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Westminster Hall

Volume 606: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2016

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 1 March 2016

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

High Streets

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of high streets.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I am delighted to have secured this timely debate as the Budget fast approaches. I am also pleased that hon. Members from all parts of the House have taken the time to come along this morning.

It is almost four years since Mary Portas published her review of the future of Britain’s high streets. Contained within were 28 recommendations for improving our town centres, many of which are yet to be implemented. I sought this debate not because I think that all the recommendations should have been implemented—I do not—but because the health of our high streets has not improved significantly in the past four years. It is important to highlight the challenges that shops on Britain’s high streets continue to face, to raise the profile of the issue once again, and to encourage the Government to take some relatively straightforward steps to alleviate the burdens that are threatening the existence of small, independent businesses across Britain.

I know that colleagues will want to raise issues particular to their constituencies and to bring ideas to the table, so I will focus my remarks on several key points. The challenges faced by high streets are many and varied, including tough competition from online retailers and supermarkets, excessive parking restrictions and/or charges, and the proliferation of tax break-benefiting charity shops. Many of the symptoms are also causes of the steady decline in the fortunes of small, independent retailers on UK high streets. Equally, it is neither possible nor desirable to alter many of the factors that put these retailers out of business: for example, it would be retrograde in the extreme to prevent supermarkets from opening small stores or to somehow thwart customers’ choice to shop online. However, there are four measures that, if enacted, would have an immediate and positive impact on our high streets, shifting the balance back in favour of small businesses. In this wide-ranging area of debate, I will concentrate my remarks on those suggestions and make the case for taking urgent action.

First, charity shops should be reclassified under the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 so that the local authority’s permission is required to change the use of a shop to a charity shop. Secondly, the mandatory rate relief for charity shops should be reduced from 85% to 50%. Thirdly, the sale of new goods in charity shops should be monitored and the restrictions enforced more effectively. Fourthly, business rates should be reduced and the system, which unfairly punishes property-intensive industries, should be simplified.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He will recall that in the last Parliament the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills carried out an inquiry on the future of our high streets and retail, and it recommended fundamental reform of business rates. With the Chancellor due to announce his Budget soon, does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital to reduce that burden on our city centres and high streets?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The Treasury is always listening, so it will be aware of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee report and will have heard my hon. Friend’s comment. I am sure that the Chancellor will include such a measure in his Budget.

In the lead-up to the Budget, the Treasury is making encouraging noises suggesting that my point about business rates may finally be addressed. Although we must continue to apply pressure to ensure that business rates are made less onerous, the issue has been considered extensively, so I intend to focus predominantly on my first three points. Similarly, I have campaigned heavily over the past four years to relax Sunday trading legislation, but there is little point in raising the matter again today because the Government have included measures in the Enterprise Bill to devolve the power to relax such restrictions. The fact that local authorities will have the power to zone Sunday trading hours to help high streets and city centres over out-of-town retail parks is particularly welcome, and I encourage the Government to continue their endeavours. In that and many other areas, the Government have shown themselves to be willing to carry through necessary reforms, regardless of attempts by vested interests to sustain the status quo. I shall use this opportunity to encourage Ministers to act similarly on charity shops.

Napoleon famously said that we were a nation of shopkeepers. I wish that we were. In recent years, we have increasingly become a nation of charity shopkeepers, as high streets up and down the country have been filled with charity shops. There are currently over 10,000 in the UK, and their number increased by 30% between October 2008 and October 2011. In my constituency, the scale of the increase has been impossible to ignore: there are now 15 charity shops in St Annes and less than three miles down the road, in the centre of Lytham, there are nine more—with, I am informed, another two on the way.

Let me state clearly that I recognise the value of charity shops. Each shop raises thousands of pounds a year for good causes and serves an excellent practical purpose as a place for people to dispose of unwanted possessions in the knowledge that they will not be wasted. Equally, they provide a community space for local shoppers and volunteers, filling shopping space that in some cases would otherwise go empty. However, the question has to be asked: are we heading towards saturation?

Charity shops are not universally welcomed by shoppers or by other retailers, who can struggle to compete. As someone who worked in the retail industry for 15 years before being elected to Parliament, I not only recognise but welcome the competitive nature of the business. If there is no market for a shop’s goods, if it cannot attract customers and if it cannot make a profit, it must inevitably close. It is not the business of Government or any other institution to support a failed enterprise that has no future. The problem is that we are not even allowing retail businesses to attempt to attract customers or to try to make a profit; in fact, we are denying them the chance to open in the first place.

No potential future shopkeeper, all of whom should frankly be applauded for being willing to enter such a difficult industry, can possibly compete with a charity shop. An ordinary retail outlet will largely employ its staff. Over 2.7 million people work in over 270,000 shops across the UK. From next month, all those businesses will pay the majority of their staff at least £7.20 an hour, rising to £9 an hour by 2020. Those who want to set up a shop should be commended for providing valuable new employment opportunities for local people. In contrast, according to the Charity Retail Association, only some 17,000 people are in paid employment in charity shops. Before one even begins to consider the multiple and varied tax breaks on offer, charity shops work because they have an unpaid, volunteer workforce of around 213,000 across the country. When one considers that fact and the value we attach to making work pay in this country, I suggest that we agree—at least we should agree—that it is far better to have a business in shop premises than a charitable organisation manned purely by volunteers.

Again, that is not to say that charity shops are intrinsically problematic. They most certainly are not. The fact that charity shops are staffed by volunteers is actually a good thing. Many of us know from our own communities that charity shops often provide enormously valuable opportunities for a diverse range of people to come together, including those with disabilities and those who have been out of the workplace for a long time. The problem is simply that there are too many shops and the numbers are ever increasing. Shoppers on our high streets are suffering from a lack of variety as a result. Indeed, many charities are struggling to find volunteers because of competition from other charity shops. It is now time to enact solutions, rather than to merely consider this oft-diagnosed problem. That is why my first suggestion is that charity shops should be reclassified under the 1987 order, leaving only commercially operating enterprises in class A1 and enabling local authorities to prevent the saturation of high streets with charity shops.

As I have already outlined, Lytham and St Annes are increasingly saturated with charity shops. Local councillors are frustrated at their lack of power to prevent a further increase in numbers. Although I entirely agree that it is far better to have a charity shop than no shop at all, it is often assumed that a charity has taken out a lease because there is no competition from prospective businesses to move into the premises. That was indeed the case in many parts of the UK, particularly after the 2008 recession, but it is often not the case, particularly in affluent areas. In Lytham, a shop recently announced that it intended to move, leaving its existing premises vacant. I know for a fact that a local business owner would have been pleased to have the opportunity to move in and to make a go of setting up an enterprise there, with all the resulting employment opportunities and benefits to the local economy. Remarkably, however, competition for the premises was not the fair competition that I spoke of earlier, because it came from a charity shop.

No landlord thinking purely about the bottom line, as is to be expected, would choose to rent their shop to an untried, untested business that is forced to pay staff at least £7.20 an hour, with exorbitant business rates on top—not when they can reach agreement on a long-term lease with a charity. I know of cases in Lytham of leases being negotiated for terms of up to 10 years. Charity shops do not need to pay their staff, they do not buy the majority of their stock, and they pay at most 20% of the rates of other retailers. That is not fair competition; it is a complete distortion of the bargaining power of the two parties, which we have now entrenched in law.

Mary Portas stated in her 2011 review:

“start ups should be the number one priority when it comes to giving discounts. The business rate discounts that charity shops enjoy builds a disadvantage into the system that is causing a problem. Landlords are choosing the safe option of charity shops and small new retailers aren’t getting a look in. There will be no growth and innovation now or in the future if we don’t address this.”

Of course, if good landlords who cared about their local communities were a universal commodity, there would be no need for local government to step in. Clearly, however, we cannot leave landlords to self-regulate the complexion of our high streets. Powers must be given to local authorities to enable them to determine whether an area needs yet another charity shop, or whether to allow new businesses the opportunity to establish. If, after a reasonable period of time, no small independent retailer has come forward to take on a lease, it would be perfectly reasonable to allow a charity to take on the premises. The power would mean simply that local authorities could refuse to grant planning approval for a change of use from a shop to a charity shop.

Recently, action has been taken to streamline and to speed up the planning system in this area under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015. I see no reason why further swift action cannot be taken to make a relatively straightforward change to differentiate charity shops from other shops. I see no grounds that render such an approach unreasonable. A charity shop is clearly different from a commercially run shop in all the ways I have outlined. The law has built in the differences. I would therefore give short shrift to any claim that a change in classification would give cause for judicial review. That would be a base excuse for a Government to use if they wanted to avoid taking such action. Ultimately, our commitment to localism was a large reason why a Conservative Government were elected last May. It is important that the Government carry through on our commitment and allow local people to develop high streets that work better for them.

I will speed through the rest of my recommendations as they are far less controversial and have been suggested widely before; also, I am conscious that several other Members wish to contribute to the debate. The second proposal that I urge the Government to adopt is to reduce the mandatory rate of relief from business rates from 80% to 50%. The idea is not new and it was proposed as a positive way to level the playing field between charity shops and other businesses in a Welsh Government consultation which was completed in July 2013. The consultation was supposed to form the basis of discussion between the devolved Administrations and the Government, but no outcome has yet appeared. I make the proposal again in the hope that the Government will carefully consider implementing it.

As the Welsh Government report makes clear, the professionalism and commercial focus of the charity shop industry has increased markedly over the past 20 years. As a result, the detailed recommendation was that the amount of rate relief available for larger charity shops occupying premises of higher rateable value should be restricted to an upper rateable value limit of £36,000; all charity shops should receive 80% rate relief on the first £12,000 of the rateable value; charity rate relief should be reduced from 80% to 50% on the next £24,000 of rateable value; and for rateable values in excess of £36,000, business rate relief should fall to zero, but in tiers. All charity shops would therefore receive some rate relief from business rates, but the amount of relief they received would be reduced in stages. Those seem to be perfectly sound, well thought through proposals—made, it is worth mentioning, by a Labour Administration—especially when set in the context of a proliferation in the number of charity shops.

I also want a change to the way in which rateable value is calculated for charities with more than one premises in the same town, in order to avoid a loophole in the system. It is right to question whether charities should receive the same rate relief on their second or even third premises on the same high street; if they did not, there is no cause to believe that charity shops would be forced to close as, lest we forget, they have little to pay in overheads and should be paying virtually nothing in stock costs. Equally, such a measure would incentivise the foundation of charity shops in smaller premises, favouring smaller, often local charities over what are now, frankly, large national chains. The results of such changes can only be positive. They would level the playing field between commercial and charitable operations, and put some extra money in the hands of Government. Given that, I cannot imagine why it has not already been done.

The Welsh Government consultation also recommended the introduction of my third proposal: to enforce and monitor more effectively the extant restrictions on the sale of new goods in charity shops. If charities are found to be trading in new goods, particularly in areas where commercial shops are selling the same products, relief from business rates should be reduced or even removed. Again, powers should be given to local authorities to enforce that effectively.

In Lytham, of the 71 shops in the town centre, 69 sell a range of goods that the nine charity shops also stock, including cards, clothes, books, pictures, artificial flowers and general domestic goods. Inevitably, some of those goods have to be new. I do not advocate charities being prevented from selling Christmas cards, for example, or certain other new products that have long been associated with fundraising initiatives. I recognise that many charity shops sell only a limited amount of new goods and that roughly 85% of goods sold in charity shops are from donations. However, some of the larger charity shops in particular are making considerably more than the average 6.8% of income for which the sale of new goods in UK charity shops supposedly accounts.

As charity shops, especially those belonging to large national chains, become increasingly professional in the way they market and sell goods, it is important to restate the principle that only businesses paying full business rates should be allowed to compete with one another. Only businesses should be allowed to purchase stock to sell, while charity shops should endeavour to have close to 100% of sales in donated goods. As the number of charity shops increases, so does the amount of competition between them. It can no longer be guaranteed that charity shops are abiding by either the principle or the law on the restriction on the sale of new goods. Not only should charities be reminded of their obligations not to undercut retailers that do not benefit from charity shops’ volunteer workforce or tax breaks, but those obligations should be enforced with powers given to local authorities.

On business rates, only yesterday the highly respected British Retail Consortium warned that the pressures of, in particular, higher wage costs as a result of the national living wage and the apprenticeship levy, coupled with the overall pressures that high street retailers continue to face, could lead to the loss of 900,000 jobs over the next 10 years. Of the 270,000 shops in the UK, up to 74,000 could shut, with the impact greatest in Wales and the north of England. If that dire warning is not sufficient to elicit a response in the Budget this year, I do not know what will.

For too long we have ignored the plight of small retailers and allowed exorbitant duties to cripple their ability to compete with online and large out-of-town retailers. There is still a place for small high street retailers. People enjoy shopping in their local towns and the variety that a multiplicity of retailers affords. It is not the case that small shops are obsolete. Retail is an industry overburdened with taxes and red tape. The Government recognised that and conducted a review of business rates last year. Now, however, it is time for action. Clearly, some form of property tax will continue to be imposed on retailers, but it would be a welcome relief to all businesses if the Government capped the national multiplier now. Rateable values must be assessed with greater frequency, with open market valuations made more sympathetic to retailers. The whole system must be simplified, with all reliefs and exemptions kept in particular review.

We have a real opportunity not to sustain high street retailers artificially, but to lift much of the pressure from their shoulders. If the Government are going to impose—as they are right to do—a national living wage, they must ensure that the tax burden is lifted in a corresponding fashion. Also, we want more people in work on a better wage. If retailers are forced to close in great numbers, neither of those objectives is fulfilled.

I could cover many more points, but I am sure that other speakers today will do so. My plea to the Government is to take action on business rates and to address the unequal balance between charity shops and small retailers. For too long, both Conservative and Labour Governments have been reluctant to tackle these issues, and they have intensified to the extent that no action is no longer an option. My constituency does not need another charity shop. Local people want small businesses to be given a chance to succeed and, in future, I hope that they can.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. May I congratulate the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) on securing today’s debate? I will take a slightly different tack as I reflect on my local high streets across York—not necessarily in the centre of York, but more in the suburbs.

I am proud to represent what is now Britain’s best high street, Bishopthorpe Road—affectionately known as Bishy Road—in York. The journey it has been on is really quite an inspiring story. Back in 2005, when the old Terry’s factory closed, morale in the community was really hit. We also had the closure of the local post office, and Bishy Road, outside the city walls, was feeling the pinch. What has happened since has been the result not of Government action, but of community action. That is the important story that I have to tell, although retailers tell me that Government action could help their cause.

For example, business rates are really hurting local businesses’ ability to be sustainable. Therefore, my message to the Chancellor about the Budget would be to look at how business rates can be used to regenerate the local high street—which would be essential to assist small trainers to sustain their businesses, because we see so many businesses spring up, only to disappear within 12 months or so—and how business rates can be used to bring life to the community. High streets should not just be about commodities, but should be very much at the centre of the community.

Next week we will also have the important decision about Sunday trading. We know that if trade is moved out of our high streets and into the supermarkets, that will have an impact on the small traders who are trying to make their way. We also know that 91% of shop workers oppose the Government’s proposals.

The other vital point—one on which I agree with the hon. Gentleman—is about planning. It is really important that we do not have control by the landowner, but that councils are given the powers to determine who resides in the high street and to enable the community to grow on the back of that. It should not just be about landowners having the power any more; it should be about handing that power back to communities to shape their high streets if we want to see them at the centre of our communities.

I want to come back to the story of Bishy Road and say how fantastic it is. Under the visionary leadership of Jonny Hayes, a local trader on the street, the traders were brought together, not to compete but to co-operate. They formed the Bishy Road Traders Association to market together under a common identity, not as individuals vying for a space in the market. They created the strapline “I heart Bishy Road” and put it out across the city. And yes, they are all separate businesses, ranging from places to eat and buy produce to a bike shop and stores that sell just about everything under the sun, but they work together. That is the secret of Bishy Road: they identify with the community; they are a community—a community of traders serving their local community. Service is at the heart of their message. Knowing that all will benefit from people visiting Bishy Road, they work together in that collaborative way, because as people walk up and down, they are most likely to drop into one or two of the other premises on the street.

The local community is at the heart of the Bishy Road vision, so the traders identify themselves with it. They are involved with the local school. During the floods, the Bishy Road traders were at the heart of the rescue operation, trying to get people out of their homes and keep them dry, as the floods were just off the Bishy Road high street. There is such a strong relationship now: the street has a family feel. People want to come and experience that, not just from the local community but from across the city. It is about a sense of belonging, supporting and pulling together, working together for the local community. The traders had the vision and the community is behind it. It is very much about the traders giving something back to the community and creating that sense of working together.

The third successful element of Bishy Road is that it is at the heart of community events. That started with a day when they decided to try to get people out of their cars and get them walking, so they closed the street. Since then we have had event after event. We were very fortunate to have the Tour de France come through Bishy Road at a pace and, since then, the Tour de Yorkshire. Bishy Road has been a real focus of community activities, to the point where 10,000 people came on to the street to celebrate as a community with a street party. Bishy Road now even has its own Christmas lights, which puts money back into charities in the community. It is a fantastic story—a vision set out by the traders that has brought the area and the community, which was feeling the pain from the closure of the factory and from other commodities, to life again. This year’s floods have really shown how the community now works together as a complete unit.

But it does not stop there: in York it is spreading throughout the city—this is the great story. Again under strong leadership, Micklegate—which is within the city walls, with a different mix of traders and residents—is now pulling together to create its own identity and community. That will come to the fore as it starts marketing its identity this year.

Fossgate, another section of the city, has a footprint in the night-time economy in particular, but also in the daytime economy. It is a really pleasant area now to walk down. Back in the olden days it used to be where the prisons were, but it is now a fantastic place for people to go to in the night-time and choose a venue to eat, drink and enjoy themselves, and it has its own identity. This area of the city was particularly hit by the recent floods. While it is a thriving community, it is also struggling. That is why I say to the Minister that it is important that we get on top of what happens to small businesses when they flood and, when it comes to their insurance, ensure that we have a Flood Re scheme for the small business community.

It does not stop there either. Next in our sights is Front Street in Acomb. Once a thriving local shopping community in the ’70s and ’80s, businesses then started to struggle and either moved to out-of-town shopping centres or were hit by business rates. National chains then moved in, which broke up the sense of community. However, I am pleased to say that there are plans. There are three bookmakers on the high street and a money shop—it does not have that sense of identity at the moment—but plans are afoot, and they include charity shops. However, instead of seeing charity shops as the enemy, we should very much see them as part of the community. Therefore, the important thing is working together as a community—that is the secret—and not necessarily marking out the different types of businesses. That is harder with national chains, because they have other interests to pay attention to, but if we can get them to pull together into that part of the community, there will be more of a sense of building up the high street.

On Front Street in York, we have the Gateway centre—it is a local church, but it is also the hub of the community. It has its own café, it is where the food bank is and it provides debt advice, family support and community activities. There are so many opportunities in Acomb to create another expression of community, building on those footprints to make communities feel like home again. Front Street is using events to bring the area to life. We have Acomb Alive and the Acomb dance, arts and music festival—the ADAM festival—where more than 50 acts have performed on the high street, which has wide pavements and is ideal to build that community sense.

We have some unique opportunities across York. Since the floods, we have also seen independent traders right across the city pulling together to say, “What about our row of shops?” It is important not just to focus on the city centre, but to centre our shopping centres in our communities and pull people together. What I would say to colleagues from across the House is: why not come and visit York? Come and visit Bishy Road and talk to traders to see exactly what their experience has been. They would love to share their story and see their footprint.

I would love to visit York and am delighted that the hon. Lady is making such an eloquent case for her local high street, which was rightly recognised in the Great British High Street competition 2015. Perhaps she would also pay tribute to some fantastic Lancashire towns, such as Colne, which was a finalist in the market high street category and sadly lost out to another Yorkshire area.

The hon. Gentleman is obviously proud of his community, but I have to say that taking the prize was an honour for our city, so if anyone is on their way to Lancashire, I would say make sure it is via Yorkshire first.

To conclude, we have opportunities to learn from each other. Not everything is built on Government policy—it is important to capture the spirit of the community—but we have an opportunity with the Budget that is coming up. Therefore, I urge the Minister to urge the Chancellor to address the issue of business rates, also to look again at planning in his own Department and make sure that communities have a say in their high streets, so that they belong to them and can revive the local economy.

We will start the winding-up speeches at half past, and four hon. Members want to speak, so I hope that they will recognise that a bit of self-discipline is required.

I have heard of competition on the high street, but here there seems to be competition between high streets. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) on making a persuasive case. I can almost see her on one of those 1930s rail posters, saying “Come to York, to Bishy, and live.”

Were any Member who is here today to stroll down to Westminster station, hop aboard the District line, take the scenic route to Ealing and alight at Ealing Broadway—at Haven Green, where many a scene from the “Carry On” films was made—and then to hop on the E2 bus, they would come to Pitshanger Lane, which won the Great British High Street award for best high street in London. In every shop and retail premises on the lane, there is a letter from the Minister, signed personally by him, congratulating us. I have tried to take some credit for it, but the credit goes to the organisers and the local council, to the Pitshanger Village Traders Association and the three active local councillors—particularly Lynne Murray and David Rodgers—and also to John Martin, from the local estate agents, who has done so much work for it.

The important thing is that a massive change is happening in high streets, before our eyes. Throughout the 1980s barns on the bypass seemed to be the thing. We had planning policy guidance almost encouraging people to move out of the city centre. We had inward-looking malls that did not encourage any interaction. They did not encourage people to walk through but were inward-looking, defensive and negative. They are not fit for purpose any more. Those malls are usually too small—people need bigger retail space—and not specialist enough. What is happening in the high street today is dramatic, and it is almost a case of the Government needing to follow behind the change, which is happening organically. There are many things that the Government can do, which have been mentioned by the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies). I appreciate that I should not refer to him as my hon. Friend, but he is my friend, and I am grateful to him for raising the matter.

There are things that the Government could do to encourage things that are already happening in the high street. High streets are specialised, with more high-end, quality smaller retailers. In my part of the world we have butchers and bakers and the marvellous Pitshanger Bookshop, which has managed to survive despite the depredations of the internet. If the major internet book suppliers paid a little more tax, there might even be a level playing field; but such shops survive. There is also more pedestrianisation, and it would be marvellous if cycling were encouraged. We have a lot of empirical data about high streets and if there is one thing we know about pedestrians and cyclists it is that, although you would not think they would be major purchasers, they are. That is why we need public transport and a different sort of high street. We also need housing on the high street. What is wrong with emulating Pitshanger Lane, and having housing in the high street itself—getting totally away from the inward-looking mall and the barn on the bypass, and into something more organic, structured and accessible, from which it is easier to operate?

I would not be a member of my party were I not to mention in passing the potential horror and devastation that the relaxation of Sunday trading laws could bring. It is an appalling proposal, which I hope all right-minded people will immediately oppose. [Interruption.] I hear the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) vociferously commenting. When the Sunday trading laws were relaxed at the time of the London Olympics we gained all the empirical evidence needed to show that retail sales declined in and around the area. We could see it happening. Oxford Economics calculates that we will lose 3,000 jobs if we relax Sunday trading.

The Association of Convenience Stores carried out a survey of chief executives, and asked how they would use the powers if there was a relaxation: 52% said they would use them to support out-of-town shopping centres as opposed to high streets. Is not that a disgrace and something that highlights the intrinsic danger of the proposals for our high streets?

I am grateful for that point, particularly as when the hon. Gentleman was Lord Mayor of Belfast he was a proud champion of the retail sector, in a fairly challenging environment. I entirely agree, and we should perhaps give the Association of Convenience Stores credit for the detailed briefing it has circulated, which provides a great deal of evidence.

The business rates situation will never satisfy everyone. People will always want zero business rates for themselves, and 100%-plus for their competitors. We must calculate on a more subtle, sensitive basis, because at the moment our approach is too broad-brush. Local authorities should have more freedom and a greater ability to encourage people by giving holidays, to help them come into an area. That was brought dramatically home to me in August 2011 when we had riots in west London. How could the local authority and the Government encourage traders to get back on their feet? We did a lot, and to be fair—though it sticks in my craw to say so—the Mayor of London stepped up to the plate. We all came round together on that occasion, with the Mayor’s relief fund, but would not it have been wonderful if the local authority had been able, without suffering a capitation cost, to provide the opportunity for people to go back to the high streets on a rate-free or rate holiday basis?

I have said that the high street is changing; there are premises on the high street nowadays that we would simply not have recognised previously. There are showrooms for online providers, which I never thought I would see. There are places where people can deliver and collect parcels. I am not a great customer for fine clothing but it is quite good to be able to pop into a shop to see what a suit looks like. In my case obviously any suit would be an improvement, but it is good for people to be able to see the goods and not just to have their order whispering through the ether on the internet.

I have a couple of things to ask the Minister. First, I ask him to look at the high street in its totality and not just from the point of view of business rates and charity shops, important as those issues are. Will he consider it from the point of view of transport? The second thing that any trader I talk to on my patch mentions, after business rates, is parking. We must address that issue. I apologise, because I appreciate that York and Fylde have powerful cases, and powerful advocates to make them, but the problem in London is horrendous. Stop and shop schemes and other developments like that are very important. The issue is one on which the Minister, for whom I have a lot of respect, needs to do some cross-departmental work with the Department for Transport, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and various other agencies, to pull things together.

We also need relaxation of the use classes orders. At present, the variation that local authorities have been given has not been effective. Local authorities do not have the ability to use the old classifications they could use before; and the consequence is a proliferation of a particular sort of trader. As the former leader of one of the largest councils in London, Mr Chope, you probably know more about this than I do; however, I understand that there are restrictions on funeral parlours and off-licences, but no general restrictions. Why cannot the local authority have some input into the range, type and style of premises opening on the high street? I have no objection to having 29 cappuccino bars in the high street—but frankly it is 27 too many. I am not sure that we need them. I appreciate that the flinty-eyed, hard-hearted Adam Smith devotees on the Government Benches might say, “Let the market decide”—that is fine, but I think the market can work with the state and the council on this, in everybody’s interest.

I want to see the continuation of what is, in fact, a renaissance of the high street. I want to see that not only on Pitshanger Lane, which is a wonderful place that I would advise anyone to visit, but on Greenford Avenue, Greenford Road and Yeading Lane. I want to see it throughout my constituency and throughout the country, from Fylde to York and everywhere else. To do that, we need the chance to take it seriously.

The renaissance of the high street has not been easy. It is the result of a great deal of work from a lot of dedicated councils and councillors and, above all, local people, local traders and the local community. They need a little bit of help and encouragement. We are looking for a bit of fiscal generosity in the Budget, in order to encourage the people on the high street who are holding the line at the present time and enable them to expand and extend what is, after all, an absolute miracle; it is not only a renaissance. Look at the modern high street: it is a sight to behold. When looking at the modern high street, we must look at it in Ealing.

In Skelmersdale, we would love a high street. There are plans for a town centre development that currently consist of just one building, yet the owners of that building are fighting tooth and nail to stop the development, despite 90% of the retail spend going outside of Skelmersdale. Does my hon. Friend agree that sometimes the protection of individual interests, as in that case, damages the wider benefits for all residents and the community? The town and its community should come first, and we need extra help to make that happen.

If I have learnt one thing in my many, many years in politics, it is to never comment on internal Skelmersdale matters; that has been my watchword. Fortunately, the area is represented by an excellent Member of Parliament, and I have every confidence in my hon. Friend’s analysis.

I will close by making one last request: will the Minister consider the reinstatement of the retail rate relief scheme, which provided relief to all businesses with a rateable value of £50,000 or less? It was a good scheme that everybody supported, and it was very helpful. I thank the Minister for his work, particularly on the Great British High Street competition. He is something of a legend in Pitshanger Lane, and he can have a free cup of coffee in many a premise there, but I ask him to consider the reinstatement of the retail rate relief scheme.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) for securing this important debate. I was not going to comment on charity shops, but I thought he made some extremely interesting points on them, some of which I have made in the past.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary small shops group, I regard these issues as very important. The high street plays an important part in the economic, cultural and social make-up of our communities. However, one of the single largest challenges that those on the high street face is the business rates they currently have to pay. That tax is completely out of touch with the economic reality, particularly in places such as Rochdale, where some businesses are paying bills that are three times their rent.

In the 2013 autumn statement, the Chancellor introduced business rate relief for a two-year period between April 2014 and March 2016. For the first year, that provided a discount of up to £1,000, which then increased by an extra £500. The scheme provided some much needed relief to more than 900 businesses in Rochdale, and it has had a tangible positive effect. Without it, some shops would have definitely gone under, and the total relief in Rochdale has been just more than £1 million.

I welcomed that proposal with open arms when it was announced, but it needs to continue. Unfortunately, businesses will be receiving a letter outlining that that support is to stop after 31 March 2016. I believe that that is a big mistake. Many of those benefiting from the relief have used it to invest in their shops and employ more staff. The money does not get diverted through some obscure offshore account; it gets spent in our communities, where it has a direct positive impact.

Rochdale has been leading the way with its own bespoke business rate relief scheme for new start-ups. In the first 12 months, the scheme provided an 80% rate relief. For the next 12 months, new start-ups were given a 50% reduction. Rochdale is now looking to extend the scheme for a third year and roll it out in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes).

The scheme has provided much-needed support for constituents such as Dale Nugent, who runs Rochdale Mobility, a shop selling wheelchairs and mobility scooters for the disabled. Under the scheme, Dale has been paying business rates of just £2,000 a year, on top of his rent. However, that is set to end in March, and with the Government withdrawing their relief support, he will now end up with a business rates bill of £8,000 a year. That could put him out of business. Dale provides a vital service for many disabled people in Rochdale. His customers cannot just pop to Oldham or Bury as easily as other people. He is a good, friendly business owner; his customers like to pop in and have a chat with him, but because of the Government’s failure on business rates, his vital business could be in jeopardy.

The council tax relief scheme only provides a temporary fix and is limited in terms of helping to fill empty shops on key streets. We need a radical reform of the rating system. I support the recommendation from the Association of Convenience Stores that all small businesses should be removed from the business rates system completely. That would have two tangible effects. First, it would allow small businesses to increase their investment in their business, increase growth and thrive in their community. Secondly, it would reduce the current pressures facing the Valuation Office Agency and create a more efficient scheme for business rates collection. I would also like to see the ability for local authorities to vary their rates upwards as well as downwards, which they can do now. They could then, for example, increase rates on out-of-town sites and use that increase to offset rates on the main high street.

The hon. Member for Fylde made a number of important points about charity shops. We are set to see the complete devolution of business rates to local authorities. If local authorities are not given more freedom to set business rates—perhaps increasing them for charity shops or other shops—and to regulate the high street, the devolution is not really fair or adequate in terms of giving local authorities the powers they should have if they have the burden of carrying business rates. That is an important point. Another proposal that I believe would help the high street is reducing the periods between revaluations of business rates, which has already been mentioned. Five years is far too long, and three years might be more appropriate.

Finally, let me finish by saying that I do not agree with relaxing Sunday trading laws at all. There is no cultural, social or economic argument for it.

I am delighted to be able to speak in this important debate, secured by the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies).

As far as I am concerned, high streets are only going to survive as long as the shopping experience they offer is better than the one offered elsewhere. To me, that experience includes an element of convenience, such as affordable close parking, which hon. Members have mentioned, and a variety of shops within easy walking distance of one another. There is also a social element to the experience, as the cafés, bars and pubs that are also part of our high streets are places where people can meet and relax. The important thing about our high streets is that we get a personal service. We have face-to-face interaction and we get to know our local shopkeepers.

Retail is a competitive business, and it is no business for the weak-hearted. Most independent shops such as the ones in my constituency—in Cockermouth and Maryport, for example—are run on modest finances, and they make their owners a living rather than a fortune because margins and profits are tight. Government policies aimed at supporting and reinvigorating our high streets need to focus on reducing the cost burdens on retailers. We have talked about business rates, but the Government need to increase the opportunities for business owners to invest in and expand their businesses.

The two town centres in my constituency that I would like to talk about briefly are Cockermouth and Maryport. Maryport has a wonderful town centre, with fantastic examples of Georgian and Victorian buildings. It has a lovely harbour and a proud Roman history, and I would like to invite everybody to come to the blues festival held there in the last weekend of July.

We certainly are.

Despite all that has happened in recent years, Maryport still struggles. It has some excellent independent shops, but it also has a lot of charity shops, which have been mentioned, and too many empty units to be the thriving centre that it deserves to be.

Last time I was there, a local shopkeeper said to me that she was fed up with people thinking that her shop was a charity shop, because there are too many charity shops in the area where her shop is. Specialist independent shops are the anchor of our high streets and are a key factor in encouraging people to come in and shop there, and that also includes local pharmacies. We have an excellent local pharmacy in Cockermouth called Allison’s, which is really concerned about some of the Government’s proposals on pharmacies, so if that could be taken into consideration, I would be grateful.

We need to look at the significant increase in internet shopping and the impact that that has on our town centres. Town centres can compete by offering the great shopping experience that I have talked about, but internet companies really do need to pay the same taxes, so that they do not have the different profit advantages that they currently have.

On that point, does the hon. Lady agree that the Government could, in their reform of business rates, alter the balance of the burden between category A high-street retail and warehousing? All those internet companies need warehousing and delivery to get their goods to market, but category A high-street retail currently has a premium, which belongs in the 1960s rather than in the 21st century.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and I completely agree.

Cockermouth also has a beautiful high street. It is well known for speciality shops and art galleries, and its tree-lined Main Street has a statue of Lord Mayo, who was formerly the MP—he was later assassinated, so I am hoping that history does not repeat itself.

What would I particularly like the Government to do? The first thing, as we have said, is to make sure that business rates do not discourage small, independent shopkeepers. I was therefore also disappointed, as other hon. Members were, to hear that the retail rate relief scheme is not going to be continued beyond April this year.

Cockermouth chamber of trade and commerce has talked about the business improvement district schemes. It wanted to set one up and looked into it, but were advised by Allerdale borough council that the costs of administration meant that only shops with a rateable value greater than £11,000 would be included. That cut out most of the shops in Cockermouth and meant that it was just not feasible, so it would be good if the Government could look at how smaller independent retailers are able to participate in a BID scheme to help to improve the local shopping experience.

Finally—I will wind up, because I know another hon. Member still wants to speak—I make a plea to the Government about business insurance. I am sure that everyone here is aware that Cockermouth flooded terribly just before Christmas. That was the second time in six years. Main Street was also completely dug up in 2014, mainly to do with the drainage work that was needed following the previous floods, so flooding has had an enormous impact there. Some shopkeepers there have already said that they are not going to re-open, partly because of the stress, but a lot of it is to do with the lack of insurance. Others are privately telling me that they cannot do this again. If we do not sort out insurance for shops in relation to flooding, and particularly for small independent retailers, Cockermouth Main Street as it is now will disappear. That cannot be allowed to happen. It would be a crime, so I urge the Minister, please, to talk to me about this in the future—I would be really appreciative if he did.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) on bringing this important issue to Westminster Hall, and I thank him very much for giving us all an opportunity to participate. This issue affects each and every MP across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It affects my constituents, and we all care about this issue.

This is a very exciting time for my high street in Newtownards. As we speak, workmen are literally outside my office there, digging up the old and bringing in the new, with the new public realm scheme in the town. The hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) has had the opportunity to see that at first hand.

At this stage, I commend the chair of the chamber of trade in Newtownards for her work. She is a lady called Leigh Nelson, whom the hon. Gentleman and I both met. We know the hard work that she puts into the chamber of trade. She employs 16 people in Specsavers. The town of Newtownards is resurgent with growth and there are very few empty shops left now; it is a success story. I understand that the figures show that in the past couple of years, Newtownards town has been one of the busiest towns in the whole of Northern Ireland, and again, that is down to the local, indigenous small and medium-sized enterprises there, such as Wardens, Knotts, Kells and Excel.

Some Members have talked about online shopping, which our high street has adapted to. We have ensured that we have made the changes, and Excel in Newtownards is a supreme example of that. It has a lovely high-street frontage, which attracts many people in, but it has also adapted its business to being online, the work on which is done in the back of the shop and in a warehouse elsewhere. That business came from nothing, but that one shop now has online sales in excess of half a million pounds from across the whole world, from as far away as China, the United States, Hong Kong and Malaysia. That is where the business is going, and it is a tremendous success story.

At the same time in Newtownards, we also have multinationals making up the numbers, and it is not the other way round. Hon. Members have referred to balance, and it is so important to get the balance right in the high street. If the balance is right, multinationals can continue alongside the small shops, which can and should continue. Giving the right support to high streets across the UK will help hard-pushed, home-grown talent to showcase their best on our high streets.

Turning to coffee culture, the hon. Member for Ealing North referred to 27 cappuccino coffee outlets—we do not have 27, but we have a lot more than we used to have. We now have a coffee culture in Newtownards that we did not have before, and there is a coffee culture in many towns. I have often said, as the hon. Gentleman will know, that I wonder how they all survive, but they bring people to the centre of the town—we do not have the weather for it, but if we did, we would be the Riviera of Northern Ireland. We have the coffee culture, however: in the centre of Newtownards, there are something like a dozen coffee shops, whereas at one time, there were perhaps two, so that is an example of how things can be done better.

Many of these matters are devolved, as the Minister will know. We have been involved in the Living Over The Shop scheme. That fantastic scheme enables the shops below to be utilised for their benefit to the high street, and at the same time, encourages people to live above them. We can take action in relation to that to ensure that high streets grow.

Our job is to mitigate all the push factors that are pushing people out of town centres and high streets and to enact support for the high street to get people back again. We have to address the issue of better and more affordable parking, as we have in Newtownards, where we have free parking just off the edge of the town. That attracts people to park and do their shopping, and it costs £1 for five hours, so what is happening there is quite good. Comber, Ballynahinch, Saintfield, Killyleagh and other major towns in the area also have some benefits in that respect as well. We also have to address the unsightly appearance of an empty shop front; that does not bring in any rates and is only part of the problem.

I will quickly touch on Sunday trading, as other hon. Members have. I spoke about this to the Minister beforehand, as I did to the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise last week. A number of Government Members are opposed to the measure as well, so the Government should be wary of bringing forward legislation that will not be universally supported by Members of Parliament in all parts of the House. Next week, we will have the opportunity on, I think, Tuesday—and perhaps Wednesday as well—to debate the matter. Sunday trading will not increase sales on the high street. It will displace trade to large, out-of-town retail parks and shopping centres. The current Sunday trading laws are a valued compromise and are supported by two thirds of the general public.

My hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) referred to the fact that 52% of local authority chief executives said that they would help large shopping centres and out-of-town retail centres and supermarkets before high streets. Sixty-four per cent of local authority chief executives are concerned about the confusion that devolution of Sunday trading will cause consumers. This change has been thought of, discussed and deliberated on, but it is not the answer. Do not change the laws on Sunday trading. If the Government do, they will regret it. I say humbly and gently to them that they should not pursue something that they will lose on in the Chamber. If they lose on it in the Chamber, next Tuesday will be their day of reckoning when it comes to this issue.

We are elected by normal, everyday people, and it is normal, everyday people who are affected by this. It is the local butcher, the local baker, the local mum popping into the café before the school run and the local builder popping in for his morning tea. The high street is the hub for communities, and it simply cannot go away. It is up to us and all those in Government, at each and every level, to do everything we can to ensure that the high street not only continues to exist, but comes roaring back like the lion that it is—and indeed, the lion that it could be.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) for securing this important debate. It is important to recognise that the Government cannot do everything to fix the high street, but they can help to ensure that the conditions that allow it to flourish are put in place, whether that involves business rates, insurance, transport or encouraging the community to take ownership.

What the hon. Gentleman said about charity shops was interesting, but I do not agree with everything he said. Going into the details of what they are selling and doing might end up being more burdensome. We must be careful to ensure a balance between big national charities, which provide opportunities for volunteering and other jobs, and small, community-based charities, which may also want shops on the high street to sell their wares and produce their products.

I want to talk about some measures that the Scottish Government have put in place to help to support businesses and the high street, and to create conditions for small businesses to flourish. I agree with the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) that high streets should be at the heart of every community. They are not only a place to shop, but a place to meet where valuable social interaction takes place. I am lucky to have in my constituency not only Glasgow’s amazing and vibrant city centre, but several smaller local high streets, most notably Argyle Street in Finnieston and Victoria Road on the Southside. I also have the High Street, which is the historical old part of Glasgow. I am proud to have located my constituency office just off the High Street, because I firmly believe that we should locate to high streets whenever we can.

The Scottish Government, who have embedded the “town centre first” principle and worked with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities on that commitment, have said:

“Government, local authorities, the wider public sector, businesses and communities put the health of town centres at the heart of proportionate and best value decision making, seeking to deliver the best local outcomes regarding investment and de-investment decisions, alignment of policies, targeting of available resources to priority town centre sites, and encouraging vibrancy, equality and diversity.”

That is a significant step, because so many public bodies in our country exist in local areas and can form the anchor of town centre strategies. As the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) said, cycling and pedestrianisation are important to make a greener business community. If people do not have to take cars into town centres and can get to them by public transport or cycling, it is better for everyone because they become greener and more attractive.

The Scottish Government’s approach to our high streets is the town centre action plan from November 2013. It is a long-running strategy and part of what the Government do. Investment has gone into ensuring that action supports the revitalisation of town centres and assists local action—the hon. Member for York Central mentioned this—to support smaller businesses and organisations in the community to do that.

The hon. Member for Ealing North referred to the importance of housing in our town centres. The Scottish Government have set up a £4 million town centre empty homes fund and a £2.75 million town centre housing fund, both of which help local communities to bring life back to town centres. The hon. Member for Fylde may be interested to know that they include Irvine and Ardrossan, which have seen great benefits from those funds, because people have started to come and live there and are therefore using local services. That will have a positive effect in regenerating the towns.

The Scottish Government have also introduced the regeneration capital grant fund, which is significant and has seen great benefits across communities in Scotland. They asked what was wrong with a community and what they could do to support community action and regeneration in the area. In my constituency, the historic Barras market has had investment of £1.4 million, as part of the Calton Barras action plan to bring derelict floor space in the area back into use. Empty shops and buildings in our town centres may become a blight on the area, but Government action to pump-prime and invest in those areas can bring underused places back to life. The Telfer gallery is a great example and is bringing artists’ studios to the heart of the Barras. It is a great opportunity to bring in new people and different types of businesses to improve and enhance what is there already.

The hon. Member for York Central made great mention of the community leading the change in regeneration. In Scotland, we have taken action as part of the town centre action plan to encourage charrettes. The Scottish Government provides up to £20,000 to support charrettes, which are led by community organisations. Most recently, east Pollokshields charrette was led by the local community council and featured a series of workshops on various aspects of community life, housing, facilities, transport, safety, leisure and other community amenities. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Bill Fraser and others on the community council who have driven the change and made it a central part of their plans for the local community. They are leading on this, and it is important that community organisations, individuals and businesses feel that they have a role in changing things, because that is when things works best.

I apologise for my southern ignorance, but I am not familiar with “charrette”. Will the hon. Lady explain what it means?

I do not think it is a Scottish word. It is a process by which community organisations come together to discuss their future plans for an area, which then become part of the planning process. The community starts on that and builds it together, which is a positive way of doing things.

It seems to be working quite well. It is fairly new to Scotland, but communities have really embraced it. It needs support from local councils and other people, but it is worth doing.

Hon. Members have stressed the importance of business rates in the mix of encouraging community development. The Scottish Government have also accepted that. The fresh start relief was introduced in 2013 and gives occupiers of shops or offices that have been empty for at least a year a 50% discount on their business rates for 12 months. Other reliefs include new start relief of up to 100% to owners and developers of new build empty properties for up to 18 months to encourage speculative development and investment, and to help to increase the supply of new premises for businesses in communities. These reliefs are provided on top of the small business bonus scheme, which has been excellent in Scotland.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) mentioned business rates and removing them for small businesses. The small business bonus scheme applies to businesses with a rateable value of £35,000, with a scaled relief system up to £35,000. If the rateable value is under £10,000, no business rates are payable, which is really good for small businesses, particularly in these difficult times, and has been a great success in encouraging small business development. Across Scotland, the small business bonus scheme delivers rate reductions for 100,000 firms, with 46% of rates bills removed or reduced. Councils in Scotland also have the ability to reduce rates through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, so greater flexibility is provided.

The Scottish Government are moving towards a review of non-domestic rates to make sure we are supporting investment and growth in Scotland. The Scottish Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that town centres and high streets across the country are hubs of innovation, community cohesion and social interaction.

Hon. Members today have referred to opportunities to offer something different for our town centres, not just malls, to which the hon. Member for Ealing North referred. There has to be a range of different things, whether coffee shops in Strangford or jazz festivals in Maryport. Different things are going on in different parts of the country. There are many different opportunities to offer something different from the large malls, with a bit of additional value to make town centres somewhere that people go to and, more importantly, spend money in. The Government have a big role to play in creating the conditions for that to happen.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. It is also a pleasure to be asked to sum up such a good debate and to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who made useful points about what happens in Scotland. I thank the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) for securing this debate. It is important because, after all, we all have town centres, high streets and markets in our constituencies, and they affect us all.

The hon Gentleman referred to the Portas review, which I am very conscious of. I remember my days as a local councillor when we all got excited about applying for funding. There was a lot of competition to be a Portas town. Sadly, the impact of the review seems to have fizzled out, which is a shame. As the hon. Gentleman said, there were 28 recommendations, many of which have yet to be implemented. The important point is that the Portas review was a pilot scheme, and normally one would expect action after a pilot scheme. Mary Portas has expressed her own dissatisfaction. She told The Mail on Sunday last year:

“It seems Government isn’t really serious about getting behind the small businesses on our high streets. I really am very frustrated.”

I share her frustration. It was a good scheme. I would like the Government to pick up on the scheme and address some of her recommendations. She made good points about various things, which, according to the speeches made today, are being done almost despite the Portas review—they are being done independently.

The hon. Gentleman talked about charity shops. I am a little concerned about making charity shops the villain of the piece. I think it is better to have a shop that is occupied rather than a shop standing empty on the high street, and charity shops do serve that purpose.

I want it to be clear for the record that I do not think that charity shops are the villain of the piece. My point is that where charities, often large national charities, can use their market position to force out independents and prevent them from entering into lease agreements and so on, because they are always offered 10-year leases, it is an uneven market. Charity shops have a very valuable role to play. I just want local councils to be given the power over classification.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, which brings us back to the point that local councils need to be given the power to decide what goes in their high streets—a point that nearly everyone who has spoken has made.

Demos did a report in 2013 called “Giving Something Back”. It found that charity shops boosted local businesses and helped to combat unemployment, with more than 80% of the volunteers saying that they were using their shifts to gain retail experience as a path to paid employment. Charity shops also address social isolation. Many staff said that the shops acted as a sort of community centre. Charity shops do have lots of benefits. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me on those points. I accept that perhaps it was the wrong choice of words to cast charity shops as the villain of the piece but, as with most things, there are advantages and disadvantages. It is up to councils to provide some balance, and I hope the Government will enable them to do that.

Several hon. Members mentioned the non-renewal of business rate relief. That has been a big issue in the borough of Rochdale—the borough that I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk). He raised the issue of business rate reliefs. The leader of Rochdale Borough Council, Richard Farnell, has said:

“Almost 1,000 shops in Rochdale will be hit with a £1,500 bill because of the government’s sly move to axe business rate relief for retail premises—sneaked through in the autumn budget.”

That could force several small shops, particularly those already struggling, out of business.

Rochdale, like Cockermouth and York, suffered the floods. Many of the small businesses had only just been set up because of the excellent scheme pioneered by Rochdale Council to reduce business rates for start-ups—many of the shops had not been there very long. People can imagine the demoralisation. I went round the day after the floods, and the shop owners were in tears. They just stood there, surveying their ruined stock. They had been trading for only a few months. Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friends the Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Workington (Sue Hayman), have made the point again and again about Flood Re applying to small businesses. I would appreciate a response from the Minister on those points. In order to keep our high streets viable, it is important to enable businesses to get a reasonable level of insurance against floods.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) gave us a great verbal tour along Pitshanger Lane. He also highlighted the problems of inward-looking shopping malls and out-of-town shopping. I am sure that everyone would agree that those are real issues for the vibrancy and life of our high streets.

I have talked about the business rate relief issue in Rochdale. One innovation by Rochdale Council has been to provide three hours of free parking in the town centre. Again, that was a Portas recommendation.

The Minister agrees with me, which I am pleased about. The point has been made several times that Government cannot dictate to councils how they run their high streets, but they can certainly enable. That could involve giving some assistance to councils and sharing best practice on how to provide free parking without losing out on the funding needed to maintain the car parks. I am sure we could all share best practice in that respect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Workington talked about the social element of our high streets and town centres. That is an important aspect of the issue. This is not just about shops, but about cafés, pubs and bars. Many comments have been made about coffee shops, but they do provide a focal point, a social hub, where people can meet. We need to recognise the new model of high streets: they are much more than just a retail experience.

I want to touch on Sunday trading. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North made the important point that we had a pilot during the Olympic games, when Sunday trading laws were relaxed. That took business away from small shops and did not increase footfall. The same people were spending the same amount of money, but just over longer hours and in the bigger shops, rather than the smaller shops. I therefore reiterate the warning that tinkering with Sunday trading laws is not the way to revitalise our high streets. The Association of Convenience Stores is against it, 67% of the British public support our current Sunday trading hours, and 91% of shop workers are against any relaxation of the laws. Additionally, it was not in the Conservative party manifesto. I think this is an issue that the Government should hold back on. It will not be a popular move.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who unfortunately has had to leave the Chamber for a meeting, talked about the combination of high street retail and online shopping. Our high streets are constantly changing. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing North referred to shops becoming showcases for internet shopping. We have to accept that things are changing and we need to modernise. Government policy needs to change to reflect that and we need to give councils the powers to enable our high streets to survive and thrive.

As I said, the impact of internet shopping has been referred to. It was mentioned on the radio this morning that people now have less stuff than they did several years ago. That is due to the digital age and the fact that we do not need so much stuff—we have reached peak stuff. With that in mind, I invite the Minister to respond to what has been a very interesting and lively debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) on initiating this important debate. It has been an extremely good debate, and I thank him for bringing this matter to the House, because it provides an important opportunity for me to set out the Government’s vision for the future of our high streets and town centres. I am passionate about our high streets and town centres and how important they are to local communities and local economies. This is a critical moment for our town centres, and I am dedicated to giving local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and local communities access to the tools that they need to transform their local areas.

High streets and town centres play an essential role in facilitating the creation of jobs and nurturing small businesses. In fact, a recent Association of Town and City Management report showed that town centres contribute nearly £600 billion to UK plc each year. The Government have taken significant action to support town centres to drive growth. Since 2010, we have helped to create more than 360 town teams, and given more than £18 million to a number of towns. That is on top of a range of steps including supporting the phenomenally successful “Love your local market” campaign.

We have introduced a package of important financial reliefs for small businesses, such as a £1.4 billion package of small business rates relief. We are now reviewing the future structure of business rates. That all goes hand in hand with reforms on parking and the lifting of planning restrictions to increase flexibility of use on high streets, making it easier for high streets to adapt to the needs of their communities. Additional rights now support click and collect, which has not been the enemy of the high street as all had feared. Rather, research is showing that click and collect is driving people back to the high street.

News shows that high streets across the country have fought back valiantly from the great recession. Recent data show positive footfall trends in most locations, and year-on-year retail sales have increased for 33 consecutive months—the longest period of sustained growth since 2008. According to recent statistics, the national vacancy rate is now at a level not seen since December 2009.

On that point, has the Minister done any research on the impact of the relaxation of the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987, to which he referred in passing? I have not seen any beneficial consequences but I am interested in whether any analysis or work has been done that could be shared with the House.

I have a number of points to cover but I will say, very quickly, that the relaxation is showing benefits, particularly where redundant offices are being converted for residential use. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, that is now an important part of the high street. Areas that do not want to go along with the relaxation of planning regulations can invoke an article 4 direction if they so wish.

I am keen to continue celebrating the passion and commitment found in high streets and town centres up and down the country. We have recently celebrated the success of the Great British High Street competition 2015, and have been bowled over by the quantity and quality of the entrants. This year, applications almost doubled as more than 230 high streets applied. I hope that figure will more than double again for next year’s competition and I am looking forward to seeing lots of entries from across the country.

I hope that a number of hon. Members here will promote their local areas. We have had a healthy spirit of competition in the Chamber today. It is good to see Lancashire against Yorkshire. It is not necessarily the war of the roses but many of our local areas competing, which is healthy. Examples include Bishy Road in York, which was the winner of this year’s competition, as the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) mentioned. By working collaboratively, local traders have turned around an area that was once run down and suffering from chronic vacancies into a community hub where local people now shop, meet their friends and tweet about how great it is to go to the famous street parties. That is great news. As I understand it, the traders are even looking into developing a community app to allow people to browse their shops and see whether their friends are nearby on Bishy Road, which is a fabulous idea.

Public reaction to the Great British High Street awards has been absolutely incredible. Nearly 200,000 people voted in the competition and there were more than 30,000 tweets about it, which shows just how much people value and care for their local high streets.

While there is a lot of good news for high streets, in some places retail spaces that have seen better days remain. The Government cannot and will not rest on their laurels, and I am working hard to develop a range of support to help high streets thrive. I strongly believe that we have reached a crossroads for high streets and town centres. We need to act to make them fit for purpose for today’s consumer.

My vision is for high streets to be vibrant and viable places where people live, shop, use services and spend their leisure time during the day and in the evening. The Government aim to promote mixed high streets with a stronger range of retail and leisure and, crucially, more residential opportunities.

The Minister is making an excellent and reassuring speech. He mentioned the residential opportunities—the opportunities to live around our high streets. Does he agree that more could be done to support the “living over the shop” agenda, ensuring that we convert more of the empty space above shops into residential accommodation?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As usual, he makes a pertinent and important point. It is certainly something that I am looking into currently. The Government are helping people to achieve their dream of home ownership as Government-backed schemes have helped more than 200,000 households to buy their homes since 2010. High streets and town centres are great places where many young people may well want to get on the ladder to buy their own homes, and it is an important use of the brownfield sites that many of us have in our constituencies.

I am working with retail leaders and the sector through the future high streets forum to deliver a range of initiatives to support high streets. Together with my co-chair, Simon Roberts of Boots, we will be leading work to help high streets to restructure and become more responsive to today’s consumer. John Walden, the chief executive of Argos, is helping the high streets to digitise and we will be looking at ways to help high streets to learn from the finalists of this year’s Great British High Street competition.

In addition, we are looking at what more we can do to strengthen the influence that business improvement districts have over decision making in our local areas. We have consulted on changes to private parking to encourage people to drive to their local shops without fear of being hit by unfair penalties. I will soon be announcing the outcome of that work.

We are extending Sunday trading hours to help meet the needs of local businesses and communities, and to help them compete as shopping habits change. Online sales continue to grow at a significant rate and we want local retailers to have the flexibility to adjust their hours to enable them to compete.

I do not have time to cover all the points in the debate but I would like to cover some of them. My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde made a pertinent speech in which he mentioned charity shops. Charitable organisations play an important role in all our constituencies and bring in about 200,000 volunteers who work in our communities. I hear what he says about business rates relief for charity shops. The Government have no plans to change that but we are looking carefully at all business rate reliefs. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will report back in the Budget. My hon. Friend the Member for Fylde made an important point about new goods and ensuring that charity retail relief is not abused. He made some sensible comments and there is merit in looking into that.

Hon. Members made a number of points about business rates, and I am sure they have all those comments on the record. The Chancellor will be delivering a Budget shortly and I am sure that the Treasury will have listened intently to today’s debate. The hon. Member for York Central made some important points about Bishy Road including on the importance of strong local leadership, and on local areas creating an identity and offering something that the internet and out-of-town shopping cannot offer. That is important and we all need to understand that local areas need to do that.

A number of other questions were asked and I will, perhaps, write to hon. Members about a number of them. It is quite obvious that this is the latest in a series of debates that shows the importance of high streets and town centres to our local communities. It shows the enthusiasm that hon. Members have for our town centres. I will take away a number of the points raised today because it is a fact that the Government are committed to town centres and high streets, and to looking at ways in which we can help local areas to improve their town centres and high streets for their communities.

Rail Services: East Hertfordshire

I beg to move,

That this House has considered rail services in East Hertfordshire.

The railways that serve my constituents encompass six stations and three branches, and they are run by two different companies. We have Govia Thameslink on what we call the Hertford loop, and the West Anglia route is run by Abellio Greater Anglia. All of our rail lines lead in and out of London, so as in most of Hertfordshire and, indeed, west Essex, they run north-south. Since Dr Beeching, we have had little east-west rail provision in Hertfordshire, which matters because it means that our economic links with London are fundamental. We face London, and our households are therefore increasingly reliant on London’s economy to provide work, which is why the quality of rail services matters so much for the people of Hertford and Stortford.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this issue as part of my ongoing campaign to ensure that we get a fair deal for my commuters. Today, I will focus on three principal issues: the reliability of the service and the compensation when things go wrong; the state of the rolling stock; and last, although perhaps most fundamental, the capacity of the system, particularly the need for four-tracking into London. I hope that the Minister will respond positively, as she always does, to the points I raise and the questions I ask.

I will start with punctuality and reliability. For many of my constituents, this has been a really bad year for commuting. It is true that punctuality has recently improved, but for many weeks in the past 12 months we have had periods in which, day after day, simply getting in and out of work has been a struggle. People fail to understand the cumulative impact. Of course it makes it difficult for people simply to do their daily work, but it also has a wider impact on family life and on the wider economy, too. The huge variation in performance, often between neighbouring days, simply makes people feel that this is not a service on which they can realistically rely.

Over the past year I have organised face-to-face meetings with the managing director of one of the rail companies, and I pay credit to Mr Burles from Abellio Greater Anglia for being willing to sit down and deal with the concerns of my commuters and his customers. Although he has accepted blame when his company has got things wrong, he has pointed out, not unreasonably, that 70% of the delays have been due to track or signalling problems, which are of course the responsibility of Network Rail. Although that is true, it is of no comfort to paying passengers from my constituency.

That leads me on to the question of compensation when things go wrong. As part of my campaign for a fair deal, I have lobbied our rail companies to ensure that when trains are delayed, commuters, who have paid up front, must be compensated. I have pressed both companies to make their rules clearer, which they have, and to move to automatic repayments for commuters, as c2c recently did on its lines. At present, both Govia Thameslink and Abellio Greater Anglia offer refunds for delays of 30 minutes or more, but taking into account that total journey times are often only 60 minutes, a 30-minute delay starting point frankly is inadequate, which is why I strongly support the Government’s—indeed the Minister’s—plans for phasing in refunds for delays of 15 minutes or more. When will that rule be introduced, both for Govia Thameslink and for the new Greater Anglia franchise, which starts in October? For example, will the new 15-minute rule be written into any new franchise agreement? I hope my hon. Friend can update us on that point.

There is also the question of how people claim compensation when things go wrong. Compensation should be automatic for regular commuters. They pay their money up front and, given that the rail company already has their financial details, an automatic electronic refund seems both fair and practical. I am delighted that the consumer body Which?, which has its principal base in my constituency, is now also campaigning for change, and I welcome its recent super-complaint to the regulator. Many hon. Members will know that the rail sector has been dragging its feet on this issue, so I hope that when the regulator replies later this month, we will get firm support for change and a positive reaction from the Department. Will the Minister set out the Government’s approach to that point? I appreciate that she cannot tell us what the answer will be, as we do not yet know the question.

The state of rolling stock on our lines is very poor indeed. We have carriages that go back 20 years or more—indeed, on the Hertford loop we have the old 313s that go back to the late 1970s. It is true that both of the current rail companies have invested substantial sums—many millions of pounds—in refurbishing what they inherited, but all too often we daily face clapped-out carriages with broken heating and very bad seating. Of course, looking at the wider infrastructure implications, trains in such condition will break down more often, so we have a cyclical problem. The key is the franchising system, which sets the standards. The length of any franchise tends to determine both the level and the timing of any investment.

Two years ago, I lobbied hard in this Chamber for new rolling stock to be a clear condition of the Great Northern-Thameslink franchise, including the Hertford loop. With that franchise let, I am pleased to see that Govia Thameslink is now committed to £200 million-worth of investment, which will deliver some 25 new climate-controlled, six-carriage units from 2018. That is a welcome improvement. Many of my commuters would say that it is a little overdue, but it is welcome none the less. I make the same point for commuters on my West Anglia route. That franchise is due to be awarded during the summer.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this subject, on which, certainly in the case of the West Anglia line, we have worked together closely and in united fashion to try to get improvements for our constituents. Does he agree that, although it is true that most of the problems have stemmed from Network Rail’s area of responsibility, failure of the rolling stock has been increasing lately as it is so tired and old? It is crucial not only for reliability that we have new rolling stock on the West Anglia line but that that rolling stock can take advantage of improvements in the rail line speeds that can be achieved. Those improvements cannot be achieved using the existing rolling stock.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He knows more about the rail system than I have ever begun to understand. He is right that the link between rolling stock and infrastructure is sometimes not represented properly in decision making, with the net result that the paying passenger loses out.

That is why I would look at the invitation to tender documents for the new franchise. The documents do not specify new rolling stock as a precondition. Personally, I wish they did, but, to be fair, the Government have inserted much higher standards for rolling stock than we currently endure—I use that word carefully. From my reading of the tender documents, which I have here, the bidders would find it pretty difficult, if not impossible, not to include rolling stock in order to fulfil the wider franchise aims.

Following on from what my right hon. Friend said, I say to the Minister that, when considering bids, the Government need to ensure that an applicant has a clear commitment, first, to replacing all the existing stock and, secondly, to securing stock of at least the highest current standards. Most importantly, any new rolling stock resulting from the new franchise should come to the West Anglia route rather than go elsewhere in the franchise area or—even more galling—whizz past us on the Stansted Express. I appreciate that the Minister cannot get ahead of herself in the bidding process, but I hope that she will at least acknowledge those points in her remarks and take them away with her when considering any bids that come forth this summer.

Finally, I come to the capacity of the rail system itself. Frankly, the Hertford loop and the West Anglia lines are full to bursting at commuter time. The population is growing locally, as it is in north London, through Hertfordshire and in Cambridge, yet the capacity of the infrastructure, truth be told, is set largely by passenger numbers determined 20 or 30 years ago. As a result, the whole system is at full stretch, which is why, on the league table of the most overcrowded services, our lines—the West Anglia line and the Hertford loop—are at the top of the list of shame. It is also why when a small problem occurs the whole system often grinds to a halt: there is no slack or room for error.

The West Anglia line should have four tracks between Coppermill Junction and Broxbourne. That would double track capacity into London in a key area where many bottlenecks occur, especially at peak time. My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) and I have been arguing that case for at least five years; we regarded ourselves as lone voices in the debate, but in the last 18 months we have been joined by colleagues from along the line and across the party political divide. We are also now backed by leading business voices, the principal local authorities, the universities and Stansted airport. We have the support of the Mayor of London and Transport for London—a prerequisite for any possibility of a Crossrail 2 development.

I strongly support the Government’s decision to establish a West Anglia taskforce, ably led by my right hon. Friend, who I know is busy preparing the business and financial case for that long-term investment, but I say to the House and to the Minister that as the full benefits of four-tracking are almost certainly some years away, we must also ensure that planned works for the current control period focus on reducing delays and congestion wherever possible. After all, if most delays on the West Anglia line relate to signalling or other infrastructure, we cannot wait until four-tracking is complete to start tackling the problem. Again, I ask the Minister to set out in her response what works are being undertaken by Network Rail over the next few years to improve the reliability of the service on the Hertford loop and the two West Anglia lines. When will those works start to show improvements for my constituency?

Commuters from my constituency pay a lot of money for a service that they all too often find unreliable, unpleasant or just unacceptable. We must ensure that when things go wrong, they are compensated properly and automatically. We must provide them with modern, clean and pleasant carriages in which to travel, and we must invest in key infrastructure to ensure that as demand for the service grows, the system can cope and can deliver people to work and home reliably and promptly. As the awarding of the new franchise for Greater Anglia nears, I hope that the Minister will reflect carefully on the points that I have raised and respond to the questions that I have asked.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. It is always a pleasure to respond to debates called by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) and attended assiduously by our right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), because the arguments are always eloquently made and extremely well informed. I know that both of them have been dedicated for many years to securing the best possible service for their commuting constituents, as am I.

My hon. Friend raised many interesting points, and in the time available I will focus on three of them. On the important issue of compensation, ultimately we all want the same thing: a timely and reliable train service. If we had that, there would be no need for compensation because passengers would not be delayed. We are working hard as a Department and an industry to deliver solutions to the problems he mentioned, particularly failures by Network Rail. He is absolutely right to say that Abellio Greater Anglia has worked extremely hard to solve many of its own internal issues, and of course there are still problems, such as trains breaking down, partly as a result of the ageing fleet, but ultimately everything hinges on the relationship between Network Rail and the operator. We will shortly publish the results of the Nicola Shaw review, which considers some of the fundamental questions about how to join up Network Rail’s activities and those of operators in ways that focus entirely on delivering for both passengers and freight customers. I cannot say more about it, but I look forward to seeing the proposals.

It is important when things do not work that passengers have quick, easy and in many cases automatic access to appropriate compensation. We have some of the most generous compensation schemes in Europe for rail passengers. Through the “delay repay” scheme, we already offer relatively generous levels of compensation: passengers can claim back 50% of their ticket price if they are delayed for 30 minutes or more. However, as my hon. Friend pointed out, given that the average journey time from Hertford East to Liverpool Street is only 49 minutes, that is not necessarily particularly helpful for his constituents. We want the system to be even better, which is why we committed in our manifesto—the Chancellor has since confirmed that commitment—to reduce the threshold for compensation from 30 minutes to 15 minutes. I intend to announce the details of the change in the next few months. It is always a commercial negotiation when we deal with the rail industry, and we want to ensure that we secure the right deal for taxpayers.

Given the timing of the franchise competition, to which my hon. Friend referred, that will become an in-franchise change for both Abellio Greater Anglia and Govia Thameslink Railway, which already operates as the franchise holder. It is entirely consistent with what we have done in many cases. We intend to roll out the system right across England, so it will become a relevant negotiation to have with franchise operators.

Of course, we are not standing still on compensation. We made some changes last year to the national conditions of carriage so that passengers can claim compensation in cash instead of rail vouchers. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, the industry must do better. I pay tribute to Which?—a fine consumer-focused campaigning organisation. We are considering the responses to the Which? super-complaint and working with Transport Focus to ensure that operators publicise the compensation that they offer, because the data suggest that only 12% of passengers who are entitled to compensation bother to claim it. That is unacceptable. We want to ensure that the offer is widely publicised and available.

My hon. Friend might be interested to know that last week c2c, which runs the franchises into London from the east, introduced a pence per minute automatic delay scheme. If a train is delayed for more than two minutes, passengers will start to receive compensation automatically if they are registered for a c2c smartcard ticket. He will be pleased to know that Abellio Greater Anglia, which is also part of the south-east flexible ticketing programme funded by the Government, will introduce its own smartcard next month. It is expected to launch in Cambridge and then roll out across the network, giving the operator the opportunity to introduce a similar system to c2c’s, so that signed-up smartcard users can receive compensation automatically, without having to do anything about it. I am sure that we all welcome that.

The Minister’s comments are encouraging. To return to the advent of the new franchise, she described the 15-minute rule as an in-franchise agreement. Does that mean it will be discussed at the time the franchise is let, or will it be negotiated across that period and perhaps introduced later?

The proposal is to introduce it across all UK franchises at the same time. We will not wait for franchise renewal to come up; it will be introduced. In some cases, where it cannot be introduced as a franchise commitment, it will be funded by Government. We have funding for that, and we are absolutely determined to do it.

The second issue my hon. Friend spoke about is rolling stock. As he pointed out, many of his constituents travel on trains that date from the 1970s, which was a fine decade for fashion but not necessarily a fine one for train quality. Although those trains are still running reliably, which is a tribute to the way they were made and the way they are maintained, they are the oldest electric rolling stock in the country. As both he and our right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden know, the bidders for the new East Anglia franchise have been challenged to specify a massive improvement in the quality of the trains they will run.

In fact, the way we let franchising now is based on both the financial aspects of the bid and the quality that will be delivered. That quality is referred to as the Q score and the weighting for rolling stock quality has never been higher than in this franchise. It is the most significant weighting that has ever been given to rolling stock and we absolutely expect that bidders will include new rolling stock in their bids. That is because, as has been pointed out, the journey time improvements in particular cannot be achieved with the speeds that the existing rolling stock can achieve.

As always, there is a balance to be struck between taxpayers and fare payers, so rather than specify exactly what bidders should do, we have given them the freedom to deliver what they think will give the best performance for passengers. Having visited the CrossCountry franchise only last week and seen the refurbished class 170 trains, I can assure my right hon. and hon. Friends that customers often cannot tell whether a train is new or refurbished to 21st century standards, because in either case it will have the appropriate toilet facilities, and brand new seating and lighting. To all intents and purposes, it looks and feels like a brand new train. That quality is what we are looking for bidders to propose, and my expectation is that the bids will include a high concentration of new rolling stock.

We will also for the first time hold the successful bidder to account contractually for the improvements that they propose for the franchise. We are introducing a contractual customer experience regime, with tough penalties if the operator fails to deliver. At the moment, we have lots of feedback and information, but this will be the first time that we have contractualised those customer experience obligations, with financial penalties if the successful bidder fails to deliver.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, we will see improvements on Great Northern lines, and his constituents will see those improvements even sooner. The deal that was announced last week to replace the wonderful 1976 trains with 25 new six-car trains will bring benefits in 2018. It is worth mentioning that the deal, which is worth just over £200 million, will create jobs right across the UK supply chain from Poole to Hebburn and provide much-needed capacity. My hon. Friend pointed out the capacity problems on the routes, so we can all welcome the improvement.

My hon. Friend is right to raise the question of what can be done about track capacity. Indeed, he and our right hon. Friend are not lone voices. Our hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) campaigns vigorously on this issue, and support is growing. I am well aware of vocal support for a four-track solution to this long-standing problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford will be aware that it is a difficult problem in terms of the layout of the track and what surrounds it, and in terms of the platforming restrictions at Liverpool Street. However, as time goes on and as the proposals for developments along the Lea valley come to fruition, the economic case that can be made for this work on the track grows ever stronger.

Although there is no four-tracking solution currently on the cards, I remain interested and I am always happy to discuss the subject with my hon. Friend and the broader group of interested people. However, a three-tracking scheme is being delivered in the current period—it will be done by 2019—between Tottenham Hale and Stratford, which will help to relieve some of the capacity squeeze closer to London.

My hon. Friend invited me to specify other works that will be going on. I do not have the details about other works, but I will write to him to let him know what other enhancements and renewals are taking place on his local lines.

On that point, although I appreciate that the Minister does not have responsibility for airports, there is a problem. Stansted is the only airport in the London system that has sufficient capacity to handle such demand as cannot be satisfied at Gatwick or Heathrow until the Government have decided where an extra runway will be. The problem is that airlines are reluctant to go to Stansted because of the poor quality of the Stansted Express—indeed, trading standards were expressing an interest and wondering whether or not it is right to call it an express, in view of the congestion on the line. Also, that issue has to be reconciled with the ambitions of Transport for London to run a superior Metro service.

As always, my right hon. Friend makes a very good point. He will be pleased to know that I think my very first ministerial engagement was to go and welcome the launch of the new Stansted Express, which is the new connection going from Cambridge, which will operate with increased frequency compared with the old service. At that time, I visited Stansted airport, where the new operators of the service take a muscular approach to wanting to deliver more flights and are also very vocal about the restrictions of the rail service. I was pleased that Abellio Greater Anglia was able to work with Stansted to deliver a very early morning service from Liverpool Street, because previously people were going to the airport and sleeping there in order to catch their early morning flights. The growth of Stansted and of the whole region is a very strong supporting point for the underlying investment case for improving track capacity outside Liverpool Street.

Such work always requires us to bring together the voices of the local community, the local MPs, the local airports and the developers who would like to benefit, and to consider the social value that the railway network could bring to people locally if it was improved. It is a difficult case to make but it is certainly one that I would be very interested to hear.

Before I conclude, I wanted to point out that some comfort is being provided by the current passenger satisfaction scores that Abellio Greater Anglia is delivering. In the six months between spring 2015 and autumn 2015, passenger satisfaction rose by six percentage points, which I think is among the highest scores that the company has ever achieved. In particular, there have been improvements in areas that the franchise holder can influence: passenger satisfaction was up by 17% with the company’s dealing with delays; by eight percentage points with its provision of information at stations; and by 11% with its provision of information during journeys. What we want is an operator that is very responsive to the needs of its passengers, so that when things go wrong it is absolutely committed to providing information and compensation.

In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend for raising such important matters. I feel that we are on the cusp of a rail renaissance in this country. We have a Government who are committed to spending almost £40 billion during the next five years on improving the rail network, but that money ultimately has to be seen to benefit customers; it will all be wasted if customers do not see and feel the benefit of it.

I am happy that I have been able to set out for my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend some assurances around the introduction of the compensation offer at 15 minutes and around the fact that new trains have already been contracted to run on the Great Northern lines. Also, I confidently expect that the rolling stock offer that bidders on the AGA franchise will put forward will be better than anything that people in the constituencies of both my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend have seen up to now.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.

Local Government Funding: North-East

[Sir David Amess in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered local government funding in the North East.

It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate, which I applied for so that I could set out the impact of the local government funding settlement on my constituency and give colleagues from across the north-east the opportunity to make clear to the Minister the consequences for their constituencies of the decisions that he and his colleagues have made.

I welcome the Minister—I am glad that he is here to listen—but I am disappointed. I think it would have been appropriate to have the northern powerhouse Minister, the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) here, given his stake in the region. His constituency lies in the north-east so his constituents will also be subject to the effects of the Government’s decisions. It would have been good to have the opportunity to tell him how we feel. However, I notice that the Minister is making notes and I am sure that he is all ears and will take back the clear message that we will be sending via him.

May I just tell the Minister a little about the north-east? If his colleague was here I would obviously not need to do this. We are very proud of the north-east. We love the north-east.

Well, my mum is from Kent but I know bugger all about it. [Laughter.]

I want to convey to the Minister that we are incredibly proud of our region. Everyone who lives in the north-east is proud of it. We have a strong industrial heritage and we have an exciting future ahead of us. We are hard workers. We have a beautiful landscape and a wonderful coastline. We have vibrant cities and world heritage sites. We are keen to see the region progress and grow as we know it can, but that needs the support of a Government who understand the north-east, and I do not think that that is what we have.

Alongside all those wonderful things in the north, we have some challenges. I want to say a few things about ageing, and I know that the Minister might also want to refer to it in his response. Life expectancy is lower for men and women in the north-east than anywhere else in the country. For boys born between 2012 and 2014, life expectancy at birth was highest in the south-east and lowest in the north-east. For girls, it is the same: life expectancy is the highest in London, where they will live until they are 84, and the lowest in the north-east, where they will live only until 81. Men in the north-east who get to 65 can expect to live to 78. My dad did not get to 65: he grew up in South Bank in Middlesbrough—somewhere the Minister’s boss knows well, I think—and he died at 48 from heart disease. Lifestyle absolutely was a factor. For women, life expectancy at 65 is highest in London—they will live another 22 years there—and lowest in the north-east, where they will live only another 20 years.

The strategic review of health inequalities in England post-2010—the Marmot review—concluded that health inequalities stem from avoidable inequalities of income, education and employment, and that they are not inevitable and can be reduced. I think that local authorities have a key role to play in that reduction.

Let me give some examples. According to IPPR North, transport spending in the north-east is £5 per head compared with £2,600 per head in London— 520 times less. There are 33 projects in the pipeline for London and the south-east compared with just three in the north-east. The Government need to look at how they evaluate projects and decide where to invest. Our transport infrastructure, including the quality of rolling stock, in the north-east is clearly not good enough compared with that in other parts of the country.

According to the latest Office for National Statistics report on unemployment by region, it is highest in the north-east at 8.7 %. The largest decrease in UK workforce jobs in the last three months of 2015 was in our region—we lost 26,000 jobs. According to the Department for Education’s “NEET Quarterly Brief”, the proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds not in education, employment or training is highest in the north-east, at 20.1%—that is 59,000 young people. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, average wealth in property and assets is lowest in the north-east, where it is half that in the south-east, and financial wealth is four times greater in the south-east. Those are real issues of inequality and opportunity that we think that local authorities are well placed to assist in addressing.

According to the Department for Education, the north-east and the north-west jointly have the highest rate of looked-after children, at 82 per 100,000. The lowest rate is in outer London, the east and the south-east, so we bear the brunt of that burden too. According to the 2011 census, the day-to-day activities of 22% of people in the north-east are limited by a long-term health problem or disability, compared with 18% for England and Wales—remove Wales and the figure is probably even lower. The census also shows that 11% of people in the north-east provide unpaid care for someone with an illness or a disability—a figure that is higher than the national average—and that the north-east has the highest proportion of socially rented accommodation, at 15%.

The point I am trying to make is about need. The Government do not take sufficient account of the varying degrees of need across the country, and councils serving communities with the highest levels of need are not being supported.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and I congratulate her on securing an important debate. I would hate to pre-empt her, but while she is setting out clear examples of where the figures in the north-east are higher than in the rest of the country, I want to say that one of the most shocking things is this: the Government’s own figures show that councils’ spending power per household between 2010 and 2020 will fall by the highest amount in the north-east—by £465.51 per head, compared with £154.07 in the south-east. My hon. Friend is setting out the picture of why the north-east requires additional spending and those figures stand in stark contrast.

My hon. Friend has just encapsulated my argument, neatly making the point that I am sure all Labour Members present will be making to the Minister. We feel strongly that we could, with the right support and the right collaboration with the Government and our local authorities, make a real difference to those numbers. Things were going in the right direction—that is what we are trying to get across—but we cannot do it on our own. We know that all Governments fiddle with the formulae to suit their political ends—I am not naive about that. We called for the debate because this Government are doing that in such a blatant manner.

In my home town of Darlington, residents are united in their disgust at what the Government are doing to our town. In a borough of some 100,000 people, almost 9,000 have already signed a petition initiated by my trusty local newspaper, The Northern Echo. The petition reads:

“The Northern Echo is calling on the Government to reconsider its funding formula which has led Darlington Borough Council to implement savage spending cuts that threaten the fabric of the town. These cuts affect not only the most vulnerable but will impact on every corner of the borough.”

It is unusual to find a local paper quite so squarely in support of the local council, and how right The Northern Echo is. I am so proud that that historic campaigning title is based in my constituency and is campaigning for fair funding for the north-east. It used to give the Labour Government a hard time, too, but it is completely clear that the decisions that this Government have made are disproportionately and unjustifiably harming the people of the north.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I represent part of the rural area of Darlington borough. Will she explain how unsubtle the funding formula for local government has become? Surrey has received £24 million of the £300 million transitional grant, but Darlington Borough Council is facing cuts of £20 million to £22 million.

It is extraordinary, and the debate on the funding settlement that we had in the main Chamber brought it home to anyone who still thought that the Government were acting fairly. Government Back Benchers were saying, “I was going to vote against this, but now we have got our transitional funding I think I will go through the Lobby with the Minister.” It was completely bare-faced. One might have thought that the Government would be more subtle.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on making such a powerful speech. I am sorry to interrupt it, but I do note that she is unlikely to be interrupted by any Members on the Tory Benches. On the point about the £300 million two-year transitional fund, 83% went to Tory-run councils. As she said, councils such as Darlington and Newcastle are receiving the most vicious cuts. How can that possibly be reconciled with any desire to support and grow a northern powerhouse?

It cannot. The northern powerhouse as a concept is being roundly rubbished across the region. The Minister might like to take that back to his colleague. It is becoming a joke, and it is not a joke that I take any pride in. I want there to be a northern powerhouse. I am proud of my region, and I see its potential. I want a Government who are genuinely prepared to support it, and the northern powerhouse is nothing but a slogan. It is nonsense; it does not mean anything; it is hollow. He needs to take that back to his colleague and come back with a real strategy that works with local people, looks at skills and transport infrastructure, and works properly with combined authorities, rather than just handing them some delegated responsibility without any resources to do anything meaningful that will transform anyone’s life. People are losing faith and what little confidence they ever had in the Government’s intentions to do anything of any purpose in our region.

My hon. Friend mentioned transport infrastructure, and she will be aware just as much as I am of the effect that the public transport cuts have had in Darlington borough. Some communities that I represent in the borough, such as Brafferton and Sadberge, no longer have public transport, which is affecting places such as Hurworth, Heighington, Middleton St George and Piercebridge. That just goes to prove that to energise a local community, public transport is necessary for those who cannot afford a car to get to work.

I completely agree. I am aware that while we are meeting here, the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill Committee is also meeting. If the Minister takes one thing away from this debate, I would like him to take this point about buses. The number of people in the north-east who rely on bus services far outweighs those who need a train to commute to work. Their services are being decimated. Councils are no longer in a position to financially subsidise bus routes. The bus companies are under no obligation to provide the services that we so desperately need and communities are being cut off. That is already happening—it has already happened to areas of my borough.

I appreciate my hon. Friend raising the issue of buses. Support for bus services is a critical issue in my area. When I go out talking to people, I find older people having to get taxis to hospital or to doctor’s appointments. I find people on the minimum wage having to get taxis to work because they are isolated and cut off. That is in rural areas—yes, those of us on this side of the House have them in our constituencies too.

Although my hon. Friend was being a little tongue in cheek at the end, she makes a very good point. In the debate in the Chamber, we heard many Government Members telling us, “There is rural deprivation, too, don’t you know?” Actually, in the north-east we have many rural areas. I have them just outside my constituency. The county of Durham is predominantly rural. Government Members were being insulting and patronising when they tried to explain to us that they had deprivation in their parts of the country too. The difference between our rural areas and the ones they were talking about is that ours tend to vote Labour.

Let me turn to the dry numbers and their impact—I will be talking about Darlington; other colleagues will talk about their constituencies. The reduction in Government funding in real terms between 2010 and 2020 will be £44 million, in the context of a net budget of £87 million. The provision of statutory services costs £87.5 million. The council has been able to fund £2.5 million of discretionary services a year for the next four years by using all its available revenue balances. Balances that have been wisely saved are now being used to protect front-line services, and what happens after that? That is what I would like to know.

What do the numbers mean in the real world? Darlington is a historic market town. It was the birthplace of the railways. We have got good schools, affordable housing, good rail transport links and a fierce sense of identity. We are proud of where we live. We are innovators. We have developed everything from steam locomotives to story sacks for pre-school kids. We survived the worst of the ’80s Tory Government through a diverse economic base, but these new challenges are not like anything we have previously had to endure.

Darlingtonians are a frugal lot. We like our council tax low and we like our council to make the money stretch as far as possible. Darlington was among the first authorities to share back-office services with another authority. We innovate. The joint project with Stockton cut costs by a third—equal to £15 million over 10 years. Darlington also provides services to other councils, such as Richmondshire, and to academies across the north. The council is soon to provide information and communications technology to Northumberland County Council. It is not just sitting back and waiting for the Government to supply. It is a good, innovative, lean authority. Darlington has only two libraries, and they are both to go. Cockerton will shut entirely, and the historic Crown Street library, which was a gift to the town from the Pease family, will be moved into the town’s only sports centre, the Dolphin Centre. No one knows what will become of the library building. The Dolphin Centre is about to get increasingly busy, as all our children’s centres are to be moved in there as well. It is children who are likely to bear the brunt of the unjust funding decisions.

Charities across the north-east are warning that local government funding cuts are “hacking away”—their words—at services specifically aimed at children. Funding for early-help services in the north-east is expected to be cut by 73%. How short-sighted and stupid can you get? The “Losing in the long run” report, published by Action for Children, the National Children’s Bureau and the Children’s Society, says that children and families will be left without the early support that often stops their problems spiralling out of control.

The services I am talking about include children’s centres, teenage pregnancy support, short breaks for disabled children, information and advice for young people, and family support. Those services, although vital, are not statutory. I find myself hoping that someone will apply for a judicial review to determine exactly what a service for young people and children, or even a library service, should look like. What does the law say a library service really is? Otherwise we will continue to see provision eroded until it resembles the barest skeleton of something that could be described as a service. We are seeing reductions in provision precisely when need is rapidly rising. The Government say they accept the need for early intervention, but they cannot do anything else when the evidence is so strong.

Darlington is also being forced to offer its covered market for sale. I am working with traders to try to find a solution, but that is by no means certain of success. Support for the voluntary sector is going as grants are removed, which means threats to services that are heavily in demand, such as those for older people. My citizens advice bureau is losing out, and the tiny amounts of support for arts and welfare organisations are going. The excellent Gay Advice Darlington will lose, and local charities are fishing in an ever-diminishing pond for donations and grants.

I am working hard to help. I do not want to give the Minister the impression that I am simply standing here wanting somebody else to fix all our problems. I know colleagues will be working hard in their constituencies to assist too. Out of this necessity—who knows?—there might come the invention needed to create new and better, stronger organisations that are less dependent on the council for help. That might be true for some—I am confident that for some it will be—but overall the picture is bleak. Our street cleaning, parks maintenance and grass verge cutting are all provided to the barest minimum standards. My beautiful town is having its heart ripped out, Minister, and the pain is being felt in homes across the borough and the entire region.

To undermine the very organisations capable and responsible for providing such work by gratuitously removing support from authorities with the highest need for it is shameful. The real insult to the people of the north has come in the form of the hideously blatant, politically motivated divvying up of the £300 million emergency funding, which went predominantly to Tory areas. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government offered a ray of hope to local authorities. He told them they would have to make more cuts between now and 2020, on top of those already imposed, but he did at least promise to provide £300 million over the next two years, so that they had a bit more time to make changes.

There is money for Greater London boroughs such as Bromley, which received £4.2 million of transitional support, and some county councils also do all right—Buckinghamshire receives £9.2 million and Oxfordshire gets £9 million—but there is nothing for Darlington, or for Durham, Newcastle, Sunderland, Gateshead, North Tyneside and South Tyneside. Northumberland will receive £600,000 extra, as well as £4.2 million from the rural grant.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. The Minister clearly said that that money was granted to Northumberland because of lobbying from his Northumberland MPs. Is she aware that Middlesbrough, Knowsley, Hull, Liverpool and Manchester, the five most deprived councils in the country, have received nothing under the grant, while Hart, Wokingham, Chiltern, Waverley and Elmbridge, the five least deprived, collectively received £5.3 million? The difference is stark.

It is indefensible, as my hon. Friend says. The Minister really needs to reflect on the decisions he has made. While those councils and the residents in those areas will benefit from the additional money, it is the looked-after children and the older people—the people who rely on council services in our region—who pay the price, and that is wrong.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware, but revenue spending per household in Darlington from 2011-12 to 2019-20 will be reduced by £1,642. In Durham the figure is £1,600 and in Gateshead it is nearly £2,000. Does that not prove how brutal and unsubtle the cuts are for the north-east of England, when we compare them with what is happening in the south?

Absolutely it does—I have the same numbers here, which I am happy to give to the Minister.

In a previous debate, the Minister tried to imply that Darlington was getting £2,000 a year extra. If he makes that same claim again, he is completely wrong. I have checked, double-checked and triple-checked with my director of finance, and the Minister is completely wrong. I advise him not to say that again and to ask his officials to get back to the local authorities and find out what the actual numbers are.

I feel a little embarrassed coming in here when Northumberland is getting £600,000. However, I am told that it will all go to the rural area of Northumberland where two Tory MPs sit.

At least there is some consistency in approach between the Government and their local representatives. This was a straightforward bribe to Tory MPs threatening to vote against the Government’s financial settlement for local authorities and it worked. Members have spoken openly about being persuaded to support the Government’s plans following the receipt of transitional funds. This is the worst kind of pork-barrel politics I have ever seen.

The Minister might start to talk about the wonderful devolution deals that we are about to get in the north-east of England. In the Tees valley, we get £15 million a year for 30 years, whereas Aberdeen gets twice that over half that period. That will not save us, will it?

No, it will not. I really wish the combined authority well, and I will work hard to support it, because we need to make these things work. However, I am not overly optimistic about the impact of that initiative on the outcomes for the people I represent. I do not know how to put this politely, in the phrase that I am looking for, but it is too little, it is peripheral and it is not widely supported in the community. We are having a mayor for a place that, to most people who live in my constituency or my hon. Friends’ constituencies, does not really exist, so we are not putting all our hope in that particular initiative.

The Government have taken support away from areas that need it most and that are least able to make up the shortfall through business rates or council tax increases—areas, most shockingly of all, whose only crime is to be guilty of voting Labour.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) on securing this crucial debate.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the provision of good local services can make or break communities. Everybody benefits from good local provision, and many people rely heavily on having access to council services. They can be a civilising force for good: keeping the streets clean, providing a pleasant and safe local environment, helping to spread knowledge and culture through the provision of libraries and arts services, and keeping the vulnerable safe through high-quality and caring adult and children’s services. In my area of the north-east, where economic activity and prosperity are perhaps not as advanced as in other areas, the provision of good local services is needed more than ever. Such provision requires adequate funding for local authorities, but it is fair to say that in this debate and elsewhere the Labour party has demonstrated conclusively that good, adequate funding for local services in the north-east simply is not happening.

Areas of deprivation have suffered more cuts to council funding than more prosperous areas. Inner-London boroughs, metropolitan areas and, yes, councils in the north-east have seen disproportionately harsh cuts. In the last Parliament, Hartlepool Borough Council’s grant was reduced by 40%. In the 2010 index of multiple deprivation, Hartlepool is the 24th most deprived local authority out of 354 areas in Britain. That is an improvement from the IMDs of 2007 and 2004, in which my borough was, respectively, the 23rd and 14th most deprived local authority, but we still have enormous challenges in Hartlepool, as we do elsewhere in the north-east.

Given the austerity programme since 2010 and the severe knocks to the local economy brought on by crises in the oil and gas and steel industries—we had an important debate on the steel industry in the Chamber last night; the Minister responsible for the northern powerhouse could not be bothered to turn up to that either—further deprivation in my borough and elsewhere is inevitable. I see it every day in desperate correspondence from my constituents.

Yes, but before I do, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work she has done for the steel industry. Her area, like mine, has suffered enormous rises in unemployment. In Hartlepool, unemployment is two and a half times the national average; I dread to think what it is in Redcar.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s tribute to our area’s fight. Does he share my dismay that although it is nice of the Government to give us £50 million towards retraining and reskilling, that will not even come close to covering the £90 million our local authorities have lost over 10 years? The local authorities would have been in a far stronger position to react to a crisis had the Government not stripped them to the bone.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about services having been stripped to the bone: there is nothing left to cut. Local authorities can really only consider what they can manage to do and the minimum amount required of them in respect of statutory services.

Along with other local authorities, Hartlepool had a tough deal in the last Parliament, but it is going to get tougher in this one. Hartlepool Borough Council was established when unitary authority status was granted 20 years ago. The coming financial year is set to be the most difficult that the borough has ever faced, with a budget that is £8.274 million less than last year, representing a year-on-year reduction of 19.6%. That reflects the combined impact of a further £4.474 million cut in Government revenue support grant, which is a year-on-year reduction of 19.7%, and the permanent reduction in the rateable value of the nuclear power station—the Minister has heard me discuss this before—which reduces business rates income by £3.8 million year on year, in perpetuity, equating to a reduction of 19.4%. Over the lifetime of this Parliament, to the year 2019-20, Hartlepool faces a combined settlement funding assessment cut of 27%. Every single local authority in the north-east will experience cuts, from 35% in Northumberland to 25% in Sunderland. By the end of this Parliament, Hartlepool, and local authorities in the north-east in general, will have experienced nine consecutive years of funding cuts. That is unprecedented.

My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington mentioned further pressures on health and education, where we have challenges in our region. Will the Minister comment on public health funding budgets, to which further cuts will be made over the next four years? Additional cuts will be phased in at 2% in 2016-17, 2.5% in 2017-18, and 2.6% in 2018-19 and 2019-20. On top of that, from 2017-18 the Government will cut £600 million from the national education services grant, which equates to a cut of 74% over the lifetime of this Parliament. That will have enormous effects on how local authorities can help education provision in the north-east.

From 2017-18, the national schools funding formula will also affect the council’s revenue budget—perhaps not directly, but it will have a negative impact on Hartlepool’s schools and reduce the public funding available in my borough. That will mean that the local authority will have to step up to the plate and try to provide further help, which it cannot provide because it does not have the available resources.

When I head towards my flat in the evening, I see all this tremendous building in London. One of these blocks of flats is 50 storeys high and is probably generating millions of pounds in additional council tax—certainly hundreds of thousands. We would have to build on almost every single square foot of land in Stockton to generate that sort of income, which is a further illustration of how the south has it good in being able to generate cash but we do not.

My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour makes an important point about something that I was going to come to. The 100% retention of business rates does not help the north-east and will not help the finances of local authorities in the region. Whereas Westminster City Council, for example, could pave its streets with gold, we in the north-east will suffer enormously as a result of the 100% retention of business rates.

The switching off of the nuclear power station in my constituency for reasons of health and safety, which was quite right, means that my local authority is incredibly vulnerable to the loss of business rates. Given the make-up and structure of the north-east economy, large manufacturing businesses could end up putting local authority finance under further pressure as a result of the lack of help. Nowhere has that been exemplified more than in the closure of the SSI steelworks in Redcar.

Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council has lost £10 million of business rates a year. On top of the impact of the cuts on services, we have lost a huge amount of business rates. If that is how the Government see the future, it is going to be deeply unfair for areas such as ours.

My hon. Friend is right. Will the Minister respond by telling us how that will be addressed? In theory, the 100% retention of business rates is a good policy, but in practice it will further devastate local authority funding in the north-east. What sort of redistributions or transitionary arrangements will be put in place for areas such as Hartlepool or Redcar to prevent that from happening?

I want the Minister to answer directly one key point. In the previous Parliament, the coalition Government had a policy of council tax freezes. Hartlepool was the only authority in the Tees valley that implemented a frozen council tax regime for five years. Can the Minister confirm that, as a result of Government policy, that is now at an end? Is it now the Government’s formal position to ensure that council tax will go up by 1.9%? With the social care precept adding another 2%, that will mean that, starting from April, council tax payers in Hartlepool and elsewhere will face a rise of 3.9%, which they cannot afford to pay. Is the Government’s policy producing that?

In conclusion, my area has faced devastating cuts to local authority services in the past few years, but we ain’t seen nothing yet given what is going to happen during this Parliament. We are going to see the vulnerable become ever more vulnerable and our potential going unfulfilled and unrealised as a direct result of the gerrymandering in the Government’s policy on council tax funding and allocation. It is a disgrace and the Government should think again to make sure that our areas can thrive.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) on securing this important debate. She made an outstanding speech and has given her parliamentary colleagues from throughout the region the opportunity to make the case for our local authorities, which have been hardest hit by the Conservative Government’s spending cuts. She has also given us the chance to lobby the Minister and perhaps bring about the same outcome that we have heard was achieved by the Minister’s Conservative colleagues in Northumberland. If we can secure the same outcome as they did, this will have been a very productive debate indeed. I will not hold my breath, though.

The Prime Minister’s intentions for the north-east are well documented, going well back before the 2010 general election.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the questions the Minister must answer is why none of Durham, Darlington, Hartlepool, Stockton, Sunderland or Newcastle benefited from any of the Government’s rural funding? My constituency covers 300 sq km and the neighbouring constituency in Durham is the same size, yet we got none of the extra rural funding. Given the levels of deprivation, we would like an explanation of why that is the case.

I hope the Minister will explain. Perhaps the special circumstances are that, unlike Durham, Northumberland has two Conservative MPs. The unfairness speaks for itself.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend is correct in assuming that it is something to do with Tory MPs. We have a Tory MP in Stockton—the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton)—and we got nothing.

That says more about that Minister. His lobbying was obviously not as successful as that of his colleagues in Northumberland.

The Prime Minister is on the record saying, in an interview with Jeremy Paxman before the 2010 election, that the north-east and Northern Ireland are the two areas where his planned public sector cuts would have the greatest impact. True to his word, when he walked into Downing Street in 2010, propped up by the Liberal Democrats, he began implementing some of the deepest and most devastating cuts our region has ever seen. I would hazard that they are even worse than the cuts under Margaret Thatcher, which I never would have thought possible.

Here we are again: councils in some of the poorest parts of the country are having to cut services back to the bare bones. The fat went long ago. In most of our region, especially the coalfield communities, some of which I represent, there was for many years trepidation about what the Conservatives would do if they were ever in power again. It is with no surprise or pleasure that we gather here to point out that the Government have truly lived up to those dire expectations. After six years of belt-tightening, Opposition Members listened with disbelief as the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government stood at the Dispatch Box last month and announced a local government settlement of £300 million of transitional funding, 85% of which will benefit Tory councils that have not faced anywhere near the funding cuts meted out to Labour councils. Labour councils are expected to tighten further and add a few notches to an already worn-out belt. If that were not already impossible, it certainly is now.

Not a penny of the funding that was announced is directed at the majority of councils in the north-east, where unemployment is the highest in the country at 8.1% and poverty remains a persistent issue. Some of the poorest communities in the country are paying for 36% of the Government’s austerity measures. Social care is a burgeoning issue for many of them, especially given that the people who use social care will bear 13% of the cuts.

Tomorrow, my local council, Sunderland, will pass its budget for the 2016-17 financial year. It must find £46 million of savings this year and a total of £110 million by the end of this Parliament, on top of the £207 million that it had to find during the last Parliament. That means that the council has a total of £290 million to spend by 2020, compared with the £607 million it had in 2010, before the Conservatives came to power in 2010. That is less than 50% of its pre-2010 budget. That is not trimming, belt-tightening or streamlining; it is an attack—a full-scale assault. So much for the rhetoric of a northern powerhouse. Northern poorhouse, more like.

Of the £290 million of spending power that Sunderland has left, £182 million is reserved for statutory adult social care and children’s services. The remaining £108 million will have to pay for all other services, including waste collection and disposal, libraries, museums, housing, business investment, and sport and leisure. Those wide-ranging services need proper investment to be suitable for public access, but with such a small budget for those services, it is obvious that the council will struggle to maintain the high standard that our local communities deserve and expect.

Significant cuts will also have to be found within the needs-based funding elements, including children’s services. An 8% per annum cut is expected in the early intervention budget on top of the 50% cut to early intervention services since 2010. Children’s services and early intervention are such important areas. If funded correctly, they can mitigate greater costs further down the line by preventing children from becoming adults with multiple issues. The Government’s policy is so short-sighted.

No doubt the Minister will talk about devolving the collection of local business rates. Labour supports that policy in principle, but in practice it will further ingrain unfairness into an already unfair system. He may also talk about the 2% increase in council tax to fund social care as a means for councils to bring in additional funding. For low-tax councils such as Sunderland, such measures will not bring in the funding they require to continue to provide the local services that we rely on. It is estimated that the 2% for social care will bring in only £1.5 million for Sunderland, but our local social care demands are approximately £3 million. Where does the Minister think the additional funding should be found? This is one of the greatest public policy crises that we face in this country. For Sunderland, the prognosis remains bleak for the near future. There is no respite or support on the horizon from the Government.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about the ingrained inequalities, which the Government’s policies will deepen. Is she aware that Newcastle City Council estimates that the 2% council tax precept will raise £1.4 million a year, whereas it faces a spending shortfall of £15 million? It is a simple mathematical calculation, and it does not add up.

I often wonder whether the Government’s calculators and experts stop functioning when it comes to some of these numbers. They seem to have dyscalculia—numerical dyslexia—when working out the sums for the north-east, but they are not troubled by it when working out the sums for the rest of the country.

I apologise for being late, Sir David. I have been chairing the Backbench Business Committee. The 2% rise for social care will raise about £1.4 million in my authority, yet of the £300 million cuts mitigation fund that the Secretary of State established, £300,000 is going to the north-east of England, all of which is going to Northumberland. Some £114 million is going to eight shire counties surrounding London, all of which are Conservative-controlled. No formula can explain the rationale for that.

The only rationale is political bias. That is what we are trying to highlight. It is obvious what has gone on; the figures speak for themselves. The Secretary of State’s brazen audacity in outlining the cuts at the Dispatch Box last month and the brass-necked nature of that announcement beggar belief. It shows how little the Government care. He knew that it would be seen through, but it did not bother him.

We have heard time and time again about the deep unfairness of the Government’s financing of local authorities in the north-east and other unitary councils across the country, but Ministers still do not understand the impact it will have on the most vulnerable in our communities. It cannot be ignored any longer. I hope that the Minister will heed our words. We are a strong, collective voice from the north-east arguing for fairer funding. I hope he will assure hon. Members present that he will take our concerns back to his Department and the Secretary of State to ensure that he reconsiders the devastating, short-sighted decisions of his Department on our region. I am sure that the Secretary of State will understand—as we have heard, he is a local lad from Middlesbrough. If he does not get it, what hope have we got? The Eton boys in Downing Street never will.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) on obtaining the debate.

There was a time when the Conservative party believed in local government, and it had a long tradition of supporting it. My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) highlighted the effect that the Thatcher Administration had on our region, but one thing that Margaret Thatcher did not do was devastate local government as the present Government are doing. Many people in my constituency say “They are as bad as Thatcher”. No, they are worse than Thatcher. They do not believe in the state as we do. They take the view that local government should just deliver statutory services. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington eloquently outlined, that is what the people of Darlington will end up with—an authority with the ability to deliver just statutory services. Everything else that we have for generations taken for granted that councils should deliver will go by the bye.

What makes it worse is that the Government are in the most blatant way allocating funding to pacify voices within their own party. I am not sure that it will pacify them for long, because I do not know how they will protect the areas in question in the long term, given the reductions that the Government still have in line—a cut of some 56% for the Department for Communities and Local Government. However, at the moment that is clearly what they are doing.

Where, in the core spending and transitional arrangements, are the lowest reductions being made? What are those very deprived areas? They are Surrey, Hampshire, North Yorkshire and Devon. We have a ludicrous situation of North Yorkshire getting a 2.5% increase and Surrey a 1.5% increase in core spending. A 2.5% increase in our core spending in Durham would mean an additional £10 million of funding. On the figures for core spending powers and cuts in 2016-17, Durham will have minus 4.1%, Newcastle minus 4.4% and Sunderland minus 4.3%. Surrey will have a 1% reduction and my favourite place, Wokingham, a 0.4% reduction.

I think it has been the understanding of all Governments, irrespective of political make-up, since the second world war, that need has to be taken into account. The idea that it is possible to equate the health problems and social deprivation of the north-east and, I must say, inner-city areas in parts of some London boroughs and the north-west with pressures in Surrey and Wokingham, is nonsense. In the figures for the final settlement for 2016-17, the core spending per dwelling figure for Durham county council is £1,608; for Surrey it is £1,661. It may be thought that that is not much higher, but no account is taken of the demands of an ageing population in Durham, and its higher unemployment and social care needs. If the district councils in Surrey are taken into account, the core spending per dwelling figure goes up to more than £2,000. I am sorry, but it cannot be right that one of the wealthiest parts of the country is getting more expenditure than some of the most deprived communities.

The rural indicator was a measure that the Government brought in to try to compensate for rurality. There could not be a more rural county than County Durham; but what did it get out of it? Not one penny. I do not object to Northumberland, which includes the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell), getting some extra funding, but why did that county get it? It is because it has two Conservative Members of Parliament. We are now in a situation where funding is allocated on the basis of what the local electors decided. The Government are punishing electors in the north-east for voting Labour. We would expect that in a totalitarian dictatorship, not in a democracy such as ours.

Could we press the Communities and Local Government Committee to have an inquiry, covering the whole gamut of this issue?

I would welcome that, but I remind my hon. Friend that this lot do not care. What they did in the previous Parliament shows that. They are small state Conservatives who frankly do not give a damn about the north-east, because it means nothing to them electorally.

One of the biggest needs of, and pressures on, most of our councils is social care. The Government have announced that councils can charge 2% extra on council tax. That will raise a lower amount in Durham than in Surrey, because about 55% of properties in County Durham are in band A. The idea that that is a panacea that will answer the social care issue is not true. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) demonstrated the problems that Newcastle City Council faces, and the situation will be duplicated in all north-east and inner-city councils, which have huge pressures on them.

We have done the mapping in my local authority, and if we cut 100% of all the services by 2021—refuse collection, grounds maintenance and everything that councils do—we will still have to make cuts in adult social care and children’s services to balance the books, once revenue support grant has been totally removed and the impact of the localisation of business rates kicks in.

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman responds, I remind the House that three hon. Ladies still want to speak, as well as the Opposition spokesperson and the Minister who will respond. The debate finishes at 4 o’clock, so I hope that colleagues will bear that in mind.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) makes a pertinent point. We will end up with councils that deliver core statutory services, and even then they will be under pressure.

When the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) was Secretary of State, he argued that somehow we could make the savings by having fewer pot plants in council departments, or by cutting staff numbers. I must tell the Minister that every council in the north-east has made back-office efficiencies. That will not enable them to meet the figures. For example, from 2011 to 2020 Durham will have lost £288 million from its budget. It is ludicrous to think we can make that up. I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not here; previously he has accused councils of hoarding large balances, but that is a way of diverting attention. I will explain the situation in Durham. It has £220 million in reserves. However, only £30 million of that is actual reserves, in the sense of the 5% that, when I was in local government, local councils needed. The rest is allocated for other things, such as redundancies and things that will take place against a budget of more than £865 million. Let us knock on the head the nonsense that northern councils are awash with large reserves. As my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington demonstrated, they are down to the bone. The other thing is that reserves can be used only once. The Government’s idea about a way of somehow mixing revenue and capital is economically illiterate.

I want to finish on devolution, because we will no doubt get a load of guff from the Minister about it. The devolution being put forward for the north-east is a devolution of responsibilities without the cash to go with it; £30 million is on offer for the north-east so-called mayoral model. If the cuts to public health funding go forward as predicted, Durham alone will lose £20 million a year.

I noticed last week that a Conservative, Mr Jeremy Middleton, announced his candidacy for mayor of the north-east. Strangely, he said:

“I won’t be asking people to vote for me because I’m a Conservative. I’ll be asking them to vote for me because I’m the right man for the job.”

I had a look at his website this morning, and he has also said that through negotiation with Whitehall he will deliver

“a fair financial settlement with similar public funding per head as Scotland”.

I challenge him to state why he has sat quietly for the past six years without saying a single thing about local government finance being butchered in the north-east. He is a friend of the Chancellor, a former Conservative candidate—he thankfully failed in the by-election against my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright)—and has been an apologist for this Government. I ask the people of the north-east to remember that when and if we actually get this ludicrous situation with a mayor.

I am fully supportive of the idea of devolution, but devolution of responsibility without the funding, which is what this is, is not the way forward. Councils in the north-east are facing a crisis and there is only one explanation. It lies with the Government who are protecting their own areas in a party political way while not giving a damn about Labour-voting areas in the north-east of England.

Order. I am having to impose a time limit of three minutes, which is unsatisfactory. I ask colleagues to resist making interventions.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) not only on securing this debate, but on her moving speech that set the scene of the reality of life in north-east.

Due to the Chancellor’s cuts, local government funding will drop by a quarter in real terms by 2020. I will not go through all the figures again, but the Prime Minister’s area of Oxfordshire will see a funding increase, as will Hampshire and Surrey. The disparity in funding between southern Tory areas and northern Labour areas represents the most blatant political manoeuvring that I have seen or read about in the western world. In succeeding to buy off potential Tory rebels with the transitional pot of money for rural areas, the Government are hitting my constituents, and those of my hon. Friends, very hard. Sunderland has had to make savings and reductions totalling £207 million since 2010-11, and it is projected that it will be required to make further reductions totalling £115 million by 2020. That is a total of £322 million over a 10-year period. Given that the council’s gross budget was £784 million in 2010-11, the reductions equate to 26% to date and 41% by 2020 when compared with the starting budget.

The cuts will be exacerbated by two elements of the local government finance settlement. The first is business rates. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) outlined the reality of the difference in what business rates can raise, and I am still waiting for a Minister to explain to me and my constituents how that will be done in a fair and reasonable manner. The TUC’s Frances O’Grady said that

“by devolving business rates without any national safeguards, regional inequalities will get wider”.

They will. Adult social care is the other area, and it is a massive problem under this regime. Sunderland City Council has lost £207 million from its budget in the past six years and is braced for further cuts of £115 million by 2020.

I wonder what the Minister can say today. I wait with bated breath. The political shenanigans of the budget settlement will bear heavily on the people of the north-east, the people I am proud to represent as a Labour Member, and the people I care about. The Opposition will not let that happen without a fight and without exposing exactly what this Government are doing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) on securing this important debate. Is it not about time that this Government admitted that plans for the so-called northern powerhouse are just empty rhetoric? A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that 10 of the UK’s most struggling cities are in the north. The Government are driving a greater wedge, not building the promised bridge, between the north and south. Not a single town from the south of England is among those struggling areas.

Council spending power per household has fallen by £74 in the South Tyneside Council area, which is significantly higher than the £43 average fall in spending power across English councils as whole. My council was also one of the eight authorities in the north-east to receive no transitional funding whatsoever, yet the Government have managed to find the money to offer a bribe to MPs representing wealthy southern shires. South Tyneside has suffered a 45% budget cut since 2010.

Many people will know that I was a councillor between 2010 and 2013 before coming to this place. I was a cabinet member on the council and cannot begin to stress how painful it was to sit surrounded by paperwork and job titles and agonise over who may be losing their job or what service might be axed next. I wonder whether the Minister has ever had to stand face-to-face with vulnerable and elderly people and their families and witness the total despair on their faces when they are told that their care package was being cut or that their care home was closing, because I have and I remember it well.

The chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy says that the next few years are going to be “so difficult” and “so tough” that councils will be in total deficit. Is the Government’s final aim to make councils bankrupt? That is the direction in which they are heading. It is the wrong direction. The 2015 index of multiple deprivation shows that South Tyneside’s overall deprivation score rose by just over 10% since 2010, the largest percentage increase of any single area. My constituents in South Shields are proud, competent, hard-working and skilled, but they have been let down by this Government, who just do not understand or care about the issues that the north faces.

The Tories are not devolving real power to our communities with the northern powerhouse initiative; they are delegating cuts. The Chancellor once said that a true powerhouse requires true power, but we know and he knows that if we take away the money, we take away that power.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman). She made a passionate and eloquent speech in the Chamber during the previous debate on this subject, but I think she has excelled herself. I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate today.

I was going to set out some of the context and background regarding the north-east but, due the fact that colleagues have done so far more eloquently than I, as well as the time limit, I will not. There are so many great things about the north-east, but I am fed up of having to stand up and wave bleeding stumps and plead about our poverty. People in the north-east have too much dignity and too much going for them for us to do that. The Government have put us in a situation where we have to explain things to them, but they do not understand the challenges we face.

Public services in the north-east should have faced far less substantial cuts than other areas of the country to enable us to tackle the disparities that colleagues have set out, but that is not what we have seen. Instead, the north-east has experienced disproportionately high cuts to local authority budgets. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) described, the impact is most keenly felt in non-statutory services such as young services provision. Redcar and Cleveland has levels of drug and alcohol problems that are higher than the national average and it has double the rate of self-harm. We need preventive services for older people, support for those with disabilities and special educational needs, smoking cessation programmes, enterprise support teams and transport subsidies. All those services are vital in supporting people to live healthy, active lives or to get into work or education.

One of the great things in the region is the strength of our community and voluntary sector, which delves deep into the most deprived communities and gets to the parts that the state so often cannot reach. However, cuts to council budgets have meant that their grants have been slashed—so much for the big society. More vital services are being cut to the bone in the areas of greatest need.

It was clear from the debate on the financial settlement that the Government are not interested in any form of redistributive approach to local government finance that sees money go to where it is most needed. They are not interested in the principle that historically disadvantaged areas need support or at least a level playing field or the principle to which they paid lip service in 2010 that the broadest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden. They are quite content to have a settlement that has seen the 10 most deprived areas facing cuts 18 times higher than the 10 least deprived. They are quite content to be totally shameless by acknowledging that transition money was basically a bung to Tory areas where MPs were threatening revolt—we heard that from the Government’s own MPs during the debate.

Some Government MPs were not quite so honest and tried to claim that some kind of formula lay behind the unfair and unequal distribution of funding, and some that it was because their areas had an ageing or rural population. Let me tell the House about age in the north-east: 17.1% of the north-east’s population is over 65 years old, compared with 16% in the rest of England, so we have a higher proportion of ageing people. The north-east is also well above the national average of people accessing social care: 29% more people access home care services, 41% more access day care and 100% more access short-term residential care. This is heartless, shameless, pork barrel politics, which does a disservice to the Government and this place.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) on her brilliant, passionate and humane speech, which illustrated what the cuts decided by the Government mean to the people of her beautiful town, the rest of the north-east and, indeed, the rest of the country.

What is clear from the debate is that the Government have betrayed the north-east. The people of the north-east are decent folk. They are looking simply for fairness, not for favours, but the Government’s approach has been desperately unfair. The north-east has suffered some of the highest cuts in the country, but those communities were offered next to nothing from the transitional relief fund, which the Government made available a few weeks ago.

Here is what happened. A number of Tory MPs representing far wealthier areas than the north-east suddenly realised that their communities would start to feel the same pain that other parts of the country had been suffering for the last five years. People such as the Prime Minister’s mum got up and complained about what the Tory Government were doing, because they saw their services were at risk.

It is worth digging into the term “services”, because what it means is people’s quality of life. It means services such as Sure Start children’s centres, libraries, street cleaning, keeping the street lights on, filling in potholes, fixing pavements, giving young people things to do that keep them from getting into trouble, providing care for older and disabled people, and providing bus services to rural areas whose populations would otherwise be stuck where they live and unable to get out to enjoy their lives or to go to work. That is what services are—real things in real lives.

When some Tory MPs representing wealthier areas realised what was coming their way, the Government decided to buy them off. The Government set up a £300 million fund, but they did not give that money to the areas that had suffered the biggest cuts; they sent it to the areas that had suffered the fewest cuts. The only way the Government can justify their false claim to have helped the hardest hit with that money is to pretend that every single cut that happened before 2015 did not happen—but it did, and people throughout the country know that it did. Eighty-five per cent of the money went to areas run by the Conservatives; barely 5% went to areas run by the Labour party, despite the fact that the Labour areas have far higher levels of deprivation and have suffered far higher levels of cuts over the past five years.

My area of Croydon is, I grant, some way from the north-east. It has had 17 times more cuts than Surrey, but Croydon lost a further £44 million with barely any relief funding. I thought that was appalling, but the north-east has suffered even more. Durham, which had 27 times more cuts than Surrey, got nothing; Sunderland had 36 times more cuts and got nothing; South Tyneside had 37 times more cuts and got nothing; Newcastle had 41 times more cuts and got nothing; and Hartlepool had a swingeing 42 times more cuts than Surrey and got nothing at all. The whole of the north-east got next to nothing out of the settlement—nothing but cuts, cuts and more cuts.

Only weeks before important council elections, the Tories gerrymandered millions of pounds to wealthy areas such as Surrey to buy off dissent from their Back-Bench MPs. I use “gerrymander” advisedly: for the avoidance of doubt, I mean the misuse of public funds to advantage the Tory party. It is as simple as that, and it is a disgrace to our democracy.

I will touch briefly on social care. The Government approach to underfunding social care is to underfund the services and then to localise the blame for the cuts that will inevitably follow for some of the most vulnerable people in our community. Here is how the Government do it: they underfund social care, they hand over responsibility for it to councils, and they tell them to put up council tax by 2% a year, partially to plug the funding gap. That still leaves a £1 billion funding black hole for those services. Earlier, we heard about the case of Newcastle: a 2% council tax rise raises £1.4 million, but the shortfall in funding for these services is £14 million. The Government hope that councils will get the blame for the cuts and council tax hikes that were designed in Downing Street.

Finally, I want to look at council tax rises, because the 2% Osborne tax is not the only thing that will happen. The figures that the Government sent out to councils last month in spreadsheets from the Treasury included the assumption that there would be not only a 2% rise for social care, but a further council tax rise of 1.75% on average every year for the next five years. By 2020 that adds up to a 20% council tax hike. That is the Government’s assumption and what they are planning.

The truth is that we get the worst of all worlds with the Tories: we get cuts in services that people rely on and we get hikes in council tax that hurt the low-paid the most. The Government are damaging every community in the country, but the north-east is among the hardest hit—£24 million of extra funding for Surrey; next to nothing for the north-east of England. Whatever happened to the one nation Tories? The Tories have been too ashamed to show their face in the debate this afternoon, and they should be too ashamed to show their faces anywhere in the north-east.

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) on securing the debate. It is my pleasure to be able to respond and I thank hon. Members for their valuable contributions.

I recognise that councils throughout the country have been fully dedicated to improving local services in a very challenging environment. It was absolutely right that we listened to local authorities and to Members of this House during the local government finance settlement consultation. We have done our utmost to ensure that the settlement is right and fair for all. The distribution of funding has recently been discussed at length in this House, alongside the overall level of resources available to local government. The hon. Lady called today’s debate to discuss local government funding for the north-east, but it is important to place that in the national context of what the Government are working to achieve.

Local authorities account for a quarter of all public spending, so it has always been clear that they would have to play their part in reducing what was the largest deficit in post-war history. Last autumn, the Government’s spending review set out clearly how savings must be made over this Parliament to ensure that we finish the job of eliminating the remaining deficit and what that will mean in terms of overall council funding. In real terms, councils will be required to save 6.7% over the spending review period. At the 2010 spending review, a reduction of 14% was announced, so the pace of spending reductions has slowed significantly for this Parliament, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has acknowledged.

In cash terms, when we look at the overall core resources available to local government in the finance settlement, core spending power is virtually unchanged over the spending review period. Councils will receive £44.5 billion in 2015-16 and £44.3 billion in 2019-20. Furthermore, we have tried to be as fair in regard to distribution as possible, making reasonable assumptions that understate the maximum resources available to councils. For example, in line with the Office for Budget Responsibility, we assume that council tax will increase with inflation, not by the referendum threshold of 2%. If we had assumed the maximum figure, more than a quarter of a billion pounds extra in resources would have been available. We have been clear: yes, further savings are required, and councils have recognised that, but we have taken important steps to help councils make those savings.

I do not know what colour the sky is in the Minister’s world. What is fair about north-east councils—Durham, Newcastle and others in the figures I read out—having 4% cuts in their budgets this year when Surrey has less than a 1% cut and Wokingham’s cut is even less than that? How can that be fair, given the demands on services faced by Durham compared with places such as Surrey? Is it just a coincidence that 85% of the councils who gain from his transitional arrangements happen to have Tory MPs?

The average spending power per dwelling for the 10% most deprived authorities is about 23% more than for the 10% least deprived authorities in this coming year. Opposition Members have mentioned several times an assertion about the transitional grant. The grant was based firmly on the local government finance settlement, the consultation we undertook and the responses from the consultation. There were a significant number of responses and a call for some sort of transitional grant to support those areas that had lost the most central Government grant compared with the amount expected based on the old redistribution formula.

The Minister has been generous with his time, but what does he say to his own MPs who stood up in the Chamber and admitted that they got the money because they threatened to revolt?

There are MPs from my party who represent very wealthy areas and others who represent less well-off areas. I say to the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) that not all of our Members are from Surrey; my party would not have been able to win a general election based on a cohort of MPs from Surrey. MPs in my party come from a wide swathe of the country. The transitional grant was based not on where MPs come from but purely on the response to the local government settlement. It is intended purely to mitigate the most significant changes in funding for the authorities that had the greatest proportion of loss from the revenue support grant.

Does the Minister accept that even though the revenue support grant is due to be withdrawn completely, in the meantime the Government have written out any concept of addressing need? Local authorities such as mine in the north-east of England do not have the capacity to raise taxes locally because many of the properties in our area are in the lower bands, so the band D national median is meaningless.

That is why generally, as I said, the areas that have been referred to in the debate that are receiving transitional grant had a higher reduction in revenue support grant than areas such as that represented by the hon. Gentleman. He and a number of his colleagues have taken a dim view of the north-east in relation to its ability to move forward as an economy and create business rate revenue and additional council tax.

To take the constituency of the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), for example, thanks to the business rate retention scheme during 2014-15 there was a 14.6% increase in revenue. To pick up on a point he made, we will move to full business rate retention in 2020, but before that there will be a consultation on how we deal with redistribution. We understand and accept that in some places significantly more business rates are collected than in others.

The approach we have taken in this historic settlement is aimed at supporting those areas with the greatest pressures and providing councils with the certainty they need as we move towards a system of greater devolution. The settlement allocates funding on the basis of the core resources available to local authorities, taking into account councils’ business rates and council tax as well as their revenue support grant. It ensures that councils that deliver the same set of services will receive the same changes in core funding for those services.

I will in a moment. That is fair and that fact was recognised by Middlesbrough Council in its response to the consultation on the settlement.

We have also provided councils with unprecedented levels of certainty. Our historic offer of a four-year settlement answers calls from councils to allow them to plan over the long term, giving them the certainty required to create greater efficiencies. That has been welcomed by councils across the country, including those in the north-east such as Durham County Council and Newcastle City Council.

I have already given way; I am going to make some progress.

Councils now have the opportunity to smooth their path over four years, using reserves where necessary and if they so wish. Even so, we have not made any assumptions that councils will use reserves in any published figures. Despite giving this opportunity, we have made no assumptions that councils will use their reserves in any published figures.

The settlement also responds to the clear call from all tiers of local Government and from many of my colleagues in the House to recognise the priority and increasing cost of caring for our elderly population. As such, we have made up to £3.5 billion available by 2019-20 for adult social care through a dedicated social care precept of up to 2% a year and the improved better care fund. That is significantly more than the amount asked for by the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services. We have proposed that the additional better care fund money should be distributed to complement the new council tax flexibility, so more will go councils that can raise the least from that flexibility. We will, however, consult colleagues in local government on that in due course.

We have also prioritised housing. The new homes bonus was due to come to an end, but it has been a useful contributor to the increase in planning permissions being granted. Payments since its introduction in 2011 total just under £3.4 billion, reflecting more than 700,000 new homes and conversions and more than 100,000 empty properties brought back into use.

On a point of order, Sir David. Is it not convention in Westminster Hall to allow time for the person who secured the debate to reply? I believe it is.

I will certainly do that for the hon. Lady; I intended no discourtesy. Finally, in 2016-17 the core spending power per dwelling in the north-east region is £1,820, which is 3.9% higher than the £1,750 figure for the south-east.

When you said 30 seconds, Sir David, I did not think you meant that literally.

That was an obtuse, lacklustre, disembodied reply from a Minister who showed no interest in the concerns we raised. We need to ask the National Audit Office to take a look at this, because the political manoeuvring that has led us to where we are would frankly make even a Liberal Democrat blush. When that is combined with the cuts to fire, police, health and education that our region is experiencing, it is disgraceful.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Lambeth County Court

[Mr James Gray in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of the proposed closure of Lambeth County Court.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Lambeth county court serves residents across Lambeth and Southwark. I am pleased to be joined here today by hon. Friends whose constituents will also be deeply impacted by the planned closure of that court and to have the opportunity to raise our concerns about the impact on our constituents, on the staff who work at the court, on the lawyers who represent people there and on a wide range of other public sector staff who regularly attend the court, including housing officers and social workers.

Lambeth county court is the busiest housing court in the country, effectively making it a specialist court, and it is situated in an area with one of the highest concentrations of social housing in the country. In addition to housing possession claims, the other types of work undertaken at Lambeth county court are cases concerning children, domestic violence and money claims. The proposal on which the Government consulted was to close Lambeth county court and move all of its business to Wandsworth county court in Putney. That is almost five miles away as the crow flies, but it is a complicated journey on several buses for residents on low incomes who cannot afford the train or tube. East-west journeys in south London are invariably more difficult than journeys into and out of central London.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and thank the Chair for chairing? For my constituents in Rotherhithe, it will take a minimum of two hours on three different buses just to get to court. The four-hour journey that is potentially being imposed will deter people from attending court and will result in higher appeals.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I will make the point later in my speech that the impact of the court’s closure on travel time is, indeed, worse than the impact of court closures proposed in many rural areas of the country.

I am proud that my hon. Friend and I both represent Lambeth. This is a very timely debate. On travel, does she agree that it is not just an issue of cost? Many of our young people are living in an environment where it is quite dangerous to travel great distances, with serious youth violence affecting a significant minority. There is often an issue of safety for young people when they are travelling about in our area.

Indeed; my hon. Friend makes a valid and valuable point. It is some of our most vulnerable residents across the spectrum, including our young people, who will be most significantly impacted by this decision.

I took the opportunity during the consultation period to speak with lawyers from Lambeth and Southwark who represent residents at Lambeth county court about their concerns about the proposed closure. I am grateful to them for the time they took to do that and to the Minister for meeting me during the consultation to discuss those concerns.

The Minister has listened to some of the concerns raised during the consultation, and as a consequence, the proposed closure of Lambeth county court has changed somewhat, such that housing possession hearings will now move not to Putney but to Camberwell magistrates court. I have brought this matter to the House for debate today because that decision will not now be subject to further consultation; because there are important questions about the decision that need to be answered; and because, ultimately, I am not confident that the revised proposal will address all of the concerns raised about the closure of Lambeth county court.

The first area of concern is the impact of the closure on access to justice and the cost of justice for people who will now have to attend court in Putney rather than Kennington. Many people attending court will now be faced with a significantly longer journey, as my hon. Friends have said, and particularly those on low incomes who cannot afford to travel by train or tube. From parts of Lambeth and Southwark, residents will face a round trip of up to four hours on four different buses each way to get to Putney. That is worse than the impact on travel time of some of the court closures proposed in rural areas.

I know how difficult many of my constituents find it simply to get to other parts of Lambeth and Southwark to access services such as the citizens advice bureau. Indeed, I helped to arrange a CAB outreach service on one of my estates because it was so difficult for residents there to travel to other parts of the borough. My worry with a much longer, more complex journey to court is that many residents simply will not make it at all. The attrition in attendance experienced at family courts following a previous closure programme and the subsequent inefficiencies has been clearly documented and was raised with me only this morning by the borough commander in Lambeth. The consequence is that a theoretical cash saving on paper is translated in reality into either cases being delayed, causing additional expense to the public purse, or residents not having the opportunity to give evidence at their own hearing, therefore denying them access to justice.

The second area of concern is the loss of specialism at Lambeth county court. Lawyers who work in my constituency tell me that one reason the court works comparatively well is that it is effectively a specialist housing court. That specialism extends from the judges to the clerks, and means that cases are dealt with quickly and effectively, given the application of expertise built up over many years. The loss of that specialism at a time when the housing crisis is growing in London, the number of evictions in the private rented sector is growing and the Government are reducing the security of tenure of residents in social housing would, in my view, be a terrible shame.

A third area of concern is the potential impact of the closure on the duty solicitor scheme in Lambeth. The current duty solicitor service is staffed by dedicated legal aid lawyers who have chosen to stay in that area of law as legal aid has been cut, earning very modest pay, in order that they can represent the most vulnerable residents and ensure that those residents receive justice. The lawyers I have spoken to who work within that scheme tell me that the margins are so extremely narrow that the significant additional travel time associated with a move to Putney could easily mean the collapse of the current scheme because it will no longer be viable. I am extremely concerned about what that will mean for residents who have been able to rely on representation from trusted local law centres and legal aid firms for many years and, again, the impact on access to justice.

A fourth area of concern is the impact of the move on the public sector, and particularly the social work services of Lambeth and Southwark. If cases involving children are now to be heard in Putney, social workers who have to go to court will face a trebling of their current journey time. Those are the same social workers who have very heavy case loads and who work to support many vulnerable families who are already stretched and on whom the current cuts to council budgets are taking a heavy toll. I do not believe that the impact of the proposal on that area of the public sector has been considered at all, and I would be grateful if the Minister could respond to that point.

A final area of concern about the move to Putney is the heavy reliance in the consultation document on the replacement of physical court facilities with digital services. Of course, there are ways in which new technology can aid the justice system and help to make it more efficient and more transparent. Of course, the use of technology to, for example, avoid the need for victims of crime to come into contact with perpetrators is a good thing.

The consultation document and the Government’s response to the consultation is, however, exceptionally light on detail in that respect. There is no indication of how much of the saving the Government will make from the sale of closed courts and tribunals will be reinvested in new technology. There is no articulation of the services that people should expect to see in their local court. There is no modelling of the anticipated impact of investment in new technology on the Courts and Tribunals Service, and there is no immediate action plan for urgent investment to ensure that technology is in place wherever possible to immediately mitigate the impacts of the closures. Without a detailed plan of action, the statements made about the use of technology are simply warm words.

I turn now to some of my questions about the proposal to move housing possession hearings to Camberwell magistrates court rather than to Putney, which was made in response to the representations made during the consultation process. Although I very much welcome the fact that the Minister has listened and responded to the concerns that have been raised, very little detail has been set out about how exactly the proposal will work. I recently met a number of lawyers from Lambeth Law Centre who confirmed my view that the devil will be in the detail on this proposal, so I ask the Minister today whether he can provide some of that detail.

Camberwell magistrates court is already very busy. It is on a constrained site, and it is not clear how Camberwell will physically be able to accommodate additional housing possession hearings on top of the current volume of cases that are heard there.

I think the words I was looking for before were “It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship,” Mr Gray—I got that wrong earlier.

My hon. Friend is talking about the assessment that was made of Camberwell. In her discussions with the legal professionals in Southwark and Lambeth, did they also express concern that the assessment of Lambeth’s use was inaccurate? It was undertaken at a time when at least one judge was away and it did not take into account all the rooms that are used in preparation for court hearings.

Concerns have absolutely been raised that the figures used to underpin the consultation relating to usage levels at Lambeth county court were not, in fact, accurate at all.

On the move to Camberwell, it is not clear whether the administrative functions of Lambeth county court in relation to housing possession cases will now be based at Camberwell magistrates court, or whether they will move to Putney and only possession hearings will take place at Camberwell. If the administrative functions move to Putney, there is concern that some vulnerable residents facing eviction will still have to travel to Putney to initiate administrative processes that require attendance in person, such as applying for a stay of eviction. If the administrative functions move to Camberwell, it is imperative that Camberwell does not become overloaded. We know what overloaded courts look like: everyone I have met who has had any experience of the Central London county court since it moved to the royal courts of justice describes it as being like the Chancery Court in Dickens’ novel, “Bleak House”, such are the delays and inefficiencies there.

The detail is important here, and I ask the Minister to respond to the following points in his reply: how many judges will move to Camberwell? How many hearings will transfer to Camberwell? What physical space will be made available at Camberwell? Where will the judges at Camberwell be based when they are not sitting in hearings?

Finally, there is concern that even with housing possession hearings staying closer to the site of the current Lambeth county court, moving the remaining functions to Putney will mean that many vulnerable residents—victims of domestic violence, parents attending custody hearings, residents who are in financial difficulties—will have to travel a long distance on a complicated public transport route to access the justice that they deserve.

I come back to where I began. Lambeth county court is the busiest housing court in the country. Those who deal with it on a regular basis report that it works well in respect of housing and the other work that takes place there. Although there may be theoretical short-term savings to be achieved from its closure, there are very great risks that, as a consequence, justice will become less efficient and less easy to access, particularly for vulnerable residents on low incomes. The consequence of that will only be additional costs to the public sector in the long term.

I would be grateful for the Minister’s response to the concerns that I and my hon. Friends have raised. Fundamentally, I believe that this closure will have disastrous consequences for my constituents, and I urge him to reconsider it.

May I say what a pleasure it is, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray? I commend the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) on securing this debate—we have met about the matter—and I take the opportunity to put on record that she is an extraordinarily diligent and conscientious Member of Parliament who has spoken up very effectively for her constituents in the short time that she has been an MP. I am pleased to see that we also have the hon. Members for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) here today, because both of them have written to me and we have corresponded on this issue.

It is absolutely clear from today’s debate that the hon. Lady cares deeply about our courts and the delivery of justice. I want to assure her that I do, too. Before I speak about Lambeth county court, I will mention some general points. The consultation that we have just concluded ran last year and had more than 2,100 responses, all of which were carefully reviewed and analysed. I care about reforming our courts—about moving from places that have changed little since Victorian times to a modern, responsive and flexible system fit for the 21st century.

I echo the Minister’s kind words about my colleagues. I am sure that many of those respondents contacted the Minister and the Department to demonstrate their commitment to justice and modernising justice, but how many of the 2,100 responses agreed that it was sensible to close the court?

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise number regarding the 2,100 responses that we received, but it is fair to say that a number of them objected to closures. As I said, we carefully looked at all the responses that were given. If he gives me some time, I will say that we did actually listen to many of the points that were made—if he bears with me, I will come to that.

Despite the best efforts of our staff and the judiciary, the infrastructure that supports the administration of the courts and tribunals is inefficient and disjointed. It uses technology that is now decades old. We offer very few services online and rely on paper forms. We key in data and pass bundles of documents between agencies. When we need to take payment, we can often only accept cash or cheques. We convene physical hearings to discuss matters of process. We need to end the old-fashioned ways of working that create inefficiencies and which make it hard for the public to access justice.

That is why the Government have a significant reform programme in which there will be an investment of some £700 million over the next four years. That will transform the experience of everyone who comes into contact with the courts and tribunals. New services and new, more joined-up ways of working across the justice system will require a modern infrastructure to support them. The reforms will increase access to justice by making it swifter, easier and more efficient.

To achieve those benefits, however, we must make difficult decisions, and deciding to close a court is undoubtedly one of the most difficult. I want to emphasise that we have listened to the responses to the consultation. We have retained four courts and in one further case, we have retained one of the jurisdictions along with the building following the responses that we received. In 22 courts, we have modified the proposal in some way to reduce the impact of the closure on court users—indeed, Lambeth is one of those courts, and I will refer to specific points on that shortly.

In the case of Lambeth county court, the court is poorly used; it is only used for around 40% of its available sitting time. The building is in need of considerable maintenance, including the replacement of air conditioning, lighting and aspects of the heating and hot water system. In many respects, it is simply not fit for purpose as a modern and flexible court building.

As the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood mentioned in her speech, she and I had a meeting—I thought it was very productive—following which we were able to engage in conversation with my officials and she was able to liaise with the local council, Southwark council, and there was a very productive dialogue. Unfortunately, after Southwark council had carried out a feasibility study, it came to the conclusion that county court work could not be transferred to its premises, which we were open to considering. I am, however, pleased that following the representations that she and others made, and recognising the enormous number of housing possession cases that are at Lambeth county court, we have managed to shift the work two miles down the road to Camberwell Green magistrates court. I think that is not unreasonable, in that we have listened, and I would like to think that two miles is not a huge distance.

I understand that the closure of a court has a very real impact on the court’s users, staff and judiciary, but I want to make it clear that in England and Wales, the closure of 86 courts will only reduce the proportion of citizens who will be able to reach their nearest civil or family court within an hour by car by 1% and by public transport by 5%. It is also worth pointing out that the majority of the population will never have to attend a court, and for those who do, it is likely to be a rare occurrence.

The issue of access to justice featured prominently in the hon. Lady’s speech. Being able to access courts and tribunals when required is, of course, essential, but effective access to justice is not defined simply by the proximity to a court or tribunal building. It should be defined by how easy it is for court users to access the service they need, however they choose to do that. We want to take advantage of the choice and flexibility that digital technology offers. We will move towards a system in which face-to-face hearings are required only for sensitive and complex cases. Online plea, claims and evidence systems with much wider adoption of video conferencing into court will reduce the need for people to travel to court.

It is not clear to me what the timescale is for the investment of £700 million in new technology, or whether there will be a time lag following the closure of Lambeth county court, the move to Wandsworth and the introduction of the advantages that new technology may be able to bring. Will the Minister set out the timescale and process is a little more detail?

The hon. Lady raises a good point. She will appreciate that I cannot, off the cuff, give her the timetable for Lambeth court, but I can say that it is clearly very important that there is synchronisation between the closure, the transfer of work and the new digital process coming in. Otherwise, there will be an extraordinarily chaotic justice system, which is the last thing any of us want. I assure her that we will be working at pace to ensure the modernisation will work alongside any closures and transfers. She was right to raise the point and I hope I have given her some comfort.

It cannot be right that people are able to transact important aspects of their lives online—for example, completing their tax returns or doing bank transactions—but when interacting with the court having to revert to paper forms and photocopying evidence. I am keenly aware that many people who encounter our justice system do so when they are at their most vulnerable. They may be a victim or witness in a criminal case, or individuals, businesses and families trying to resolve disputes. They may have been recently bereaved or experienced family problems. Whatever the circumstances we need to make better use of technology to provide them with easier access to a more responsive system. This will benefit vulnerable users, with swifter processes and more proportionate services in many cases, which will reduce the need for potentially stressful attendances at court.

Indeed, we have a duty to offer more convenient, less intimidating ways for citizens to interact with the justice system while maintaining the authority of the court for serious cases.

I am mindful that the hon. Member for Streatham spoke about security and if he wanted to intervene on that, I propose to deal with it now. He raised an important point. At present, we have a system whereby witnesses, victims and defendants can all end up on the same public transport going to the same court. Under the new and reformed court system that we envisage, we hope that evidence can be given from a video conferencing suite, perhaps in a civic building or a local police station. That would be done at an appointed time so the victim and the witness would turn up at a given time. It is likely that that suite would be much closer than the court that is dealing with the case. That must be a better and safer system.

Travel time is mentioned regularly, but given that we are moving to a system with video links, travel times will not be longer and in many cases may be shorter because people will be going to a civic centre or police station to give their evidence. That will reduce cost and time, and will be a lot more convenient.

One problem—there are several—is that the Minister cannot give my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) a timeframe for the introduction of the technologies. In his answer just now he used words such as “likely” and “may” do this or that. The problem is that the absence of the technology will create all sorts of problems for our constituents.

My second point is about the data that were collected and formed the background to the consultation. Clearly, they were collected when one of the judges was absent so were not reflective of just how busy Lambeth county court is.

On the data, I assure hon. Members that the decision was based on the correct information. I hope the hon. Gentleman appreciates that, with the best will in the world, consultation on 91 courts requires human beings to put a huge amount of data into documentation. I assure him that the decision was taken on the correct information.

On my use of the words “may” and “will”, the hon. Gentleman should look at our track record. During the consultation, I met the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood. Following our meeting, there was instant dialogue between my officials and Southwark council. While the consultation was still proceeding, the council came to the conclusion that it was unable to accommodate what we wanted.

It would be unreasonable for the hon. Gentleman to expect me to give a specific time, date or month. All I can say is that when we are putting in place a £700 million-plus programme of court reform throughout England and Wales, he must take it on trust that we will do our damnedest to make sure everything fits in and is timely and orderly because, if it is not, there will be one massive chaotic justice system, which is the last thing I want.

I note the absence of a specific timeframe, which is unfortunate. Perhaps the Minister will write to my hon. Friends about that. Where is the assessment of the new costs to the police and councils of providing space for the video conferencing that the Minister mentioned?

On journey times, can the Minister tell us what percentage of cases he expects members of the public will still have to attend? In my constituency, there is a growing number of controlled parking zones. Thousands of people are not allowed to own a car where they live so a massive number of people will still be expected to use public transport and, as I have said, a round trip from Rotherhithe in the rush hour will take around four hours.

I am mindful that I have about two and a half minutes and I am keen for the hon. Lady to have a few minutes to sum up.

In response to the hon. Gentleman, 20 years ago it was unthinkable that people would be accessing banking services from the comfort of their kitchen table or their sitting room. They did not know they would be able to access the Inland Revenue and file their tax return from the comfort of their home. It is important to recognise that proximity to justice does not mean being in a physical building called a court. We already have online transactions taking place. We will do our best to ensure that the £700 million-plus programme works apace and that we deliver the service that we want for a 21st-century justice system that is fit for purpose.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this debate and I hope I have given her some comfort. I conclude by saying that this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform our court system and that is precisely what we seek to do.

I thank the Minister for his response and for taking the time to respond in detail. On video links, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) suggested, there is serious concern about the context in which police stations are closing. I met one of my borough commanders this morning who said Brixton police station is full and there is no capacity. I am not sure the Government have a plan for that. Southwark and Camberwell councils are rationalising a number of their premises, which is probably why they have difficulties in accommodating the Court Service. It is not clear that facilities for video links will be available.

We have a video link in Wales that operates from a community centre. We can be broad in our thinking process.

My point is about the absence of a detailed plan in the context of a very big decision. The Minister has not responded to my detailed questions about the way in which provision will work at Camberwell and I would be grateful for a written response.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the justice system. At the moment, it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity without a plan.

The hon. Lady may want a lifetime opportunity, but I am afraid she has run out of time.

Question put and agreed to.

Road Routes to the South-West

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the upgrading of road routes into the South West.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I am very grateful that this Transport Minister is here today. Looking round the Chamber, I can say with confidence that many hon. Members will agree with me when I say that I do not believe that the south-west has had the greatest bite of the cherry and the greatest funding in relation to roads and infrastructure. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has travelled through the west country and shares our concerns. All I hope is that he has his chequebook with him this afternoon—we will see the colour of his money later, we hope.

The whole idea of this debate is to ensure that we deal with the roads going through the west country. There are particular roads that hon. Members will want to promote. I will be considering in particular the A303 from Ilminster through to Honiton. I very much welcome what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government have put forward for dualling the A303 right the way past Stonehenge—indeed, under Stonehenge—and right the way through to Ilminster, and then dualling the A358 from Ilminster to the M5. My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) is not here, but she would want me to say how much she welcomes what is happening with the A358. I am not here to complain about any of the roads that the Government have in place; I am here to say that we need a second arterial route into the west country. Just as we need a second railway line, we need a second road. Taking all the traffic on to the M5 at Taunton may not be the best idea if we have a problem on the M5, so having a second arterial route to Exeter, to the airport, is essential.

My hon. Friend makes the valid point that we need railways—we need two lines—and we certainly need a very strong route through. Does he agree that the Government should be in favour of that? We need economic growth in the south-west, and without that infrastructure we will not achieve it.

I could not agree more. Doing the figures, we reckon that these infrastructure improvements could deliver about £40 billion to the west country, so we are talking about very big money. There are also a great number of visitors coming to see us, and we want to ensure that they can get there by rail, by road and even on their bicycles if they want to. We want them to come to the west country. There are many hon. Members present from Cornwall. To get to Cornwall, people need to travel through Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire, so that is key.

The west country is definitely a honeypot as far as tourism is concerned. If the A303/A30 through to Honiton and Exeter is dualled virtually all the way, most of the London traffic will come that way. Then there is the north and the northern powerhouse that the Chancellor is so keen to have and that I very much support. When people from the northern powerhouse and the midlands come down, they will naturally come down the M5 and into the west country from that direction. What I am talking about is a natural way of keeping that traffic going and keeping it separated. I go back to the point I made earlier. Let us say that we take all the traffic on to the M5 and there is a problem after Wellington. A caravan may tip over going down the hill, which is not an unforeseen happening. With what I am talking about, we will not only be able to get traffic on to the motorway. If there is a blockage on the motorway, then with the A358 dualled, we will get a lot more traffic back up the A358, going into Honiton. That is where I believe we need to do the second route in and have it dualled all the way through and upgraded through the Blackdown hills.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) will make a case for upgrading the north Devon link road, and I very much support that. I am not here to destroy other people’s ambitions; we want to ensure that we have as much investment for the west country as we possibly can.

I agree with the Chancellor—the architect of our long-term economic plan. As he rightly says, the south-west has not enjoyed as much attention as the north of England, but that does not excuse any neglect of the south-west. I agree that his long-term economic plan for the south-west is good, but we want to see the colour of his money. In particular, I believe that transforming connections between the south-west and the rest of the country is the right thing to do, as well as improving connections within the south-west. From Somerset to Devon to Dorset, these infrastructure upgrades are essential.

I am very much enjoying my hon. Friend’s comments. Does he agree that the Kingskerswell bypass, which has just opened and connects my constituency to the rest of the road network by dual carriageway for the first time, is a perfect example of the benefits that can be delivered by investment in our infrastructure, with thousands of jobs and new homes predicted to be generated just by that investment?

I could not agree more. The Kingskerswell bypass brings people into Torbay. It brings them from the A380, and if they go back on that road, they have the A380, the A38 and the A30 when they get to Exeter, so they have a choice of roads. It is ideal to keep the A303 going from Ilminster through to Honiton to ensure that they can make that connection, so I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. He mentioned Dorset, and Dorset in the south-west often feels unfairly left out. Does he agree that it is not just about individual counties such as Dorset and Wiltshire working together? We have to look across the whole of the south-west and then, as he says, into individual counties. For example, it is vital that we get north-south roads built out of the important port of Poole and put that infrastructure in place.

I again agree, because in a previous life I had the terrible job of being one of the Members of the European Parliament for the whole of the south-west, which includes Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Dorset, as well as all the other counties in the west country. If we take the A350 and other roads, getting north to south through Dorset, from Poole to Bristol, is an absolute nightmare. It is about ensuring that we have roads from those ports through to our major cities and our major road links, so I am very supportive of what my hon. Friend says.

In the course of this Parliament, we have a real opportunity in the south-west to consolidate and invest in our infrastructure. A number of roads need upgrading, and I know that my hon. Friends here today will be talking about the various projects—we have heard some comments already, but there will be more—all of which will play an important part in upgrading and improving our local economy in the south-west and our long-term economic plan. I think at least one of those investments should be upgrading the A303/A30/A358. The A303/A30 is a vital arterial route into the west from London, as I have mentioned. Those upgrades will also help as traffic calming measures. Currently, the A303/A30/A358 is one of the most congested roads in the south-west, and in the summer months road usage increases by up to 50%. If the Minister ran down through the A30/A303 today, he would probably find little problem with it, but that bears no resemblance at all to what it is like in the height of summer. Do not forget that we want people to come to the west country to spend their money and enjoy the great scenery.

The A358 runs through the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, and acts as a link between the A303, the A30 and the M5. She has campaigned long and hard for the upgrade of the A358, which runs just outside the Blackdown hills area of outstanding natural beauty—an area that I share with her. About 80% of local residents and businesses in the Blackdown hills AONB believe that road congestion is an issue and 97% of all residents support road improvements in the hills. The Blackdown hills AONB has made it clear that it supports an upgrade to the A303/A30, but that those upgrades should be carried out with sensitivity and in ways that are compatible with conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the Blackdown hills.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need clarity about the timetable from the Minister, so that all our constituents across the south-west can be confident that the Government’s commitment will be delivered during the next few years before the next election?

I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. We have talked about this for a great deal of time and we have put the money on the table, but people actually want the road built now.

It is not just about the commitment to doing it; it is about physically seeing some of the work starting. We need some spades in the ground.

We certainly do. Before I answer my hon. Friend, let me say to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) that it is essential to get the tunnel built, but I want to ensure that we start building all parts of the A303/A30. We should not just hold up one part for another. We have to get on with it. To get down to Plymouth, we have to get through a number of counties. Plymouth is very much a driving force for the west country so it is essential that we get not only trains, but good roads to Plymouth.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On the subject of getting the choreography right, it is great to do Stonehenge, which is what grabs the national news. However, would my hon. Friend observe that if we fix Stonehenge and merely shunt traffic a little bit further west, into the village of Chicklade, for example—a very real possibility, particularly if the economy takes a nose dive, which economies tend to do from time to time—my constituents will find a whopping great traffic jam landed on their doorstep, which would be an extremely bad thing and do nothing to sort out the problem with the superhighway to the south-west?

I agree with my hon. Friend. Roads are a little bit like tributaries. If one area is cleared, the water is taken faster into the next area, and the same applies with traffic. Therefore, if we are doing the road, we have to ensure that we dual the road all the way through.

Although the tunnel under Stonehenge is necessary, it is expensive and will take some time. We have other schemes through Chicklade and other places that are not so expensive and can go on at the same time. The previous Government made a mistake: the problem at Stonehenge stopped any help to the rest of the roads. We have to do Stonehenge but we have to do the other parts of the road as well. Should the Minister travel on the A303/A30 now, he will have the good fortune of congested roads so that he can safely admire the natural beauty of the area, but I want him to be able to travel through a little faster so that he can get to his destination when he decides he is going to and is not stuck in hours of traffic jams in the summer.

In the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we deal with air quality. There is no doubt that the more traffic is congested, the more vehicles stay ticking over, and as idling cars give out a lot of pollution, this a problem of pollution as well. If we get people through quicker, Roads Minister, we will improve the environment even more.

Unfortunately, many commuters are not that interested in the surrounding beauty and think that getting to work on time is important. Although a great many tourists come through the area in the summer, we must not forget that a lot of people are still working. They want to get to work and to get goods delivered in their vans and cars.

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head of a historical problem, which is that the south-west—I include Dorset in that—has always been seen as a busy holiday destination that can just take the pressure for those months. It is often forgotten that we have a vital and viable series of businesses large and small, the agricultural sector and so on, which need high-quality roads so they can get their goods to and from market and their employees can get to and from work. If we are to see a real strengthening of our south-west economy, roads such as the A350 and the C13 in my constituency all need investment and attention.

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. When we improve the major roads, we must ensure that all the links work and get the heavy traffic through. We must ensure that we have good roads for tourists and for those who live in the west country all the time.

Some 58% of people think that road safety is an issue and 53% believe that reliability is an issue, which demonstrates the need for an upgrade due to the public perception of the lack of reliability of the road. That goes back to what I said at the beginning: if people choose a route into the west country and they are absolutely certain they can get along the A303, they will use it; if not, they will go on to the motorway, which will probably be highly congested.

This is not just about public perception. The A303, A30 and A358 have among the highest number of fatalities and personal injury accidents, which underlines that road safety is a clear issue. Of course, road safety is not just an issue along the A303, A30 and A358. I have been working hard with Highways England to come up with a solution for Hunters Lodge junction on the A35, because that route is a real problem. There have been serious accidents and fatalities there next to the turning into Uplyme and Lyme Regis.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a safety issue regarding the number of potholes? I remember that in a recent very bad winter, the potholes, even on the M5, were very significant. Given the number of roads we have in the west country—certainly in Devon—we need more money not just for new roads, but for ensuring that the existing roads are properly maintained.

In fairness, I think that the Government gave a great deal of money for potholes, and the county councils, particularly Devon County Council, worked very hard on the problem. We have to deal with potholes because they cause accidents and damage cars. It is essential that we get that work done but, in fairness to the Government, they did give something like £8 million to Devon to solve the problem of potholes.

I am dealing with Highways England regarding the A35. We are looking for a solution to slow the traffic and make the Hunters Lodge junction safer—we must deal with that. Upgrading the whole corridor of the A303, A30 and A358 would create 21,400 jobs and boost the local economy by some £41.06 billion—a key delivery for the long-term economic plan for the south-west. Other benefits would include £1.9 billion of transport benefits due to reduced journey times and greater resilience.

My hon. Friend mentioned the long-term economic plan for the south-west, with which the Minister will be familiar. It was delivered 13 months ago, almost to the day, and he very clearly pledged £7.2 billion for wider transport improvements in the south-west, £3 billion of which was for roads. I hope my hon. Friend would agree that today would be a good time to hear an update on how the spending of that £3 billion is going.

My hon. Friend raises a good point. We are keen to hear from the Minister exactly how the spending is going and when we are likely to see diggers arriving to construct the roads, as my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) said earlier. We look forward to that answer.

Additionally, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire) reminded me, the A30 is a stretch of road that runs past Exeter airport and that by no means constitutes low noise. He is particularly keen for the concrete motorway to be quietened—I suspect he tried that when the Minister came down the A30. It is definitely dualled, of which I am jealous, but there is an argument about the noise caused by the road. The village of Clyst in the East Devon constituency is hit by the double whammy of noise from the airport and from the roads.

Furthermore, the A30 is the main carriageway for motorists travelling westwards towards the Exeter and East Devon growth point, which is also in the East Devon constituency. The growth point, as my right hon. Friend pointed out to me, includes the brand-new and fast-growing town of Cranbrook, the science park, the business park, Skypark and, as mentioned previously, Exeter airport. The Minister was in Cranbrook just last week for the opening of a new train station, and he will have seen at first hand that improvements to the A30 would be a big boost to the growth point and therefore the wider economic area. The only way to achieve those figures is to upgrade the whole A303/A30—I may possibly have mentioned that before. That second arterial route into the west country would create a natural flow of traffic, as much of the London traffic would be dealt with, thereby creating the sensible and logical division of traffic that we need.

I ask the Minister for assurances that all those projects will be given the go-ahead. Please show the same confidence in the south-west that all of us here today share and recognise. We have been given a brilliant opportunity to develop as part of the long-term economic plan not just for the west country but for the whole country. Will he encourage Highways England to work with Devon County Council on the design of the roads through Honiton and Monkton, all the way through the Blackdown hills to Ilminster? Devon County Council has done a lot of work on that. Finally, we say to the Chancellor: please may we have these funds? They have been promised, and we look forward to seeing them.

Before I call the next speaker, I note that at least five hon. Members, perhaps more, are seeking to catch my eye. I intend to call the first Front Bench spokesperson at 10 minutes past 5, which gives 18 minutes between five speakers. An average of three or four minutes each would be courteous to each other.

It is appropriate that a fellow south-west MP should be in the Chair for this important debate, Mr Gray.

Given the time available, I will move quickly to my shopping list for the Minister, but not without first saying that the unveiling of the long-term economic plan for the south-west last year was an important moment in the election campaign, because it clearly demonstrated that a Conservative Government would have the south-west at the heart of their thinking and would recognise that investment in south-west infrastructure had for too long lagged behind other parts of the country. Since the election, we have had an opportunity to debate at some length the problems with our broadband in the region, and the other night we had an excellent debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) on the area’s rail infrastructure. Today’s debate on roads is similarly important.

I will briefly focus on two areas, the first being our region’s strategic connections. The M5 is closed too often. Traffic gets south of Bristol and is too often met with a traffic jam that closes the road, which has an impact on the visitor economy not just in Somerset but in Devon and Cornwall. On a Friday evening, many restaurants and campsites are left without their Friday evening’s revenue because people are still stuck in and around Avonmouth on the M5. The A303 and the A358 are clearly important improvements for us to make to take some pressure off the M4-M5 interchange. Those improvements must be made as quickly as possible, but with them must come a traffic management system that goes all the way back to the eastern end of the M4 so that people are advised to take the A303 and A358, if that route is the clearest, when trying to access the south-west. We must also make more effort to connect our road network with our rail and air transport hubs. At the moment, too many of our railway stations and airports are too far removed from decent roads, which also stands in the way of economic development.

My one entirely parochial plea, having spoken about the importance of the A303 and the A358—that is without doubt the most important improvement we must make to our region—is that, locally, there is a challenge in accessing the northern part of Somerset. There is an east-west connection on the M4 corridor. The next proper east-west trunk road is the A303 and the A358 in their current state; there is nothing in between, unless we accept the Bristol southern ring road, but that really serves Bristol’s suburbs, not the county of Somerset, north Somerset or north-east Somerset.

Although my hon. Friends the Members for Bath (Ben Howlett) and for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) are both encouraging improved access off the M4 beyond Bath and down into west Wiltshire and Somerset, we are also looking at improvements from junction 23 of the M5 along the A39 and the A361 to open up eastern Somerset and west Wiltshire from the M5 corridor, too. I plant that in the Minister’s mind, as I will be coming to speak to him about it in due course. It would make a significant difference to access for that part of Somerset, which at the moment runs the risk of becoming a rock in the stream as everything moves around it very quickly on the A303 or the M4/M5. That does no service to my constituency, where there are huge opportunities for a relatively small number of very short road improvements—probably an extra five miles of road. With that, I cede the floor so that others can put their shopping lists on the record, too.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) for securing this important debate.

The A30 is the only real route of access to Penzance, which is the best-known town in the UK. It is still a hugely popular tourist destination, and it looks after the whole of west Cornwall. It is the economic centre of my constituency. Although I want to address the concerns about roads and congestion, I do not want to discourage people from booking their holiday in west Cornwall this summer, so please do that.

People who have holidayed in west Cornwall will know that at peak times throughout the year, not just in the summertime, the roads are particularly congested. Good work has been done on the A30 by this Government. We have not seen a lot of investment, but the road is being dualled right down to the edge of my constituency. At the moment, the road continues as a single carriageway right through the last and only village on the A30, Crowlas, where the first set of traffic lights for those travelling from London can be found.

In my constituency I genuinely have the biggest challenge and deserve the greatest rewards, for which I am thankful. We have a single carriageway, and Cornwall Council’s estimate suggests that congestion just on that section of road costs my constituency some £3.1 million a year, so we have a problem. There was a solution, but in 1997, the Labour Government cancelled a shovel-ready project that would have brought the road comfortably into Penzance and have resolved some of the issues that the present Government are now being forced to consider.

I want to see a solution, and I thank the Minister for coming down in August on a very wet day. It only rains one day in the summer, which is when people come on holiday, and it was that particular day. He stood on the edge of the road, and he met the local council and local campaigners. He could see for himself the challenge that we have before us to improve the situation.

I come here with a solution. Since the Minister came to my constituency, I have met Highways England, Cornwall Council and local parish councils, and together we discussed what can be achieved. Cornwall Council has put together a useful piece of work called “The Cornish Expressway,” which is excellent and talks about how the road could be opened up for free movement of traffic down to my neck of the woods. The Government are already doing significant amounts of work around Temple and near Truro to make that become a reality.

As the cars move more freely after the work is done, it will only create a new pinch point in my constituency, making it even more urgent to address the situation. The Cornish expressway will keep traffic moving freely, reduce pollution and boost our economy. As I said, I have met a number of people and brought them around the table. We will do whatever it takes—whatever the Government or Highways England need us to do—to make the case. Our intention is that a well thought out plan will be prepared and included in the road investment strategy 2, for which the Government are currently seeking ideas. I would welcome some indication that such a solution to the A30 in my neck of the woods, enabling it to meet current demand on that section of road, would be welcomed by the Minister. I want to be sure that he will support the hard work that we will put in to free up the economy, reduce pollution and keep traffic moving.

Mr Gray, I can feel you champing at the bit to get involved in this debate; as another Member rightly said, you are a Wiltshire Member of Parliament too. I have three straightforward points to make.

First, the issue of transport connectivity in the south-west and down into the peninsula is absolutely and utterly vital. I have been campaigning on it for the last 15 years, both for 10 years as the candidate, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), who was there in the early days, and in the past five years as the Member of Parliament for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport.

There are two vital issues. The first is the dualling of the A303. We must ensure, ideally, that it continues through the Blackdown hills as well, because it can take up to four hours, if not five or six, to get all the way from London down to Plymouth. The second is that in 2020, we will commemorate the Mayflower 400, the anniversary of when the Mayflower left Plymouth to found the American colonies. We have an opportunity to use that occasion to hold one of the best trade exhibitions in the country, not dissimilar to what happened during the Olympics. We need decent transport links—road, rail and air. I urge the Government seriously to consider reopening Plymouth airport; I know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that he will do so. If we do not have those links, we will lose an opportunity beyond all measure.

Finally, although we talk about dualling the A303, the A358 and potentially the road down into the Blackdown hills, the M4-M5 interchange is a nightmare for those of us who come up to London on a Sunday evening or afternoon. Only too often, I find it difficult to work out in my mind’s eye which lane I should end up in, especially if England are playing cricket and I get somewhat taken away by what might be happening in the match. I get rather concerned. As often as not, I find myself going up to Gloucester on the M5, which is a big mistake. That also needs to be looked at and sorted out.

If we do not do something about the issue, we will pay the price. It is the south-west that has delivered the majority for this Government in the House of Commons. It is vital that we do not miss this chance to look after Somerset, Devon, Wiltshire, Dorset and Cornwall. If we do, we will lose an awful lot of opportunities, and will unfortunately leave the issue to the Opposition, who I do not believe are as committed to delivering for us in the west country.

I congratulate my parliamentary neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate. I will take three minutes to bang on unashamedly about the North Devon link road. It is a pleasure to be part of this cohort of south-west Conservative MPs. We all speak with one voice—

As my hon. Friend exclaims with some reason, where is the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw)? We are united on the vital need for the south-west to secure these major road improvements. The overriding reason is that we need that investment to secure the economic future of our region. It is not about getting tourists there more quickly on a Saturday afternoon in August; it is about the vital economic future of the whole south-west.

Within that framework, the north Devon link road is vital. The A361 connects North Devon with the M5. It is our only viable link south and east to the rest of the country. We do not see it as North Devon’s only link to the outside world; we see it as the outside world’s only opportunity to visit us. We must ensure that it is fit for purpose, because at the moment it is not. It is a single carriageway for about 85% of the distance between Tiverton and Barnstaple, some 30 miles apart. Where it is not, it has short overtaking lanes that merge quickly into the main carriageway with little warning. That leads to risk-taking, speeding and, sadly, a high incidence of accidents in which people are killed and seriously injured, on my doorstep. It is hampering economic investment and harming the vital tourist industry. I want to be positive. I do not want to put people off: “Come to North Devon; it is a great place to visit and do business. You will get there eventually.” I want to change the “eventually”.

I have been campaigning for major improvements since well before my election to this place. I was delighted when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor came and made certain commitments; I say to the Minister that this is the time to deliver on them. Devon County Council is doing fantastic work, thanks to the £1.5 million that the Chancellor has given us to carry out detailed planning work, including putting together a comprehensive business case. I met Devon County Council three hours ago here, and I ensured that we are driving the matter forward so we can make a bid to the local majors fund, a nearly £500 million pot created by the Chancellor.

It is part of the wider picture. The North Devon link road is vital, but it is no good if we cannot get people to the south-west to start with. That is why the A303, the A30 and the A358, championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton, are vital. They are the backbone of the region’s infrastructure. The North Devon link road is one of the vital arteries connecting it to the rest of the world. I say to the Minister that I know the Government are listening; I am not complaining that they are not. I am merely asking that we now deliver what we promised. Let us put boots on the ground and diggers on the tarmac, and let us have a yellow army of road workers to complement the blue army of Conservative MPs in the south-west.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this important debate. It is ironic that Stonehenge, which has been around for quite some time, has until now caused a blockage to getting the work done. In fact, it has been standing for more than 5,000 years. I am sure that even then, as the stones were dragged down from Wales through my constituency, they caused an enormous queue of donkeys and carts. No doubt even then they were promised a dualling of the A303. Now, their descendants, my constituents, are at last poised on the edge of their seats as they sit in much the same queue, not daring to imagine that it will actually happen. However, I think it will this time, so I am happy to cast aside the memory of Governments committing to improve our roads and then backing down.

Our optimism increased even further with last year’s publication of the road investment strategy, which set out the details of how the £2 billion—or £3 billion; I am not quite sure of the amount—will be deployed. As we have heard, the projected material benefits are vast. Dualling the A303 alone will bring 20,000 jobs and £40 billion over six years. Those are the kinds of number that mean it is a profitable investment in our future. As I have said many times before, if the west country is to compete, grow and even flourish, we must have the structure, framework and infrastructure to do so.

Given how critical the matter is, I, like my hon. Friend, would be grateful if the Minister could give us any indication when the work will begin. When will we see the cones and the contraflows on the ground? Highways England concluded its report in October by saying that the three road measures—that is, the work on the A303, the A358 and the M5—are

“the first steps in our aspiration to provide an expressway between the M3 and the South West”.

So, some 5,000 years after I am sure the plans were first scratched into the west country dust with a blunt stick, I hope that now we can work together to make that aspiration a 21st-century reality.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing this debate and indeed all the hon. Members who have contributed to it. They have demonstrated the widespread concern that exists about the need for improved road infrastructure in the south-west. That concern has existed for decades, including concern about a second route through from London to sort out the issue of the route through from the M5, and so on.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has heard enough today to be impressed by the need for improvements to the road network in the south-west. Does he agree, therefore, that the commitment to abandon the A358 improvements that was made in the Labour party manifesto last April was deeply misguided, and will he reassure us that his party has already abandoned that commitment?

I will come on to some of the history around this issue in a little while, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman can just be a little patient on that point.

I will just offer apologies for my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). I heard his name come up before. He takes his duties as a member of the Health Committee very seriously and it is meeting at this moment.

The A303 has occupied a lot of the discussion today. Clearly, it is a road that has tested the ability of successive Governments to deliver the kind of objectives that we have been talking about. I think that there was broad support for the road investment strategy that was announced in 2014. However, what I am concerned about and what I would like to press the Minister on today is that despite the Government’s commitment of £2 billion for seven road schemes in the south-west up to 2021, I am not sure that the numbers add up and I am not sure that the start dates are anything other than aspirational.

What we know is that when the previous Labour Government left office, the Highways Agency had a costed and timetabled plan to improve the A303 and to dual the A358 from Ilminster to Taunton, to remove the need to create a new dual carriageway through the Blackdown hills. What we also know is that after 2010 there was a rowing back on capital investment that was worth around £4 billion in total. So when we hear now about this £2 billion coming back in to fund some of these projects, it is important that we interrogate the Government about it a little bit.

According to the pages for the seven schemes on the Highways England website, only five of them have estimated costs and, if I have added up the figures for them correctly, their combined total comes to £2.15 billion. That is already more than £150 million over the £2 billion budget without the other two schemes being considered, and before scope creep and other inflationary pressures are considered.

In March 2015, the Government produced their “feasibility study” of solutions for an alternative road route to the south-west. However, I wonder what it all means, because it is about two years ago—in this very hall, actually—that I pressed the Minister’s predecessor to ensure that that study would lead to progress, but the future seems to be about as clear as mud at the moment.

The status quo pleases no one and it is necessary that we find a solution to the A303 and to Stonehenge. As far as I can see, however, the bottom end of the current cost estimates already seems to double the £410 million estimate that led Labour to review the costs back in 2005. So, can the Minister confirm when he expects a costed and timetabled set of options for the road? In the meantime, has he asked Highways England to evaluate short-term and medium-term options to improve traffic flow and alleviate congestion? Also, can he satisfy concerns that the current front-runner—a 2.9 km tunnel—would protect the integrity of the archaeological site, as required by article 4 of the world heritage convention? And in the event that the Government cannot satisfy the objective of providing a fully costed and timetabled proposal by 2017, what would he do? Would he consider, for instance, handing this work over to the National Infrastructure Commission to consider?

I have a general question for the shadow Minister. In 1997, when the Labour Government came in, they cancelled the scheme to dual the road between Honiton and Ilminster, so I would just like to know whether there has been a change of policy by the Labour party.

It is absolutely true—in fact, I think the hon. Gentleman said so in his opening remarks—that the history of these roads, across successive Governments, is riddled with changes of mind, delays, inquiries, and further delays and further inquiries. If I understood his opening remarks correctly, the important thing now is to interrogate the Government over the current plans, and that is where I have certain problems. I do not see a costed timetable; I do not see that the budget covers what already appears to have been committed to; and I would just like to know how the whole thing adds up. The interest that hon. Members have shown today during this debate indicates that they share my concern that we know what the figures are and what they add up to, and that we know when—as the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) said—there will be spades in the ground.

Before I finish, I will just raise a couple of other points with the Minister. As well as increasing road capacity, it is also important that we address the issues of, first, the quality of the roads and, secondly, the design of the roads, to ensure that they are as safe as possible. In its first piece of large-scale research as a watchdog, Transport Focus has identified that the top two priorities of road users in the south-west are those two things: improving the quality of roads; and ensuring that the roads have a safer design than they do now.

On the first issue—the quality of the roads—can the Minister put on the record that the Government will meet their pledge to resurface 80% of the network by 2021, as pledged in the Department for Transport’s Action for Roads 2013 document and repeated in the road investment strategy? If that is not going to be the case, perhaps he can explain what the current estimate is.

On the second issue—the safer design of roads—can the Minister offer me some assurances about what he is doing with Highways England to address the safety concerns that have been raised? In the last year, there has been an 8.4% increase in the total number of people being killed or seriously injured on the roads. And in the latest Highways England-financed road user satisfaction survey for May 2015 to October 2015, both the areas of the south-west that were surveyed saw steep drops, when compared with the figures for the previous six months, in the number of road users who said they felt safe. The surveys and the existing casualty figures seem to reveal that the Government are not doing enough to improve road safety in the south-west.

We should address these issues; I think the Minister has to address them. Perhaps it would help him to address them if the Government brought back national road safety targets, as we have often urged them to do.

In closing, I will say that Labour appreciates the infrastructure challenges in the south-west. No Government have been entirely consistent on this issue, and the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton has made that point. So it is essential that the current Government now bite the bullet and deliver genuine improvements to road routes.

However, if the Government are going to do that, there must be transparency and clarity. We need to know what the figures are. We need to know if it is £2 billion or £3 billion that is going to be spent; if it is £2 billion, then it already appears that that sum has been exceeded. And what will the Minister do on those other issues of road quality, including resurfacing roads to achieve the 80% target that the Government have committed to, and the serious concerns about road safety, which have already been revealed in surveys during the last year?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Gray.

Let me start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing today’s debate about upgrading road routes into the south-west. He has been a diligent campaigner on the issue for a considerable time. I was pleased to visit the area last August and to have him drive me down the A303, the A330 and the A30. There could not be a more stellar guided tour than the one he delivers. That visit brought home to me the importance of the lesson we learnt a few years ago: that the south-west needs resilience in its road network. Transport is a key driver of the economy, and an improved network will not only enable better journeys but boost growth. Last year the Chancellor noted that although the south-west accounts for 8.4% of the UK’s population, it accounts for only 7.5% of its economic output. A major reason for that is that the south-west has to put up with slow, unreliable journeys on congested roads, especially between the region and the south-east of England. If the south-west is not to fall further behind, major road investment is needed.

Many hon. Friends have highlighted clearly the importance of road investment in their areas. I was asked specifically about timing, and I will come on to that as I address some of the schemes. In December 2014, the Government launched the road investment strategy, outlining how £15.2 billion will be spent on our strategic roads between now and 2020-21. That is the biggest upgrade to our strategic roads in a generation. Within the strategy, the Government announced that they intend to upgrade the remaining sections of the A303 between the M3 and the A358 to dual carriageway standard. We are also creating a link from the M5 at Taunton to the A303, as part of the long-term commitment to create a new expressway to the south-west, connecting the M3 through to the M5 at expressway quality.

We intend to start the process with three major improvements as part of the A303-A30-A358-corridor package of commitments. The £2 billion budget, which is for only those commitments—it is not the overall budget for the south-west—will help to deliver much-needed resilience for the region. Part of that work has to address the iconic and historically important site of Stonehenge. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) has raised that issue with me many times, with his customary tenacity and command of detail. We will build a tunnel at least 1.8 miles in length, to preserve the world heritage site at Stonehenge.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. There seems to be some ambiguity concerning the process at this time, given that Highways England is examining alternative routes. Will the Minister clarify the purpose of that evaluation?

It is always appropriate to consider options broadly to ensure that the scheme is absolutely the right one, but there is no doubt whatsoever here; we are committed to delivering a 1.8-mile tunnel at Stonehenge. Our objective is to be able to stand at the stones and not see cars. The tunnel will transform the experience of that important part of our national heritage, and at the same time remove an environmental problem and a traffic problem. We should not, however, confuse the development consent order process requirement to show that different options have been exhausted with reneging upon our commitment. That commitment is strong, and we are working on it closely with environmental and heritage groups. The scheme has strong support from the National Trust and English Heritage; I have met with them at the stones and discussed the issue with them.

On timing, there will be a formal consultation on the scheme early next year. It will go through the development consent order process—part of the planning process—in 2018. We would expect to start works on the scheme in early 2020. We have to get that right, but I hope that that timing provides some comfort.

I listen to the Minister’s remarks with great interest. Does he agree that it would not be helpful if we sorted out the extraordinarily difficult conundrum of Stonehenge, which will be incredibly expensive, and yet did not deal with low-hanging fruit? I am thinking particularly of the village of Chicklade, since the problem will simply be shunted further west.

That is a valuable point. The scheme is not the only one we are considering for the area. When we consider schemes, they are in a network, and if one part of the network is changed there are consequential implications that we have to work through. I am conscious of time, so I need to press on rapidly.

We will dual the A303 from Sparkford to Ilchester and the A358 from Taunton to Southfields to deliver quicker, safer and more reliable journeys. Concerning the timing, we will begin the public consultation on the Sparkford to Ilchester section and on the A358 enhancements later this year, with Highways England set to make a recommendation to the Government in 2017.

I very much welcome what has been said about upgrading the A303 all the way through to the A358, but one of the purposes of the debate was to talk about from Ilminster to Honiton, which the Minister seems to have failed to mention—

Much as I enjoy my hon. Friend’s speeches, I say to him, “Give me a chance here.” I am conscious of the time.

On the scheme for the A303, we expect to get a development consent order in 2018 and to start works in early 2020. The importance of that scheme was mentioned to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), who highlighted its economic impact on her constituency.

Let us take the A303-A30 section between Southfield and Honiton, in which my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton is particularly interested. I was very grateful for the guided tour he gave me in the summertime. I recognise that large-scale improvements are overdue, but this is a sensitive area. Highways England is working with Devon County Council—they are meeting later this week as part of their regular dialogue. We have not forgotten the route, but the topography and the protected landscape surrounding it in the Blackdown hills is sensitive. I also acknowledge the safety record on that stretch of single carriageway. All the points that my hon. Friend made about it are true and the matter is being considered. It is not part of our first round of schemes, but it is not off the agenda; it is being worked up, with local input, and I hope that he will continue to have an input into that.

I must mention some other schemes that we are undertaking in the area. We are investing in dualling the last single-carriageway gap on the A30 into Cornwall. We will have an expressway-standard road running all the way from Exeter to Camborne. On timing, we will have a public consultation this year. I anticipate that Highways England will make a recommendation to the Government in about a year’s time, and that there will be a development consent order in 2018, with works starting in early 2020.

Those are, however, not the only schemes that we are developing in the area. We have the new junction of the M49, to provide access to the enterprise zone at Avonmouth, and we will start works on that in 2017. There are other enhancements along the M5, particularly with a view to unlocking development sites at Hinckley Point. A significant amount of work is taking place. We are addressing pinch points, such as the Air Balloon roundabout.

It is not as if we are just starting work; work is already under way. It was great to come down to Devon only last Monday to open the south Devon highway, which connects Newton Abbot and Torbay. That marvellous and significant project had a great response from local councils and communities. We are also, of course, working on the A30 Temple to Higher Carblake section. When I visited last summer—my goodness, that was a properly wet day; perhaps Cornwall has more than one of them.

I have about 30 seconds left, so perhaps my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not.

We are working with local partners throughout the schemes. The north Devon link road is an important project. The Government have provided £1.5 million to help develop the business case and we will continue to look at that. Members are right to champion that project. The north-south access from Dorset is clearly overdue. I have met with local enterprise partnerships and councils in the area and we have a further meeting planned to discuss the issue. We are already on the case, and Highways England, the Department for Transport and local authorities are working on it. We are not changing the road investment strategy’s content; our question now is about delivering it.

Road safety was mentioned. Road safety is at the heart of the road investment strategy and we published our road safety statement in December last year.

There might have been other points. I am not sure whether I have addressed all the points; if I have not, I will write to colleagues.