, they have to get off their own driveway and up to the nearest junction, and the Bill misses that connectivity, which is a shame.
I am running out of juice, Mr Deputy Speaker, but thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the debate.
I commend the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for her brevity and much of the content of her speech, and I congratulate the Minister on his opening speech. Those who heard it will agree that the shade of Disraeli stands permanently at his shoulder. He made an important speech about an important matter. For Governments of all shades and stripes, infrastructure—be it energy or transport infrastructure—has too often been a Cinderella subject, ignore and abused. As a result, today we have to invest a great deal of money—about £120 billion—in less than 10 years in our energy infrastructure: in the pipes, pylons and power stations that keep our lights on and our water warm.
Much of that investment will come—rightly—from the big six, but if the balance of the cost is not to fall on the consumer and taxpayer, much must also come from the small independent players that we must encourage into the marketplace. I know that that is what the Government want to do—it is what the Energy Act 2013 was intended to do—and I say to the Minister here now: do not let the great work of the Act and of the capacity mechanism be unwound by some siren voices in the Department of Energy and Climate Change who would like to see the capacity payments for 15-year contracts discounted to the value of an annual contract, because that will certainly discourage small players from entering the marketplace and entrench the position of the big six.
Whatever we do to invest in our energy infrastructure, in the short to medium term it will largely be in gas. Right now, as we sit in this Chamber, 38% of our generating capacity comes from combined cycle gas, 31% from coal, and just 6.5% from wind. If we are to turn off our coal-fired power stations in the next few years, we must, in the short to medium term, switch to gas to make up the shortfall—that is just the way it is—so we need to invest in those stations. However, that will expose us more to international hydrocarbon price fluctuations, which could hit consumers in this country. Part of the way to deal with that is to invest in gas storage, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) said, but part of the answer is to allow our shale gas resources and companies to expand to scale, which they say they can do by 2020, so that we can hew our home-grown gas. It is important that we do that, and I commend that particular industry to everyone in the House.
Some have raised the concerns of local communities where fracking might take place, and we must address those concerns soberly and sensibly. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who is no longer in his place. He is a real champion for his constituents, but he and we have to be careful not to allow those concerns to snowball into scaremongering. I shall focus on just one thing he said, however, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) eloquently demolished most of his concerns: the pollution of the aquifers.
In and of itself, fracking does not pollute the water supply. The shale gas layer is at least 300 metres, and often thousands of metres, beneath the earth’s surface, whereas aquifers are just a couple of hundred feet below it, and separating the water table and the shale layers are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet of solid rock. Impurities cannot move through that solid rock into the water table. Only if there is a failure of the integrity of the well can the water table be polluted. If someone drills a pipe half a mile underground, fills that pipe with concrete and then drills through that concrete and puts another pipe down, the chances of the well’s integrity being compromised are minimal—they exist, but they are minimal. That is the tone in which we need to address the shale gas opportunity and challenge, and I hope that everyone concerned about what shale might mean for their communities will make that fact clear.
I turn now to roads. The Secretary of State and I have not always seen eye to eye on transport. Our relations are very cordial—they have to be; he was once my Chief Whip—but he and I have not always agreed on HS2. However, there is not a grain of asphalt between us on the issue of road building which he announced last week and which the Minister made special reference to earlier today. In particular, I welcome the investment in the M42 around junction 6. It is a pity the Minister is not here, because he is a great student of G. K. Chesterton, and will know of Chesterton’s aphorism:
“The traveller sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he has come to see.”
A traveller or tourist on the central section of the M42 will not travel very far very fast, and all a tourist will see are the shimmering silos of the Kingsbury oil terminal. In the past, that road was often a car park. Now, 99,000 vehicles use the M42 each day, and more than 120,000 use the section of road around junction 6, so that investment has been very important.
However, I make a plea to the Minister here now. The opportunity that allows my constituents to commute more easily to Birmingham, where many of them work, and which encourages businesses to set up in Tamworth and people to come and live in Tamworth, also presents us with a challenge. We all accept the importance of localism, and we all accept that there must be devolution and that local authorities and county councils must control county highways. Unless we can also get investment in the road infrastructure in Tamworth, all those homes that there is pressure to build to meet the demands of people who want to live in the town cannot be built in the centre and might need to be built on the green belt and on the greenfield sites around it. Investment in the road infrastructure in Tamworth and similar towns will allow brownfield sites to be better developed for building homes. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will take care to recognise the importance of linking local authority development with the Bill.
That said, this is an important and welcome Bill. It takes our long-term economic plan and translates it into a long-term infrastructure investment. I say again that it is a pity that the Minister of State is no longer in his place because I know he is a great fan of St. Augustine, who said: “Go forth along your way as it must be on the path of walking”. I hope that with this Bill we will not simply be able to walk, but drive as well.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Upgrading the UK’s infrastructure is vital to create jobs and prepare the country for the challenges that it is going to face over the coming decades. The Government stated that the Bill would
“improve how we fund, plan, manage and maintain our national infrastructure”.
I would argue, however, that without some fairly radical amendments—above all, to take account of climate change—they will fail on all those aims. That is why I sought—sadly, unsuccessfully—to amend the Bill. What we need are priorities that will put the UK on the path to a prosperous, zero-carbon, jobs-rich economy and will improve resilience to flooding and other climate impacts coming our way.
At present, sadly, this “business-as-usual” Bill will lock the UK into high-carbon, inefficient, polluting energy and transport systems in particular—and that at precisely the moment when we should be turning around and heading fast in a different direction for the sake of both our economy and our environment.
The crucial, overarching context for this Bill is helpfully illustrated by the new climate economy report launched in September. It builds on a growing consensus on the benefits of low-carbon economic development among leading international economic institutions such as the OECD and the World Bank—about as far from the so-called green blob as one could possibly get.
In an article coinciding with the report’s launch, the head of the OECD as well as the London School of Economics Lord Stern highlighted the choice that the UK and other countries must now make. They explain that if investment in infrastructure over the next 10 to 15 years is high carbon, the world will indeed “lock in” the risk of dangerous climate change. More positively, they write:
“What is now becoming clear is that reducing emissions is not only compatible with economic growth and development; if done well, it can actually generate better growth than the old high-carbon model…But governments must choose. Over recent years many governments have vacillated over climate policy. They have introduced carbon prices but then let them fall until they are near-useless. They have backed renewables but also subsidised fossil fuels. These inconsistent signals have created uncertainty for investors, damaging growth and retarding innovation.”
They go on:
“The prize before us is huge. We can build a strong, inclusive and resilient global economy which can also avoid dangerous climate change. But the time for decision is now.”
They could have been talking about the very Infrastructure Bill before us today, and as we enter the second week of global climate talks in Peru, I think it is clear that this Infrastructure Bill is sadly failing to make the right choice.
It is puzzling, because sometimes Ministers and indeed shadow Ministers go to great efforts to convince the public that they understand the benefits of transforming our economy to radically cut emissions. Last year, for example, the Prime Minister explained that
“we are in a global race and the countries that succeed in that race, the economies in Europe that will prosper, are those that are the greenest and the most energy efficient.”
I could not agree more with him on that. The Leader of the Opposition in The Independent yesterday set out a welcome and impassioned pitch for his ability to offer leadership on climate change, highlighting the increasingly stark science and the economic and social harm caused by dither and delay. Again, I agree. Yet the unswerving support from Labour’s Front-Bench team for the coalition’s new roads, whatever the delivery structure, and for fracking, however well regulated, undermines any such climate credibility. It suggests that they may be a little bit in denial about the inconvenient truth that carbon emissions do not come just from electricity generation. Crucially, for the purposes of this Bill, they come from roads as well.
Transport accounts for 25% of UK emissions and most of that is from roads, but there are many other reasons why building new roads should be at the bottom—not the top—of the UK’s infrastructure priorities. As the Government’s own figures and studies show, road building is bad value for public money, and it does not even cut congestion. More tarmac simply means more cars.
Today, the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a member, launched a new report that warns that air pollution from heavy traffic could be killing almost as many people as does smoking in the UK. During that inquiry, we heard that road traffic is the largest source of air pollution in most parts of the UK. To tackle the public health crisis of air pollution, we must redirect spending away from new road infrastructure, and into public transport, walking and cycling. It should be our priority to make those alternatives the cheaper, easier and more attractive options. Of course, we could also do more to improve existing local and national roads. I should like the Government to adopt the Campaign for Better Transport’s “green retrofit” programme for roads, which would be better value for money and good for local job creation, as well as having long-term benefits and undoing daily damage to both public health and our environment. I am also concerned about the setting up of strategic highways companies, a move which has been described as
“the final staging post to privatisation of the strategic road network”,
and which raises serious questions about accountability that have already been mentioned by Members
Let me now say a few words about fracking, because I know that the House would be disappointed were I not to do so. The proposals to allow fracking firms to drill beneath people’s homes and land without their permission is, to put it mildly, clearly hugely controversial and deeply unpopular. Ministers, however, are not listening to the public concern that has been expressed, although they keep talking about how important it is for the public to buy into fracking.
For me, the bottom line is that an effective response to climate change requires a complete shift to a carbon-neutral energy system within a generation in all the major economies, including Britain. We know how to do that: we have the technology and engineering capacity to do it, and we can afford to do it. All that we need is the political will, because we cannot do it while making ourselves more, not less, dependent on any kind of fossil fuel. According to the United Kingdom’s former top energy and climate diplomat, John Ashton,
“You can be in favour of fixing the climate. Or you can be in favour of exploiting shale gas. But you can’t be in favour of both at the same time.”
The Bill also provides for a duty to maximise the economic recovery of UK oil and gas. That flies in the face of the need for us to leave the vast majority of existing fossil fuel reserves unburnt if we are serious about tackling climate change. There was a growing amount of cross-party consensus on that imperative during last week’s debate on fracking. I hope that the Minister of State followed that debate, and I hope that his views on unburnable fossil fuels—and the financial risks of the carbon bubble—have changed since we debated such matters two years ago, when he maintained that my concerns were
“not only outside the mainstream, but, arguably, on the very fringe of the debate.”
That was his normal courtesy. I am only sorry that he is not present to hear me respond to it. He then told me that I should
“think again about the Government’s position.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2012; Vol. 555, c. 828-30.]
Given that the Governor of the Bank of England is now among those who are agreeing that most existing fossil fuel reserves need to be unburnable and need to stay below ground if we are to keep climate change below 2°C of warming, I hope that the Minister himself has had an opportunity to think again.
Meanwhile, the potential of UK renewables is huge. The sector already supports more than 100,000 jobs. Solar PV, which is just one of many diverse technologies that are at our disposal, could alone support nearly 50,000 jobs by 2030, and could power the equivalent of 18 million homes. A thriving home-grown renewable energy sector should be a top priority for the Bill, but, apart from the references to community energy rights, it is entirely absent. I think that we should replace the duty to maximise oil and gas exploitation with a duty to maximise sustainable energy generation from the UK’s wind, wave, solar, tidal and other renewable sources.
As for housing, energy efficiency should be the United Kingdom’s top infrastructure priority, and there should be funding to match. Retrofitting the UK’s leaky housing stock is the only permanent solution to fuel poverty and high energy bills, issues that I know are a high priority for my constituents. It is essential if we are to meet carbon targets, and it is also an economic no-brainer. Research for the Energy Bill Revolution campaign shows that an ambitious energy efficiency programme could create 108,000 new jobs, and would generate £1.27 in tax revenues for every £1 invested.
We need that retrofit programme, but new housing is important as well. The Bill, however, introduces an unforgivable dilution of the zero-carbon homes standard, and an exemption that could mean that up to 80% of new homes in some areas will not have to comply. That might be good news for the profit margins of developers who have been lobbying for it, but it is definitely bad news for carbon emissions, bad for home owners who will face unnecessarily high bills as a result, and bad for British businesses that would otherwise see a stable and growing market for on-site solar power and other renewables.
The Government’s arguments simply do not stack up. The UK Green Building Council and the Royal Institute of British Architects have pointed out that the exemptions will result perversely in higher costs for small-scale developments. They have also pointed to the dire lack of evidence to back up the Government’s claim that the exemptions would bring forward more house building activity from small builders.
Finally, I shall briefly put three areas of remaining concern in headlines, as I know others want to speak. The Bill fails to include measures to strengthen the UK’s resilience to flooding and other climate impacts such as urban heat waves. The provisions on invasive non-native species need to be rethought if they are not to threaten much-loved species such as beavers and barn owls. The changes to the planning system raise serious concerns that the quality of decision making and the rights of local people to have a meaningful say over development in their area are being sacrificed, along with so much else, on the altar of corporate convenience and speed.
I am very pleased to be able to contribute to the debate. The Bill is wide-ranging with many good features and I shall certainly be supporting its Second Reading, but it is certainly also not beyond improvement and I want to focus on one particular area where I believe improvements are urgently required.
The right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) and the hon. Members for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) referred to the legislative provision for the introduction of zero-carbon homes standards in 2016, which is the focus of clause 32. When I was a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government I was very pleased to have my signature on the regulations that raised the standards of new housing energy performance by 25% compared with 2006, and I was very pleased that at that time we could renew the ongoing commitment for the zero-carbon homes standard to be achieved in 2016. My successors in the Department have seen a further upgrading in October 2013 and again a renewal of the commitment to achieve that standard in 2016. Clause 32 is the enabling clause to make that happen.
The problem is that behind that clause lies what appears to be an intention by the Government to introduce something that will not achieve zero-carbon homes in 2016. That will clearly need to be put right in Committee. There is a two-stage process in achieving zero-carbon homes. The first is to set minimum carbon compliance standards for the building itself. That is partly about the fabric of the building—the walls, the insulation and the solid bits of it—and it is partly about whether or not renewable energy generation, such as solar panels on the roof, is installed in the building. That is the on-site provision—the minimum carbon compliance standard. The UK Green Building Council and the Zero Carbon Hub taskforce have made recommendations about how that can be achieved, but it cannot always all be achieved on site. The design, layout and orientation of the site may not make that possible.
There is also a second stage: that the remaining carbon saving will be achieved off site through allowable solutions. A range of things can be done, such as the builder doing it off site themselves or paying into a fund —a payment that is based on the price of the carbon that is being saved. A key decision is how challenging to make that first stage of on-site provision, and therefore how much spills over into the off-site provision.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) commented on the impact on London of having a high level of spillover to the allowable solutions and his concern that investment might move out of London as a consequence. In preparing clause 32, the Government sensibly asked the Zero Carbon Hub taskforce to advise them on what standard to introduce. The group recommended that the minimum on-site standard to be achieved before allowable solutions could be used should be an improvement of between 56% and 60% on the energy performance standards of 2006. We must bear it in mind that we have made something like a 33% improvement with the two upgradings that have taken place under this Government so far. The figures of 56% and 60% are based on the building type involved, because it is easier to generate savings from some types of house than from others. The recommendation goes on to say that in the case of flats, which are particularly awkward, we should be heading for a 44% improvement in energy performance standards compared with 2006.
The Government have responded by not accepting the proposal for an improvement of between 56% and 60%. Instead, they are going to apply the figure of 44% to all building types—the lower level of saving that the taskforce recommended only for flats. That is a matter of concern, and it is difficult to understand why the Government have come to that conclusion. Was it because of cost, or because of the impact on the market? When the commitment to building zero-carbon homes by 2016 was signed off by the Department in 2011—I announced it from the Dispatch Box, so I know it happened—the assessment was that that was deliverable and affordable, and would have no adverse impact on housing starts or housing delivery. Instead, it would cut the fuel bill of a new zero-carbon three-bedroom house by £1,200 compared with that of the highly desirable Victorian homes that so many of us aspire to have.
What has happened since that assessment and that announcement? The first thing to say is that, since that time, the cost of doing it has been halved. It has not gone up; it has been halved. Upgrading to zero-carbon home standards will now cost only 50% of what it would have done if we had done this in 2011. That is a 50% cost reduction in three years. By 2016—or, probably more realistically, by 2018, 2019 and 2020, when the homes are actually being built—it is likely that the cost will have been halved again.
In the meantime, I have taken the precaution of asking the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions whether it was still the Government’s intention to be the “greenest Government ever”. His response was a strong, positive yes. So my question to the Minister, and the issue that I want to explore as the Bill proceeds through Committee, is, why have the Government wobbled? It certainly was not as a result of the consultation they held, back in 2013, when 70% of the consultees were in favour of the standards proposed by the taskforce. We have heard about the consultation on fracking. Well, here we have a Government policy with a 70% approval rating that would cost at least 50% less than the Government thought it would when they first put forward the proposals. It therefore seems really strange that they should be watering down a policy with a lower cost outcome which is supported by 70% of consultees.
There is also the question of small sites. I am already on record in this place as saying that I think the size limit for small sites should be zero. I do not think there should be a small site exclusion, because that could open the door for unscrupulous developers to fiddle their site sizes and their phases so that they did not comply with the new standards. I am even more concerned about the false market that could be created in the longer term, whereby buying a home built on a small site could give someone higher bills than a home built on a larger site. What possible rationale could there be for that? I can see no logic in it or justification for it. It would ultimately be detrimental to the consumers who bought the homes if lower standards applied to them.
I hope I have said enough to ensure that the Whips do not put me on the Bill Committee. I hope I have also made the case that the Bill increases and improves the energy performance standards required of new homes. I do not deny the Government that, but they have unnecessarily hobbled themselves. They have failed to be as ambitious as they could be or as the consultees wanted them to be. There is an opportunity now to put that right and make sure that we take a genuine, positive, large step forward to zero-carbon homes in 2016.
I agree with every word that the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) has just said. His speech follows on from the constructive work that he did when he was in the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Having learned that we are burning fossil fuels and bringing about climate change on such a scale that it could destroy our planet, I find it almost insane that we should be bringing forward proposals that would mean our relying on another form of fossil fuel. I totally oppose the development of fracking in this country.
I shall concentrate on part 1, which deals with the Highways Agency and the road network. Sometimes I feel like shaking people in this building. There seems to be a loss of collective memory. Part 1 is the first stage towards the privatisation of our road network and it is on the same scale as the privatisations of rail, water and energy under the previous Conservative Government. I have the same dystopian vision of what will happen: once a GoCo has been set up, it will be broken up into regional franchises and sold off, almost inevitably to foreign-owned companies, most of them state run, exactly as 80% of the rail industry has been sold off. The story of the energy and water industries has been similar. There will then be the introduction of tolls, exactly as laid out in the Government’s response to the Transport Committee, and the tolls will fund exorbitant profiteering by those companies.
The House needs to wake up and recognise that the Bill represents the privatisation of our roads. We should be honest with the electorate and warn people that that is the consequence of the Bill. Why am I saying that? It is evidenced by what has gone on throughout this Government and previously. There is a loss of collective memory of what happened when the Conservatives were last in government. Throughout the 1992 to 1997 Administration, there were proposals to build on the privatisation of rail, water and energy by also privatising roads. In 1992 the Government published “Paying for Better Motorways”, in which they said that they would establish a single Government-owned company funded by road levies—that is, tolls—and possibly break it down into a number of privatised regional franchises, as has happened with rail and water. That was the Conservatives’ plan when they were last in power; now it is being implemented under a coalition Government. I hope some of the coalition partners wake up to the consequences of the Bill.
What other evidence is there? The plan is evidenced by the appointments that the Government have made to the Highways Agency. They brought in Tom Smith. Who is Tom Smith? He has just been put on the Highways Agency board. He is the chief executive officer of the M6 toll road. The Government brought in Elaine Holt. What was she? She was headhunted by the Department for Transport to lead on the east coast railway line—first in public sector management, but then to prepare it for privatisation.
All the evidence is there of the Government preparing for the privatisation of our roads. We saw it with the A14. The more recent proposals for the improvement of the A14 included tolling on that road, but there was such public uproar that even the Government had to pull back. We saw the evidence in the Government’s response to the Transport Committee. Paragraph 79 states:
“The Government will consider tolling as a means of funding new road capacity on the strategic road network. New road capacity would include entirely new roads and existing roads where they are transformed by an improvement scheme”
—that is, the investment programme announced last week. The strategy, as far as I can see, is to invest as much public money as possible to bring the roads up to a certain standard in the current period so that they can be privatised under the new agency that will then be broken up into regional franchises.
I note that clause 1 refers not to “a highways company” but to “highways companies”, to enable the Secretary of State to amend the legislation, under the Henry VIII clause later in the Bill, to enable regional franchises to be set up. I warn all the travelling public—motorists, cyclists, pedestrians and others—that our road network is about to be sold off, they will soon be fleeced by tolls and the tolls will subsidise the private profits of foreign companies. If anything provides evidence of that, it is the example of what happened to rail, energy and water when the Conservative party was last in government.
Having said all that, I wish to raise a number of issues on which I would like a response during the debate. I am concerned about the 3,500 staff, who, until now, have been commended for their hard work, commitment and professionalism. What will happen to them? TUPE is not provided for in the Bill. We have argued for it time and again, and in the past four and a half years TUPE has been put into only one Bill. All we have been given, yet again, are assurances that the staff will be covered by COSOP, the Cabinet Office statement of practice on staff transfers in the public sector—the protocol agreement similar to TUPE, but not as enforceable. I reiterate that to give the 3,500 staff greater security we should insert a TUPE commitment in the Bill.
There are arguments to be made about the financial savings and the claim that they will be £2.4 billion. I note the debate over whether VAT is to be charged. First, the Treasury denied that the VAT would be saved and therefore the cost could be, over six years, some £2.4 billion—almost the savings the Government are seeking to find. Then, in the other place, we were told that there was a guarantee that VAT would not be charged. I think that is open to legal challenge. We need greater certainty, otherwise this whole operation will be jeopardised from the beginning.
We also need more details about the monitoring exercise, as we have a monitoring body that is not a regulator, no complaints procedure, and no information about the costings or the investment in the operation of the body. One of the worst aspects of privatisations in the past has been the way that remuneration at the top has gone through the roof while wages elsewhere in the organisations have not risen. We are told that remuneration will somehow be controlled through a central review. I do not think such constraints have worked elsewhere when these agencies have been set up—quite the reverse. I would like to see a ratio put in place between the highest paid and those who are on average earnings in the organisation. In that way we may be able to control the overall levels of remuneration in the future.
I am also concerned about clause 17, the Henry VIII clause, which puts such wide-ranging powers into the hands of the Secretary of State. We have now been assured that, through clause 46, the affirmative procedure will apply in respect of any changes in the legislation to be undertaken by the Secretary of State, but I am not convinced that that procedure gives those democratic protections of accountability to this House. I urge that the super-affirmative procedure be looked at.
I am reluctant to interrupt the hon. Gentleman but I want to make it perfectly clear that the Government and this Minister—I am the roads Minister, after all—have no intention of privatising our roads; have no intention of not having clear lines of accountability to both Government and this House for the work of the new agency; will set the priorities; will set the strategy; and will hold those responsible for delivering it accountable. I do not want to spoil the party, but I am afraid that he is fantasising.
The Minister has not spoiled the party because I have no confidence or trust that this Government will not privatise. Assurances have been given on the Floor of the House about privatisation before and it has gone ahead. This Bill is the first step towards privatisation and towards introducing tolling on our roads—a new form of funding the road network that will be open to profiteering by foreign companies. I warn this House that if it passes this legislation, it will put at risk our road network in the future, our taxpayers and the future environmental policies that might be able to protect us against climate change.
I will not detain the House for long, so that remaining Members get a chance to speak. I have just a few points to raise, as many issues have been dealt with exhaustively. My hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Charles Hendry) and for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris) spoke about gas storage. As I understand it, enough applications for gas storage have already been approved, but they have not been carried through. I raise the matter because Halite in my constituency has made an application for gas storage. It has been turned down three times—once by the previous Government and twice by this Government. It is now on its fourth application. I just want to underline the fact that we in the area are against that permission being granted, and I have the support of my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), for Fylde (Mark Menzies) and for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace). This is to do not with gas storage in the future but with the issue of approvals. The application from Preesall in Lancashire has not been approved and has been turned down three times. I just wanted to put the record straight on that.
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) mentioned the matter of neighbourhood planning and raised some very sensible points. He and the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) talked about the ability locally to influence not just the number of houses but the style of houses. I wish I was in the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and able to get approval for a few more bungalows, so that older people could downsize but stay in the villages where they have always lived. I hope that the Bill delivers some real power to neighbourhood planning, as local people need a say in the type of housing required.
As Members expect, my main point is to do with clauses 38 to 40 in part 5 on geothermal energy—or fracking. Clause 38 (1) says:
“A person has the right to use deep-level land in any way for the purposes of exploiting petroleum or deep geothermal energy.”
As I understand it, the Government are trying to win popular support for fracking. To have such a clause in the Bill will act as a red rag to a bull. That subsection is reinforced by clause 39 (3), which says:
“The right of use includes the right to leave deep-level land in a different condition from the condition it was in before an exercise of the right of use (including by leaving any infrastructure of substance in the land).”
Whoever secures such a right can leave whatever they want below the land. As the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) said, a system already exists for securing such rights—people could argue their case before the courts. We are now removing that right. Some Members, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), for whom I have a great deal of respect, are telling me that there is nothing new in that, citing the example of the coal industry. Come to parts of Lancashire and see the ravages of the coal industry and coal mining in terms of subsidence and the fall in housing values, and tell me about support. If there are Members who believe in the issue and wish to win the political and community argument, I suggest that fewer references are made to the depredations of coal.
Unlike the hon. Members for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) and for Angus, I have no ideological argument against shale, but what many of us in Lancashire have said about winning the debate is that, unlike coal and other massive developments, there should be a real return for the people most affected. A number of Members, across parties, have been trying extremely hard to get that message across. To some extent, there has been some give. The references that the Chancellor and the Secretary of State made to a sovereign wealth fund, which some of us argued for on behalf of Lancashire but which has now become a sovereign wealth fund for the north—I have some views about Yorkshire sharing in anything that we produce—shows that there has been movement.
The argument is that it is the people most affected and closest to the operation, not just the Chancellor and the companies, who should get the long-term dividend from the operation. However, the Bill does not define the payment scheme. Clause 41(1) states:
“The Secretary of State may, by regulations, require relevant energy undertakings”
to make payments. I know that that is the terminology we use in the construction of Bills and laws, but the Government are trying to win an argument about the need to develop shale as rapidly as possible. I buy some of those arguments. I buy the argument on the need to replace coal, and the argument that renewables will not certainly exist in the quantities we need to fill the gap. I buy the argument that gas may lower carbon emissions for the time being. However, I do not believe that clauses such as those in such a complicated Bill will win anybody over in my part of Lancashire. People will not have the confidence that their concerns are being dealt with effectively until Ministers come forward and explain the situation.
Whatever happens with fracking—the security of the aquifers and the rest of it—it will, at the very minimum, cause disruption. I have argued long and hard in the House. I understand that Ministers are beginning to listen, but currently their argument is back to front. They should have come forward with much more definite answers. What are the returns for people in Lancashire who will be putting up with that new industry? Currently, I am not able to support that part of the Bill.
I hope I can persuade my hon. Friend to support the Bill on this basis: as a result of the arguments he and others have made, including the arguments made by Opposition Members during my speech, I will be happy to convene a meeting with Members who have concerns about the community interest in the exploitation of shale. We have debated that in the House and I have spoken about it. I am more than happy to ask the Department of Energy and Climate Change to convene such a meeting. I hope, on that basis, that my hon. Friend will change his mind about supporting the Bill.
I am grateful to the Minister, but with great respect—I have great respect for him as a Minister—we have had meetings and more meetings, and I have to go back to Lancashire and explain to people what the Bill means. As I have said, I understand the terminology we use, but when it comes to my support for the Bill, I am not convinced tonight that I have a definite figure for the benefit for Lancashire.
I welcome the Bill because I believe infrastructure is the key to our economy and recovery. I managed to secure £123 million-worth of investment for a link to the M6 motorway in my constituency. That road has been discussed for 60 years. My constituents can now see that vital route being built, and are grateful to the Department for Transport for giving the road the green light, if hon. Members will excuse the pun.
The road has brought with it an upgrade to the port, a footprint for the third nuclear power station in Heysham, and countless contracts for business in the White Lund industrial estate, not to mention a projected rise in house prices in the area. My constituents know only too well the benefits of infrastructure to our local economy.
No area in the country should be left to stand still, and I welcome the Government’s ambitions for a northern powerhouse. My constituents welcome the Chancellor’s vision, because they believe that too many of our past Governments’ policies have benefited only the south of our country. [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I welcome the Bill’s sentiments, which allow for long-term funding for strategic road building projects. A much needed strategic link in my constituency is a transport tunnel under the bay towards the Furness peninsula. A transport tunnel on that scale is the obvious next step as an extension, or phase 2, of the M6 link project. It would not only link the M6 to the port and nuclear power stations in Heysham, but create a streamlined route for access across the bay to the nuclear installations and BAE Systems on the Cumbrian coast. I want a tunnel that would allow two-way traffic between Heysham and Barrow. Currently that journey takes approximately one hour and 30 minutes, but a tunnel would cut it to 20 or 30 minutes maximum, saving more than two thirds of the journey time and freeing up traffic on the road in a vast rural area.
The inspiration for such a tunnel is twofold. For many years various groups have discussed how to link those two strategic areas, and there have been suggestions of a cableway across the bay and a barrage bridge over the sands. Before the economic downturn in 2007, £800 million was reportedly on the table from the Bank of Scotland to construct a barrage, but due to Morecambe bay being designated a site of special scientific interest and a habitat for rare birds and wildlife, the idea never became a reality. It shows, however, that there is commercial interest in linking the two areas.
Early this year I was approached by National Grid, which as part of connecting new energy installations in Cumbria came up with the idea of a power cable under Morecambe bay. The idea is currently under consultation. National Grid believes that as the tunnel would go under the sands and would not disrupt wildlife, it will not come up against the same environmental constraints as the barrage project did. National Grid invited me to Willesden junction in London to see the power tunnel that is being built underneath us right now, and to show me the technology it used. I was fascinated by the visit, which showed me that the technology for a tunnel not only exists in this country, but that it is being utilised as we speak. We have some of the best tunnelling experts in the world, and if a power tunnel can be built under the sands there is no reason why a transport tunnel would not be a viable option.
In my constituency, funding is becoming a bottleneck. Since becoming Member of Parliament I have secured more than £700 million of investment from the Government, and the area is booming with business. Opening the area further to the Furness peninsula would greatly benefit the many manufacturing and energy companies on my side of the bay and the peninsula. On the Cumbrian coast we have BAE Systems, Sellafield, and the National Nuclear Laboratory. If workers at Heysham power station in my constituency could access those sites more easily, it would create greater scope for the sites to work together. A tunnel would create more employment opportunities in science and technology for young people in my constituency. Both areas have expertise in energy and engineering, and if they linked together it would create an Aberdeen effect for skilled workers in both areas.
Due to the M6 link, Heysham port is receiving an upgrade to enable it to process larger and bigger ships. A faster link to Furness would mean that more companies on the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland and Cumbria would be able to use the port, creating more jobs and economic benefits for the area. A link under the bay would also help the local University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust. Under the last Government the hospital faced many problems, and recent reports suggest that the biggest factor holding the trust back was the locations of the two sites. Lancaster and Barrow are not naturally linked, and it is a long and stressful journey to travel between the two. It is difficult to transport staff and patients between the two sites, and even more difficult to practise a joined-up approach. A tunnel would halve the journey between the two sites, allowing them to work more easily and closely together.
The tunnel would go not fully into Barrow but across the coast to Heysham where it would join the existing road network. Residents from both sides of the bay have contacted me in recent weeks to express their support for the scheme, and it seems to have captured public imagination. For such a project to go ahead we would need private entities to come forward and agree to proceed with it. As I said earlier, £800 million was on the table for a barrage about five years ago, and there is no reason why such a project should not attract the same investment again.
I am in talks with the local enterprise partnership in Lancashire, and hope that it will fund a feasibility study. I will meet representatives from it in the next few weeks to discuss the proposal further. The transport tunnel is a huge undertaking that will require a considerable amount of investment, but I have a can-do attitude and firmly believe that after securing funding for the M6 link project after 60 years of deliberation, no scheme is too big to be delivered. I look for guidance from my right hon. Friend the Minister as to how the tunnel could become reality and economically boost Morecambe and Lunesdale, and how this Bill can help my constituency become more of a part of the Chancellor’s northern powerhouse.
It is a great pleasure to be called to finish the Back-Bench contributions to the debate. I wish to touch upon a number of items in the Bill, but I will focus primarily on one specific area. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides have used various terms to describe the Bill, including a rag-tag Bill. I prefer to call it a Christmas tree Bill, given that we are in the festive season, because many things appear to have been hung on it.
I will first mention one point the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made on the design of new homes. She touched on something that is incredibly important for my constituency, which has an older population and where a considerable number of new houses are being built. The overwhelming majority of those new houses have bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs and living accommodation downstairs, but not living accommodation that could easily be reconfigured to cater for the needs of someone who is disabled or could become disabled, or who would not wish to have a chair lift fitted when they grow older or to move home. I urge the Government to give some serious thought to what measures could be introduced to encourage developers to build some future-proofing into new houses as they are being designed and as they go through the planning stage, because at the moment one size certainly does not fit all.
My purpose in rising tonight is to talk about an issue that concerns my constituency and that many other right hon. and hon. Member have touched upon: shale gas and fracking. It was back in 2011 that I secured my first Adjournment debate on the matter, and I have had subsequent Westminster Hall debates, in which my hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) and for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) participated.
One of the things I called for in 2011 was the establishment of an independent body to oversee shale gas regulation. The purpose was not to supersede the regulators, but to ensure that the regulations that were in place and were likely to be in place were fit for purpose. It was partly as a result of that call that the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil was born. I know that it was the Minister here tonight, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), who was responsible for establishing that body, but I think that since he left the Department that body has not continued to flourish in the way he had originally intended. I ask the Government to ensure that that body is fit for purpose and adequately resourced and that it looks at issues such as community engagement and involvement, because that is one of the things that has fallen by the wayside.
It is not sufficient to say that the regulations are robust and adequate; we must demonstrate that they are robust and adequate. We must also have enforcement on the ground. For the Health and Safety Executive, which is based in Aberdeen, to say that it can do all that from Aberdeen without any presence on the ground in Lancashire is completely unacceptable to me, to my constituents and to people in Lancashire. If it wants to have a serious role—it is the only body that can have a serious role in this—I think that it has to have a permanent presence in Lancashire, and not just at the development stage, but from the earliest point of the exploration phase.
That brings me to the Environment Agency, which should have responsibility, above all agencies, for ensuring the safe and thorough regulation of environmental aspects. It really concerned me when a colleague who is a Lancashire county councillor highlighted to me that Lancashire county council had been in discussion with both Cuadrilla and the Environment Agency over the site at Preese Hall, which is located in my constituency. The council requested that the Environment Agency monitor the site for a period of up to five years. It then discovered that it had no powers to compel the Environment Agency to conduct that monitoring. The agency expressed reluctance, or even refused, to conduct environmental monitoring at the site and said that that obligation should fall on Cuadrilla.
My hon. Friend knows, as you do, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I eat reluctant bureaucrats for breakfast. If there is any such reluctance on the part of the Environment Agency, Ministers must ensure that it is aware of its responsibilities in this regard. I pledged to have a meeting with concerned colleagues, and I am more than happy to explore at that meeting what extra measures we need to put in place to ensure that the Environment Agency does its job. I am not aware that it is not doing it, but if there is a problem, let us for heaven’s sake deal with it.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that assurance.
As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said, when the Bill gets into Committee we will have to be rigorous and specific in considering certain amendments as to how we can improve regulation and its enforcement, and make sure that that regulation is absolutely robust. If I had had the opportunity to intervene on him, I would have welcomed his sentiments on that point, which, to be fair, the Minister also made in his opening speech. Based on those two assurances, I will support the Bill’s Second Reading. However, I will be unable to support its further progress if, in Committee, we are unable to improve regulation and I do not get assurances on how it will be enforced. That would cause me great sadness, because the Bill contains many good things that are unrelated to shale gas.
It is important that Labour Members do not fall into the trap of seeking to turn this into a party political football. The licence round in my constituency was awarded under the previous Labour Government; indeed, the Leader of the Opposition may even have been Energy Secretary at the time. It is therefore beholden on them to make sure that regulation is in place. It is no good their now saying that they do not support shale gas fracking, because if that was their sentiment when the Leader of the Opposition was Secretary of State, they should not have ventured down that path to start with. We must work together on behalf of our communities to ensure that regulation is robust. If it is not, and we get to a point where this cannot be done safely, then the only way to proceed is to say, “Thank you very much, but it’s not right for us.”
I want to make a point to those on both Front Benches about planning processes. Two planning applications are before Lancashire county council. I have deliberately avoided getting involved in trying to influence its decision one way or the other, because I firmly believe that it is the role first and foremost of a planning committee— in this case, the council’s mineral rights authority—to consider the merits and the negatives of a planning application. If it feels, as a result of due deliberation, that rejecting one or both sites is the right thing to do, we must accept its will. It would be wrong to trigger a process of judicial reviews and central Government seeking to overturn that decision. I believe, above all, in the importance of localism and of taking local people with us on these matters. If local councillors feel that they have taken the right decision, we must stand by them on that. There can be no easy way out and no expectation that someone further up the food chain will take a difficult decision for us. If the answer is no, then that is where we have to be.
If shale gas fracking does proceed and inspections start to take place, they must include a large number of unannounced inspections. It is no good letting the operator know when the inspectors are coming, although there will be times when that is necessary. Unannounced, and rigorous, inspections have to be the core of what we are seeking to do.
I say to Government Front Benchers that for the past four years I have worked to highlight the concerns of my local residents. I have also worked with various Ministers to make sure that we can improve the process under discussion. The caveat of my support has always been to make sure that the regulation is robust and that it can be done safely, but if it cannot be done safely it should not be done at all.
We have had a really good debate, with interesting contributions from Members on both sides of the House. I want to start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) for making a powerful point about how unworkable the Bill will be if this Government’s approach to devolution is accepted. I also thank him for his comments on the need for a balanced approach to deemed consent and the need to update new towns legislation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) made an excellent case for the need for long-term planning for sustainable development. I also thank the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). He is no longer in his place, but I totally agree with him on the need to overhaul our system of compulsory purchase orders. Labour has made it very clear that we would do that, and he was right to point out that it is a mission set by this Bill. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) gave a very good list of all the things it would have been helpful to discuss this evening in terms of adding to our infrastructure but that are omitted by the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) made an excellent point about the need for more measures to deliver more housing and said that those homes should also be accessible.
As always, my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) made an excellent case supporting better climate change measures in the Bill. He also highlighted why we must not weaken the carbon abatement measures that should be in existence.
The right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) made an important point about the need to have infrastructure in place if we are going to deliver the homes needed in communities that people want to live in. I also agree with him about the importance of neighbourhood planning in this process. That point was also raised effectively by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw).
I am not quite sure whether the hon. Member for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) was arguing that graffiti is an invasive species and should be removed and not be part of the Bill. Unfortunately, he is not in his place to clarify that point.
Lastly, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), the Chair of the Transport Committee, for addressing the need for longer-term strategic planning and funding for transport, as well as the need to put transport planning in a wider context. Clearly, that is missing from the Bill.
I am sure we all agree that the subject of the Bill is really important. We all know that if we are to facilitate developing our economy, then upgrading old and delivering new infrastructure is vital. Our problem with the Bill is that it promises a lot but in reality delivers very little. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test said, this is a ragbag of measures. The Bill claims that it will bolster investment in infrastructure and improve Britain’s economic performance. It claims that it will improve the planning process, allowing us to get on and get Britain building for the future, and that it will provide a stimulus for job creation across transport, energy, housing developments and national infrastructure.
Although we acknowledge that a few measures here and there may be helpful—such as transferring land to the HCA, and simplifying procedures for nationally significant infrastructure projects—overall we think that the Bill represents a huge lost opportunity to set out a smart framework for the delivery of infrastructure that would provide high-quality places and the necessary support systems for the nation’s future needs.
This weak legislation has been produced against a legacy of poor Government performance and investment in infrastructure and in its delivery. They may have made a flurry of recent announcements on infrastructure, but they are unlikely to make up the ground lost in previous years when infrastructure investment slumped. For example, a Cabinet Office update in May 2013 showed that the value of construction work fell by more than a third—36%—or £11.1 billion between 2012 and May 2013. We have had a fanfare of announcements about the £40 billion for the UK guarantees scheme, but few projects have actually been supported, which recently led the CBI to comment that it was
“exasperated with progress to date.”
It appears that the lack of progress on loan guarantees is reflected elsewhere, with too little support for house building, transport and green energy subsidies. Let us remind ourselves of the Bill’s inadequacy with regard to the delivery of much needed infrastructure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) pointed out so eloquently, there is complete bewilderment about why a top-down reorganisation of the Highways Agency has been proposed. I would have thought that Ministers had learned their lesson about unwanted and unnecessary reorganisations, but perhaps not. If they have, they need to explain why a reorganisation is necessary, when the market clearly wants funding certainty. As my hon. Friend said, the highways measures in the Bill will affect only 2% of roads.