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House of Commons Hansard
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Westminster Hall
03 March 2015
Volume 593

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 3 March 2015

[George Howarth in the Chair]

Local Pharmaceutical Services

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

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Before I call the first speaker, it might be helpful if I point out that the time display has been the subject of a technology failure. Although it is telling the correct time, it is saying that the speech time is already 7 minutes 29 seconds. I say that not because I anticipate any pressure on time, but to prevent anybody who is wondering how long they have been speaking from thinking it is 7 minutes 29 seconds longer than they had anticipated.

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It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I appreciate your pointing out the clock to me. I might have thought I had got stuck in some sort of time warp and was forever on 7 minutes 29 seconds.

I want to put on the record my thanks to Mr Speaker for granting this debate on the essential small pharmacy local pharmaceutical services scheme, which has played and continues to play an important role in supporting small community pharmacies up and down the country. Pharmacies are an essential part of our health care system, and pharmacists play a key role in providing quality health care. They are experts in medicines and they use their clinical expertise and practical knowledge to ensure that medicines are safely supplied to and used by the public.

Over the past few years, a much greater emphasis has been placed on the role of the pharmacist. People have been encouraged to use their local pharmacy as the first port of call for the minor ailments—coughs, colds and skin rashes—that afflict us all from time to time. Pharmacists also play a significant role in programmes such as smoking cessation and emergency contraception, and they do great work with medicine reviews and in ensuring that people use their medicines properly and effectively. They play a huge role in the winter by providing flu jabs efficiently and cost effectively. If I recall correctly, my hon. Friend the Minister supported Westminster flu day last year. Your interest in diabetes is well known, Mr Howarth, and you will be aware of the important role that pharmacists play in helping those with long-term conditions to manage their diseases.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I am a huge supporter of the role of local pharmacies, and I am kept regularly updated about developments by a number of Pendle pharmacists, including Mark Collins of the Barkerhouse road pharmacy in Nelson and Matthew Leedam of Leedams’ pharmacy in Colne.

Does my hon. Friend agree that expanding the crucial role of pharmacies to enable them to better care for patients with long-term conditions, help people to get the best from medicines and offer people the support and advice they need to live independently and stay healthy would benefit not only patients but our local communities and our NHS?

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I absolutely agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. Small community pharmacies often know their patients well, so they are at the forefront of helping people to manage their conditions and know whether they are taking the right amount of medicine. They are often a useful place for people to go for an informal chat about the conditions that affect them.

Community pharmacies are at the heart of our communities. They dispense advice as regularly as medicine, and they help people to make healthier lifestyle choices. Pharmacy Voice, the organisation formed from the three largest community pharmacy associations, strongly advocated the role of the community pharmacy as part of the solution to pressures on accident and emergency and GP services. It has encouraged people to think, “Pharmacy first”, and it has described community pharmacy teams as being perfectly placed to care for patients with common winter ailments. We are coming out of winter and into spring, but pharmaceutical services are there all year round. They are just as adept at dealing with allergies, stings and hay fever as they are at dealing with winter colds.

Last year, Pharmacy Voice identified that up to 8% of A and E visits could have been dealt with by a high street pharmacy, and approximately one fifth of GP visits could have been avoided by visiting the pharmacist. Last year, NHS England reinforced the role of the community pharmacy with the “Feeling under the weather?” campaign. Many Ministers, including my hon. Friend the Minister, have emphasised in responses to written and oral questions that pharmacists have a great role to play in helping people to manage long-term conditions and in helping people with their medication.

None of the pharmacists I spoke to prior to this debate is sure when the role of the essential small pharmacy was first recognised, but I can say with certainty that the essential small pharmacy in the village of Wellow in my constituency has benefited from support, reflecting its small scale and relative remoteness from other pharmacies, since it opened in 1990. The national contract for such pharmacies was first introduced in 2006, and it has been extended a number of times since then. About 100 pharmacies receive support from the essential small pharmacy local pharmaceutical services scheme. Many are located in relatively remote rural areas, but some operate in inner-city communities. Over the years, they have provided services that have been relied upon by residents for their health care as well as their dispensing needs.

The current pharmaceutical needs assessment, published in 2011, supports the continuation of the scheme. It states:

“ESPLPS pharmacies are used to ensure that access to pharmaceutical services is achieved in certain locations in line with the model of access to pharmacy services in ‘Healthy Horizons in Primary Care’.”

Rural bus services are being reduced and it is increasingly difficult to access other pharmacies by public transport, so small pharmacies can easily be described as essential to local communities. Certainly, that is true of Wellow pharmacy.

What is the problem, and why have I requested this debate? These arrangements have existed for many years and have provided modest support for small pharmacies, where they are needed for patients, but where they might not otherwise be economically viable. The national contract was introduced in 2006, and negotiations by the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee have seen it extended a number of times. But what is an essential small pharmacy? The criteria for eligibility are that the pharmacy must be dispensing fewer than 26,400 items a year and must be more than 1 km from the next nearest pharmacy. Their benefit to communities was deemed to be so great that a minimum level of remuneration was set. It is currently just under £80,000 a year. From the pharmacy global sum, a top-up payment would be permitted to ensure the continued viability of the pharmacy. However, NHS England confirmed last autumn that it is not possible to continue national arrangements, leaving individual pharmacies to negotiate with their own NHS area teams. Support has been available from the PSNC, but many local pharmacists have found those negotiations difficult, time consuming and stressful. Although some have been successful, other area teams have not been able to provide certainty.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. She is describing the situation faced by an essential small pharmacy in St Mawes in my constituency. We had a public meeting on 5 February with NHS England local area teams, and hundreds of people showed their support for that pharmacy, which is vital in serving the Roseland peninsula. We have not yet heard from NHS England about whether that funding is secure, but the pharmacy applied for an LPS contract. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the continuing uncertainty that the situation is causing for pharmacists and the communities that they serve.

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My hon. Friend has accurately outlined the situation in her constituency, which I am sure is mirrored across the country. I have received representations from community pharmacists, who have said that they are struggling with short time scales and no certainty from their NHS area teams.

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I think the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) may need to go to the pharmacy. Is the main problem for smaller pharmacies purely the finance, or is it the facilities that they have?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will move on to finance, but it is not my contention that finance is the problem; we just require the local area teams to manage these contracts and get them in place before the deadline of 31 March is reached.

As I was about to say, the contract for Wellow pharmacy, in line with those for every essential small pharmacy across the country, will expire on 31 March. When the contract comes to an end, my constituent Mr Sharma is gravely concerned that his pharmacy will not be able to continue providing these services, unless the local NHS area team decides to renew it, making specific arrangements under the local pharmaceutical services scheme. As yet, he has not received a decision.

Many other pharmacies are similarly affected, and I know that the Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), who cannot be here today, has expressed concerns about the pharmacy at Loughborough university and the one in the village of Wymeswold. I think that perfectly illustrates the diverse localities that these pharmacies serve. It is not just small village pharmacies under threat, but one serving a university campus, where young people are living away from home for the first time and might be in a position to benefit most from the sage, experienced advice of a pharmacist for their front-line health care needs.

I completely understand the need for NHS England to have devolved these contracts to local area teams, but the reality is that 31 March is now exactly four weeks away and for many pharmacists, there is still no certainty. According to Pharmacy Voice, had NHS England renewed the contract, there would have been procurement and tendering issues, so it was devolved to the areas, but we now face a problem where few have confidence that when we get to the end of this month, they will have a new contract.

What are their options? Well, they are pretty stark. They can close immediately, with no notice to the local community, because the contract will have expired and therefore no notice period is necessary. They can try to struggle on, returning to the pharmaceutical list but facing an immediate drop in income, which was previously agreed by all to be necessary to enable them to provide essential services. Or, and I am sure that this is the option most will follow, they can continue to pursue the NHS area teams to prove their value and worth, when in fact that was already established a long while ago.

For small pharmacies, there is a real challenge in viability. Using Wellow pharmacy as an example, it currently issues in the region of 2,200 prescriptions a month. That is pretty close to the 2,400 prescriptions a month that would trigger what is known as an establishment payment, but it is not quite there. It has worked hard to increase business, but in small communities it is incredibly difficult to push numbers above that threshold. My constituent Mr Sharma describes the additional prescriptions needed as a gulf that he has been struggling for years to cross and has never yet achieved.

I do not intend to delve into the issue of dispensing GPs and what is often perceived as a conflict between pharmacies and those GPs who can dispense. That is quite separate from the immediate time pressure faced by these pharmacies, which have already been deemed essential. What my constituent and the other pharmacists who have contacted me have emphasised is the chasm between the number of prescriptions that they routinely issue and the number that they would have to reach in order to receive the establishment payment. For some, the gap is greater than for others, which means that the impact of losing the essential scheme will be felt differently by various pharmacies and that some might be forced out of business faster than others.

Most members of the scheme are already doing significant work to make sure that they are as accessible as possible to patients, including collection of prescriptions from nearby surgeries and free delivery of medicines to patients. As Mr Sharma puts it:

“This pharmacy is the only health care provider in the area of any type, and the nearest other pharmacies are over five miles away in Romsey. If a patient was to need an over-the-counter medicine, require a medicine free of charge for a child, need support for self-care, or have a minor injury, there is a significant risk that without the availability of my pharmacy, they would attend either the GP surgery in Romsey or the accident and emergency department of Southampton general hospital.”

What he wants, in common with pharmacists from across the country who have been in touch with me, is some certainty going forward.

As Has Modi, of Deanshanger in the constituency of the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), has said:

“These contracts have been left to the discretion of the area team of NHS England, to whom we are required to make a formal proposal.”

The primary care contracts manager of the area team is adamant that the proposal will not be supported unless it can be proved “value for money”. Without the financial support that that entails, this small pharmacy will undoubtedly have to close because the normal funding mechanisms are massively stacked against small pharmacies. It does not even receive various basic fees—which can be substantial—that are available to average and larger pharmacies. This is why the ESPLPS arrangements were put in place to safeguard small but essential pharmacies in the heart of the community.

I appreciate that the current arrangements cannot continue, and that because the Secretary of State has devolved the contracting of primary care services to NHS England, a further extension to the scheme is not possible. He has already extended it once, from 2013 to 2015, and he cannot devolve responsibility for commissioning and then interfere with how that same commissioning operates. Therefore, no extension will be forthcoming and I accept that.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) has said, many pharmacies are actively negotiating with their area teams, but concerns have been raised about the responses they are receiving, including time-limited support, and requirements to demonstrate that they are providing value for money. However, those area teams with an essential small pharmacy service are receiving a top-up on their allocations, so the funding is already there and is ongoing from the global pharmacy sum. Any amounts allocated have to be spent on pharmacy services and cannot be redistributed to any other purpose.

Effectively, if the essential small pharmacies are not supported, the moneys will simply go to other pharmacies in locations that have not been deemed to be of such an essential nature. Presumably, they might be redistributed to the larger existing pharmacies, many in high street locations, some distance from the village where there once was a supported, critically important pharmacy.

Essential small pharmacies are working hard to ensure that their “pitch” to the area teams is as robust as possible. Many, such as Wellow pharmacy, are garnering support from the local community, from appreciative patients and from borough, county and parish councils. Local residents are filling in surveys, outlining the services that they use at the pharmacy and identifying what impact closure would have on them personally.

It seems to me a relatively simple proposition: if these pharmacies are essential, and successive Governments have agreed they are, what more can we do to make sure they are retained? I have three things that I wish to ask of the Minister today. First, we need some clarity over what constitutes an essential small pharmacy. Some 90 pharmacies historically receive payments under the scheme. It would be helpful if they could point to an incredibly robust set of criteria, so that it would be easy for the pharmacists then to identify to the area teams why they need the support that has been forthcoming for, in at least the case of Wellow, 25 years.

Secondly, we need some encouragement to NHS England area teams to ensure that the outstanding contracts, which are believed to be the majority of them, are resolved before 31 March, so that pharmacy services are not simply forced to stop in these communities. I know that some are resolved and that others are working very actively to make sure that they are in place before the contracts—and therefore the payments—expire, but from my e-mail inbox, I am acutely aware of how many are simply in a state of limbo, having no idea whether their business will be viable 28 days from now. I would welcome the Minister considering how best she might convey that urgency to NHS area teams.

Finally, we need closer investigation of what role NHS England could play in making sure, within the procurement rules, that pharmacies deemed over decades to be essential can continue to receive support, via the pharmacy global sum, so that there is no additional cost to the NHS area teams and that the top-ups that area teams receive remain in place. However, it should also be made very clear that those can only be used for pharmacy services and not distributed among the wider health care community.

As I said at the beginning, we all appreciate the very important role pharmacists play in our health care provision. They dispense advice and knowledge, as well as drugs. In those of our communities remote from other health care providers, 100 or so of them have been deemed to be essential—and we need to keep them.

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I think that this is the first time I have spoken when you are in the Chair, Mr Howarth. I hope that I do not receive a yellow card from you, given the rumour that is going around at the moment that the refereeing system from soccer will be brought into this place.

I do not have a constituency interest to declare inasmuch as the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) does. I thank her for securing this debate, but I represent urban Rotherham, which is a little different from some of the other constituencies represented here. My interest is that I chair the all-party pharmacy group, as I have done for nearly five years in this Parliament. I also have a personal interest in pharmacy and its development.

I am sure that most of us know that pharmacies provide services that are vital to some patients. Without financial support, we could lose them and patients would not be easily able to access other health services. The current system ensures that the benefits of access to pharmacy networks are spread widely. Furthermore, if small pharmacies have to close, local patients may find it harder to access and receive advice on medicines and support for healthy living services, such as stopping smoking or weight loss, that pharmacies have begun to offer.

The lack of a pharmacy in many areas could lead to additional strain on other parts of the NHS. The hon. Lady mentioned GP surgeries and A and E. We all know about the pressure on A and E: I think nationally 50% of people who attend A and E get no treatment whatsoever. Some of them may not need treatment, but what they should get could be provided by a pharmacy or dentist, not by the local hospital. I think last year we had 76 people turn up at Rotherham’s A and E with toothache. Quite frankly, we need to start educating the population a bit more about where they should go, but clearly the pharmacy has a major role to play.

Two of the four organisations who support the all-party pharmacy group are the PSNC and Pharmacy Voice, which have been highlighted by the hon. Lady, and I have talked to them briefly about this issue. The all-party group has not looked at that in the past four years, but we have looked at lots of issues and had many meetings with both Ministers and civil servants about pharmacy developments. Those organisations tell me that they certainly believe that sufficient funding is available in the NHS to support pharmacy, as has already been said, but they are concerned about the responses that some contractors have received locally.

PSNC has pressed NHS England to give this matter urgent attention, stressing the impact on contractor and patients of any delay. As was pointed out well, there are four weeks to go and there must be deep concern in areas where matters have not been settled that pharmacies may go under. Those two organisations also believe that NHS England needs to consider and confirm its position on each of the pharmacies urgently. The overwhelming majority have strong cases for continued funding.

There are many reasons why a pharmacy is a vital component of a community. Indeed, pharmacies lie at the heart of a community. Community pharmacies are the most accessible health care locations in the country: they are the more than 11,500 places in England where people can go to get their prescriptions dispensed and receive advice from experts on medicines and support to help them make lifestyle choices. Many community pharmacies offer extended opening hours and weekend services. Unlike many GP services, they are more available to the population than ever before.

In one of the last two meetings of the all-party group, we looked at the new medicine service that pharmacists are deeply involved in to help patients to adjust, if need be, to the medicines prescribed to them. Then, just last week, we had a round-table discussion with many organisations representing patients with mental health problems on whether issues such as mental health should come under that new service. That debate is ongoing, but it shows the potential for pharmacists to help people.

Community pharmacy also helps to prevent ill health and protect the public. The provision of smoking cessation services, which has already been mentioned, as well as health checks and, here in London, seasonal influenza vaccination programmes and emergency hormonal contraception are all examples of how pharmacies help to reduce public risk and mitigate potential downstream costs for the NHS.

This winter, the all-party group looked deeply at influenza vaccines. London is contracted to do that, unlike many other parts of the country, which is another area where we can take the burden off GP services. I have no doubt that we all read the e-mails we get constantly from the British Medical Association about the pressure on GP services, and measures such as professional pharmacists giving influenza jabs seem to be common sense to most people. We should look at expanding the London contract.

Committed, trained, competent pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, dispensers and counter assistants are often the first point of contact for the public. More than 1.6 million visits a day are made to community pharmacies, which is more than to any other primary care provider. Many years ago, I saw the real strength of pharmacies. I took my family of young children to Spain. One of them fell ill and I said in the hotel, “We may need a doctor,” and they said, “Well, just go up to the local pharmacist.” I have to say that I was impressed, not just that they could understand my Yorkshire accent—or English, if that is what it is—but by the advice we got, with no need to go and bother anyone else. It was clear that, years ago, other parts of Europe were using pharmacists as the great pillars of strength that they are. We now do that, but we should continue to do so. Indeed, that is one of that major reasons why I took over the chair of the all-party group.

At a time when the England’s high streets are under siege, it is important to remember that pharmacies employ local people and help to bring variety over and above betting and charity shops—another vital issue—with a network of premises reaching out into communities, especially deprived ones. There is no evidence to show that simply reducing the number of pharmacies will improve care for patients. Central to the future development of community pharmacies is supporting them to become hubs for health care in local communities, to be the first port of call for health advice to help people to manage their health and well-being, both in self-limiting common conditions and in supporting greater self-care in the management of long-term conditions.

We do have healthy living pharmacists up and down the land now. About 10% to 12% of pharmacists give people advice on lifestyle issues on a daily basis. I do not want to encourage the Front-Bench Members to start having a go at one another about the Health and Social Care Act 2012 that went through earlier in the Parliament. I did serve on the Bill Committee, and as the Minister has heard me say before, I supported some of the changes, particularly moving public health back into the community.

There are two things in that Act that have not been on people’s lips since. One was reducing health inequalities. It is essential to have local pharmacists, working in areas where we have known inequalities. The other one was population health. Again, we do not seem to be talking about not looking just at people who are ill. I have often said that the national health service has been a national ill health service in reality: it responds to people who are ill.

If we are to get public health right and improve health in this century, we must move away from the idea that the NHS is here as an ill health service and towards being proactive. Lifestyles are a bigger threat to public health than anything else. Population health is crucial and I see no better primary health care practitioners with better numerical access to the population than local pharmacists. Although that is not about the potential threat to pharmacies, which should be protected—quite right, too, in the circumstances—that will be a growing issue and pharmacies should become a proactive health service in years to come. To lose pharmacists through these changes, if they happen, will not help in any way whatsoever.

I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say to some of the questions asked by the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North, particularly on the ticking clock, which stands at four weeks. If I was running a business such as a pharmacy now and I had got as close to that time as that, I would be deeply worried, as I would be for the people who work in the pharmacy with me.

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It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth, and not for the first time. I extend my congratulations to the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing the debate. She made an excellent case, and I could not disagree with a word that she said. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) for his typical insight. He will be reassured to know that I understood every single word.

With access to treatments under increasing pressure, with more people waiting in A and E and with GP appointments fully booked, it is right that we devote parliamentary time to discussing how we can increase the role of local pharmacy services in our communities, so I commend the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North on bringing the matter to the House. If we were not four weeks away from a general election and on a one-line Whip, I am sure that the Chamber would be packed. It is a shame that we are discussing a matter of such importance to colleagues from all parts of the House in this environment, because the subject is important to everybody who understands and cares about what is happening in their local health economy.

On 31 March 2015, as we have heard, the Local Pharmaceutical Services (Essential Small Pharmacies) Directions 2013 will be revoked. As a result, on that date, the essential small pharmacies scheme will come to an end. In contract negotiations in 2004-05, the Department of Health and the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee agreed that essential small pharmacies should be contracted under the local pharmaceutical services provisions. In discussions, NHS England has confirmed that it and the PSNC cannot negotiate a new arrangement to replace the existing contracts. Instead, that must be done locally. An NHS England document published in January this year states that contractors have two options available to them:

“1. To rely on any right of return to a Pharmaceutical List maintained under Regulation 10 of the NHS (Pharmaceutical and Local Pharmaceutical Services) Regulations 2013 (“the Regulations”); or

2. To submit a proposal to provide Local Pharmaceutical Services (“LPS”) under Part 13 of the Regulations.”

In effect, they can either receive standard pharmacy funding as set out in the drug tariff, which would result in reduced incomes, or they can agree a new local pharmaceutical service contract with the local area team. The report by NHS England neglects to mention a third possible outcome, which is that pharmacies may be left with no option. Pharmacies on reduced incomes may no longer be viable, and they would have to cease to provide pharmaceutical services. The PSNC states that pharmacies that face having to close down will not have to give notice, because NHS England is aware of the termination of the contract, although it recommends contacting local area teams. I am sure we all agree that that could have a devastating impact on local services. Many people rely on their local pharmacy, and I am genuinely concerned that as a result of the plans, those people could be left without the pharmaceutical services that they need and rely on.

Can the Minister outline any transitional arrangements that have been made to ensure that pharmacies are not forced to close unnecessarily? Are any contingency plans in place to cope with difficulties? I would be grateful if she could outline the discussions that the Government had with industry representatives when the plans were drawn up. Notwithstanding any transitional issues, can she provide an estimate of how many pharmacies may be forced to close under the new arrangements? Pharmacies play a crucial role, especially in rural and remote communities such as mine. Pharmacies often provide key services, and the average person will visit their pharmacy more often than their family doctor—I certainly do. Such engagement is crucial in maintaining good health and well-being. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley spoke at length about the fact that community pharmacies provide services such as smoking cessation and dietary advice, and those services must be maintained.

I am sorry to disappoint my right hon. Friend, but I will mention the Health and Social Care Act 2012, because the Government’s NHS reorganisation has forced intense pressure on all parts of our NHS. That can clearly be seen, as I said at the outset, in the waiting rooms of our GP surgeries and in our A and E departments. According to the most recent GP patient survey, almost 6 million people could not get a GP appointment the last time they tried, and a further 7.8 million waited a week or more. GPs are under severe strain, and pharmacies can play a critical role in alleviating that pressure and expanding access. We also know from the GP patient survey that some 1 million patients went to A and E because they could not get a GP appointment.

More than 1 million people per day—I think the figure is 1.6 million—in England visit their local pharmacy, and the average person will visit their pharmacy 14 times a year. The GP patient survey has shown that GPs and A and E departments already struggle to cope with patient numbers, so they would simply not be able to manage if pharmacies were forced to turn patients away. The Government must make it clear that that will not happen under the new regime.

In a White Paper published in 2008, Labour made it clear how pharmacies can deliver more services to ease pressure on primary care. Pharmacies have a huge role to play in our NHS, and the service simply cannot afford for pharmacy not to play a key role. To address pressures in primary care, the Government should implement measures such as improving links between pharmacy and the NHS 111 service so that care is better co-ordinated. Can the Minister explain what steps the Government are taking to utilise pharmacy better within the NHS?

With those points in mind, I would be grateful if the Minister could outline how the Government will ensure that service coverage and access to pharmacies are not compromised by the upcoming changes. Further to that, will she explain how the Government will ensure that pharmacies provide more services to alleviate pressure on other parts of the system? That is a particular issue in remote, rural and isolated areas, as the hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North has said, where there are no bus services worthy of the name and no other public transport. The hon. Lady made the case exceptionally well. Isolated health economies are already struggling and frequently achieving sub-optimal outcomes. Reducing access will only worsen those outcomes and increase acute service pressures. Many people rely on those services, and they will be worried that they could lose them. I hope that the Minister can address those concerns, and if my fears are misplaced, I hope that she will explain why.

I am reminded of the roll-out of NHS 111. That has nothing to do with the Minister, because she was not in post at the time, and she knows that I hold her in the highest regard. However, I ask the Government not to repeat the failings of the 111 roll-out when it comes to small pharmacies. Independent academic studies showed Ministers that 111 was not fit for purpose and not fit to be rolled out. Members from all parts of the House warned the Government that the 111 pilots had not worked. I warned the Government before the roll-out of NHS 111 that the scheme was not ready, but they ignored all the advice and rolled out a service that they knew was misfiring and that contributed to the worst A and E performance in more than a decade. That deterioration in patient care was avoidable. I urge the Minister not to repeat those mistakes, but to listen to, accommodate and respond to all the concerns raised today.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth. I congratulate colleagues on their contributions, and I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing the debate and highlighting some of the challenges facing local pharmacies. For me, as the Minister with responsibility for public health, the debate is also a welcome opportunity to place on record the wider contribution that pharmacies make. The right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Kevin Barron) singled out that contribution and emphasised the potential of pharmacies.

I hope that I can give some of the reassurances that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr Reed), sought. Overall, the picture for pharmacy is positive, and it has the potential to play a greater role. I have talked about and, I hope, championed that on a number of occasions, and there is an awful lot more that we can do. I will talk a little bit about that wider point, but I will also address the specifics of the essential small pharmacies scheme and the challenges that face those pharmacies.

People understandably appreciate the ability to access pharmaceutical services near to where they live or work. Essential small pharmacies have, in the past, been valuable in securing and maintaining the community access that my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North has so ably described. NHS England’s five-year forward view makes it clear that our health services must evolve to cope with not only increasing demand but the different patterns of people’s lifestyles. Every part of the health system is now considering how best to engage with that challenge and how to allocate available resources most efficiently.

Although others have touched on it, it is worth revisiting the history of the essential small pharmacies scheme. It has been in existence since the 1960s as a way of ensuring access to services in local communities for patients and the public in locations where the viability of such pharmacies might have been uncertain. As others have said, that is often in isolated rural areas, but not exclusively; sometimes such pharmacies are in new residential developments, for example. The scheme operates against a backdrop that has changed a great deal since its inception in the 1960s, and I will perhaps touch on the ways in which the world around the scheme has evolved.

The scheme was reviewed as part of the new community pharmacy contractual framework, and became known by yet another snappy health service title: the essential small pharmacy local pharmaceutical services scheme. The contracts were not designed to be permanent; they were transitional arrangements. The shadow Minister mentioned transitional arrangements, and the scheme is coming to the close of quite a long transitional arrangement, as was flagged some years ago. Pharmacies admitted to the new scheme, which replaced the previous scheme in April 2006, had to be nominated by the then local primary care trust and agreed by the Department of Health. As in the previous scheme, pharmacies were required to meet certain conditions, the most important of which was that they had to dispense more than 6,000 and fewer than 26,400 prescription items per annum and be located more than 1 km from the nearest pharmacy by the nearest practical route available to the public on foot. There is no central definition of “essential” but, broadly speaking, it is as I have described. It is a case of considering the different schemes. Essentially, community access is at the heart of the definition of “essential.” The scheme closed, and no new pharmacies have been allowed to join since 2006.

The current scheme was intended to be temporary, but it was extended in 2012 for a further two years. That was done in the context of a new market entry system for pharmacies and the changes made to the NHS under the Health and Social Care Act, which the shadow Minister mentioned, with the objective of enabling NHS England to consider the options and to give adequate notice to affected pharmacist contractors. With four weeks to go, it is obviously a concern that we are debating the fact that some pharmacies do not quite know what is happening. I will address the efforts to resolve that, but hopefully this debate, if nothing else, will be a good spur to everyone engaged in those important discussions and negotiations, so that we can ensure that they are brought to a sensible resolution.

The end date of the scheme, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North mentioned, is 31 March 2015, which means that affected pharmacies have had two years to prepare for the changes since the scheme was extended. I stress that the ending of the scheme does not mean that affected pharmacies must close. It is obviously up to the individual contractor whether they wish to return to the pharmaceutical list and come under the terms of the community pharmacy contractual framework or submit a proposal to provide local pharmaceutical services. Many have done that, and I will touch on the numbers in a moment.

I appreciate that it has been a difficult time for contractors, such as the ones described by my hon. Friends the Members for Romsey and Southampton North and for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), because small businesses are often concerned with serving their communities and perhaps have a bit less time for protracted contractual negotiations. I hope and expect that they will receive appropriate support from local NHS teams. I give an assurance that, if a change in provision is needed, NHS England’s local area teams will work, and are working, with individual providers, but my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North has highlighted where she thinks that work needs a bit more energy to ensure that people in her community can continue to access services conveniently.

Of course, there are new ways of delivering dispensing services. We have internet pharmacies, and many pharmacies now offer delivery services to patients—members of my family have taken advantage of such services. People who are less mobile can have medicines delivered straight to their door, and I hope it reassures the House to know that 99% of the population can reach a pharmacy within 20 minutes by car, and that 96% of people can do so by walking or using public transport.

At the end of March 2014, there were 11,647 pharmacies in England providing NHS services, which is 18% more than in March 2006. That is a success story for pharmacies and not the opposite; it is definitely a growing story, and rightly so, for exactly the reasons that the right hon. Member for Rother Valley highlighted. Pharmacies have an essential role in supporting our public health system, as well as our NHS.

Some 226 pharmacies were accepted on to the ESPLPS pilot scheme in 2006 and, of those, 73 are still eligible to receive payments, which is less than 1% of pharmacies overall. Of those 73, 16 have reached an agreement or have a solution at a very advanced stage, and 47 have proposals under consideration, so the balance of around 10 are still working closely with area teams, which I hope gives Members at least some reassurance that the scale of the challenge is not huge. The challenge is important and serious for those who have not resolved the situation, and I urge area teams to work closely and give maximum support, but I reassure the House that this is not a large-scale problem across the country; it is a localised problem. None the less, it is important, particularly for local communities. People are probably most concerned about pharmacies where proposals are under consideration, because the clock is ticking. We want those proposals to be given serious and urgent consideration so that we can bring those discussions to some sort of conclusion.

I reassure members of the public that if their essential small pharmacy closes, they will still have access. I have given the assurance that many pharmacies will not close, but people nevertheless want to know that they will still have access. I have mentioned some of the ways in which people now have greater choice than in 2006, and NHS England has an absolute responsibility to ensure that communities can continue to access appropriate services and consider alternative local provision. That provision might be through new contractors, or through a service that is accessible as part of a larger retail offer somewhere nearby. That has become more popular in recent years, and it allows people to combine their weekly shop with a visit to the pharmacy, allowing them to take advantage of public health work through those outlets.

The closing of the scheme does not mean that affected pharmacies have to close; quite the opposite. The two available options have already been outlined. Pharmacies can return to providing NHS pharmaceutical services under the contractual framework and no longer receive the top-up payment, which I accept might be difficult for some, particularly very small businesses. Alternatively, pharmacies can make a proposal, and those proposals are now under consideration and being worked on. I cannot comment specifically on the case in West Wellow in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, but the area team will know about this debate; we will follow up to ensure that the area team has a record of it and understands that Members were sufficiently concerned about the matter to bring it to the House’s attention today.

More broadly, on the subject of how much community pharmacies have changed since 2005-06, we now see pharmacies as places to go for much more than just getting a prescription dispensed and getting advice on medicines. Pharmacies are a valuable, and sometimes the most accessible, health resource in a local community. We have introduced new revenue streams, such as medicines use reviews and the new medicine service, which contractors can choose to provide to their local population, so there are other routes for local pharmacies.

Clearly, with my public health responsibilities, I am happy to take this opportunity to highlight the relevance of community pharmacies to providing public health services. The NHS document on its long-term sustainability, the five-year forward view, calls on the nation to get serious about public health as one way in which we can avoid spending billions of pounds on avoidable illness. Pharmacies have an important role to play. I have visited pharmacies that are rolling out pre-diabetes checks and other such things. It makes no sense for us, as a nation, to gear up to spend money to serve 4.5 million people with type 2 diabetes when we could do valuable preventive work to stop millions of them getting type 2 diabetes in the first place. Even if people can live with type 2 diabetes for a long time, we want people to live not only long lives but well lives. Living a long time with a number of co-morbidities is not a great quality of life, so there are all sorts of reasons for encouraging pharmacies to be on the front line of preventing illness and helping people to avoid such conditions.

As the right hon. Member for Rother Valley mentioned, there are now more than 1,000 healthy living pharmacies across the country, and there are many more in the pipeline. Those pharmacies utilise the skills of the whole team—not just the pharmacist, but those trained as health champions. I am conscious that the individuals who work in a pharmacy may be more approachable to many people, may understand the local community particularly well and may have insights to bring. I saw some good examples of that when I went around constituencies last Easter talking to pharmacists who knew their communities particularly well, many having grown up in them. They knew the individuals there and knew how to target leaders in the community. I am a great fan of pharmacists and their role in all public health promotion work.

More than 9,000 community pharmacies in England supported the smoke-free January campaign last month, giving out quit cards, and engaging with smokers in person, through their digital presence and on social media. More than 6,500 have signed up to support no smoking day later this month, and that number continues to grow. It is valuable work. Pharmacies have also delivered a large part of this year’s winter flu immunisation programme; more than 105,000 vaccinations have been provided through that route in London alone. Again, as the shadow Minister said, pharmacies are an important way to relieve pressure on other parts of the system, and they are recompensed for those services.

This debate has provided us with a valuable chance to put on record what tangible value pharmacies bring to our society, and particularly to our health system, of which they can sometimes be the unsung heroes. I applaud how they have supported and continue to support our public health ambitions. The five-year forward view had a whole chapter on prevention. Getting serious about public health is at the heart of the challenge of sustainability for our much-valued and much-loved NHS. We need pharmacies to play their part. Estimates suggest, as I think the shadow Minister mentioned, that 18% of GP consultations for common and minor ailments and about 8% of accident and emergency attendances could be dealt with by pharmacists, which emphasises their importance.

I appreciate the concerns that have been raised about this scheme. I hope that I have given the House some reassurance that although it is clearly a challenge for the pharmacy in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North and some others, we have now reduced the number of pharmacies with unresolved issues to a very small number. However, it is critical in these last few weeks before the transitional scheme expires that we resolve the remaining issues in a way that gives people a chance to plan for the future. Those essential small pharmacies have played an important role in the past, and NHS England area teams are ready to work with, and I hope are working with, any contractor who wants to continue providing a pharmacy service to their community. I will encourage them to continue to engage, to ensure that we can reach as many outcomes as possible, particularly for the benefit of local communities, which have been so ably championed by my hon. Friend.

Sitting suspended.

Fire Safety (Case of Sophie Rosser)

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May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be able to start this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Howarth? I know that it is usual and traditional to say that, but—as I just reminded you before we started—despite our first meeting more than 30 years ago in Cardiff, this is the first opportunity I have had to start a debate under your chairmanship in Westminster Hall, albeit in my last month as a Member of Parliament. It is a great pleasure to have you in the Chair.

Sophie Rosser was brought up in Cardiff, and her parents are my constituents. She was a bright and intelligent young lady with everything to live for. In her early 20s, she relocated to London to pursue a career in architecture and interior design. She lived with her boyfriend at Meridian Place, an upscale Docklands property that had been redeveloped, as so many have been over the past 20 years in that part of London.

Sophie came to national prominence in August 2012 when she faced the awful dilemma that most people will have thought about at some time in their lives. Faced with a building that was ablaze, would we risk our life to rescue a loved one? We are all well aware of the sound advice that we should follow, which is to act calmly and leave everything to the professionals, but at some time in our lives we must all have thought about how we might react were we faced with such awful circumstances. Sophie returned to her home and knew that her boyfriend was still in the building. She made the immediate decision to try to enter and save him—a decision that cost her her life.

Fireman Carter of the London fire brigade was attending his first actual fire at Meridian Place. He honestly informed Sophie’s inquest that he was frightened when he entered the building, even though he was a fully trained fireman with all the correct safety equipment, breathing apparatus and so on. He told the coroner that he was frightened. He was on his hands and knees, groping across the fourth floor of the building, when he found Sophie. She had been overcome by smoke and had clearly been disorientated before losing consciousness. Although she was removed from the building, she died shortly afterwards.

Sophie’s inquest was held in September last year. The coroner, Mary Hassell, highlighted a number of fire safety issues at Meridian Place: the fire alarm had not been working for two years; there were issues with the self-closing fire doors; the building had been constructed with inadequate smoke ventilation shafts; and there had been only one fire risk assessment since 1997. Nevertheless, I want to make it clear to the Minister that the purpose of today’s debate is to highlight general issues of fire safety that are of relevance given the circumstances of Sophie’s death. It is particularly important that I reiterate that because the London fire brigade is continuing its investigations regarding the tragedy and has not yet concluded as to whether any charges might be raised. For the avoidance of any confusion, I do not expect the Minister to comment on the specifics of Sophie’s case. I have said as much as I intend to say about that, but it sets the background and context for the fire safety issues that I want to raise.

My purpose today is to examine the adequacy of the current legislative framework as it relates to fire safety. I do so not only given my constituency interest, but in my role as chairman of the all-party group on insurance and financial services, which has held a number of meetings this Parliament on the issue of fire safety. I will touch on some of the other issues later in the debate, but the primary concern that has been expressed by Sophie’s parents, as well as by many professionals who deal with fire safety, is the lack of clarity about who is accountable for the implementation of fire safety laws. In large-scale developments, who has that responsibility? Is it the owner, the property management company, the residents’ association or the individual tenant? Responsibilities sometimes seem to overlap to such an extent that each party comes to believe that it is someone else’s job to ensure that fire safety rules are followed.

Three million new fire doors are bought and installed every year in this country. They are not just doors, but sophisticated pieces of engineering that are fundamental to fire safety strategy in buildings. Critically, they protect escape routes in communal areas. If they are to save lives, they must work correctly and be regularly inspected and tested. However, in a recent survey by fire risk assessors, it was found that no fewer than 80% of escape routes in buildings were obstructed—that is four fifths of all escape routes. Some 65% of fire doors, which are fitted with a spring to ensure that they close, were wedged open, and 85% had their self-closing mechanism disconnected. People see such examples every day; the surveys show that the failings are the norm. In fact, there cannot be one of us who has not seen many such instances in public buildings, even in the Palace of Westminster—I have seen such instances here. It is an offence to have a fire door wedged open, but who checks or enforces that? When failings are found, the lines of accountability are not clear enough.

Sophie’s father, Julian Rosser, fronted this year’s fire door safety week, an awareness campaign that is all about highlighting the issues and encouraging everyone to check the condition of fire doors and to report faults. The campaign is actually part of the Government’s own communication strategy on the matter—Sophie’s father was fronting a Government campaign, but he does not think that an awareness campaign goes far enough, or that such campaigns are ever likely to be enough, given the massive risks that we face every day from fire safety being compromised in the way that I have outlined. It is particularly troubling that new research published as part of fire door safety week showed that half of those surveyed who had legal responsibility for fire safety did not know that they had that responsibility or were unclear about what their responsibilities were.

In 2009, a major fire broke out at Lakanal House, a tower block in Camberwell in London. Six people lost their lives. Ten years earlier, the local council had scheduled the building for demolition because of what were believed to be fire risks, but that did not happen. Following the fire, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority set up the Lakanal House working group to consider the fire safety issues that arose from the tragedy. It formally completed its work last year.

The basis of fire safety management is the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, which radically changed the previous regulatory landscape. Following the receipt of the report from the Lakanal House working group, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority reached these conclusions:

“Nearly 10 years after the introduction of the…Fire Safety…Order…the Authority wishes to explore whether the regime is achieving all that is desirable. The Government has already undertaken some of this work in relation to business, as part of its wider deregulation and burden reduction strategy, but the extent of that work—

according to the planning authority—

“was limited.

Specifically, the Authority is concerned that there are issues about: complexity; understanding among responsible persons”—

in fact, the evidence that I have referred to highlights and endorses that concern. The authority also believed that there were

“contradictions or gaps in the total legislative framework…and that the system of devolved managerial and democratic oversight of fire safety protection activities is unsupported by common methodologies or performance measures. There are also issues about how well guidance is informing responsible persons”.

Accordingly, the planning authority has commissioned a study of the legislative framework, which is now under way. The study will consider, among other things, the general background to and the principles underpinning fire safety legislation, including who has responsibility for fire safety and, in particular, the impact in our capital city. My constituents want clearer definitions of who is responsible for fire safety in multi-occupancy lettings, and legislation to require regular fire risk assessments by properly certified people.

I indicated earlier that our all-party group has been looking at general fire safety issues as well. One of the matters to cause me deep concern was learning from many fire authorities that fire services do not respond to some 80% of fire alarms that go off in urban areas every day. The reason for that is that the fire services have come to believe that such alarms are most likely to be false ones. In fact, the fire brigade comes out when it has an individual physical report of a fire in addition to receiving information about a fire alarm going off. Without any such report, however, it does not follow that the fire brigade will attend. The all-party group was astounded to hear that information.

We also heard from the Glass and Glazing Federation about its concern with a lot of the improvements in building specifications, in particular as they apply to glass in buildings. I do not need to explain quite how critical that can be, especially given how glass can burst and, as a result, let air into a building to feed a fire. The federation wrote to me when it knew that the debate was to be held today. It referred to its previous meeting with the all-party group and drew attention to

“a general issue which should be of overall concern—that is insufficient attention given to provisions in the fabric of our buildings to protect against fire, which severely threatens levels of fire safety in practice (especially we note, built-in resistance against fire and its effects).”

I also want to draw attention to the recent argument from the deputy commissioner of the London fire brigade for sprinklers to be fitted into more buildings. I have a copy of a briefing note that he produced for the London planning authority only last year:

“There is clear evidence that sprinklers are effective at rapidly suppressing fires; in buildings fully protected by sprinklers they control 99 per cent of fires.

Sprinklers also greatly improve the safety of firefighters…they are effective in reducing the risks of flashover and backdraft conditions.

LFB believes there are opportunities for developers and building owners to save money, save property and protect the lives”,

by putting sprinklers into more buildings, not least because sprinklers are nowhere near

“as expensive as people think”.

Yet again, however, sprinklers are put forward as an awareness issue, rather than as a legislative one, and that is a matter of some concern.

I want to draw the attention of the House to what my constituents and many others regard as a gap in the existing legislation and practice. Are responsibilities and roles clear? Are they understood? Do they get discharged in practice? Such questions were posed to the London fire brigade by LFEPA when it set up the review. The specific answer came in paragraph 28 of the fire professionals’ response:

“In general terms, there must be some doubt that the answer to these questions is yes and the ability of the Brigade to comment on how well others are doing their job is constrained by the absence of the necessary tools, information and locus. As set out above, the legislative framework remains overlapping and complicated, some of it no doubt necessarily so (buildings like The Shard are not the product of simplicity)”—

a rather chilling line—

“but with worrying potential implications. It would not be against the grain of experience to conclude that these factors mitigate against success.”

That is not an opinionated individual, but a professional, reporting to the London planning authority for the fire services. That paragraph sets out the challenge not only for all of us, but for Government. My constituents hope that that challenge is one that the Government will embrace.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) on securing the debate on behalf of the family of his deceased constituent Sophie Rosser, and on the clear way in which he put forward his views.

My hon. Friend said at the outset that he would talk about the generalities of fire safety, because an investigation by the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority remains ongoing, and I will have to respond in kind by dealing with the building regulations and other requirements in force. I cannot comment specifically on the sad case that has led to our discussion this morning.

Never has the clear fire safety advice to get out, stay out and call 999 rung so true as in that case. Yet we must accept that with the best will in the world there is always the risk that individuals will not heed the advice. They will not always put their own safety above their concern for others. In Sophie’s case, she simply wanted to ensure that her fiancé was safe. I am sure that we can all understand that primary instinct to protect those whom we love, even, on occasion, in the extreme circumstances that faced Sophie on that tragic night.

The Government’s long-standing and well recognised Fire Kills campaign, which is run in partnership with the fire and rescue authorities, works hard each year to provide the public with advice and information on how best to protect themselves and their family and friends from the risk of fire in the home through sensible safety precautions. We believe firmly that fire prevention is always better than cure.

Fire Kills provides regular fire prevention advice and reminders to householders, irrespective of tenure. Advice given includes: to install smoke alarms on every level of the home and to test them regularly to ensure that they are working; to carry out a bedtime check, including shutting doors; never to smoke in bed and to ensure that cigarettes are put out properly; never to leave cooking or candles unattended; and to check electrical equipment and never use faulty products or appliances.

The campaign also provides clear advice on what action to take should householders be unfortunate enough to experience a fire in their home. They and their family should use a planned and practised escape route and, to repeat the exhortation, they should get out, stay out and call 999. Thankfully, in most cases such messages, repeated regularly through a variety of channels, have proved highly effective. Householders are increasingly safe from the risk of fire in the home and its tragic consequences: over the past decade the number of fire incidents has fallen by 64%, and the number of deaths in the home by 36%.

Of course, we can never be complacent. I understand why my hon. Friend has brought forward this debate. We must always be vigilant to make sure that advice, guidance and requirements are up to date. It is obviously right, especially given the distressing circumstances, that we expect that someone should be held to account for any fire safety failings that may have led to Sophie’s death or exposed other residents to an unacceptable level of risk. Fire and its causes, however, are always complex issues. Investigating what went wrong in a particular circumstance is of necessity a time-consuming and detailed process. It is vital that such work is done, both to ensure that lessons are learned, so that we prevent similar tragedies, and, crucially, to ensure that those responsible for any fire safety failures or shortcomings identified in an investigation are held to account.

There can be no doubt that in the case of residential blocks of flats there is robust legislation in place to ensure that landlords, freeholders and others who exercise a degree of control over the management or maintenance of a building take action to remove the risk of fire or reduce it to the lowest level that is reasonable. The principal means of regulation and control for residential properties, including those in blocks of flats, is the Housing Act 2004. Owners—whether landlords or freeholders—and housing authorities are responsible for ensuring the safety of the whole building; under the housing health and safety rating system, that includes fire safety. Local housing authorities have a clear responsibility to keep the condition of all housing in their area under review, and to take action to ensure that hazards to residents—whether in their flats or in the communal parts of a building—are removed or reduced to an acceptable level.

Under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, all those responsible for workplaces and buildings to which the public have access are required to assess the risk from fire and to ensure appropriate fire precautions are in place and maintained in good working order. For new buildings, the building regulations in force at the time of construction dictate the range of fire safety measures that need to be installed and managed to afford an acceptable level of life safety in the event of a fire. For blocks of flats, the regulations require that walls, ceiling and doors be built of fire-resisting construction materials that ensure that, in most cases, a fire should not spread from the room in which it has started.

Following the Lakanal house fire, to which my hon. Friend referred, the coroner called on the Government to simplify the guidance in approved document B of the building regulations. My Department’s Secretary of State committed to a review, which will deliver a revised document in 2016-17; the intention is to simplify the guidance where possible and update and revise the technical content at the same time. My hon. Friend mentioned sprinklers. They are recognised as a highly effective fire protection measure. It is too early to say how they will fit into the revised approved document, but he should rest assured that the potential benefits will not be ignored.

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My hon. Friend is rightly setting out the legislative framework. Will he think for a moment about the disconnect between the structure of the legislation and what surveys tell us about whether the legislation is actually having an effect? I was astonished by the statistics I have shared with hon. Members today. Is he similarly concerned?

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I was indeed disturbed by the survey findings to which my hon. Friend referred. When I was being briefed for the debate this morning, the requirement that doors to flats be fitted with self-closing devices was made clear to me. He mentioned that quite often those devices are disconnected or the doors are propped open; although it is dangerous to rely on personal observation or anecdote when debating or making policy—policy should be evidence-based—I have seen cases of that myself. That reinforces the need to re-emphasise the Fire Kills campaign every year. We normally do so as a Department when the clocks change; of course, that will be happening very soon, so perhaps he and I can do our level best to circulate that fire safety information to our constituents—they will still be our constituents when the clocks go forward—in Cardiff North and Bristol West.

As we were just discussing, the front door of a flat is clearly critical to the safety of the communal parts, as it will protect the escape route from filling with smoke should there be a fire in a flat. The building regulations require fire-resisting doors to be fitted with self-closing devices, as I have mentioned.

The Government fully support the British Woodworking Federation’s annual campaign to raise public awareness of the importance of fire doors. The campaign draws attention to issues of poor installation and maintenance, and encourages building owners and users to check their self-closing doors and, where necessary, take action so that those that are not satisfactory can be brought back into good working order. The Minister with responsibility for fire, my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), was pleased to add her voice in support of the federation’s efforts to encourage owners and occupiers to check that their fire doors are in good working order. That campaign should go some way to press home the message that the maintenance of fire precautions is a duty that should not be ignored.

I have heard concerns about the overlap between the provisions on residential buildings in the Housing Act and in the fire safety order, but the principle of safety lies at the heart of both. I am pleased to note that in 2011 the Government provided the Local Government Association with the funding it needed to bring together housing providers, including the National Landlords Association, and housing and fire enforcing authorities to develop specific detailed guidance to help those with fire safety responsibilities in blocks of flats ensure the safety of residents and comply with their regulatory requirements. That guidance discusses at length the importance of maintaining fire doors and offers advice on how that can be done. The LGA reviewed it in 2013 and concluded that it remains fit for purpose, although I am sure hon. Members would acknowledge that guidance is all very well; the issue here is the observance of such guidance.

In residential buildings, where there is no employer, regulatory fire safety responsibilities may be divided between the building owner and other organisations such as a resident management company or a managing agent with day-to-day management and maintenance responsibilities. The enforcing authorities—in the case outlined by my hon. Friend, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority and the local borough, Tower Hamlets—must be given sufficient time to investigate and unpick the extent of responsibilities to determine whether and against whom any further action should be taken. We will study the results of the investigation carefully. Under the fire safety order, the enforcing authorities have wide powers to take action against the full range of organisations whose actions or failures may have contributed to compliance failures. Let us be under no illusion: investigating is, by necessity, a complex and time-consuming process.

My hon. Friend has outlined a tragic case that illustrates the need for constant vigilance in this area. Whether Ministers or Back Benchers, it is our duty constantly to remind our constituents that guidance and regulation is there. We believe that it is fit for purpose, but if it is not followed, tragic consequences can result. Sadly, the tragedy he has outlined may have been the result of such a failure to follow guidance and regulations. We will have to wait for the results of the investigation and learn any lessons that can be learned when the investigation is complete.

Sitting suspended.

County Durham Plan

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

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It is a pleasure to debate this important issue under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.

At the outset, I want to inform the Minister of the two main questions I want to ask this afternoon so she has plenty of time to think about her response. First, the planning inspector’s interim report into the County Durham plan states that one of the council’s options is to suspend further deliberation of the plan for up to six months so the fundamental issues in the report can be resolved in a positive and constructive manner. Will the Minister work with Durham county council to find a solution? It is in the Government’s interest to do so, because if a resolution cannot be found, the Treasury’s plans for economic growth in the region and in County Durham will be undermined.

Secondly, last Friday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that he wants 50,000 jobs to be created in the north-east of England by 2020. The North East local enterprise partnership envisages the creation of 100,000 jobs in the north-east by 2024-25. The County Durham plan lays down a firm foundation for the creation of 30,000 jobs in the county by 2030, so if the plan were followed 10,000 additional jobs could be created by 2020, which is 20% of the Chancellor’s target. The planning inspector said that the figure of 30,000 is unachievable, but where does that leave the job growth plans of the Government and the LEP, which are based on the same formula? Durham county council’s plans—wrongly, in my view—have been called into question.

The interim report supports the plan’s population and job growth projections, about which I will say a few things. The inspector endorses the council’s population projections, but questions the assumptions of the forecast. There is a difference between a projection and a forecast. A population projection establishes a baseline position for population growth and assumes that past trends will be carried forward into the future. A population forecast points to an alternative future based on a series of policy changes. The County Durham plan offers a series of policy changes. Durham county council’s population forecast was based on achieving economic success through two measures: first, increasing participation within the economy and achieving an employment rate of 73% in County Durham; and, secondly, increasing the size of the economy by 30,000 jobs in County Durham, 23,000 of which will be located in the county and 7,000 of which will be held by people who live in the county but cross the border to work elsewhere in the region.

The inspector endorsed the county council’s approach to the population projection in his interim report. He accepted the council’s methodology for developing population projections in paragraphs 29 and 30, and he accepted the council’s projection in paragraph 31, noting the trend-based outcome. Here, the inspector accepted the council’s projection and methodology as a basis for developing objectively assessed need for housing. He supported only the population modelling undertaken by Durham county council and rejected other approaches. In paragraph 43, he states:

“I have considered the alternative models and approaches to calculating OAN”—

objectively assessed need—

“put forward by other parties. These produce either significantly lower or higher estimates which I consider to be less robust than the work undertaken by the Council. For example, the FDGB’s”—

the Friends of Durham Green Belt—

“proposals do not use a recognised methodology whilst the house builders use unrealistic data inputs and assumptions.”

The inspector questioned the plan’s economic aspirations and concluded that there will be a low population in the county. He ultimately disagreed with Durham county council’s economic aspirations, which is why he proposed a lower number of houses.

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My hon. Friend is talking about the growth of the economy in County Durham, which is very important. On a point related to the lack of extra housing, the existing population is getting older and less economically active, so it will not only have less economic impact on Durham but will require more services from the health service and local government.

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I agree. My hon. Friend anticipates my next point, which is about job growth in the area. It is about not only attaining a 73% activity rate among people of working age, because if that continues and there is no jobs growth, the local economy will ultimately stagnate.

The inspector accepts the council’s methodology for developing population projections. The council wants to increase the participation rate in the economy, achieve an employment rate of 73% in County Durham by 2030 and create an additional 30,000 jobs. However, the inspector has come out against that. He predicted a lower rate of economic growth and the creation of only 18,000 jobs by 2030. However, Experian, which has done a lot of work on this issue for the county council, predicted the creation of something like 22,900 jobs, so the county council’s figure of 23,000 additional jobs is in line with that prediction. There is independent evidence to suggest that the county council is going in the right direction.

The one thing that the report misses out completely is Newton Aycliffe business park, which is now the biggest business park in the north-east of England and employs 8,000 or 9,000 people. There is no mention of it in the interim report. Hitachi is going to build a factory there, which will create 730 additional jobs. The county council has allocated something like 130 acres there for the anticipated job growth. The developers expect thousands of jobs to come to the business park, because Hitachi is acting as a catalyst and attracting manufacturers in other industries to the area. However, Newton Aycliffe was completely missed out of the interim report, which I find bizarre in the extreme.

What is Durham county council’s ambition? The County Durham plan is ambitious, inspirational and optimistic. It is full of confidence not only in the county council but in the people of County Durham. The history of Durham shows that the network of settlements in County Durham exists today because of the industrial revolution and the coal industry. We now need to diversify industry to sustain those local communities. That is why the county council wants an additional 31,000 houses to be built by 2030. It wants to set aside 399 acres of employment land and a further 41.5 acres of specific-use employment land. It wants a spatial strategy that seeks to fulfil the ambition of a thriving Durham city. Economic success will be delivered through the creation of jobs.

Let me give some background about why this issue is so fundamental to the people of County Durham and to industry in the area. Following the local government review several years ago, Durham county council made improving the economy its top priority. The local government review was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring together all partners to adopt an economic strategy to reverse Durham’s economic decline. The county has suffered from a decline in traditional industries, and the resulting increase in unemployment and lower skilled jobs has caused our brightest and best to move away to find economic prosperity elsewhere. To address that problem, the unitary council and its partners made the economy their top priority from day one. The council’s overarching priority is to improve the economic performance of County Durham. Through the County Durham partnership and the sustainable community strategy, it has recognised that better opportunities for employment mean better health and more choice in housing. To achieve that, it has recognised that a significant step change will be required. In the absence of economic investment, the size of the county’s working-age population will decline over the next 20 years, which is not in line with either the County Durham plan or the north-east’s aspirations. The focus on a thriving economy is not at the expense of other matters; indeed, developing a thriving economy will address many of the social issues present in the county.

County Durham’s pre-recession employment rate had been rising and was very close to the national average. Since the recession, the rate has been below the regional and national averages, although it has recovered significantly in recent months. To continue to close the employment rate gap and improve the county’s economic performance, the plan takes an approach that seeks to deal with the shrinking working-age population while trying to balance the needs of the economy and businesses in the county and wider region.

The targets are for 30,000 jobs and a 73% employment rate among people of working age. We also need to identify how many houses we need and how many acres of land need to be set aside for industry. Creating more and better jobs within the north-east economy is at the heart of the agenda for the North East combined authority and the North East local enterprise partnership, as well as for wider partners and investors, and—we believe—in line with the Government’s aspirations as laid out by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Friday last week.

The inspector rejects the challenge presented by an ageing population and the associated implications for the prosperity of the county and the north-east. Addressing the job creation target is fundamental in the light of the projected reduction in the working-age population. The inspector’s report acknowledges that County Durham’s growth aspirations accord with regional economic aspirations. However, the inspector suggests that we are not working collaboratively to deliver these targets, which conflicts with the stated aim of the strategic plans in the area and the North East LEP, and the duty to co-operate, which is the Government’s recognised tool for cross-boundary discussions.

The inspector suggests, although without evidence, that the majority of the neighbouring authorities in the north-east are seeking similar aspirations to meet their objectively assessed needs, rather than seeking economic growth as suggested. We can draw out the inspector’s view of the county’s future from the assumptions outlined and observations made. Although none of those elements was articulated during the examination, the inspector’s vision becomes clear from a detailed reading of his report.

First, the inspector casts doubts on the shared economic ambitions of the local authorities within the North East LEP area, as agreed by the Government and outlined in the strategic economic plan. That is why it is fundamental for the Government to address this issue.

Secondly, the inspector’s vision for County Durham seeks to limit the county’s role within the wider regional economy. As someone from County Durham, I find that very hard to accept. He seeks to underplay Durham city’s established role and status within the wider region, in my view, and the council is clear that Durham residents will contribute towards the economic prosperity in the region. Durham residents will bring skills to our neighbours, working as part of a successful regional economy.

I turn to the economic impact of the alternative vision. In the absence of economic investment, the size of the county’s working-age population will decline over the next 20 years. The council’s approach seeks to deal with a shrinking working-age population, while trying to balance the needs of the economy and businesses in the county. The two measures of employment rate and labour force target work in tandem to support economic prosperity in Durham. In the context of an ageing population, an increase to a 73% participation rate would not in itself support economic growth in the economy. A participation rate of 73% as a single measure of success could be achieved in a stagnating or declining economy, as the size of the working-age population declines.

Although the inspector rejects the council’s approach, in his report, he goes some way towards setting out his own alternative economic vision. The inspector acknowledges that a 73% employment rate is within the realms of possibility but takes issue with the labour force target of 30,000 jobs. The preferred scenario that the inspector has come up with implies that only 18,500 jobs would be created over the plan period in County Durham. That is clearly not in line with the ambitions of either County Durham or the north-east and is contrary to most recent trends. The independent Experian forecast identifies that 22,900 jobs could be created in the county.

The inspector’s vision runs contrary to the region’s ambitions for growth. The labour force target is an established target for County Durham and addresses growth not only in the county, but in the wider region, recognising County Durham’s role in the wider economy, which is complementary to the role of other regional centres. For example, 40% of people who work at Nissan in Sunderland live in County Durham. The scenario suggested by the inspector implies only that some 18,000 jobs will be created, but the independent Experian forecast showed that 23,000 jobs can be created.

The report has implications for my constituency. For example, there would be a reduction in housing allocation in the village of Sedgefield. I know that there are issues there. There have been applications to increase the number of houses by 2,000. There is talk at the moment of housing developments of between 300 and 470 dwellings. Although at the moment, the County Durham plan seems to have been rejected by the planning inspector, it just leaves the door open for speculators to come along and start talking about developments in Sedgefield village that are not suitable. We could go back to a position in which developers who have thought of applications to increase the size of the village by 2,000 houses over a given time could come back in the absence of a strategic housing policy for the whole of the county.

The other issue is employment. The report neglects to mention the region’s biggest business park, which has been the generator and motivator for jobs. It also does not say very much about NETpark—the North East Technology Park—which is a science and innovation park that has recently received grants from the Government and the local growth fund. It has great potential, and I have seen the science park develop over the past 10 years. It now employs between 300 and 400 people and is based on a model in Durham-Raleigh, North Carolina. The business park there was set up in the 1950s and now employs tens of thousands of people. I am not suggesting that NETPark will get as big as that, but the model proves that that acts as a catalyst to attract high-value jobs.

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I am listening intently to and strongly agree with what my hon. Friend is saying about NETPark and Newton Aycliffe. Does he agree that the possibilities are really significant, because they are right next-door to Durham university and not far from Newcastle university, which are both excellent in the scientific and engineering fields?

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I agree with my hon. Friend. It seems to me that the planning inspector is not taking into consideration the aspirations and ambition of the county and the potential for the county to go ahead and create high-value, strategic jobs that are important, not just to the economy of County Durham and for the region, but to the country. Last year, it was announced that the region’s first university technology college will be opened next year in Newton Aycliffe. We also want to see more apprentices for the area. For example, South West Durham Training in my constituency is doing very well. It is working closely with Hitachi to achieve greater numbers of apprentices.

None of this has been taken into consideration by the inspector, and I fundamentally believe that the reason why he has downgraded the economic forecasts for the number of jobs is ultimately that, if fewer houses are needed, there is less need to use the green belt. If there is any way that we can change the situation in relation to building on the green belt, then fine—perhaps we can talk about that in that six-month period—but from what I am being told, less than 4% of the green belt would be utilised for house building over the next 15 years. If the plan is to achieve the number of jobs that we require, that compromise is well worth considering.

Before I wind up, I want to give some quotes from business people up and down the north-east of England who support the County Durham plan. James Ramsbotham, the chief executive of the North East chamber of commerce, recently wrote to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about this issue. He said:

“By creating an ambitious plan and vision for the future, Durham county council has made a clear statement that it is open for business; a statement that we fully support.

The inspector’s report, by ridiculing these ambitions, seeks to condemn the north-east to a future of low growth and aspiration. This flies in the face of the Government’s desire to stimulate growth in the north and to create a more sustainable, balanced economy. It also holds little regard for the current successes of County Durham businesses, many of which are world leaders in their sectors and are making considerable investments for the future.”

Sir John Hall said:

“It’s very, very, very, very, very, very important because it’s not just about the County Durham plan, it’s about the regeneration of the north-east and the County Durham plan is part of that. And here’s a council…when they spoke to a lot of us in the private sector when they were putting the plan together we said to them you’ve got to think outside the box now, you’ve got to take a lead, you’ve got to use the words enterprise and initiative. And this is what they’ve done and they’ve produced a plan which will put cranes on the skyline, which will bring money in from all these developments into all of the cultural side of the life in County Durham and they’ve been penalised for it. And we can’t let that happen. It’s too important for the region for Durham county council and the north-east. And in the business sector we support their efforts a hell of a lot, but…we’ve actually got to support them to get what we need: a rethink on this plan, but it’s very, very necessary, as I said, not just for Durham but for the north-east.”

He went on:

“We in the private sector will to work together to support the County Durham plan and its initiative”.

John Elliott of Ebac, a business in my constituency, said:

“The County Durham plan’s a good plan. We’ve got to be ambitious, we’ve got to move forward. County Durham’s always moved forward, we’ve got to keep doing it.”

Rory Gibson of Handelsbanken said:

“There’s a democratic decision here for me and it needs to be followed through. There’s absolutely excellent reasons why this plan has been put forward. It involves the council, it involves private sector, it’s the right thing for us to be doing, it’s looking forward, it’s thinking outside of the box and I think we need to give all our support to it.”

Harry Banks of the Banks Group, another well established County Durham firm, said:

“We see the role of the local authorities and Government to lay the platform for businesses to thrive and produce jobs and create employment. We felt that this plan was going a long way towards…that.”

Richard Bradley of Dyer Engineering said:

“Operating our business, we’ve had a business on that site for something like 37 years and we wouldn’t contemplate doing business anywhere else. We’re perfectly located to reach all of the UK and we have a fantastic, skilled workforce which…is in danger because of lack of investment, maybe even lack of a plan over the last 20, 30 years, which is why of course we’re behind the plan because we have to attract people, businesses into the region to ensure that we have the skills available for the next 50, 100, 200 years.”

Barbara Johnson of the Morritt said:

“for my business it’s going to bring people into the county and not just tourism, because the hotel is not just tourism; it’s very much based on business. And we’ve built a business up that is very interesting for the kind of people that this plan is going to encourage to come into the county”.

Geoff Hunton of Merchant Developments, which helped to attract Hitachi to Newton Aycliffe, said:

“We’ve been involved in Newton Aycliffe and the Hitachi project and we see it as working towards the future and Durham have been very supportive but also they’ve been very ambitious to look to the future and that’s the right way to move.”

Simon Henig, the leader of the county council, said of the inspector’s decision in The Journal on 27 February:

“He tells us that basically our jobs target should be lower. I still cannot see, looking at the plan, his justification for doing that. He just seemed to have plucked a sentence out of the air. Just one sentence on which the rest then turns because, obviously, if you have less jobs you don’t need so many houses or roads and so on. Effectively we have one inspector coming up from the south…saying ‘sorry, Durham, sorry north-east, I’m not going to allow you to have that target for jobs.’”

He continued:

“we are not talking about the next year or two. This is about the next 15 years and this is a very important document.”

Let us put that into context. At the same time that the inspector’s decision was made on the County Durham plan, the Chancellor and the Mayor of London made a statement on the future of London and what they wanted to see for the capital city. We all want to see a successful capital city, but it is interesting to note that, the day after the council received the decision, a six-point plan for London was announced that referenced no evidence or consultation. There is no suggestion that it comes with the support of business, residents or, indeed, developers, but it certainly does not lack ambition in terms of jobs and homes or the infrastructure required to get them.

That plan includes the ambition: to outpace New York’s growth; to create more than half a million extra jobs in London by 2020 by backing businesses; and to solve London’s acute housing problems, the No. 1 challenge facing the city, by building more than 400,000 new homes. The list goes on, which is fantastic. Why can we not have some of that for County Durham? We had to go through the strictures of the planning system, but that announcement did not require that.

I want to see a world-class capital city, but I also want to see a world-class region in the north-east of England. For too long, the people of the north-east suffered high levels of unemployment and deprivation. Some of those problems continue today and ultimately only the people of the north-east can solve them, with help from elsewhere.

Perhaps in the past, the people of County Durham have been cowed by the problems we faced. Now, the Labour-controlled council shows that we have the aspiration, ambition and confidence to move on from those days. We just want others to have the confidence in us; that is all we are asking for.

We are up for the job; we just want the tools to finish what we have started. That is why I call on the inspector’s final report to acknowledge that ambition, not to downplay the economic potential of County Durham, and let the plan go ahead. I ask the Minister to answer the two fundamental questions I asked at the beginning of my speech. We want the tools to do the job, because we believe in County Durham and we want to see it be a success.

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I thank my colleagues for coming together to get this debate, which is so important to County Durham and my constituency. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.

The speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) was incredibly good and detailed. I do not intend to give a speech anything like his; I will speak briefly about the impact on my constituency. I am really disappointed by the inspector’s interim report, given that, as we have heard in great detail, the County Durham plan has the support of businesses and many communities in the north-east. The concerns that I would like the Minister to address are twofold.

First, the inspector appears to have listened and acted on the concerns of those opposed to the plan, but paid little or no cognisance to those living in the county who were content with it. Therefore, he has made recommendations that appear to address the concerns of the objectors, to some extent at the expense of others in the county. Those people now affected have no further voice in the process.

Secondly, the inspector has failed to work closely with the county at all stages to improve the plan, as I was assured he would. I met the Minister with responsibility for planning, the hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), and his team last year to discuss the County Durham plan, and in particular those areas of it that will impact on my constituency. I was accompanied by a planner from County Durham, and I was particularly keen to understand what weighting would be given to the plan at what stages. The meeting was helpful in that regard.

At that meeting, the Minister and his team agreed that the plan was one of the biggest plans that the Department for Communities and Local Government would have to consider, that Durham is one of the biggest unitary authorities in the country, and that the plan was comprehensive, covering areas such as economic, social and spatial development. We therefore knew that the plan was not only one of the biggest plans the Department would need to look at, but extensive in its remit. There was also recognition that it would need considerable revision as it went through the process. I came away from the meeting feeling quite confident that there was willingness to work with the county planners to ensure that, at every stage, concerns were addressed and amendments were made to avoid what has happened recently.

When drawing up the plan, the county had a number of major challenges, the main one being jobs—it is always about jobs in the north-east—and the second being the reducing working-age population in the county. I believe, as my colleagues do, that the county is right to be ambitious, optimistic and aspirational about economic development, and that the inspector has got it wrong. We have heard extensively about the details of that, so I will not concentrate on it.

I want to concentrate on the impact of the report on my constituency. The strong recommendation to withdraw the plan would have the biggest impact on my constituency, because to do so would remove the five-year supply of housing land defined by the council. That would leave housing development open to being assessed via the national planning policy framework and saved policies. The result will be a free-for-all on planning applications and a catastrophe for communities such as mine.

I will illustrate that by reference to two areas: Lanchester village and Consett town centre. The inspector has largely dismissed plans for building in and around Durham city but, seemingly out of the blue, he has recommended house building in a number of villages across the county, one of which is Lanchester. In doing so, he appears to have ignored all the evidence about flooding, increased traffic and the impact on services. Lanchester has a history of flooding, and it has had four one-in-100-year floods since 2002, but that does not appear to have been considered at all. I declare an interest because I live in Lanchester village. However, I live at the other end of the village, so none of this would have an impact on me personally.

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The situation is worse than my hon. Friend describes. In the north of the county, the inspector has completely ignored the housing allocation and referred to places in my constituency such as Sacriston, Stanley and Great Lumley, but he has failed to identify any potential sites. The county council has already looked at those places in its consideration of supply for the next five years, and the sites do not exist. Where does my hon. Friend think the inspector envisages that the houses will go?

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I do not think that the inspector has given any consideration to that at all. He has simply picked those villages out of the blue without looking at any of the evidence; at least, that is how it appears to me. The inspector has recommended the adoption of the Project Genesis master plan in Consett, which would create new out-of-town retail developments that are not within walking distance of the town centre. To date, all retail-based planning has been close to the town centre. It is far from perfect, but, overall, it has worked. The inspector’s recommendation appears to be in contravention of all previous and current planning. It would damage Consett town centre, and it would result in unsustainable urban sprawl. Worst of all, the people of Consett have been given no opportunity to challenge any of the plans.

I and my communities want to see the County Durham plan back on course as soon as possible, and I ask the Minister to use whatever influence she has to address the concerns that have been raised and to get the plan back on track. The inspector appears to have made recommendations outside the plan in communities outside Durham city without considering the evidence and without giving those communities the opportunity to have their say. I do not want to comment on the merits, or otherwise, of the objections made to the original plan by those living in and around Durham city. Their views should be, and have been, heard, but so should the views of people living in other communities. I understand that this is how the process works, in a sense. People object to the plan, and if they stay silent or they are content, they have no role in the process. In this case, however, the inspector has simply named villages, and the people who live there find that they will be severely disadvantaged but they have no opportunity for redress.

I went to a public meeting in Lanchester village on Sunday, which was attended by 150 people, who could all be bothered to turn out at 3 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon. That showed the depth of their concern that an unsustainable planning application, which was, in their view, adequately addressed by the County Durham plan, puts them and their village at much greater risk of flooding and unsustainable traffic and puts their schools and community facilities at risk. Those people have no say in the process. Why should the views of people in places such as Lanchester, Consett, Crook, Wolsingham, Stanley and Sacriston count for less than those of other people who live in the county?

I hope that the Minister can use her influence to ensure that the plan is put back on track as soon as possible and that the inspector, or whoever takes the matter forward, works closely with all communities in County Durham, as I was promised that they would.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing the debate, which is timely given the importance of the county plan. I am delighted to stand together with my fellow County Durham MPs. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, virtually everybody—the business community, local authorities and community groups—seems to agree that the inspector’s decision is completely out of step and out of kilter. It seems rather bizarre to suggest that the County Durham plan, which we all feel is bold and ambitious in its expectations for the development of the region, is somehow overly ambitious. When my hon. Friend made his opening remarks, I thought about the comments of the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who accused east Durham schools of lacking the ambition to produce people who would drive forward the regeneration of that part of the county. Here we have an ambitious plan that is completely achievable and realisable, but the inspector is apparently putting the brakes on it.

I will be interested to hear the Minister’s comments. I cannot anticipate precisely what she will say, but if her position is that the inspectorate is independent and Ministers cannot interfere in that process, there is a precedent for doing so. I represent a coalfield area in the east of County Durham, to the east of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) and next door to my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield. The coalfield regeneration plan supported the idea of bringing new investment and employment into the coalfields, particularly in east Durham, but the inspector ruled against a retail development, which was the first phase of the Dalton Park development. The then Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, overturned the inspector’s decision. Again, he had tremendous support from the local authorities, from the community and from the business community. There is a precedent for overturning a decision of the planning inspector, and I hope that the Minister will think seriously about it.

I fully understand and share the concerns of the business community, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield has mentioned, after the inspector deemed the plan too ambitious in its aim to build more than 30,000 new homes and create 30,000 new jobs by 2030. As has been mentioned, the Chancellor visited our region just last week, and referred several times to his long-term economic plan and his ambition to create a northern economic powerhouse. That makes for good rhetoric, but it does not offer much in the way of practical support.

Although the Chancellor promised investment for transport links and skills, and said that he would back manufacturing and exports, it is worth noting that spending on transport infrastructure in the north-east is the lowest in the county at £223 a person, compared with £5,426 a person in London. For every £1 that is spent in the north-east, London receives £24.33. I know that London is the capital city, and that it has Crossrail and a huge population, but that disparity is huge. We need some practical support. Yes, we need ambitious plans put forward by the county council, but we need a Government who will correct some of the anomalies that exist. We do not need the inspector to reinforce and worsen the north-south divide. Revising down the plans for more jobs and homes—the estimates are empirically based—will not help to rebalance the economy.

My local authority, Durham county council, has transcended the rhetoric from the Government and the Chancellor. It has put forward ambitious plans for jobs and economic growth in the county, and it is wrong that the Planning Inspectorate should block those plans. We have suffered tremendously. I tried to calculate the number of jobs lost in my constituency over the last few years. They have been lost not just in the public sector, but at some quite large employers, including the Reckitt Benckiser factory in Peterlee, which I hope will reopen, and which used to employ 500 people; the Fin engineering company in Seaham; Cumbrian Foods; and Yearley, the refrigeration and transport company.

A number of substantial employers have gone, but we are seeking to diversify the economic base of Easington, in the east of the county, and indeed of the whole county. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield referred to Hitachi locating in his area and to the positive spin-offs and benefits in the supply chain. I hope some of the engineering factories in my constituency—particularly in Peterlee—will benefit from that additional activity.

The Government have an opportunity to prove they are committed to creating a northern powerhouse, and that that is more than just idle rhetoric. I hope the Minister can give a real commitment to work with north-east MPs, and that we have common cause on this. I am not terribly familiar with her constituency, but we have been through the trauma of industrial closures, and thousands of jobs have been lost in Easington, and we have not had special measures, enterprise zones or a Minister for the area to argue for more investment. The Government is beholden to get behind the efforts we are making to generate economic activity and jobs and to improve the county’s collective well-being. Indeed, local businesses are rising to the challenge, raising their ambitions and expectations for the north-east economy.

I cannot accept the planning inspector’s assessment. If he is saying that our county should be less ambitious, that we should aim to create fewer jobs and that the north-east needs less investment in infrastructure, that is certainly not the case. The Government cannot allow the Planning Inspectorate to undermine the entire county plan and to stifle the ambition of people in the north-east to bring new investment, businesses, jobs and training opportunities to our region.

The north-east has a number of leading international businesses. The Government often cite Nissan, and Newcastle airport is another tremendous business that generates huge economic activity and benefit for the region. Shortly, we will also have Hitachi. In my constituency, we have world-class companies such as Caterpillar, NSK and GT Group. Between them, they employ more than 2,000 people, and they have huge export orders and huge potential. We need to do everything we can to encourage them and to grow our own companies.

We also need, however, to attract new businesses. Part of the plan is to have a centre of creative excellence in the north-east—a film studio or a Hollywood of the north. However, that requires a commitment from the public and private sectors. An area is set aside, and it requires some housing development if the scheme is to go ahead. Potentially, it could create 2,000 jobs and training places. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) suggested, we could use all the synergies in our area—not just the tremendous location, with a terrific vista over the County Durham coast, but the skills base at our universities at Teesside, Durham and Sunderland, and the skills at our colleges—to get that enterprise going. We therefore have enormous potential, and I have complete confidence in the people I represent and in the commitment of businesses.

East Durham used to be a centre of not just coal mining, but the textile industry. A large number of factories were located in Peterlee and Seaham. Sadly, much of that business has gone offshore, but we have seen a bit of a revival with an embryonic business called AMA, which I met and helped to encourage. It has now expanded and won a major contract with Tesco, and we hope we can use some of our skills and potential to develop that still further and create more jobs.

We also have innovative training providers, such as Infinite Learning and Development and its welding academy. That is important, because we have Caterpillar and GT Group, and we need to give local people skills to address the shortage of highly trained welders in the region. Infinite Learning and Development was one of three finalists nominated at the national Semta apprentice awards, where it was in illustrious company, competing alongside the likes of Toyota UK, Tata Steel and Swansea university for the training partner of the year award. For a small training provider, that is some achievement and some recognition of its commitment.

I should also mention the East Durham Employability Trust, an employment charity in my constituency that helps those not in education, employment or training to secure sustainable employment through its Destination Employment programme. It has had tremendous results, with 94% of those completing the programme moving into employment. That is a terrific outcome.

We have tourist potential. With the right investment, we can create jobs. We can have the most magnificent coastline anywhere in the country, but if people cannot get to it, we cannot really develop its tourist potential, in terms of day visits or longer stays. We have one of the best-kept secrets in the country in the east Durham heritage coast—I know it is referred to as the County Durham heritage coast, but I like to call it the east Durham heritage coast, because that is where it is. We also have the coastal footpath and the newly announced nature reserve on the former Easington colliery site. Those tremendous assets are safeguarding and protecting our natural environment, as well as promoting tourism—it is possible to do both.

Last week, having been involved in the issue for some time, I was pleased to hear the owners of the Dalton Park development announce that work on a £45 million expansion is due to begin in May. That will create 600 retail jobs, with an estimated 400 jobs during the construction phase. That is welcome news. The first phase was in 1999-2000, when the initial planning consent was given. That is a welcome investment in jobs in the local economy. It will provide new amenities for the community, including a cinema, restaurants, a supermarket, a petrol station, a hotel and a family-friendly pub.

We are, however, looking to the Government and the Planning Inspectorate to work with the local community, the local authority and businesses to promote every sector of our economy in east Durham. My hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield said we were trying to diversify our economic base. We need some practical assistance to do that, whether in manufacturing, light or heavy engineering, retail, the service sector or tourism. I do not want the planning inspector to talk the north-east down. I certainly do not want him talking Easington or east Durham down; and I do not want him to hold us back from transforming our communities. I will not go through the long list of business organisations that condemn the Planning Inspectorate for its decision. However, I share their concern that in rejecting the county plan, in not listening to the concerns of local businesses and elected representatives, and in rejecting the advice of the local authority, the inspectorate has itself shown a lack of ambition for the north-east.

Among the comments that have been made, one that my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield did not mention was from Jonathan Walker, of the North East chamber of commerce:

“We work alongside our public sector partners and encourage local authorities to be bold, ambitious and pro-growth in their budgets and local plans. We are shocked by what the inspector had to say and feel his recommendations not only stifle the ambitions of Durham, but, by implication, the North East as a whole.”

I do not want to underestimate the scale of the task. We certainly face challenges in county Durham—and more, perhaps, in Easington than anywhere else in the county. We need support to tackle that. The Government’s reduction of the local authority’s budget by more than a quarter of a billion pounds was certainly not helpful. We need more Government support, particularly with infrastructure, on which we get a poor deal. For example, the proposed railway station in Horden in my constituency is still in the pipeline—in the planning stage. It would be a considerable boost to tourism, employment and the mobility of labour, but instead the Government continue to focus on faster rail services, while in east Durham we need greater connectivity to existing lines. We have had a welcome announcement that Pacer trains are finally to be removed from the network.

County Durham should have our praise for its ambitious plans, and should not be chastised by the Planning Inspectorate. I urge the Minister to give the matter further consideration, look at the views of the business community and local representatives, and help us to get the Planning Inspectorate on board, so that we can move together for a better, more prosperous future for east Durham, county Durham and the north-east.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.

County Durham is a beautiful county and a great place to live, but it is not a delicate flower, to be protected in a glass case. Its history is one of economic development and change, going back to the early Normans who built Durham cathedral, and including the expansion of coal mining, and steel making at Consett, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Another example is the development, at Barnard Castle in Bishop Auckland, of the Bowes museum under the inspirational leadership of John Bowes. I wonder what would have happened if Harold Stephens had been around at those times in history. Would he have told the Normans that they were being too ambitious in building a beautiful cathedral that would stand for 1,000 years? Would he have told John Bowes that his idea of a French chateau in the Durham countryside, to celebrate his fantastic collection of art, would impinge on the green belt and be too ambitious for a county such as Durham?

The leader of the council, Simon Henig, summed things up well last week when he said that we do not want to live in a museum. I am proud of my constituency, which includes the fantastic Beamish open-air museum—but I do not want to live in the museum. It is important to remind us of our past, but we cannot live in the past. County Durham has never lived in its past; it has always moved forward. The county council’s ambitious economic plan is part of that tradition of trying to drive industry forward and making sure that the county grows. One of the most ambitious projects in county Durham’s recent history was the development of the new towns at Peterlee and Newton Aycliffe. It was a bold vision at the time, but we now acknowledge the foresight of those who brought it about. I see the county council’s current plan in that context.

I do not think that we could have achieved such a plan before the county’s unitary status. A unique aspect of County Durham as a unitary county is the way it has got everyone together behind its ambitious plan—not just the business community but people in politics, and communities. That could never have worked at the time of the district councils, because the two tiers would have fought one another. That is something unique about the plan.

Is the plan too ambitious? I do not think it is. It fits quite well with what is proposed in Tyne and Wear, and Teesside. We have had a little bit of a problem in County Durham in the past few years, in that Teesside and Tyneside have been seen as the region’s powerhouses. I am not for a minute under the illusion that we will emulate those regional powerhouses, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) said, we can make a huge contribution to the growth of the economy of the north-east as a whole. To say that County Durham should be a rural backwater for those conurbations is not the way forward. It would not be good for the people who live there, and it would create generational problems. There was a huge problem in the 1980s—and earlier, in my part of the Durham coalfield, in the 1960s—when coal mining left. The economic reason for some communities went away overnight. We cannot recreate such industries in communities as they were then; but County Durham has put forward a plan on which it should be congratulated. It would at least try to develop industries and attract businesses, not necessarily directly to those same locations, but within striking distance—in the A1 corridor, for example.

As to the ambitions of County Durham, if someone had said five years ago that through the hard work of my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield it would attract Hitachi to invest as it has in Newton Aycliffe, most people would have wondered whether it was possible, but it happened, and that was down to the drive of my hon. Friend, the county council and local businesses.

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Hitachi first came to the UK to look for a site to build a factory. It looked at 42 locations, and Newton Aycliffe was not one of them. Much of the reason it selected it was Durham county council.

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I agree. It has a can-do attitude—and that is what is behind the plan. To say that it is too ambitious is wrong. We cannot let our constituents down and think we can go along somehow, just tinkering at the edges, with time passing us by. There are communities in my constituency, as I have said, whose economic life blood went years ago. We need to provide them with industry, jobs and opportunities, within striking distance. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) is right; things have changed. Instead of heavy industry there will be tourism, high tech and educational opportunities. The work atmosphere is very different from what it was, but the plan was at least going to deliver those things.

I want to mention two things that directly affect my constituency. One is the inspector’s removal from the plan of the development of housing at Lambton park. Lambton park is a result of County Durham’s history. It was built with wealth and proceeds from the coal mining industries, but it has been shut away for the past few years and has not really been accessible. The plan would provide executive housing on the site, but it would also open the parkland to public access. Cleverly, the development of executive housing, which is needed in County Durham, would be linked to providing affordable housing in the town of Chester-le-Street, but the inspector put a line through that and took it out completely. That creates a housing supply problem in Chester-le-Street, because with one fell swoop it knocked out 740 housing units from the 1,230 proposed for the Chester-le-Street area, which were identified in the strategic housing land availability assessment. That proposal was taken out, so we already have a shortfall. From my constituency surgeries I know the demand for affordable housing in Chester-le-Street. It also misses the point that the estate, which has sat idle for many generations, could be brought back into economic use, and not just for housing. There were also proposals to build offices and other developments in the area, but those proposals were taken out.

The other issue is the failure to agree the extension to the Drum industrial estate. I have two major industrial estates in my constituency: Drum and Stella Gill. The Drum industrial estate is important because it is located near the A1. To be fair, the county council has improved access to the A1, which has made the industrial estate more attractive to business. The extension would have allowed for growth, but it has been taken out. The Stella Gill industrial estate has been designated as the place where we need growth—it is the only industrial estate in the north of the county to be designated. Stella Gill is a small industrial estate that is not accessible to the A1, and it is not attractive to business. The decision will basically stifle job creation in my constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) mentioned the inspector’s arrogant attitude to housing allocation. I accept that there are people in the city of Durham who want to preserve the city the way they see it, and therefore they cannot have any housing at all, but the inspector basically said, “Well, if we are going to provide this housing, we can provide it elsewhere.” The inspector took no account whatever in his report of the strategic housing land availability assessment, because sites are not available in my constituency to take up that slack. If we do not agree the plan, there will be speculative development, as my hon. Friend said. People reacted in triumph last week, saying that they had saved the green belt, but they have done far from that. Without a plan in place, they have actually opened up parts of County Durham to speculation.

This is an ambitious plan, and it is a plan that is right for County Durham not only today, but for the future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield said, the plan links into our wider ambitions for our region. County Durham cannot be kept out of those plans; it is an important part of the region. If we are to say to our constituents that we are doing our best to ensure that not only work but good quality housing is available locally, this plan must be implemented. Is there anything the Minister can do to get this moving? The report has been a slap in the face for County Durham as a whole and for the county council. I give credit to the county council—some people have not given the county council credit over the past few days—for its leadership on this issue, but we need the plan to proceed. We cannot stall the plan for several years to come, because there would otherwise be speculation and missed opportunities. There are businesses and housing developers out there that should come to my constituency and other parts of County Durham, but they will not come without the plan.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on securing this debate, which puts me in the odd position of responding for the Opposition on a subject of direct relevance to my constituency. I will do my best to tread a careful path between those two roles.

My hon. Friend did an excellent job of highlighting the key issues for him and our colleagues in the inspector’s report on the County Durham plan. He did an excellent job of highlighting the need for a strong vision for County Durham and the need for ambitious targets for economic growth and new housing units. He spoke about the undesirability of reducing housing numbers in his constituency, and he pointed out that much more needs to be done to build on the Durham-Raleigh model of economic development, and I concur with him on that aspiration.

My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) spoke passionately about the impact on her constituency, particularly the areas of Consett and Lanchester, if the plan were to be withdrawn. My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) made valid points about the need to improve infrastructure spending in the north-east and the need to have more than just plans in order to rebalance our economy. He also pointed out the need to support the diversification of our economic base. He strongly pointed out the need for investment in the centre for creative excellence, the idea for which has been around for some time and needs to be supported as soon as possible. He did such a good job of extolling the benefits of his constituency of Easington that I thought I must holiday there. He certainly highlighted Easington as a place on the up that we should all look at closely.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) highlighted the need to do as much as we can to promote economic development in the region and to see County Durham play an important part in ensuring that we get more jobs not only in County Durham but in the region as a whole. He pointed out the strength of investing in a concept, as Hitachi has, and our need for many more such developments.

As the Minister will realise, every Opposition Member has spoken about the importance of putting a plan in place as quickly as possible. Our view is that the council should take the inspector’s comments on board and seek to rectify the evidence base and other requirements as quickly as possible. I know from talking to people in the city of Durham who objected to the existing plan that they would welcome the opportunity to work with the council to get a plan in place. There are three areas where they want to see some movement.

First, they would like the council to adopt an acceptable economic development strategy. The key issues for me were set out clearly in paragraph 15 of the inspector’s report. On economic development, he wants the council to put more effort into a knowledge-based economy, with knowledge transfer not only from Durham university but from other universities in the region, so that we diversify our economic base. That is also reflected in the land use aspect of the County Durham plan. For example, we need to have start-up units close to the university, as well as more widely dispersed throughout the county. What can be done to support the county to adopt such an economic strategy? At the public inquiry I spoke at length about the need to have such a strategy in place. I was also pleased that the inspector picked up on our need for investment in the Leamside line. Again, I hope that the Minister will talk to her parliamentary colleagues about that.

The second issue that I wish to highlight is the need for a strong policy on how the city can develop student accommodation, particularly purpose-built student accommodation. Again, the Minister will know from paragraphs 102 to 104 of the inspector’s report that the policy proposed by the council is simply not fit for purpose, and that the council will have to go back and do a better job. Any support that her officials or others can give the council to ensure that a proper policy is put in place quickly would be welcomed not only by me but by my constituents and others.

Thirdly, people are keen to work with the council to get sites for additional housing in and around the city that meet the requirements of the national planning policy framework and the guidance on green belts. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham that I do not think people want Durham city to be preserved in aspic; they want it to develop in a way that builds on its amazing heritage, including a wonderful world heritage site. We need appropriate development.

The Minister will know that the inspector has given the county three options: to continue the examination on the basis of the current evidence, to suspend the examination or to withdraw the plan. I think that we all want to encourage the county to choose suspension and to go away, work on the issues that need work and issue a revised plan within six months that will be acceptable to everyone in the county. Again, what pressure can she put on the council to achieve that aim? If the plan is withdrawn, I am also interested to know what weight she thinks can be given to it, if any, and to its supporting policies.

Lastly, what does the Minister think about the wisdom of pursuing an approach geared so heavily towards development on the green belt, given what is stated in the NPPF and the recent guidance issued by her Department, which sets a high bar for securing development on the green belt?

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Main. I thank the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) for securing this debate, which has afforded all of us the opportunity to discuss the issues in detail and his colleagues an opportunity to get their views firmly on record in response to the inspector’s report.

At the heart of this Government’s programme has been an unprecedented amount of support to enable growth across the country. To name but a few of our initiatives, we have established 24 enterprise zones, two of them in the north-east, agreed 39 local enterprise partnerships and supported an ambitious range of projects through growth deals, from which the north-east has secured just shy of £300 million.

It is worth pausing and reflecting on the second issue raised by the hon. Member for Sedgefield. Government would not invest such sums of public money in a process that is largely competitive unless we had confidence in those local plans; the ideas are generated locally, but they are tested. The private sector certainly would not invest the sums that it is investing if it did not have confidence in and share the ambitions for Durham and the north-east that have been articulated in this debate.

To answer the hon. Gentleman’s second point, I think that the ambition is right. It is good to see ambition, and we certainly think that the job numbers articulated by the Chancellor and mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, as well as the £4.5 billion of investment that we think will be levered into the area, are realistic sums. The question is how, and that is obviously what the detail of the plan considers.

We are fully committed to supporting growth, and I think we all agree that we want widely supported and appropriate plans in place that enable sustainable development. Plans play a central role in involving communities in determining what development is appropriate and where. We have supported authorities across the country in putting robust local plans in place.

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The Minister mentioned £4.5 billion in investment. Can we make it clear that £2.7 billion of that is for the intercity express programme? The trains will be built at Newton Aycliffe, but that £2.7 billion is for maintaining the trains as well as building depots in Doncaster, Swansea, Bristol and London, and it is being made available over 27.5 years. Not all that investment is actually destined for the north-east of England.

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I was referring to the inward investment that would come into the area. The point that I was making is that the private sector would not be investing in Durham and the north-east unless it had confidence that local businesses and the local community could deliver. It is important to put it on record that we have confidence in the local ideas being put forward.

This is an important point of principle. We have supported local plans and made that a focus. Nearly four times as many councils have now adopted plans than at the start of this Parliament, and more than 1,300 communities are doing excellent work bringing forward neighbourhood plans, 26 of which are in County Durham. It is an important point of principle that those plans should come from the communities, which know their local patch best.

I empathise with the situation that Durham county council is in. It has put considerable effort into producing a plan. I want to make it clear that although the inspector has some concerns, what he has set out are interim findings. It is important to note that he says that

“for the avoidance of doubt, this not does not set out a final view”,

The inspector has offered the council different options for how to proceed. They include the opportunity for the council to undertake further work to support their approach.

I must add a caveat to my response: given my ministerial role, I must limit how specific my comments are on certain aspects of the plan as it remains at examination, but I do not think that that will prevent me from answering any of the questions that hon. Members have posed. The argument is that the County Durham plan would enable strong economic growth, significant housing and infrastructure, and represents an approach that has broad local support. In headline terms, those are perspectives fully endorsed by the Government’s planning policy.

The national planning policy framework is clear that authorities should plan proactively to meet businesses’ development needs and base their plans on a clear understanding of those needs. Our policy sets out that authorities should plan to meet objectively assessed development needs and provide appropriate infrastructure as far as is consistent with the policies in the framework as a whole. The Government have made it clear that we accord great importance to the green belt, whose fundamental characteristics are openness and permanence, and that green belt boundaries should be revised only in exceptional circumstances through the local plan process.

Our policy is clear that local plans should as far as possible reflect a collective vision and set of agreed priorities for the sustainable development of the area. The Government’s commitment to sustainable development, green belt protection and community involvement in planning is not in dispute. I reassure hon. Members who have raised concerns, as the hon. Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) did, that the absence of a plan will open the floodgates. Perhaps it would be helpful if I wrote to hon. Members in detail outlining some things that I think will give them comfort. There are clearly material considerations that need to be taken into account, even in the absence of a local plan.

I have mentioned the green belt and neighbourhood planning. A neighbourhood plan, of course, does not have to be ratified to have legal weight in the planning process. There is the “town centre first” policy—an issue that the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) raised—and “infrastructure first”, which the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) mentioned. Perhaps it would be useful if I wrote to hon. Members to outline matters in detail; that may give hon. Members’ constituents some comfort.

I turn to the issues that the inspector raised. It is true that the plan would enable growth, but the inspector is not convinced, on the basis of the current evidence, that the level of growth proposed would be achievable, and that it would not adversely affect the council’s other city-centre strategies and the world heritage site status of Durham. The inspector is also of the view that more could be done to show how growth in Durham would interact positively or negatively with the growth being proposed by other north-east authorities. In summary, the inspector explains that, at present,

“the failure to fully assess the social, economic and environmental implications of lower growth options…is a serious omission”.

Let me be clear: that does not mean that the inspector has suggested that Durham should be less ambitious in its plan; it means that Durham needs to show clearly why the approach it proposes is the most appropriate strategy.

The plan clearly seeks to enable more housing than past trends would indicate, but the inspector has indicated that there are shortcomings in the methodology for establishing housing needs; for example, there is the question of whether the predicted in-migration levels are realistic.

In relation to housing provision, the inspector’s view is that the plan could do more to take into account the contribution that could be made to housing delivery by reusing brownfield land, potentially for around 2,000 homes; I hope that addresses the issue that the hon. Member for City of Durham mentioned. Based on these assumptions about housing growth, the plan allocates some 4,000 homes in the green belt. On this point, the inspector is clear that

“The process and evidence relating to the proposed amendments to the Green Belt boundary are flawed, particularly in relation to the release of sites to accommodate some 4,000 unnecessary dwellings...A full review of non-Green Belt sources of supply should be undertaken.”

The plan further advocates two relief roads in the green belt, but the inspector also has concerns about their justification and impact. Although planning inevitably involves difficult decisions that will not please everyone, the inspector points to significant concerns raised by a broad section of the public in relation to the proposed strategy.

The shortcomings identified in the current version of the plan may yet be resolvable at examination, as the inspector’s report sets out. I understand that the council is due to meet the inspectorate in March to discuss options for how to proceed, and I am pleased that the inspectorate is engaging openly with the local authority.

I can reassure hon. Members who have spoken today that the Planning Inspectorate is as pragmatic as possible when it comes to examining local plans. However, this is the crux of the matter: the inspector would not have arrived at his interim findings if there were not significant grounds for concern.

In summary, hon. Members who have spoken today have expressed their support for a plan that the inspector considers is not currently supported by robust evidence. In the absence of such evidence, the plan advocates a strategy that is potentially unrealistic or possibly detrimental to Durham, its sustainable development and in particular its green belt.

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I take exception to the Minister saying that, because what has been put forward is an ambitious plan. She seems to be saying that on the one hand we need economic growth for the north-east, but on the other the plan is not achievable. The problem is treating County Durham as a small market county; it is a large county. If housing is not put in my area, it will be put somewhere else, which means my area will suffer as part of this plan.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am simply stating the concerns that the inspectorate has raised. Clearly, I hope that we have a local plan in place for his area sooner rather than later. However, that plan needs to be based on good evidence if it is to be successful. I hope that, if the dialogue with the inspectorate is successful, the plan that emerges at the end of the process will be stronger for it.

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The objective of trying to generate 30,000 jobs between now and 2030 is in line with what the Chancellor said on Friday about generating 50,000 jobs between now and 2020. If the figures for the county over 15 years are out of kilter, so are the Chancellor’s figures. That is why the Government need to look at this matter closely; it affects not only the growth patterns for the county, but those for the whole of the north-east, as laid out by the Chancellor.

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I will come on to answer the first point that the hon. Gentleman raised. In answer to his second point, there is no doubt that the ambition is the right one. The figures, both on jobs and the inward investment that we expect, are absolutely right. The issue at stake is how that growth in jobs and investment is achieved. I have just given one example. Based on current evidence, the inspectorate feels deeply that building on the green belt is not justified, and that the plan would benefit from a piece of work that examines the reuse of brownfield sites. We do not want to slow down progress; we want to keep up momentum on this issue. I am pleased that the inspectorate is due to meet the council.

Let me turn to the first point the hon. Gentleman raised, which was about Government assistance. I will write to hon. Members in detail about planning policy, which may give them some comfort. I will also follow up on the issue that he raised about the Hitachi business park and the science innovation park; I will certainly seek to get him some answers on that issue and will write to him about it. We have already been of assistance in setting up the meeting that is due to take place in March. We will assist in any way we can, not only in my Department but across Government.

There is one other area that is worth exploring. When I looked at the local plan that is being proposed, and mapped it to the plans and priorities of the local enterprise partnership, I saw that there is perhaps a job of work to do that would strengthen the position that the hon. Gentleman is setting out. I am one of a number of Ministers who could help to facilitate that work, which may yield further evidence to support the plan as currently set out. Of course, the Chancellor has also offered his assistance and offered to work with local stakeholders.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first point, therefore, we are ready to assist in any way we can. Clearly, the area will benefit from having a strong, robust, evidence-based local plan, and I hope that we will see one before too long.

Children’s Palliative Care

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I am grateful to have secured this debate and glad to have the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I first became interested in this area through the work of Acorns children’s hospice in my constituency, which provides a valuable service to children and families from all over Birmingham. I cannot praise its work too highly.

I begin by acknowledging that I believe the Government are genuine in trying to establish a clear funding path for children’s palliative care and hospice services. I understand that the major change envisaged by the Government is the new per-patient funding system. It would be helpful if the Minister said more about how it will work and how he plans to ensure that it is properly monitored and reviewed. I also want to raise the issue of short breaks and bereavement care, as these elements are not included in the per-patient funding strategy.

The children’s hospice movement supports the principle of per-patient funding for children’s palliative care as a means of providing more sustainable, transparent funding through an NHS currency, commissioned by clinical commissioning groups and designed to complement NHS England’s commissioning of specialised children’s palliative care services.

I understand that the third strand of Government thinking is that local authorities should continue to be responsible for commissioning necessary elements of social care and that together this should create an overarching system where all elements of the care—clinical and non-clinical aspects, short breaks and bereavement support—are all provided for.

My purpose in seeking this debate is to address a genuine fear that the impending general election and uncertainty over the new system could lead to a funding hiatus that could have a damaging effect on the children’s hospice movement. If I have understood it correctly, the per-patient system is designed to reimburse providers according to the activity they undertake, and to incentivise both commissioners and providers to deliver palliative care in a child’s home, community or hospice setting, if that is consistent with the wishes of the child and the family, and clinically appropriate.

The idea of the currency is set out in NHS England’s 2014 document, “Developing a new approach to palliative care funding: A revised draft for discussion”, in which it is argued that the currency should make it easy for clinical commissioning groups to understand the specific needs of children with life-limiting conditions. It should also be possible for clinical commissioning groups to have a better understanding of what constitutes palliative care and of the potential cost drivers for commissioning.

What steps have the Government planned to ensure that those elements of palliative care not covered by the new per-patient funding system will be properly funded by local authorities and clinical commissioning groups? This new system is the product of hard work and, as I have indicated, the sector is generally favourable towards it, but it is worried about a number of aspects. For example, how will the costs incurred by providers during the transition be met, including costs of setting up new systems to record activity and of ongoing data collection demands?

The Government-commissioned palliative care funding review by Hughes-Hallett, Craft and Davies in 2011, was clear that introducing and implementing the new system should be cost-neutral to the sector. What support does the Minister envisage for the voluntary sector providers to enable them to implement this new approach?

It would be useful if the Minister outlined any plans to provide models of practice that show how the currency will work, especially in situations for children and young people subject to continuing care packages and personal budgets, as introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014. It would also be useful to understand how the data quality will be monitored and how comparisons of models of care and outcomes will be assessed.

It is not clear to me how the new system will deal with the issue of transition from child to teenager to young adult.

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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Acorns children’s hospice serves my constituency as it serves his. It has a fantastic hospice in Worcester. It has done some important work on transition space and supporting the many people who, because of advances in medicine, are living longer. Does he agree that it is vital that the Government engage with it on this work, to make sure that transition is properly supported by the future funding system?

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Yes, I agree. That is exactly the point. It is fantastic that so many children now survive for so much longer. That creates new demands and service needs that have to be considered. I should be grateful if the Minister said what work is being undertaken, both within Government and the NHS, to ensure that these transition issues are being considered in any new funding plans. I concur with the hon. Gentleman on that. The Care Quality Commission report, “From the pond into the sea: children’s transition to adult health services”—that is its title, I kid you not—also indicated that this focus is important.

We are moving towards the election, so it would help if the Minister clarified where we are with all these plans. As I have said, I acknowledge that the intention is to create a fair and sustainable framework, but we are now in March—the projected launch date for the introduction of the new non-mandatory currency is March—and as yet, unless I have missed something, we do not know the Government’s intention. What I would really like to know, and what I think the hospices would like to know, is what is going to happen with the hospice grant? Is the intention that it should continue during 2015-16 and beyond? I am sure that the Minister appreciates that not knowing is a real source of anxiety and a blow to any attempts at long-term planning.

Almost 96% of children’s hospice organisations are worried, according to the Together for Short Lives survey, that CCG funding will be less than their existing grant and harder to access. That grant covered about 13% of the care costs incurred by children’s hospices and existing clinical commissioning group funding represents about another 12%. Uncertainty over almost 25% of previously guaranteed funding is a difficult basis from which to operate.

I am sure the Minister knows that these bodies rely massively on public generosity and fund-raising efforts, but they also need some core guaranteed funding. If the grant ceases and is not matched by equal funding elsewhere, 89% of children’s hospice organisations could be forced to reduce their services. Areas at risk include short-break services for 60% of users.

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As someone who has spent 14 years working for the children’s hospice movement as a fundraiser, I am completely aware of the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Short breaks are incredibly important, because they are not only a break for the child, but for the whole family. Often people arrive on a Friday looking utterly exhausted. Just being able to have some normal family time until Monday is a great relief for them. Is that not the importance of these short breaks?

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I do not think we can in any way overestimate the importance of short breaks to families and to children. Both need space at times, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The survey suggests that more than 60% of users could lose that service. There is also a risk of a 35% reduction in family support work, which is connected with short breaks and enables many families to keep going in stressful situations. There is also a risk of a 23% reduction in the amount of end-of-life care support provided.

Short breaks provide respite for carers and families and should be funded by local authorities and the NHS under their respective legal short-break duties. Despite being key providers of short breaks, a third of children’s hospices are not recognised by local authorities as being short-break providers. Some 42% of children’s hospice organisations receive no funding from local authorities. Page 56 of the palliative care funding review report states that

“pre-bereavement support is an absolutely essential part of palliative care and should be fully funded by the state.”

The review goes on to state, however, that far from being universal, only 65% to 70% of local authorities have open access services. Without the children’s hospice movement, there will be a gaping hole in end-of-life care.

I am not here to criticise the Government’s intentions, but the combination of the election and a new system with many unanswered questions risks significant funding problems. As organisations try to tighten their belts and take on new responsibilities, there is a danger that they will fall back on what they know or believe they know. It will not help the children or families of children with life-limiting conditions if clinical commissioning groups fall back on a narrow, clinical model that focuses on the child’s health needs as defined by doctors. The currency should not be used as a top-up for the acute sector providers, who can access other tariffs to fund care for children with life-limiting conditions.

Palliative care for children with a life-limiting or life-threatening condition is an active and total approach to care, from the point of recognition or diagnosis through the child’s life to death. It embraces emotional, social and spiritual elements and focuses on enhancing quality of life. It also supports the family and includes managing distressing symptoms, providing short breaks and care right through to the point of death and bereavement. That more holistic understanding of palliative care is reflected in national policy documents such as NHS England’s “Actions for End of Life Care: 2014-16” and the 2014 Care Quality Commission handbook. I welcome the interest that the Government have shown in an often neglected area, but we now need some clear messages, actions and signals to ensure that valuable work is not wasted and that an easily avoidable funding crisis is not allowed to develop. Local authorities under significant financial pressures are highly unlikely to fund what they might see as additional services unless required to do so. NHS England’s draft currency for children’s palliative care should be accompanied by clear guidance to local authorities on funding short breaks and bereavement care.

I would like the Minister to give an assurance that the structure is clear and that the intention is to have a three-source funding arrangement, with NHS England commissioning specialised children’s palliative care and utilising the experience of the children’s hospice movement, with CCGs commissioning general children’s palliative care using the new per-patient funding system and working closely with children’s hospices and with local authorities required to commission social elements of palliative care, such as short breaks, bereavement care and support for siblings and other family members, and seeing it as their duty to work with children’s hospices. It is vital that all three funding sources complement one another. If not, there is a risk that local authorities will regard those services included within per-patient funding as the entirety of palliative care and avoid playing their part. NHS England’s specialised care could fall prey to a narrow medical model and never leave the acute hospitals.

The Government need to provide some specific distinctions between specialised and general palliative care, so that one side is not tempted to avoid its responsibilities by relying on the funding of the other. We also need to know that NHS and local authorities are clear about their duties under the Children and Families Act 2014. It places a duty on them to jointly commission care for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities up to the age of 25. I urge the Minister to provide what answers he can today to a valuable sector, which eagerly awaits his response.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on securing this debate and for his gracious recognition of the Government’s commitment to, and good faith in, trying to get this right. I begin by paying tribute to the efforts of the thousands of people who work so selflessly for children’s hospices across the country. Without their efforts supporting the most gravely ill children and young people, we would not have our world-class hospices and palliative care services. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Worcester (Mr Walker) and for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) for their comments in support.

We are fully aware that the reliance of children’s hospices on volunteers and charitable fundraising reflects their comparatively recent historical development. They do not receive as significant a proportion of their funding from local health and social care commissioners as their adult counterparts. That is a long-standing anomaly that many in the sector perceive as threatening the sustainability of children’s hospices. Since taking office, the Government have taken that extremely seriously. As has been mentioned, we made a commitment in the coalition agreement specifically to place hospice funding on a more equitable and sustainable footing through the development of a new per-patient funding system for all hospices and providers of palliative care for adults and children. That would provide a transparent basis for local commissioning of palliative care services.

I am proud to say that that process has been accompanied by unprecedented direct investment in children’s hospices. We pledged in the coalition agreement to continue the annual allocation of £10 million to children’s hospices, and I am delighted to say that that was increased by 7% in 2012 to take account of new providers. Now allocated by NHS England, the grant has been increased again to £11 million. In addition, there were ad hoc grants of £19 million in 2010-11, and more than £7 million in capital grants in 2013 directly to children’s palliative care. We should not lose sight, however, of the fact that the annual allocation is a central grant in lieu of consistent, locally based commissioning, and it is to that which we need to move, not least because local commissioners have a better understanding of local need and how palliative care services can be integrated with other care.

The 2011 independent palliative care funding review highlighted the absence of good data on the costs of palliative care and proposed the collection of data on an unprecedented scale through a series of pilots, one of which looked specifically at children’s palliative care. Since the pilots concluded in April 2014, the considerable data generated, which cover all aspects of contact between someone being supported with care and the professionals delivering that support, have been analysed with the aim of identifying a currency that captures patients’ clinical and resource needs.

Hon. Members will understand that a useful currency has to group health care into units or packages that are broadly similar in terms of what is provided and the resources required, and that provide a common language for discussing the commissioning and delivery of palliative care. Ultimately, the aim is to give local commissioners the basis for discussions with providers about what is needed and how it is to be resourced, and clear, reliable data on the complex care that is provided to severely ill children. Good progress has been made in developing the currency, although none of the many providers and professionals that have been involved have been under any illusions about the complexity of the task or the importance of getting it right.

A document setting out currency units has been published and engagement has taken place with clinicians, providers and commissioners to test it out. The currency units are being developed into a currency framework that can be used locally by health economies for further testing. NHS England intends to make that available for 2015-16, along with supporting guidance. Hon. Members will note that we have not rushed into imposing a new funding system on the palliative care sector. We have worked extremely closely with many different providers in taking the work forward.

I know that unease is felt in some quarters about the prospect of a sudden transition to a new funding model. However, as we have previously placed on record—I am happy to do so again today—our aim is for the commissioning of children’s and adult hospices to be fit for purpose. That can be guaranteed only by testing the implications of a new funding approach with palliative care services themselves and by exploring locally how that would support more effective local commissioning, including how it must dovetail with other local services. There must be a planned and gradual transition to a new system, with clinical commissioning groups supported and able to take a strategic view of how palliative care for children fits into other services for children with complex needs, such as special educational provision and social care.

I entirely agree with the concerns that have been expressed about the commissioning of different services for children with life-limiting conditions and their families being integrated as much as possible, although we believe that there must be flexibility as to how different commissioners work together to co-ordinate provision. Supporting that joint working, and exploring how to effect the correlation of specialised and local commissioning of palliative care with social care, will be an important part of the guidance and other support made available during transition. It would be up to NHS England to consider what direct financial support might be necessary for hospices and other providers. That decision cannot be made before the thorough testing of the currency has enabled us to understand the implications. Clearly, appropriate guidance and case studies of good practice will be an important part of that, as the hon. Gentleman said.

On future allocations, just as we do not wish to see an abrupt transition to a new funding system, we do not intend to end abruptly the existing financial support provided to children’s hospices. We are committed to ensuring that children’s hospices are properly supported in a fair and sustainable way, which means ensuring that, when the time is right, there is a planned transition from a central grant to local funding. NHS England has responsibility for determining the future of the allocation to children’s hospices, and I know that that allocation has been prioritised as a commitment for 2015-16. Although it has not happened yet, when the route towards the implementation of the new currency is clearly mapped, I expect consideration to be given to the effect of transition on providers and how that might be reflected in any allocations made centrally during that period. A decision on programme budgets more generally is expected before the end of March.

The hon. Gentleman asked about transition. Of course, ensuring the sustainability of funding is not the only issue facing the children’s palliative care sector, as we have heard. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester mentioned that as increasing numbers of young people with life-limiting conditions are benefiting from advances in medical science, allowing their condition to be stabilised, there is a growing demand for the more effective management of the transition to adulthood. Palliative care is not only about end-of-life care; it can provide vital support for living one’s life, but the setting must be age-appropriate and geared towards supporting the move to independent living, further education and employment. Typically, adult hospices do not provide the right environment for that, and children’s hospices are often not resourced to provide a separate and markedly different type of care for young adults, although I know that some people are developing facilities that cater for independent young people.

We know from the Care Quality Commission’s report that there is a pressing need for action across the NHS as a whole to improve how we meet the challenges of transition. Our system-wide pledge, “Better Health Outcomes For Children And Young People”, which the major health organisations signed in 2013, includes the ambition to secure care that is co-ordinated around the individual young person with complex needs in order to deliver a positive transition to adult services. There is undoubtedly more to be done, and it must be taken forward as part of a co-ordinated approach to meeting the needs of young people with complex needs.

There is increasing emphasis on the integrated commissioning and delivery of public services by the NHS and local government. We have recently introduced a new statutory framework for the integrated support of young people up to age 25 with special educational needs or a disability, which brings together the local authority and CCG to drive the co-ordinated assessment of need and planning for the individual child. Arguably, the role of palliative care for young adults should be fully integrated into such a framework of holistic support. It goes without saying that that would go beyond a narrowly medical model of care.

We would all agree that developing a new currency and a new funding framework for children’s palliative care is only part of developing more integrated services for children and young people. I would highlight that from 2011 to 2015-16 we have separately invested £54 million in the children and young people’s improving access to psychological therapies programme, which intervenes to help children and young people who have been affected by family bereavement.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak mentioned short-break services, which remain a key priority for the Government. We are very much aware of the invaluable support that they provide to disabled children and their families, including those who need palliative care. That is why, between 2011-12 and 2014-15, £800 million has been made available to local authorities through grants for short breaks. We have also introduced a short-breaks duty that requires all local authorities to provide a range of short-break services for disabled children and young people, and to publish a short-breaks statement explaining what is available locally and how it can be accessed. I would be happy to consider how we might ensure that local authorities are fully aware of the role of children’s hospices in acting as potential providers of short breaks.

In the final few minutes of the debate, I want to try to deal with all the questions raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak. If I fail, perhaps I can undertake to write to him to address them properly. He asked what is going to happen to the hospice grant and whether it will continue. NHS England has made it a priority for next year. It has not yet formally agreed its programme budgets, but, going by the undertakings I have received, I believe we can be confident that it will continue as it is.

The hon. Gentleman asked about support for voluntary providers. It is clear that that will emerge from the testing of the currency—there is no dispute about it being included. He asked about plans to provide models of practice: yes, guidance on implementation will cover that. He asked about how data quality will be maintained: the testing of currency will include built-in quality assurance.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about whether we would commit to maintaining the NHS England children’s hospices grant until a new system is in place. I can guarantee that we will ensure that children’s hospices continue to be supported in their work. There is no question of the grant stopping before alternative arrangements are in place. NHS England has made it a priority, but has not yet agreed its programme budgets.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about the new funding system for palliative care. We have published the currency document and commenced testing locally. We do not want to rush into a system that is not fit for purpose; we want to work with local providers and commissioners in order to empower them to have effective commissioning discussions.

I hope that I have provided some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman that the Government are firmly committed to seeing the children’s hospice sector supported. Given the strength of cross-party feeling on the importance of these issues, as highlighted today by the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey and for Worcester, I would expect any future Government to continue that and, in particular, to continue the work that we have commenced in providing a stronger local basis for the commissioning of children’s palliative care. I will happily write to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak to respond to any points that I have not been able to address properly in this short debate.

Bank Closure (Stone)

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It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.

Following the news of the decision to close the Eccleshall branch of NatWest bank, I called for a meeting with the head spokesman for Royal Bank of Scotland, which owns NatWest. Eccleshall is in my constituency, and I support my constituents to the hilt in this important matter, not least because the branch is the last bank in Eccleshall. I urge RBS to keep the essential facility open as a key service. My constituents in Eccleshall, including businesses, the elderly and the infirm, need access to bank services. They should not be made to travel, using cars and increasing traffic; their local banking facilities should be in the town where they live.

Eccleshall is a vibrant, attractive place with many small businesses, pubs and restaurants, and farmers nearby, all of whom need banking facilities daily. The bank will be keeping the ATM—I asked for how long—and has reached some agreement with the Post Office, but our local concerns in Eccleshall far outweigh any of that.

Accounting procedures within the bank’s internal systems remove large chunks of income, such as business, wealth management and mortgages, from the branch income measurement. As a result, only large city branches are likely to be shown as profitable. Were interest rates to rise again to a higher rate, would not small town branches such as Eccleshall become profitable again? Furthermore, banks go on and on about their good customer service, while often making huge losses—even when not in turmoil—but closing a bank in a place such as Eccleshall is the opposite of good customer service.

Stafford borough council’s letter on the matter followed an emergency motion and stated:

“The council expresses its disappointment at the decision by National Westminster Bank to close its branch in Eccleshall. This is the ‘last bank’ in Eccleshall and leaves all residents, particularly the elderly, vulnerable and those in remote areas without an adequate banking service.”

Such an emergency motion is a most unusual step for a borough council. It was also supported by 780 signatures on a petition and, indeed, I will be presenting a parliamentary petition after the debate.

Letters went from the council to the chief executives of RBS and NatWest, copying in the Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. In addition, I wrote to the Minister for Business and Enterprise. I asked and continue to ask RBS to review its decision in the light of those letters and the strength of feeling against the closure. In its letter to the NatWest chief executive, Stafford borough council requested that the bank review its decision. In 2010, RBS as a whole had committed to maintain a bank in communities where—I emphasise—it was the last branch in town, even identifying 168 communities where it was already the only branch in town. In 2014, however, at least 25 of those were closed, and Eccleshall appears to be facing the same fate soon. Through the Minister, I ask RBS not to close our NatWest branch.

In the past five years alone, 431 communities have lost their last surviving bank branch. The nearest alternative NatWest branches for Eccleshall residents are in Stone, which is a 12-mile round trip; Stafford, a 16-mile round trip; Trentham or Newport, each a 19-mile round trip; and Market Drayton, a 25-mile round trip. The banks seem to want to accelerate the rate of closure, especially in rural communities, in spite of the speech by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills the other day, and what about the national NatWest pledge not to close the last branch in town? Why can RBS not branch-share, while maintaining the Eccleshall branch to achieve its existing targets? We only need the one branch. The fact that NatWest is part of RBS, with all its historic difficulties, only makes the proposed closure worse.

My broader personal interest derives from the fact that my family founded the Abbey National building society and the National Provident in the mid-19th century, and in my view and that of many of my constituents, banks also have a social purpose. NatWest data claim to show low usage of the Eccleshall branch, but the data is contrary to local reports. People have noticed that queues for the counter service are often extremely vibrant and visible.

The post office, which is intended to offer substitute services, according to the bank, can undertake a wide range of counter transaction services, but it does not have significant capacity to provide a real alternative. The queuing area in the post office is too small and it has only one full-time staff member and two counter positions. How long will the queues be when businesses pay in their weekend takings, especially the pubs and restaurants, on Mondays? As I said, there are plenty of pubs and small businesses in my constituency, so the banking of weekend takings will make things worse, especially for the disabled and elderly if coinciding with pension days and so on.

Banks offer a core service to all in the community, not only to individual people, but to businesses and groups, whether families, single people, the elderly, the infirm, farmers and so on—every stratum of society. If there is a mobile banking service limited to an hour, what happens if people cannot get to Eccleshall at that time? The post office has no disability compliance and wheelchair users cannot obtain access, while its standard paying-in maximum for business is £1,000 per day, which is far below what the pubs need to pay in each Monday. Also, the bank branch can amend or cancel standing orders, but the post office cannot.

On communications about the closure, I have been told that five NatWest Eccleshall business customers merely received a letter and that no meetings have been held. On internet banking, Eccleshall does not fit a pattern of internet-subscribed services and telephone banking. My constituents will be forced to use online or telephone banking services. Many do not have access to the internet and do not feel safe talking to people on the telephone about personal finance.

There has been no effective community involvement in the closure decision. If my constituents are to have a growing and diverse community in their local area, with local employment and services and increased housing, they need to be supported by a local bank in the community, rather than decision making being taken away from their people and business. The Eccleshall community is a caring one, and as I go around the town I know that people feel strongly about the issue. My constituents in Eccleshall value the local NatWest branch and want to retain it. The town is a small, vibrant community. I urge the Minister to intervene with RBS to recommit to maintaining the “last branch in town” policy commitment.

The chief executive of RBS, Mr Ross McEwan, wrote to me last week with the RBS 2014 full-year results. Part of that correspondence refers to a section in the results entitled “A better bank for customers”, in which he says that for too long UK banks have focused on “market share”, rather than “customer care”:

“It is why over the last year our people have worked hard to embed this ‘customer first’ mentality into everything we do as a bank…we are determined to reach our aspiration of being number 1 for customer service, trust and advocacy”—

by 2020—

“It won’t be easy, but I firmly believe it is doable.”

At the end of the letter, he says:

“We will continue to focus on doing what is right for our customers.”

All I have to say is: we shall see.

RBS has an operating profit of £3.5 billion, with an underlying operating profit that increased by £l billion in 2014, less the £2 billion in fines—the ones we know about. That is not good. Thus, in 2015, we might reasonably expect profits to exceed £5 billion, but what about my constituents and their service from the bank in Eccleshall? The chairman and chief executive both reiterated their “customer first” policy. The chairman stated that NatWest must become the No. l bank for trust, service and advocacy, with the chief executive adding that

“the customer has to come first in everything that we do”.

The chief executive met the Chancellor to discuss bank branch closures on the very same day that I was meeting NatWest executives to discuss the closure of the NatWest bank in Eccleshall. That was on Tuesday 27 January 2015. The Chancellor called for a minimum standard for managing any bank branch closure. That speaks for itself.

I also now have problems with closures by the Co-operative bank. It, too, has a poor history. I met with the head of branch network for the Co-operative bank last Wednesday to oppose its decision to close branches at Blythe Bridge, Cheadle and Stone in my constituency. The nearest alternative branch will now be in Longton, which is approximately eight miles from all the other branches. The branches are scheduled to close by the end of July. The Co-operative bank also claims that its customers are its main priority, but how can customers be its main priority if it is removing banks in such key local towns? It says it will write to affected customers to let them know about the changes and the alternatives available to them.

I understand that Bob Rickert, the chief operating officer tasked with helping restructure the bank, left it last week, and last October saw the departure of its chairman, Richard Pym. The Co-operative bank is struggling to turn itself around after facing a £1.5 billion financial black hole, which we have all heard about and was quite clearly self-induced. The bank is not expected to make a profit until at least 2017, and in December, it failed the Bank of England stress tests, designed to scrutinise banks’ ability to weather a downturn.

My constituents in Stone do not want the Co-op bank in their town to close. They banked with its predecessor for 30 years and want a full local branch. The post office is not a good alternative, as it could not offer a full service and the queues are long. The same applies in Cheadle and Blythe Bridge.

I call on the Minister to intervene by writing to the banks and to do everything possible to try to prevent the proposed Co-op closures in Cheadle, Stone and Blythe Bridge, as well as the closure of the NatWest branch in Eccleshall.

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It is a great to serve under your chairmanship today, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) on securing this debate and on presenting his case as compellingly as he always does. He has made good points to which I am extremely sympathetic. I well understand—I have my own constituency cases on the issue—how people feel when a bank in their area is to be closed. Bank branches are often felt to be at the heart of a local community. I appreciate that, as he said, the people of Eccleshall have produced a petition with close to 800 signatures expressing their concern at the loss of their bank branch. Each of those people, and those in the neighbouring communities in Blythe Bridge, Cheadle and Stone who are losing a branch of the Co-operative bank, will feel, quite rightly, that their town is losing a little piece of its identity.

Eccleshall has had a NatWest branch since 1970, and has had a bank branch operating since the 1870s on what I can well imagine is a well loved local site, so the situation must be unsettling for local people. I am deeply concerned about closures not just in my hon. Friend’s constituency but across the country. I therefore want to tell him a bit about what I and others in the Government have been doing to try to make sense of the situation and to protect the important local access to banking services that so many people need and want.

At the same time, my hon. Friend will appreciate that the way we bank is going through an unprecedented period of change. Customers are reducing their use of high street branches and embracing new online and mobile technology. Although we all recognise that decisions on where branches are located are commercial ones, I assure him that the Government can set the tone, stressing the importance of day-to-day banking services to everyone’s daily life. As Economic Secretary, I have made that a personal priority and have worked hard to make sure that the vital services that the banking industry provides remain as widely available as possible.

NatWest has set out its case that the number of transactions at its Eccleshall branch is low compared with the rest of its branch network, but I absolutely recognise the disappointment felt by customers more broadly in the local area at the news of the closure. People often feel that there is inadequate consultation with the community and local stakeholders who may be affected. NatWest has followed current best practice, giving customers a three-month notice period and contacting its most active and most vulnerable customers to help them find alternative ways to bank. However, if people are to feel that their concerns have been heard, and if local businesses are to feel that the services underpinning their livelihoods are safe, banks must go much further. That is why I have been working to encourage the industry to adopt a new protocol that each bank will undertake to follow so as to mitigate the impact of a local branch closure.

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Did my hon. Friend hear the interview on this morning’s “Today” programme with the chief executive of Barclays bank, in which he talked about the amount of money he is earning and about bank bonuses, which are also under wider discussion? The chief executive and chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland keep making statements about customer service—we have heard much the same sort of thing from the Co-op—but that does not help my constituents or anyone else in the country. They then find a little edge here or there with regard to the profitability of a particular branch. Does she agree that if banks want a reputation that is worth maintaining, it will involve making sure that people in communities such as Eccleshall have actual access to the kinds of services that the banks say they are offering in their annual reports and in the public arena—on radio and television?

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I agree to a great extent with my hon. Friend. There is no doubt that banks are keen to restore their damaged reputations and that the big UK banks in particular are determined to show that they are there for their customers. I therefore agree with what he says about the need to make sure that they are addressing the needs of those customers and not looking only at commercial realities. Equally, however, I know he will agree that it is not for Government to intervene in private businesses to force them to retain completely unviable branches. We need instead to make sure that banks pay careful attention to the balance between commercial realities and the needs of local communities.

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On Government activity, I seem to remember only a few years ago an extensive bail-out for RBS. There are also questions in relation to the Co-op. It seems to me that when banks want help—and by help, I mean monumental bail-outs—it comes from the Government and the taxpayer, yet when they say they are putting customer service first they close small but important branches in places such as Eccleshall, which needs its branch.

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those further remarks. Again, I completely agree that banks have a long way to go to restore confidence that they mean what they say when they talk about customer service. However, again, he will understand if I do not say that a bank must open a branch in this place or that. Those decisions are commercial ones. The Government need to ensure that banks balance the needs of customers with commercial realities.

I mentioned that I have been urging and encouraging the industry to adopt a protocol that each bank would follow to mitigate the impact of a local branch closure. The protocol should not simply set out a series of steps for individual banks to take before they close a branch, but should raise the game of the industry as a whole, including how it listens to the concerns of its customers, and, crucially, how it responds. I am pleased to say that discussions on the protocol are at an advanced stage, and agreement is expected soon, thanks to the help of the trade body for banks, the British Bankers Association. We are hopeful that we will get something positive that will address some of the issues my hon. Friend raised.

My hon. Friend mentioned the availability of banking services through local post offices. I completely understand that for customers having a local post office is not the same as having a local bank branch. However, the services available through the Post Office offer most customers a real opportunity to continue to bank locally. We can and must do more to ensure that everybody understands and is comfortable with using the banking services available to them through their post office. For many customers, the Post Office can provide access to their bank account, including the ability to withdraw money, deposit cash and cheques and check their balance at all 11,700 of its branches throughout the UK—a huge network.

In some respects the Post Office can offer wider customer benefits. I know that a number of post offices, including in my constituency, have much longer opening hours than a typical high street bank and provide services seven days a week. Recently, I met the head of the post office network to talk about moves to improve the network, to provide more customer-facing space and more security, and to improve the range of financial services that it offers. The Post Office is working with its postmasters to ensure that facilities are upgraded and that appropriate security is put in place to enable customers to bank safely, and it is determined to do more to ensure that essential banking facilities remain available in as many communities as possible. The Government have committed almost £2 billion to protecting and modernising the post office network.

I believe that we can continue to improve the banking services that the Post Office offers and make them more consistent for customers, which is why I have encouraged the British Bankers Association and the Post Office to look at a standardised approach to counter banking services available through post offices. The Government expect a report on the progress of those talks in the near future.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about the future of banking beyond the traditional branch network, and about the services that will be accessible to all. It is vital that we ensure that vulnerable customers—particularly the elderly and those in rural constituencies—have suitable access. In Eccleshall, I believe that NatWest has made provision for a change to an existing mobile bank route, so a more traditional NatWest presence will still be available in the town.

A whole new world of banking is becoming available, and we should be excited about the opportunities that online and mobile technology can provide. The UK is positioning itself as a world leader in financial technology, and we can already see signs of the benefits that all the developments in financial technology can bring. For example, since April 2014, customers can securely transfer money instantly to other bank accounts using only their mobile phone number as identification, which means that they do not have to access a computer or travel to a branch to make a payment. From 31 July 2016, customers will be able to use their telephone to photograph cheques for payment into their bank account, making life easier for customers in remote areas. Several banks are taking action to help their customers use those new technologies with confidence.

We are also making progress on ATM provision. The number of free-to-use ATMs is at an all-time high, and 97% of withdrawals are now made free of charge. I understand that in Eccleshall NatWest will still provide an ATM in the local community. There are also two other free-to-use ATMs within 1 mile of the branch that is to close.

More generally, it is often the most isolated or disadvantaged communities that have the worst access to free-to-use ATMs, so the Government are working closely with the LINK network’s financial inclusion programme to subsidise free-to-use cash points in more than 1,400 remote and deprived areas across the UK. Importantly, members of the public can nominate their area for inclusion. I believe that the ATM network can play a more important role in addressing some of the concerns voiced by consumers whose local branch is closing.

On a trip to India last year as part of my job as Economic Secretary, I was impressed at the widespread use of smart ATMs, which have far greater functionality than those we tend to have in the UK. They allow customers not only to make withdrawals and deposits and check their balances, but to carry out a wider range of transactions, such as purchasing train tickets and bus passes. Progress in the UK could be made by simply ensuring that ATMs allowed customers to deposit cash. That facility would be particularly beneficial to local small and medium-sized enterprises if it were provided in a way that allowed depositors to feel safe and secure—for example, within the confines of a Post Office, a store or an e-lobby. I have raised that issue with the banking sector, and my officials are engaged with LINK to find a way forward.

In conclusion, although the Government recognise that individual branch closures are commercial decisions and must continue to be so, I fully understand the disappointment felt in Stone and other communities when local bank branches close. There is no doubt that customers’ usage of banking services is going through an unprecedented period of change, but it is vital that we ensure that vulnerable customers—particularly the elderly and those in rural constituencies—have suitable access.

I want to reassure my hon. Friend that it will continue to be my personal priority for the remaining weeks of this Parliament to ensure that the vital services that the banking industry provides remain as widely available as possible, wherever people live. I fully intend to make further progress on the initiatives to get banks to create a new protocol, to look at what services the Post Office provides, and to push further on using technology to provide solutions to businesses and customers in rural areas. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for raising these important issues in this vital debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.