Wednesday 15 September 2021
[Caroline Nokes in the Chair]
Back British Farming Day
Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government and House of Commons Commission guidance. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room. I call Theo Clarke to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Back British Farming Day and the future of domestic agriculture.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for fruit, vegetables and horticulture, I am delighted to have secured this debate. I met my Staffordshire farmers last Friday, and having spoken to the National Farmers Union at the Staffordshire County Show last month, I am very conscious of the circumstances that farmers currently face while trying to feed our nation.
The debate could not be more timely. It should be clear from the sea of wheatsheaf pin badges, displayed on many colleagues’ lapels, that today is Back British Farming Day—a day to celebrate all that our farmers do to produce high-quality, nutritious and delicious food while also caring for our environment and maintaining our iconic British landscapes.
Fruit and vegetables are the staple of our diets, and we all know how important it is for our health and wellbeing to eat our five a day, so I read to my dismay that as a country we are only 16% self-sufficient in fruit and 54% self-sufficient in fresh vegetables. The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us all of the importance of good, sustainable, local food supply chains. My constituents in Stafford have definitely become more interested in buying products close to home. It goes without saying that there are always going to be some types of fruit and vegetables that we will not be able to grow in this country, simply because we do not have the right climate. Of course, we can all enjoy bananas and citrus fruits from other countries, but we should aim to produce much more of the fruit and vegetables that are good at growing here.
Last year, I sat on the Agriculture Bill Committee, where we scrutinised that very important legislation line by line. The Bill advocated the importance of food security, which is why I backed that landmark Government legislation.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for securing the debate. She talks about the Agriculture Bill. It is really important that, as we move to make sure that we sustainably produce food in an environmentally friendly way, we also produce enough food, really good-quality food, more vegetables, more meat and more milk. As we experience climate change—we are a country that has a climate that can produce food—we must make sure that we can produce enough food in future.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Agriculture Act works in tandem with the Environment Bill, and that that will help my local farmers in Hastings and Rye not only to thrive but to increase productivity and thereby food security in the UK?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. I was about to say that we are an island nation, so it is extremely important that we are self-sufficient as a country. That is why British fruit and vegetables are so important.
Let me take two examples, of apples and pears, which are two traditional fruit trees that have been found in our country for centuries. In domestic production, total apple demand accounts for only about 38% and the figure is 18% for pears. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs data shows that there has been a significant fall over the last 30 years, so I urge the Minister to work with farmers to reverse this declining trend.
On the other hand, strawberry production is a very positive story. Last Friday, I was lucky to visit Littywood Farm in Staffordshire, where they grow thousands of strawberries, raspberries and cherries every year. I was very interested to hear that they are using modern farming techniques to significantly increase their yield of soft fruit and that they have invested in state-of-the-art polytunnels to make the harvesting process more efficient. That means they have been able to extend the strawberry season from two months to seven months this year, so this is a fantastic, positive story that is being replicated across the country, and I note that since 2010, figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs show that domestic strawberry production has grown by almost 50%. In 2019, UK production reached a new record of 143,500 tonnes; Members will be pleased to know that that is about 350 million punnets of strawberries, so we will definitely have enough to feed the crowds at Wimbledon and our tennis matches next year, and more. This is a very good example of a model for fresh fruit produce items, which shows that it requires people and real investment.
I will now talk about some of the challenges that farming has faced. We are all aware of the role that weather and mother nature have in determining a crop’s success year on year. Does it rain at the right time? Is the sun shining when wheat is being harvested? Of course, this is very much out of our farmers’ hands, but so much of farming does fall within the Government’s remit, and I hope the Minister will agree that it is very important that decisions made in Westminster have a positive impact in our constituencies in the countryside. I would like to share a story that I heard last week from one of my Staffordshire strawberry growers, which is really quite devastating. They told me that 3,000 tonnes of strawberries were thrown away this year due to not having enough labour to pick the fruit. That equates to approximately £1 million of turnover loss by this farm in just one year. I know we all talk about statistics, but let us remind ourselves that this is fresh food that could have been eaten on British dinner tables this year, but is being thrown away and wasted. Those are not just destroyed strawberries: that represents lost jobs for fruit pickers, and lost income for our farmers.
I was vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for fruit and vegetable farmers for quite some time, and we had the then Farming Minister, who is now Secretary of State, come along to us some years ago. He was warned quite firmly by the fruit farmers there that this crisis was coming. Does the hon. Lady not agree that it should have been foreseen, and that steps should have been in place to make sure there was an adequate supply of agriculture workers so that we do not have food rotting in the fields?
The Government have taken steps to ensure there are seasonal workers, and if I make progress in my speech, I will come on to that topic shortly.
I was interested to read an industry-funded report last year that revealed that during the pandemic alone, labour costs have increased by 15%, which follows a 34% increase in wages over the past five years. I have heard from my farmers in Staffordshire that they are very concerned about the cost for growers: they have been told that they may have to pay for workers’ visas, travel, and covid tests in future. To put that in context, one of my local farmers told me that this could cost his business an extra £1,000 per seasonal worker, and on the basis that a farmer might employ 200 or 300 workers on their farm, that is hundreds of thousands of pounds of additional investment. A lot of my constituents will be asking, “Should fruit and vegetable farming remain? Is it economically viable?” That is why I urge the Minister to look into this issue.
It is very clear from the conversations I have had with local growers and businesses that it has been very difficult to recruit domestically. Very admirably, they worked hard to try to recruit domestic workers, but I was told that unfortunately, the manpower just is not there. I will give the Minister a particular example from my constituency, which I heard about at my meeting last week. One farm received 7,500 applications to be a seasonal worker. One hundred and fifty people were shortlisted, and 85 were offered jobs, of whom only 48 turned up. Thirty-two of those left after one week, 24 after two weeks and five after three weeks, so we can see that that farm put a huge amount of effort into recruiting workers, but the labour was simply not there.
I would like to make some progress in my speech, if that is okay, because I know that many colleagues are waiting to speak.
That story, I am afraid, was replicated for growers from across the country, including Dearnsdale Fruit in Staffordshire, which I heard from as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for fruit, vegetables and horticulture when we hosted a roundtable on seasonal workers earlier this year. Access to labour is absolutely critical for ensuring the sector has the labour it needs. When it comes to perishable crops, such as strawberries, it is right that we have the workers that are needed at that moment. I commend the Government on the seasonal workers pilot scheme, which they expanded last year to 30,000 visas. It was a lifeline for many businesses and I thank the Minister for the role she played in getting the scheme set up.
Many colleagues would agree with me that there is uncertainty about the scheme. We need to know what it will look like in the future, so that farms can plan ahead. I urge the Minister to work with her colleagues at the Home Office to come up with a solution.
I move on to the environmental schemes in Stafford. I am a member of the Conservative environment network and am very supportive of the Government’s environmental agenda, particularly ahead of COP26 in Glasgow this year. Flooding is an all-too-frequent phenomenon in my Stafford constituency. I welcome that the new legislation works to incentivise farms and landowners to implement measures that will improve our environment and reduce the incidence of floodwaters entering people’s homes.
Part of the Agriculture Act 2020 is the environmental land management scheme, which is currently going through various trials in Staffordshire. I was dismayed to hear last week that some of my local NFU members are considering dropping out of the scheme. My constituency is predominantly made up of small farms. The farmers have told me that they find the costs associated with being part of the scheme prohibitive.
At this point, having talked a lot about fruit and vegetables, I should also say I wholeheartedly support our dairy and red meat sector. From correspondence with constituents and talking to them at the Staffordshire county show in the summer, I appreciate that bovine TB remains a highly emotive topic. I urge the Minister to work with DEFRA to come up with a long-term solution that means the lives of many animals will be saved in years to come, and that ensures my farmers’ livestock will be protected.
Last week I heard some pretty distressing stories about mental health from my farmers—the mental health of those living in rural areas is a subject I feel very strongly about. As a new MP, I set up the Stafford mental health network and we hold regular mental health roundtables. I am very pleased that my farming community is represented on that by one of their NFU members.
My farmers are concerned about the devastating impact of High Speed 2 on their farms and our rural areas. I want to share one shocking story. I heard last week that two farmers have been so severely affected by dealing with HS2 that they have had their shotguns removed, for their own safety, due to a mental breakdown because of not receiving compensation. To be frank, my constituents have been treated with absolute contempt by HS2. No one asked for their farms and villages to be cut in half by the proposed line. They feel they are being treated like an inconvenience. They have had land taken away and have not yet even had payment for it. Others are stuck in protracted negotiations.
It is fair that constituents should be paid the market value for their land or business, and I do not think that is something they have yet received. If HS2 has lessons for any of us, it is that compensation and right of access laws must be tightened to ensure a level playing field. It is a very practical example of where more action is needed to back British farmers.
I want to talk about increasing the volume of British food in public sector food procurement, which is a major opportunity to showcase British food’s high standards and environmental credentials to everyone. I was very pleased to sponsor the Food Labelling (Environmental Sustainability) Bill promoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). It would have required food manufacturers to better label their products to indicate the environmental sustainability of their origins, which would help consumers make more informed choices about the sustainability of the products they buy.
Supermarkets play a vital role in our local food supply chain and they have a very important role in ensuring consumers have the ability to make informed choices about the food they purchase. I have a policy idea to suggest to the Minister. All supermarkets should have what I am calling “an aisle for the British Isles”. Britain has some of the highest food standards in the world. I think the public want to buy food from British farmers. A recent survey said that 80% of respondents supported the increased procurement of British food in schools, hospitals and Government agencies. I totally agree.
The main reason people shop in supermarkets is for convenience. Would it not be a great idea for the consumer to know there was a whole aisle where everything in it was from the British Isles? There could be a local section or shelf for products from Staffordshire. I hope colleagues will support my idea of an aisle for the British Isles and that the Minister will commit to backing this concept, which would improve the situation for British farmers.
To conclude, although today is Back British Farming Day, I believe it is essential to back British farmers 365 days a year. To do that we need to deliver policies, not just in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but across Government, that work for our farmers who go out in all weathers every single day to ensure that we are fed as a nation. Let us not take that for granted.
It will not surprise Members to hear that I am going to call the Front-Bench spokesmen from 10.28 am. Many of you are standing and I do not wish to impose a formal time limit, but I may have to, unless you are all capable of doing the maths for yourselves. I will start with Kerry McCarthy.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) on securing the debate. I am sure we will all—including the Minister—profess to be united in our support for British farming, but over recent years not everyone has been prepared to back up their words with action, which is what British farmers need right now.
We have spent a long time in this place discussing the future of farming, through the passage of the Agriculture, Trade and Environment Bills. It was clear what the farming sector needed, which was for British standards to be protected, but the Government and many of their Back Benchers consistently voted down amendments to achieve that. That means that farmers have been badly let down by the Government. We see that now with the Government stalling over the statutory Trade and Agriculture Commission and, in the trade negotiations with Australia, brazenly allowing unfettered access to Australian imports produced to unacceptably low standards, and trading away references to limiting global warming to 1.5°, just to get the deal over the line.
That is not the only way in which the Government are failing British farmers. We also see empty shelves in our supermarkets and food left to rot in our fields because of a lack of forward planning. We have a shortfall of 90,000 lorry drivers, as well as a critical shortage of agriculture workers, which we have just heard about. One producer in Scotland this week reportedly had to waste 3.5 million heads of broccoli and 1.9 million heads of cauliflower due to supply chain disruption. That is not just a scandal when farmers are struggling to earn a living and families are struggling to put food on the table. They will struggle even more if the £20 cut to universal credit and the rise in national insurance go ahead. It is also contributing to our environmental failure, given that 8% of global emissions are attributable to food waste.
Backing British farming should mean the Government pulling out all the stops to fix the supply chain shortage, rather than what I see as a shadow Transport Minister, which is Ministers across Departments burying their heads in the sand and just hoping it will sort itself out. On a more positive note, backing British farming also means supporting a sustainable agriculture mode fit for the future. It means embracing agroecological practices that ensure farming and nature benefit each other. It means pursuing rewilding, protecting biodiversity, promoting agroforestry, reducing reliance on pesticides and farming less intensively to protect topsoil. The Agriculture Act 2020, with its “public money for public goods” approach, goes some way towards promoting those practices. That is a welcome step in the right direction, but there is more to do on that front, to make those practices the norm, rather than the exception.
We cannot ignore the contribution of industrial animal agriculture to many of the issues we are facing, from the routine overuse of antibiotics and intensive systems to the destruction of the rain forest for cattle ranching and producing livestock feed. It was reported this week that in the Netherlands they are considering plans to force farmers to cut livestock numbers, due to the sheer scale of ammonia pollution. I am glad the NFU has thrown its weight behind the ambition for net zero but, if net zero is to become a reality and we are to have a genuinely sustainable food and farming system, all these issues must be addressed.
I am proud to be a Member of this House who backs British farmers through my words and my actions. I have consistently supported better scrutiny for trade agreements, pushed Ministers to embrace more sustainable models for agriculture, and called for action on the growing crisis in our supply chains. With both COP26 and the Christmas rush approaching, I hope that all Government Members, not just the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), will join me in pushing the Government to act.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and to follow the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who I know has much interest in this area. I should first like to declare that I am a farmer’s son in my home constituency of West Dorset. When we talk about hands on, I mean hands on in terms of calving cows the night before the general election, and I would like to think that I can offer some insights to the debate and to the House.
It is increasingly clear to me that we, in this House, need to step up to the plate, because our farmers, I am afraid, are under attack from all sides, whether it is the environmental lobby, those who believe in a vegan agenda or others. It gives me considerable cause for concern when it comes to farmers’ mental health, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) mentioned in her opening speech. Whether it is environmental campaigners or not, we need to think about the supply chain, and about our supermarkets, because the thing that really concerns me is that our supermarkets are in a very dominant position. I do not share my hon. Friend’s view. I believe that they abuse that position with our farmers, and I think it is time we called them out for it.
The Groceries Code Adjudicator is, in my opinion, a complete waste of time. It does not do what it should do. Why is it that supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s can, on the back of a milk contract, threaten a farmer that if they do not provide or sell their cows to that supermarket they will tear up that milk contract? That is fundamentally unacceptable, and every one of us in this House should stand up and call it out for what it is. I encourage my hon. Friends and Opposition Members to support me in doing so.
We also need to bear in mind some of the things that have happened over the past year when it comes to animal welfare. No one in this House feels more strongly about animal welfare than I do. I appreciate the support, earlier this year and last year, from all Members of this House for my private Member’s Bill, now the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021; however, we need to put the record straight on a few examples. Previously in debates in this House we, and I am afraid the Opposition particularly, have given the impression that animal welfare is substandard in this country, and that the Government have somehow given in on animal welfare standards. I remind the House that the Government have been very clear on our import standards, and I continually seek reassurances from Ministers that they will not be changed. For the record, that means that hormone-injected beef and chlorinated chicken will not be permitted in this country. I want to be crystal clear on that.
We should also call out those whom some of my farmers refer to as “environmental do-gooders”. By that I specifically mean those people who genuinely believe that it is better for the environment to eat an avocado that has been flown from 5,000 miles away to the breakfast table rather than some meat or produce that has come from around the corner. That is the sort of attack that our farmers are under, and I believe that we must stand up and push back on those things much more.
We have mentioned, and I am sure we will probably mention it a little more, the supply chain, which has been progressively under pressure over the past six months. We have seen the “best before” date of milk in the supermarket getting closer and closer to the day we buy it. Some people say that is a problem. I believe that it is the biggest and best opportunity that our farmers have had for a very long time, because it is putting pressure on a very centralised and commercialised supply chain that provides the supermarkets with considerable profit. Our farmers, including dairies in my constituency such as Hollis Mead, now sell their milk almost literally on the doorstep. They provide small shops with their milk, which is cheaper than if bought from the supermarket.
I am conscious of the time, Ms Nokes. I thank you once again, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford on securing the debate. I would like to place on the record my continuing support for our farmers—not only in my constituency of West Dorset, but across the entire nation.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for setting the scene and for giving us all an opportunity to participate. I very much look forward to the Minister’s reply, and I want to put on the record my thanks to the Minister and her staff for all the responses that she gives us on the issues that we raise. We are especially pleased to see her in her place, and we look forward to having a working relationship in the future.
I am a keen supporter of Back British Farming. I always say that we in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are better together, which does not become less true the more times I say it. As a proud representative of a rural constituency, and with the joy of living on a farm, I always offer my support for British farming. I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers Union, and I give a personal commitment to the Back British Farming campaign. Every day before I go to work, I have two eggs—I go to work on an egg or, in this case, two eggs. I eat eggs in the morning, and I probably do so in the evening as well. If anybody is backing the egg industry in the United Kingdom, it is probably me.
Statistics from the Ulster Farmers Union indicate that there are over 25,000 farm businesses in Northern Ireland, producing a wide variety of raw materials. The union says:
“Farming in Northern Ireland is not just a job but it is a way of life and we are extremely proud of our family farming structure.”
The farming sector in Northern Ireland is worth £4.5 billion a year, supporting one in eight jobs in the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, we make exceptional-quality products, and I want to see them sold all over the world, as is the case. Like other hon. Members, however, I look to the Minister to reassure us, because it is important that our produce is not in any way disadvantaged by trade deals. Beef, sheep and dairy are the largest commodity sectors in Northern Ireland, but we are being impacted on—I am a Brexiteer, by the way—by the effects of Brexit and the insidious Northern Ireland protocol. Lord Frost is very clear about how we should go forward. We support him in that, and he supports us, but we need the Prime Minister and Government to support us as well.
According to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, the total income from farming in Northern Ireland fell some 23% between 2017 and 2018. The agriculture industry is at the fore for everyone and, in some way, benefits us all. Hon. Members have referred to farmers’ mental health. Like the hon. Member for Stafford, I have seen a real issue for farmers’ mental health in my constituency. I am not quite sure whether it is due to the pandemic—it is probably the pressures of life and environmental issues. For the record, the National Farmers Union and the Ulster Farmers Union, which are sister bodies, have committed themselves to net zero carbon by 2030. There is a commitment from farmers to work with the Government, and we need help with issues such as jobs for seasonal workers.
Increasing prices and delivery delays are not helping our families. My constituency of Strangford is a very strong farming community. In addition to the impacts of Brexit, the protocol gives absolutely no reassurance, so I agree with some of the comments made in previous speeches by the hon. Member for Stafford in the Chamber and elsewhere. We have seen sluggish improvements to our agriculture situation since Brexit, and there is no doubt that improvements are needed.
British farming goes above and beyond to create a countryside that works for everyone. UK farming contributes over £120 billion a year, which is an incredible amount of money. According to the statistics, UK food and drink exports exceeded £23 billion and went to 220 countries worldwide in 2019. We in Northern Ireland are doing our bit. We can do more, and we need our Government to support us.
In conclusion, I want to speak up for Willowbrook Foods, Mash Direct, Rich Sauces and Lakeland Dairies, all of which have created over 1,000 jobs in their factories. They work alongside our farmers, which, in turn, creates tens of thousands of jobs. When it comes to ensuring that we produce the goods, I believe that we must stand up for British farming and scrap the Northern Ireland protocol. It is always there and can never go away.
What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) on securing such an important debate on Back British Farming Day.
The Meon Valley constituency has a range of farms and agricultural businesses contributing to a thriving economy, from traditional family farms to vineyards. I pay tribute to them and their employees, who work so hard to bring high-quality produce to the market in the UK and around the world. I also pay tribute to all our farm shops, such as Westlands Farm Shop in Wickham, for selling British food and, as mentioned before, getting local food into local shops, so that local people can buy it. That is very important.
I keep in contact with producers throughout my constituency and I recently visited Hambledon Vineyard, one of the oldest commercial vineyards in the UK and one that is winning international awards for the quality of its English sparkling wine. The climate in the south downs is perfect for wine growing and, as climate change hits us, I am sure that English wines will dominate around the world, and certainly should dominate shops in the UK. If we are going to be self-sufficient in fruit, we should also be self-sufficient in wine.
I hope that, in time, my colleagues at the Treasury can be convinced to review the taxation of English sparkling wine, which attracts a higher duty rate than non-sparkling wine. We have a growing export trade, but it would help our vineyards to thrive if we allowed wine drinkers in the UK to enjoy it more with lower duty rates.
When I think of what our farming does for the environment, I am reminded of my visit to Manor Farm, when I walked the farm with Jamie Balfour and a number of other farmers from the area. We saw that it makes sense to incorporate rewilding alongside the management of woodland. Jamie manages extensive areas of woodland on his farm, and although we want to promote tree planting through schemes like the National Forest, we must also remember how important farmers are for managing woods and the wildlife they are home to.
A few months ago I visited the Horam family on their farm near Droxford, where we discussed just how high-tech and forward-looking agriculture is now, aiming to save water, to recycle, including the plastics used on the farm, and to use satellites and drones to monitor the health and growth of crops. The investment that farmers make in machinery and technology is enormous.
We have so many farmers who take great pride in the stewardship of the environment, promoting natural and organic methods. I am pleased that our support, post-Brexit, focuses on environmental goals through the Agriculture Act 2020 and the Environment Bill. The future is looking bright, and I pay tribute to the National Farmers Union for all the work it is doing to keep us on the right track to make sure that happens.
I thank the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for securing the debate as we celebrate Back British Farming Day. I also put on record my thanks to the farming unions across the United Kingdom, especially our own Ulster Farmers Union for the work it has done in making this day such a success, showcasing the best of British farming and raising issues that are pertinent to the industry at this time.
I have the privilege of representing a constituency that has a large number of farming families and many agrifood processing facilities. Together, they work day and night to bring world-leading produce from farm to fork, safe and traceable, with the very best welfare and environmental standards. They also sustain thousands of jobs providing household incomes that, in many cases, have been established through generations of farming families.
It is this tradition and this economic lifeblood in our rural communities that must be supported for future growth. Yet, on this Back British Faming Day, these farmers and processors face the threat that arises from the pursuance of free trade deals that do not offer the protections needed or demanded by our farming community.
It has been a matter of deep concern to me, shared by many colleagues across the House, that in securing the agreement with Australia the Government showed no regard for protecting the world-leading standards we demand of our farmers. The same fear exists around negotiations with New Zealand. Rather than equivalence on food welfare and environmental standards being a prerequisite to agreement, no such protections for either producers or consumers are being sought or secured. That makes the Government claim to back British farming questionable.
Like many hon. Members here today, I have the utmost respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), who is a great champion of British farming. On 21 July in this place, he eloquently outlined five asks of the Government that would protect our standards and support our farmers, yet I see little evidence of any progress on those asks. That is a matter of deep regret and concern. We need the Government to step up and let their support for British farming be evidenced in actions, as their words—as we know in Northern Ireland—have counted for little.
The Northern Ireland protocol must be addressed in a way that restores our place within the United Kingdom’s internal market. No barriers should exist for potato producers who want to bring seed potatoes into Northern Ireland from Scotland. The hiatus on approvals for plant protection products threatens local growers. Those are just two examples of some of the ridiculous restrictions that our farmers and producers are facing in Northern Ireland because of the protocol. In that regard, the clock is ticking louder and louder and time is running out fast. The Government must act and the protocol must go.
Finally, our processors of these fantastic British farm products need labour to maximise output and to transport it. Yes, we need a long-term strategy, but in the short term we need urgent flexibility in terms of short-term visas to help alleviate the labour shortage.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) on securing this debate. If Jeremy Clarkson’s farm show on Amazon has proved anything, it is that farming is not an easy career choice. Even for those who present car shows, it is still incredibly difficult to turn a profit. That is the interesting point about the debate that we are having today—the difficulties that the farming community face, both now and in the future, and the opportunities that are being presented to us outside the European Union. I believe that there are significant opportunities for farmers outside the EU. Not least, as has already been referred to, is the point about public money for public good. The ELM—environmental land management—scheme has huge potential, but it has the potential to work only if it works in conjunction with farmers. Across the House, both here and now and in previous weeks, I have heard from many colleagues that the ELM scheme is already looking too difficult, that there is not enough information about it, that the schemes are too complicated to even apply for and that the variety of funding schemes are also too difficult, so if I may make a plea to my hon. Friend the Minister in the short time that I have, it would be to ensure that the co-operation with farmers is far greater than it currently is.
There have been interesting pinch points in the two years since I was elected as a Member of Parliament in which I think DEFRA has taken the wrong approach. I am thinking of the animal transportation consultation, the badger culling consultation and, now, the new rules for water. Those have all antagonised the farming community to a significant degree and they make farmers think that the Government are not trying to work with them. As the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), is here in the debate, let me say that I will be writing to him to ask whether his Committee could inquire further about the rules on water and the difficulties that they will pose for farmers across the country. If anyone would like to join me in writing that letter, please see me afterwards.
There are huge opportunities. I should declare my interest as a champion of regenerative agriculture in the Conservative Environment Network—and, indeed, my other half is someone who worked in that field. There are new opportunities to see how we can farm, so that this is not just preaching about do-goodery when it comes to climate change, but is about how we can lower people’s costs to produce more productive food. Whether that means no-till farming, regenerative agriculture or looking at how we grow non-monocultured crops, the opportunities are very much there.
A number of colleagues have referred to the point about trade. I serve on the International Trade Committee, and we do scrutinise the deals that are being signed. I think there needs to be more co-operation between the EFRA Committee and the trade Committee, so that when deals are struck, they can be reviewed together. I will be pushing for that and I hope that there can be more debates in the Chamber of the House of Commons. But as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) said, there are already pieces of legislation in place under the sanitary and phytosanitary standards that require a vote in Parliament for any changing of the standards. It is worth bearing that in mind.
We have a fantastic opportunity in this country, through our trade deals, to export our world-class produce to new markets. We should embrace that and see the opportunity it presents to embolden our farmers, not reduce them. Of course there should be caution, but let us make sure that we can also open those new markets.
Finally, there is a huge opportunity in our schools to talk about seasonal variety and how we farm on this land. We are doing ourselves an injustice when we fail to teach about farming in our schools.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) on securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to highlight our farms. What a fabulous showing we have on the Government side, particularly from south-west colleagues. It is great to see.
I will not repeat what others have said about how brilliant our farmers are and how well they are doing in very difficult circumstances. I just want to put on the record my thanks to all the farmers in Truro and Falmouth, many of whom I have met over the past year, and some of whom I met only a couple of weeks ago. I want to raise a couple of points, from the horse’s mouth, that came out of that discussion. I know that Committees are doing an awful lot of work on the trade deal, and I think we can do better on our communication to farmers; that is where we are falling down.
The farmers had particular concerns about beef carcase imbalance, and thought that any import of cheap food is wrong. They came at it at a very different angle from what I have heard today. They think it is morally wrong that we sell cheap meat to people. People on low incomes should not have to be forced to choose the cheap meet; everybody should have the best-quality meat at a reasonable price. That was the angle they were coming from. They were not trying to be protectionist.
The farmers said that labelling is key. I mentioned that we have lots of work going on on that, and they were very supportive. It is not fair that people get poor-quality or not enough information, so hopefully we can do more on that. From the horse’s mouth, those farmers believe that the Red Tractor system has failed and should be scrapped. They think that there are too many audits on farmers and that there should be one simple standard to follow to allow farmers to concentrate on what they do best.
The farmers also mentioned public procurement. They think there is no reason why we should not be doing that, now that we have left the EU. There are many major purchasers in public procurement—we have mentioned schools and hospitals—and we should absolutely be concentrating on British and sustainably produced produce. When feeding our children and our most vulnerable, why would we not want to give them the very best?
However, I want mostly to talk about daffodils—sorry, I got in first. This is a huge issue in Cornwall, and one that is racing towards the end of the clock. When can export our daffodils to the US and the middle east, and they are worth more than £100 million to our economy—hon. Members may come up with other figures. If the Treasury is listening, that is 20 million quid in VAT receipts. At the moment, we do not have anyone to pick them and we are facing a massive brick wall when it come to the Home Office. Please, Home Office, listen to our plea! I am afraid that when I speak to the Home Office about this—I will be quite strong and robust—it tells us that this is now a Department for Work and Pensions issue, and that British people can be recruited to do the job. They cannot. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford a story about picking strawberries. Growers can put a plea out to thousands of people, and in the end, after two weeks of work, they have got nobody left.
There are different solutions to that. I would like to see an extension of the seasonal agricultural work scheme. It is time limited. The season is from January to April—it is very exact. It cannot be mechanised, and British people will not and cannot do that work. We have to come up with a solution. That is a plea not to DEFRA, which I know is on side, but to the Home Office, to do something about it. Otherwise, we will see all those daffodils rotting in the fields.
In addition, there needs to be a focus on encouraging the young generation into farming, from abroad and also at home. One suggestion was made particularly for daffodil pickers, although it could also be used for a wider agricultural recruitment scheme. At the moment, there are 5.6 million people with European settled status, and people from outside the EU, who cannot come back to the United Kingdom to work, purely because of quarantine rules. Can the Government look at paying for that quarantine so that we can get agricultural workers back into the field?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) on securing this debate. I have a couple of comments on the debate so far, which I have really enjoyed. One is that it is strangely devoid of an understanding of farming as a business and the risks that come with it. From the content of the conversation we have had so far, it seems to fall to Government to insulate farming against every business risk. I suspect that that is not the intention of farmers, and that is something for us to ponder.
To my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), I would say that farming is a place of ambitious targets, perhaps nowhere more so than on the environment, but suggesting we might be self-sufficient in wine production is a target too far.
I pay tribute to Aberconwy’s farming community. The last 18 months have presented farmers throughout the UK with unprecedented challenges. It is impossible to forget the scenes from the early days of the pandemic, when supermarket shelves were empty and people feared they were going to run out of food. However, farmers rose to the challenge, food was produced, demand was met and our shelves were restocked. I would like to take the opportunity to thank our farmers for all they have done in those difficult times. Diolch yn fawr iawn i chi gyd.
Livestock farmers across Aberconwy, Wales and the UK have deservedly earned a reputation for producing the finest quality produce in the world. Our beautiful landscapes and mild climate in north Wales mean we have one of the most sustainable places to produce red meat, and I share the pride of the farming community and so many of my constituents that our sheep and livestock farmers operate to the highest animal health and welfare standards anywhere in the world.
However, as has been recognised this morning, farming has been criticised as a major contributor to climate change. These attacks are grossly unjustified, as British farming practices are not only sustainable, but play a key role in addressing the climate change challenge. British beef and lamb farming are among the most efficient and sustainable in the world due to their extensive grass-based systems. We know that agriculture accounts for just 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, but actively managed pastures and grasslands, such as in Dyffryn Conwy, are hugely effective carbon sinks, with several studies finding that grassland could be a more reliable carbon sink even than woodland. I remind those who love our landscapes and those summer staycationers who have been exploring Eryri, our national park of Snowdonia, that the spectacular scenery they are enjoying is the product of the hard work of our farmers. It is an industrial landscape, and our farmers are the custodians of it from Llanfairfechan to Ysbyty Ifan.
In conclusion, I have two asks of Government. First, as we approach COP26, I urge the Government to champion the contribution that farmers are making to our national effort to reach net zero by 2040. Secondly, I urge the Government to challenge robustly the myth that British livestock farming is a major contributor to climate change.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for securing this important debate. I rise to speak in this timely and necessary debate to demonstrate that I back British farming, which is something people across the UK have done with great enthusiasm during the pandemic as we all learned how precarious our food supply chain can be.
As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), it is time for the Home Office to take the opportunity to demonstrate its support for British farming. I say that because our farmers do not yet know if they will be given access to foreign workers through the seasonal agricultural workers scheme in just 14 weeks’ time. SAWS is not a new idea. It has been serving the food and farming sector for decades by giving access to foreign workers through visas, but it has been necessary to revive it due to the Government quite rightly bringing an end to free movement of EU nationals.
The Home Office must act quickly to help British farmers harvest their crops. This year, farmers from across my constituency have raised with me issues of staff shortages affecting the harvesting of potatoes and other crops. They are very concerned about the situation they will be in in a few weeks’ time. For many, the crop is already in the ground.
I certainly will. The hon. Gentleman has tempted me, but I thank him for giving way. It is not just about the crops in the fields; the pig-producing factories cannot get workers either, and those jobs are fairly skilled. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government have a duty to not only those who bring the crops in, but those who work in the factories and produce the food as well?
I welcome that intervention, but that is a slightly different issue because that work is—it is often 12-month work, and the resettlement status and various other things can help with that.
I talk unapologetically about the need in Cornwall, but we need people to be able to come and harvest the crops, which as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth mentioned includes daffodils. The Home Office can help farmers by agreeing to our demands to continue access to seasonable agricultural workers next year and by addressing the urgent need facing Cornish MPs, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth, the DEFRA Secretary—it might be awkward for him—and myself. The truth is that we will be driving to London next January, February and March staring at fields covered in beautiful yellow flowers. I appreciate the view, as will anyone who comes to Cornwall on holiday, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth said, £100 million-worth of daffodils are picked in Cornwall—we provide 86% and the UK provides 95% of the world’s daffodils—and to see those flowers sitting in the fields for us to enjoy is not fair on those in London and elsewhere who should also be enjoying them. It is also not fair on HMRC.
There is an urgent need to secure a workforce to harvest our daffodils. SAWS is limited, as we know, to edible crops. My ask, and that of my colleagues and Cornish daffodil growers, who produce almost 80% of the nation’s daffodils, is to simply extend the SAWS pilot to include daffodils. That would extend the visa to nine months, rather than six, to cover January to April and would include the harvesting of non-edible crops. If the Home Office is really concerned, it could just specify daffodils. We would be happy with that.
I have not heard any local dissent regarding the fact that citizens from overseas work in west Cornwall and on Scilly. If the Home Office is concerned about immigration numbers—I do not believe that this is not immigration, but seasonal agricultural work to meet a demand—the scheme to keep the 30,000 workers for nine months would suit its desire. This year we needed a further 1,000 daffodil pickers. The Home Office believes that a workforce is here in the UK, but my daffodil producers tested that. They increased pay, advertised widely and locally, and increased the hours available to work. Despite that, we lost 20% of our daffodils, and 274 million stems were left in the ground.
This is an urgent issue. I have spoken to the Prime Minister, the Chief Whip, DEFRA, a Home Office Minister and the Home Secretary about it. When I spoke to the Home Office Minister, he said that we need to demonstrate that the work is not poorly paid with poor accommodation. In fact, the producers increased the money to attract the pickers. The average hourly wage was £12.08. Some were earning £1,000 a week, and each year the accommodation is inspected by the migrant workers officer. Daffodil growers have rightly improved pay and conditions because they know they will lose their pickers to perhaps much more enjoyable work such as—dare I say it?—strawberry picking. It is amazing that strawberries in the sunshine are being left in the ground when it is so much easier to pick a strawberry than a daffodil.
I will leave it there, but this is a devastatingly important issue. I will finish with a quote from Churchill for the Home Office to hear. At the height of the second world war when ornamentals were not allowed to be picked, he said:
“These people must be enabled to grow their flowers and send them to London— they cheer us up…in these dark days”.
Let us do what we can to protect an industry that does so much to cheer up the nation.
It is very good of you to call me at all, Ms Nokes, as I was late for the beginning of the debate, for which I apologise. I beg your forgiveness and also that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke). I am sorry to have missed the first minute or two of her brilliant speech. I served with her on the Agriculture Bill Committee and I remember the incredibly erudite and impressive to and fro between the Front Benchers arguing over what happens when sows roll over and that sort of thing—I learnt a huge amount. During the passage of the Bill I was pleased that food production was inserted as a public good. The principle that the Bill now represents standing up for British farmers and ensuring that the industry can thrive in this new world is to be greatly welcomed.
Let me say a word on our trade policy. It is absolutely right that we pursue a policy of free trade in agriculture. It is the right thing for the world and for our country. Obviously, we have been through this over the centuries. The principle of consumer price and choice and the competition that trade induces, including over quality, are absolutely vital and not to be overlooked. The policy is also an enormous export opportunity. Wiltshire is home not only to farmers who produce glorious food for domestic consumption and export, but to some of the most innovative technology, new engineering techniques and methods of protein manufacturing. Those have enormous potential for our county and our country, in the context of the huge challenge of feeding the world, including the urbanised population of China. I hope that our country can play a role in that through our trade policy. That policy is also of great benefit to the world’s producers. One of the great advantages of being outside the common agricultural policy is that we can genuinely welcome the products of the world, as we are no longer in a protective racket that excluded African producers, in particular.
I am also concerned—I know that the Minister shares this aspiration—that our agricultural policy ensures that we eat more of our own food in this country and that we consume more domestic produce. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) about the quality of food eaten by our population. I worry about creating a two-tier system, where wealthy people eat glorious British produce while poorer people are expected to eat lower quality food produced abroad, possibly to lower standards. I know that the Minister shares that concern.
It is good and right that we support production through the new subsidy system. In general, we do not do that—and we should not—but farmers have a role in maintaining this country’s greatest natural asset: our land and countryside. Roger Scruton, who should be quoted as often as possible, said that the beauty of the English countryside is testament to centuries of inherited property rights. The principle of supporting those landowners and tenants is important. Secondly, there is the importance of resilience: we are seeing the rise of economic nationalism around the world, and we have learned in the last year and a half the incredible importance of a secure supply of our essentials, including food. I am pleased that the Government are putting food security at the heart of their strategy and that we are developing a national food security strategy.
My thanks to all Members and to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford for securing this debate. My thanks to Wiltshire farmers and particularly to my friend Peter Lemon, who started the Southern Streams project in the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire, which has secured the protection of the streams in my area. Farmers do an amazing amount of work, not only in securing our food but in maintaining our environment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) for securing this debate.
I begin by saying a huge thank you to farmers in my constituency. They put in tireless hours and are often very underpaid. Farmers are essential workers; they put food on our tables throughout the pandemic—they did not let us down. Yet, they are consistently let down by the UK Government.
The Government should heed the title of this debate and back British farming—not just with rhetoric, but with action. Farming is an essential sector for Scotland: it employs around 67,000 people and supports thousands more in jobs across urban and rural economies, generating a gross output of £3.3 billion annually, directly resulting in a contribution of £1.3 billion to the Scottish economy. However, it has been dealt a hard blow by Brexit.
Just before Christmas, during the chaos preceding the trade and co-operation agreement, a variety of constituents wrote to me; they were blackface sheep farmers and stood to lose thousands of pounds. In Scotland alone, the blackface sheep industry stood to lose £750,000 of sheep if lambs could not be moved to Northern Ireland. That had never posed a problem before Brexit. The then Cabinet Secretary in Scotland, Fergus Ewing, wrote to the DEFRA Secretary of State to raise the issue urgently. It took over three weeks to receive a reply.
Meanwhile, farmers, including some of my constituents, had no idea what they would do in the run-up to Christmas and how much money they stood to lose. That is just one example of how farmers were let down by Brexit, although there are many more. It is hard to see what the advantages of Brexit were for farmers.
It is good to have the support of the Scottish National party to oppose the Northern Ireland protocol, because that is what the issue is. Farmers in Scotland and Northern Ireland are suffering and something needs to be done. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
Unlike the majority party in Northern Ireland, we opposed Brexit. We thought it was going to be a disaster, and we opposed the Brexit agreement. I know the Democratic Unionist party has suffered considerably electorally since the results of their folly in supporting Brexit have been gauged by the Northern Irish electorate.
The UK-Australia trade agreement, when it was signed, was yet another blow for UK farmers. The UK Government, in their desperation to sign anything that might make Brexit appear less of an ongoing calamity for the economy, agreed to a terrible deal with Australia. I guarantee that champagne corks were being popped in Canberra the night that deal was signed. According to NFU Scotland, it was
“a slow journey to the Australians getting unfettered access to UK markets and with no guarantees that the promises of other safeguards will address the fact that very different production systems are permitted in Australia compared to here in the UK.”
I will make some progress, if I may. The deal as a whole will deliver one 200th of the benefits of the EU over the next 15 years, and is worth only 0.01% of GDP. That causes two problems for farming. The first is the fact that Australian livestock farms will mean that farmers in the UK who operate on a much smaller scale will not be able to compete on price. On the price issue, in the UK we pride ourselves on high animal welfare standards. The same cannot be said of the Australians. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals chief executive Chris Sherwood warned that it is legal in Australia to mutilate the rear end of sheep, while chicken can be washed with chlorine and almost half of cattle are given growth hormones. That is a shocking record of animal welfare.
May I just respectfully point out to the hon. Gentleman that what I said earlier still stands? The import standards for this country do not permit that. It is a matter of law, and if it ever changed there would be a vote taken in Parliament. Hormone-injected beef is not permitted to be imported into this country, and the same is to be said for chlorine-washed chicken.
Let us see. Many of the assurances we were given on Brexit have proved very different in reality. Climate pledges were secretly dropped from the deal. Paris agreement temperature goals never made it into the final deal after pressure from the Australian Government. For 0.01% of GDP and to get a post-Brexit win, global Britain ditched essential climate change goals in the lead-up to the most important international climate summit in years.
I will pursue my point. I have already taken two interventions and there is a limit to how many I can take in a speech. The impact of global warming on temperature and weather will be felt most acutely by those in the farming community. The Australian deal sets a worrying precedent for trade deals going forward. If any future deal with the United States throws farmers under the bus as much as the Australia one did, many more farmers will struggle.
I cannot finish without mentioning the litany of complaints from the hon. Member for Stafford about Brexit labour shortages and food rotting in our constituency fields. The hon. Lady sounded shocked, as indeed she should, at the appalling waste. But it is hardly a surprise. Once upon a time, right-wing tabloids and Brexiteer MPs assured us that, post-Brexit, townies would be jumping on trains to the countryside, filled with “Pick for Britain” zeal, and would return ruddy-faced from their exertions in the fields. It was never going to happen. It has not happened; Brexit has led to chronic labour shortages, and we on this side of the House clearly warned that that would happen. So please, let us not affect surprise at the clearly foreseeable consequences of Brexit.
We in Scotland have a choice; farmers, and the rest of us, have the option of re-joining the European Union as part of an independent Scotland and to have free movement once again. Farmers play such an important role in society, and I am proud to back them. I wish the UK Government would do the same.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the chair, Ms Nokes. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) on securing the debate and for a passionate and honest account. It will probably not be any help to her for me to say that it was a devasting critique of the Government’s position—a critique we heard from a number of others. I am grateful for the hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) for his kind words, and for unveiling the truth of the plan, which is the two-tier system that we all worry about.
It is a pleasure to speak on Back British Farming Day. We all thank the NFU for organising across the country, and in Westminster, and for putting the issues that farmers face at the top of the political agenda. As many Members have already said, today is an opportunity to celebrate all the incredible work done by farmers, farm workers and all those in the processing sectors who produce the best quality food in the world. We thank the key workers for all the work they did, and continue to do, to keep everyone fed during covid; the whole sector can be proud that fresh and affordable food continues to reach people across the country. Previous generations would have marvelled at that, and it should never be taken for granted.
This is why we are so committed to standing behind our farmers and food producers, with Labour’s campaign to buy, make and sell more across the UK. Today, as part of the plan, we are calling for public bodies to buy more British food all year round. Under a Labour Government, public bodies will be tasked with giving more contracts to British firms, and we will legislate to require them to report on how much they are buying from domestic sources with the taxpayer’s money. This is a genuinely ambitious plan to make sure the public sector helps support our British farmers. Frankly, it goes much further towards providing sufficient support to our food producers than the efforts of the current Government, who wheel out hollow gimmicks, such as the Cabinet Office switching from Dutch to English bacon for a couple of weeks during British Food Fortnight. We can do so much better than that. Our plan will assist the economy to recover from the pandemic, and help our British farmers and food producers, who need and deserve our support both now and in the years ahead.
Labour is committed to supporting food producers, whereas the actions of the current Government mean that, on Back British Farming Day, farmers are actually facing a perfect storm of uncertainty, dodgy trade deals, imminent cuts to support and, as we have heard, crippling labour shortages. It is not backing British farming to cut trade deals that undercut farmer’s livelihoods by leaving them vulnerable to overseas agricultural imports produced to lower standards—as was so well explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy).
No, I will not give way because I want to give the Minister plenty of time to answer these difficult questions.
We have heard a number of Conservative Members attempt to big up the Government’s shaky position on trade. I think that in their heart of hearts they know that no one trusts the Prime Minister on this. They know full well that the Australian trade deal has sold out British farming, just as it sold out the climate talks, and just as any future trade deals they make are likely to.
No, I am not going to. When the outlines of a possible deal were announced, it was Labour who stood firm with farmers and demanded that the Government did not compromise on our high environmental, animal welfare and food standards. That is what backing British farming really looks like.
Sold out on trade deals, and also sold out on basic support; it is not backing British farming to slash farm support and pretend that environmental payments will somehow fill the gap. This is just as we predicted in our lengthy debates on the Agriculture Bill, as some Members have already mentioned. With the clock ticking, the new payments are still in the process of being designed, tested and piloted, way behind schedule. We predicted that it would be hard—none of this stuff is easy.
The Minister and I have discussed this on many occasions, and she challenged me to go and see for myself. So, I did. I went on a summer tour to Yorkshire, to Northumbria, to Exmoor; I met those who were doing the trials, and I found brilliant, inspiring and lovely people working really hard. The lessons were clear; it is complicated. It is a good thing to do—I support ELM and the principle of rewarding farmers for environmental improvements—but these schemes are too complicated and inflexible.
The sustainable farming incentive was a panicky fix that might plug some of the gap for some, but in so doing, I was told on the ground, it also risks undermining ELM in some cases. The life support that has kept Britain farming for many decades is now on a timed exit. It will expire, and I feel it will take a good many British farmers with it. That is what I heard, not just from those pilots but from the other areas I visited—from farmers in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and the midlands at the Great Yorkshire Show.
It is not just me saying this; it is farmers saying it. An excellent report published today by the National Audit Office shows that DEFRA has lost the trust of the farming industry, citing the low take-up of the new schemes. I exhort Members to look at an excellent paper produced by DEFRA last week, the “Farmer Opinion Tracker”. The very first figure, for the number who
“understand Defra’s vision for farming”,
shows that it was just 10% in 2019. Well, guess what? After two years of Government effort, it is now 5%. If it was not so serious, it would be funny. There is more in that report: 40% of farmers are
“not at all confident that their relationship with Defra and Defra agencies will develop positively in the future.”
So, there is not a lot of confidence.
These cuts in support will have profound consequences for rural areas. We calculate that rural England stands to lose more than £255 million this year as a result of the cut, putting as many as 9,500 jobs at risk, and that is in just one year, with a 5% cut. By 2024, it will be 50%. It is huge: not backing British farming—slashing British farming.
Then, to complete the hat trick, there are the labour shortages. We have heard a lot about that. It is not backing British farming to take out the pool of workers who not just farming, but the whole food system has depended on for years without a proper plan to achieve that transition. It is not just me saying that; listen to every voice across every sector. We know the problems, which are well documented: people not being able to get to Nando’s; the milkshakes at McDonald’s. We have heard about the crop pickers and the meat factory workers, as well as the lorry drivers, and about the huge pressure on vets.
I have to say, I am astonished that I have not heard anything from the Government Benches about what is happening on pig farms and poultry farms. It is Labour, it seems to me, now speaking for them, because the birds and pigs are packed up on—
There will be many more here after the next election from rural areas, and we will be supporting those people, because those birds and pigs on those farms are packed up, at risk of being destroyed if they cannot be kept in good welfare conditions.
The British Poultry Council warns that the labour crisis will lead to less British food being produced. The National Pig Association reckons that there are backlogs resulting in 85,000 extra pigs on farms across the UK, increasing by 15,000 a week. I spoke yesterday to the renowned Yorkshire pig farmer Richard Lister, who told me that people are on the brink of destroying animals on farms. People are understandably very distressed—to pick up the mental health issues raised by the hon. Member for Stafford. He says that this is one of the worst times he has ever known and he fears, as do many, that what we are actually doing is exporting our pig industry. It is really, really serious.
There is much more to be said, but time is short, so let me finish with some direct questions to the Minister, which I am sure she can answer. First question: where on earth is the trade and agriculture commission? It was used as bait to get the Bill through. Where is it? On food security, when will we get the first assessment, as discussed when we took the Agriculture Act 2020 through? It is due soon, surely. It was promised; when will it be with us?
Is someone from Government actually going to respond to Henry Dimbleby’s review? It was a huge piece of work, taking two years. It was called “The Plan”, in marked juxtaposition to lack of a plan from DEFRA. What is DEFRA’s plan? Will the Minister perhaps explain to us why the Prime Minister could not find time to talk to Henry Dimbleby? That was a really hard-worked report, with a range of people involved in presenting it, including the president of the National Farmers Union, Minette Batters. It tackles the key issues of the time, environmental degradation and the problems in our food system with obesity. Is it really of so little significance that the Prime Minister did not have time to talk to Henry Dimbleby?
In conclusion, given this catalogue of failure, it sticks in the craw when we see Government Members supporting the wheatsheaf, when British farming faces so many problems as a direct consequence of their own Government’s actions. It is not everybody: I know that many on the Government Benches have felt unease. Some were brave enough to stand up for farmers over the trade issues, but frankly it needed many more. The contrast is stark. Labour backs British farming, today and every day of the year. Unlike DEFRA, the Department that forgot rural affairs, we are committed to ensuring that rural issues are properly addressed, and there will be much more from us on that over the coming weeks. We back British farming, and we wear the wheatsheaf with pride.
On Back British Farming Day, it is important that we thank all farmers for the delicious and nutritious food their businesses provide every day. On this side of the House, we will always back British farming.
I would like to start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Theo Clarke) and congratulating her on becoming co-chair of the excellent all-party group on fruit, vegetable and horticulture. She has briefed me on the recent meeting she had with her local NFU. I know she enjoyed her local county show, and she is already encouraging me to go to the English Winter Fair in her constituency. I loved my hon. Friend’s idea of aisles for the British isles, and we will certainly continue to work closely with supermarkets, as we always do, to ensure that buying local and buying sustainable become the watchwords of the future.
Other hon. Members who were unable to speak today include yourself, Ms Nokes, who spoke to me this morning about Tom Allen, a pig farmer in your constituency. I would not want anybody to be under any illusions that Members on my side of the House do not regularly raise difficulties on behalf of their pig and poultry farmers. I will come on to labour very shortly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones) is not only an excellent Parliamentary Private Secretary, but also a stalwart champion of farming. I was pleased to visit farmers in her constituency with her earlier this year, including a pig producer.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) was concerned about intensive animal farming; she has spoken about this subject often.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) was concerned about fairness in the supply chain. We have, as my hon. Friend knows, done a great deal of work on the dairy supply chain, but possibly the time has come to begin thinking about fairness in the pork supply chain.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) goes to work on two eggs, and long may that continue. I would like to reassure him and the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) that I met the Ulster Farmers’ Union at breakfast today, and we talked about labour.
My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) spoke passionately about English sparkling wine and woodland management and gave us a great tour of the farms and farm shops in her constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) has been watching Jeremy Clarkson, which does not surprise me at all. I would love to fill him in on the current position with the farming rules for water because some progress has been made in that difficult area of muck-spreading, something that Jeremy Clarkson writes very well about in The Sun today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory) and my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas), my south-west colleagues, talked extremely passionately about difficulties with daffodils. I can assure them that the Secretary of State is very well seized of this issue indeed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) was understandably focused on livestock production and spoke lyrically about how actively managed grassland can be—and often is—a carbon sink. He also spoke, very importantly, about how the look of our countryside is the result of many generations of careful management.
My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) covered both the corn laws and Roger Scruton with his paeon of praise for free trade and agriculture. He is rightly concerned about two-tier food, which is something we all need to talk about a great deal. It was good to hear about Peter Lemon and his Southern Streams project. That is absolutely the sort of project we will aim to encourage and promote with our future agricultural subsidy support.
Labour shortages are undoubtedly a great challenge in agriculture. They always have been. I grew up on a plum farm and our Secretary of State grew up on a strawberry farm. We had an interesting collection of people picking our plums when I was a child, including me. It has been made more difficult by the extraordinary disruption of the pandemic and, of course, changes in immigration law to which people have to adjust. It has to be said that the work is temporary and the work is hard, but it is definitely not low paid, which is an important message to get out.
We in DEFRA are working extremely hard to address this problem. We have extended the seasonal workers pilot. We have 30,000 visas for both EU and non-EU citizens this year. We will work across Government to see if that can be extended again, as it has in previous years—this is not new. We also have people with pre-settled and settled status, many of whom sadly went home for the pandemic and have not come back. We are leading a review into automation, which will conclude in the next couple of months. The ultimate aim must be to reduce our complete reliance on migrant labour, if we are to have a sustainable labour force. That is a cross-Government piece of work that has to be supported by the Department for Work and Pensions, going into the future, and we are working hard on that. I do not shy away from how difficult that challenge is, nor would I pretend it is entirely new.
On global competition and trade—
I will not; I have a lot to get through, I am afraid. It is important that we do not view our trade policy as a race to the bottom. We have extremely high standards in this country, not least on animal welfare, which I for one am determined to promote. I have rehearsed many times before—and will not go into now—the various tools in our toolbox for protecting standards. I draw attention to one new piece of work, which is our consultation on labelling. The more we can encourage people to be aware of the food that they eat, the better. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth touched on that with her remarks on insurance schemes.
I am pleased to announce that we are increasing our range of agrifood counsellors to help break into new export markets. We have two at the moment, in China and the UAE. They work with a large team of people in the embassies who promote food and drink. They are experts who work in a granular and technical way to break open new markets and help our traders to export abroad. The NFU has called for that for some time and I am pleased we have got that through and that it will help our traders.
Regarding Henry Dimbleby, of course we will respond as a Government. Nothing has changed; I have always said it will be a six-month process and we are working hard; I work on it every day. We are aiming for the end of the year, as we always have been. Food security was always promised in December, and the report will come in December, as it has to. Nothing has changed on that.
On future farming, this is a seven-year transition. It is challenging. We are transforming the way that those who farm are supported in this country. That is a major benefit of Brexit. I am off to the G20 after this debate to tell them what we are doing on sustainable agriculture. They are very excited and interested in the progress we have made. These are the biggest changes to the sector in more than 50 years. We will no longer pay people for the size of their farm. We will pay them to promote environmental and health and welfare outcomes.
The schemes are being rolled out, as we know. Yes, it is difficult; yes, it is challenging; yes, there have been calls for more information. Now there are calls that there has been too much information and it is all too complicated. No, we will not get it all right at once. This is iterative; we are working with thousands of farmers to pilot and test. Nevertheless, I am sure that the vision is there. At the end of a five to seven-year period, British agriculture will be in a much stronger place, to argue, if it needs to, for Government help on exports and for support to promote environmental outcomes. I am determined to leave it in a strong shape.
I will conclude, as I want to leave my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford a few minutes. We are in a significant period of change for British farmers. The first sustainable farming incentive agreements will start in November. We have an exciting story to tell. It is difficult but, if we get it right, the prize is enormous. We, as farmers, are always at the mercy of the weather. We can demand that the Government provide a decent system of support to back and encourage us. As we think today about the great work done by British farmers this year, showcased by Jeremy Clarkson, not so far from my farm, I hope we realise that British farmers are worth backing and supporting. We on this side of the Chamber will always ensure that that happens.
I welcome the Minister’s announcement today. It is fantastic to have such support from across the House, particularly from my Conservative colleagues, backing Back British Farming Day.
It is important that we have policies that mean farmers can keep farming, feeding us, caring for the environment, helping to prevent natural disasters, such as flooding, and maintaining the varied and beautiful landscapes in Staffordshire and across the whole UK. Listening to colleagues today, it is clear that there is recognition of the vital role that farmers play in providing us with high-quality, healthy and nutritious food. That is certainly a message I will take back to my constituency.
It is important that we never take our food or the people who get it to our tables for granted. Farmers and our rural communities face unique challenges that the Government need to recognise. The coronavirus pandemic has shown us the importance of food security for our island nation. The British public support backing British farmers and we need to implement schemes such as the aisle for the British Isles, as I suggested today.
I hope the debate will provide a catalyst for some positive progress, particularly on seasonal agricultural workers. I am committed to working with my Staffordshire farmers and Ministers to back British farming.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Back British Farming Day and the future of domestic agriculture.
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
Before we begin, may I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission? Please give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered opportunities for geothermal energy extraction.
I look forward to today’s debate, and it is encouraging to see so many colleagues in attendance. Tapping into the abundant energy stored in the heat beneath the Earth’s surface is not a new idea, but exploiting those vast resources has often been overlooked in favour of other forms of renewables that are more readily captured on top of the ground. We have come a long way since first using sources such as onshore or offshore wind, tidal and solar energy to decarbonise our electricity supplies, and Scotland now produces about 97.4% of its electricity consumption from renewables.
There is a still a long way to go on decarbonising heat, with heating and hot water making up around 40% of the UK’s energy consumption. The potential for geothermal energy to help plug the gap, providing an indigenous, low-carbon and green alternative for heating homes, is huge. The British Geological Survey’s report into unlocking geothermal potential estimates that resources in the UK
“are sufficient to deliver about 100 years of heat supply for the entire UK”
and to provide the equivalent of 85% of Scotland’s, or 9% of England’s, current electricity demands. Of course, being theoretically available is very different from being technically available, and how easily it can be exploited depends on the detailed nature of geology, the closeness of the population base and the sheer scale of projects, depths drilled and the method of extraction to be considered.
Geothermal energy ranges from shallow-depth ground source heat pumps that are already operating on a small scale to heat individual homes, up to deep geothermal extraction such as the United Downs geothermal power project, which is the deepest production well on UK soil, at 5,275 metres, and which extracts power from the naturally hot water in the granite rocks deep beneath Cornwall. Somewhere between those two scales, we find a happy medium: geothermal used for district heating networks for local homes and businesses. There is so much potential for development of these types of heating schemes, and at far more efficient cost, if we can take advantage of the maze of disused mines full of warm water that is below our feet.
For communities devastated by the pit closures, it would be a fantastic change of fortune to see the legacy of the industrial past being repurposed for a green energy future. I have a particularly keen interest in this option for my constituency of Midlothian, which has a long coalmining history and a vast labyrinth of old pits beneath the ground. We are from unique, as an estimated quarter of UK homes are situated on former coalfields. Repurposing the infrastructure to extract energy from the coalmines yet again, but this time in a sustainable way, is an tremendously exciting prospect.
Although we have the potential, widespread use of geothermal resources is still very limited in the UK. There are many challenges to overcome, including ownership, planning and regulatory frameworks, upfront costs and risks, and the identification of suitable sites. On the latter, I welcome the work by the Coal Authority and British Geological Survey to identify abandoned mines that are potential sources of heat for nearby homes, and to make such information available openly to developers, planners and researchers. Increasing the understanding and knowledge of geothermal at a local level has a long way to go, but it is going in the right direction.
Detailed research under way through the UK Geoenergy Observatories is producing open-access data to assist in developing geothermal from potential to commercial reality. The Glasgow Geoenergy Observatory, which officially opened in December 2020, is focused on mine water and produces what its science lead, Dr Alison Monaghan, described as
“an unprecedented look into the subsurface.”
That is vital to understanding the role that shallow mine-heat energy could have in decarbonising our energy supply, the risk involved in environmental management, and the regulation needed.
The ambitious scale of research facilities should help to kickstart technical innovations and to tackle some of the challenges of geothermal that have perhaps slowed progress in the past. We have been looking into geothermal for quite a while now, without making the most of its potential. Early feasibility studies included the 2004 Shawfair mine-water project in Midlothian, which looked at the potential for using mine water and heat pump technology to supply a new community heating scheme on the site of the former Monktonhall colliery. The report concluded that there was a potential for such a scheme, with mine water contributing up to 1,708 GWh of heat per annum. Frustratingly, progress stalled because of issues around ownership, although much of the work has helped projects in other countries around Europe—so it was not all for nothing.
The British Geological Survey’s report “Unlocking the potential of geothermal energy in the UK” looked at the progress of projects in European countries, such as France, the Netherlands and Germany, that have similar geothermal potential to the UK. It found that geothermal energy was
“contributing ever more significantly to the decarbonisation of the energy mix”,
generating jobs and helping to stimulate the economy. The report says:
“Experience in these countries has shown that the success of geothermal development is closely linked to their governments’ commitment to support this technology through policies, regulations, incentives and initiatives. Such success is linked specifically to 1) the availability of a long-term, stable regulatory framework and 2) the willingness of the state to share economic risks.”
The landscape is messy, and there are many measures that could be taken by the Government to help geothermal to progress more quickly from early stage to establishing a market. Perhaps it is unsurprising that, between 2000 and 2006, after the EU had concluded a major €20 million study into geothermal energy extraction from closed mines in both Midlothian and the Netherlands, the findings were only implemented on the continent, and Midlothian never saw the benefits. That highlights not only the value of the kind of cross-border research that has been stripped away by leaving the EU but also the important role that national Governments play in fostering the success of such schemes.
Among the steps that need to be taken are a reliable financial incentive for geothermal technology and clear, more streamlined regulations to underpin projects. It is fair to say that the Government’s commitment to renewable energy has been half-baked at best so far—remembering the former Prime Minister David Cameron’s flip-flop from “the greenest government ever” to getting rid of the “green crap”. I am sure that there is now an honest enthusiasm for geothermal, but there is ground to be made up, and that requires a commitment to drive things forwards. We need a clear geothermal roadmap, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s plan in her response.
On a positive note, while there is much to be done, I am pleased to see that we are taking steps in the right directions. Some aspects of the political landscape are, of course, the responsibility of the devolved Governments. While Scotland does not yet have large-scale geothermal projects, Scottish Government funding has supported a number of feasibility studies. The Scottish Government have been working closely with stakeholders to build on the experience of two small-scale geothermal developments in the central belt, which each ran for over a decade. They have also sought to clarify the regulatory framework for deep geothermal projects, producing guidance documentation in liaison with the relevant regulatory authorities. Heat networks will have a key role to play in supplying Scotland’s geothermal heat in the future, so I welcome the Heat Networks (Scotland) Act 2021, which became law earlier this year and will create the circumstances needed to unlock the full potential of the sector and support its growth.
Mine water is not the only overlooked energy resource that can fuel our green ambitions, but it can pose a danger if left ignored. In Midlothian, for example, there are serious concerns about mine-water discharge from the old colliery at Bilston Glen into the River Esk contaminating water, damaging natural habitats and increasing the risk of flooding. Temporary solutions, such as water treatment schemes, might look good in the short term, but they do not deliver anything for communities, and there is no benefit to those who would be impacted by such an outpouring of water. A long-term solution to keep the water levels under control is required, and would help generations to come. That is the kind of forward-looking outlook that the Government need to encourage and foster in the industry.
The green industrial revolution must not leave people behind but get people on board, and geothermal is one way we could do this. With the right support in place, it offers a fantastic opportunity to develop low-carbon heating systems, regenerate local economies and reawaken energy extraction in coal field communities sustainably. The development of mine water geothermal across Scotland alone could deliver economic growth equivalent to £303 million and about 9,800 jobs.
The timing of the debate is critical, as COP26 is just around the corner and the climate crisis is already upon us. I urge Governments of all nations to put aside their differences and work together to find practical solutions, not just warm words, to address it. Let us put meat on the bones of our ambitious geothermal technologies, and help them contribute much more significantly to our low-carbon energy mix. Let us get the policies right and make geothermal a critical part of the green revolution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. Thank you for being so kind in allowing me to speak early and leave early in order to deal with childcare, which I found out about before I came to the Chamber.
I commend the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for securing this critical debate. I want to use this opportunity to celebrate the fact that we have a united front here. Who would have thought that the Scottish nationalist party—I know they hate me calling them that—and the Conservative party could be united in the belief that geothermal is of huge potential? I do not want to have a colliery-off with the hon. Gentleman, but if we want any colliery, we have to look at Chatterley Whitfield colliery in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, which is the largest complete deep coalmine site in the whole of Europe and was the first colliery in the United Kingdom to produce 1 million tonnes of coal, not just once but twice. If you ever want to come to visit it for a heritage visit, Mr Robertson, let me know, and the Chatterley Whitfield Friends will certainly give you a tour.
Geothermal energy could be a key element of our future energy supply, but it could hold even greater importance, as the hon. Gentleman said earlier, in ex-coalmining areas, such as the one I am proud to serve in in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Those coalfield communities are often overflowing with geothermal energy potential, and I am pleased to say that the same is true not just in Stoke-on-Trent but in the whole of north Staffordshire.
I want to focus on one site in the constituency—Chatterley Whitfield colliery. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) will be talking about geothermal potential in her constituency. Stoke-on-Trent should absolutely be a test bed when it comes to this energy sector. Chatterley Whitfield colliery is currently a sleeping giant. It used to be a powerhouse for the coal industry, and it now has the potential to be at the forefront of the UK’s green industrial revolution. Discussions with the Coal Authority have revealed that the site has exciting geothermal potential, and infrastructure already exists on the site that could help with the development of a mine energy project, which could provide heat and energy for the local area.
Attached to the complete site is not just the colliery but a 10-hectare piece of land that was formerly brownfield but has become greenfield. If we get geothermal right, I do not see any reason why we could not build 300 or 400 houses on it that would be powered from the colliery that sits next door to it, giving people of Stoke-on-Trent the opportunity, and the Government the test bed they need, to show what geothermal can do in such an area.
The mine energy project would recover heat from below ground level, and with the help of a heat pump bring it to the surface. Based on early discussions with the Coal Authority, an initial pump is expected to deliver 1 MW of thermal output—enough to power 500 homes. That would build on the district heating network that Stoke-on-Trent City Council has been working on to bring low-maintenance, affordable heating to thousands of properties and businesses through a network of underground pipes that will harness the deep geothermal energy that lies more than 3 km beneath the surface of Stoke-on-Trent.
One of the main benefits of that source of heating is that it removes the need for traditional boilers, in line with the shift away from boilers, and has no risk of carbon monoxide. Chatterley Whitfield has an important role to play in our geothermal future, and Councillors Dave Evans, Carl Edwards and James Smith of Baddeley Green, Milton and Norton, Councillor Janine Bridges of Great Chell and Packmoor, and the Chatterley Whitfield Friends have been working to draw up a plan for the future of the site. Exciting discussions are under way about the site’s future, including how to preserve Chatterley Whitfield’s industrial heritage for education and tourism. If we harness the vast energy that lies beneath that silent colossus, and the vast potential of the site above ground, we can ensure it remains at the heart of Stoke-on-Trent’s story.
The Minister will have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) in Prime Minister’s questions today urging the Prime Minister to look at the idea of a long-term fixed tariff like we see in mainland Europe, which is unlocking millions of pounds of private capital. I want to support my hon. Friend in that, because ultimately if we do that, we give the protection that the private sector needs to heavily invest and unlock the potential. That means that we do not have to keep knocking on the Treasury’s door but can harness the ability of the private sector to do what it does best and find solutions to our problems.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for securing this important debate.
As we are now only 43 days away from the COP26 conference in Glasgow, this is the perfect opportunity to showcase some of the vital work that British companies are doing to pioneer green technologies, including the use of geothermal energy. In particular, let me tell the House about the incredible work that Titan Electricity, based in my constituency of Birkenhead, is doing with the support of the University of Liverpool and the Manufacturing Technology Centre. It has developed an artificially enhanced geothermal process that uses abandoned oil infrastructure to provide deep wells, in a process called thermogenesis. The oil in abandoned wells is converted into geothermal heat. These very hot fluids are then used to power a geo-engine, which has been designed by Titan and developed with the help of Lloyd’s Register, using a UK Energy Catalyst award.
The process is net zero, with no emissions, and the by-product is large volumes of cheap and clean hydrogen. While oil reservoirs on the UK’s continental shelf are commonly considered to have little future on the road to our 2050 net zero targets, the technology could have the potential to convert those fields into a net zero energy resource for generations to come. I urge the Minister to look seriously at the role that this technology could play in delivering green energy and highly skilled jobs, and in helping to meet the Government’s pledge to achieve 5 GW of hydrogen capacity by 2030. The large quantities of hydrogen created by this process can also be used to power the dismantling of legacy oil infrastructure, with as few emissions being released as possible.
Titan’s invention, made in the north-west, has immense possibilities to create green energy and reduce carbon emissions, not just here in the UK but across the world. Domestically, its manufacture would also create thousands of skilled jobs and apprenticeships in my town of Birkenhead and in the many left-behind communities like it that the Government have promised to level up.
Today I ask the Minister whether the Government will prove they are committed to making the UK a world leader in the innovation of green technology by helping to roll out the geo-engine and get it to market. Far too often, the Government’s record on green energy has failed to live up to their rhetoric. A commitment today to support this invention would provide an example for our presidency of COP26, by showing the world that the UK’s words are matched by our actions.
I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the debate.
It is a pleasure, Mr Robertson, to serve under your chairmanship and I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this important debate.
In relation to the technology around coalmines, I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), who could not be in Westminster Hall today, is very supportive of it and has been working with the Coal Authority as well to push that agenda.
I will also put on the record my thanks to the Minister for the time she has given to date to those of us who are interested in this issue. I have been very grateful for the interest that she has shown, because this really is a critical time for us to get things right in this country. We know that we have huge challenges when it comes to switching to renewable energy and, perhaps even more relevantly, switching to heating our homes in a greener way. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting this process right, but we will not deliver if we are not using all the tools in all the toolbox when it comes to going green, and I believe that geothermal is a vital tool in that toolbox, with huge potential in some parts of the UK to heat millions of homes and provide energy as well.
Crewe is potentially one of the best places in the country to tap geothermal heating power. Crewe is home to a geothermal basin, which could be harnessed by energy companies and used as a clean source of energy and heat, and a breakthrough locally would lead to hundreds of good new jobs and to investment. After years of reports and studies, without results, I want to achieve progress for my constituents in Crewe and Nantwich. As we have heard already, there are similar opportunities in other places, such as Devon and Cornwall, Worcestershire, large parts of the north-east, Wessex, Scotland and even Ireland as well. For the Government to deliver on their levelling-up agenda, they need to ensure that investment and jobs to support the transition are spread as far as possible around the country.
I recognise that there are potential pots of money available, focused on grants for various elements, such as the transition from oil or the transition to heating differently. However, the industry has a clear ask, which I think is a better approach. What it wants to see is a replication of the renewable heat incentive at £55 per megawatt of heat as a long-term tariff and, importantly, just for the first 30 sites, so that the Government have a clear idea about what their outlay is up front. In exchange for that, industry will take on the risk and put in the capital. If they drill and do not get what we are expecting, then they have taken the hit and not the taxpayer. That is fundamentally a more conservative approach to getting this done, rather than industry having to go cap in hand to Government to ask for money for each project or bit of kit. We unleash the capital in the private sector and let it make the decisions about where this approach will work.
Where that approach is taken in other parts of the world, it is making a difference, particularly in Europe. In February this year, Vulcan Energy raised $120 million for geothermal development in Germany, and we have seen other investments by the likes of Kerogen and BP in countries where the Government have stepped up and put in place a tariff that gives them some security of return on their investment.
If we consider two issues in the news this week, we can see the importance of the contribution from the geothermal sector. Despite a surge in renewables, at times we are still forced to pay for coal power at very high rates when weather conditions diminish what we get from solar and wind energy. Geothermal is reliable and not subject to weather conditions.
When it comes to heating our homes, the Government have had no choice but to take the route of paying for new gas boilers because, with our current spread of technologies, it is not realistic to switch to other ways to heat homes in the short term. Geothermal can allow huge progress to be made on heating homes in the short term and on projects that we could see on the ground in the next few years.
The Government might ask themselves, “Will all this happen anyway? Will the market deliver anyway?” That is a fair question, but the investments are happening right now in other parts of the world where support from Government is delivered. We are missing out on that because we are not stepping up and doing the same thing. There are already 450 plants across European countries, delivering for their economies and green agendas.
We also need to think about the economic shock from coronavirus, which was felt not just in the UK but globally. We have to ensure we are opening up as many economic opportunities as possible right now. The Government can use long-term funding and their access to finance to back investment in the longer term, while creating jobs and economic growth in the here and now, when we need them.
Other successful renewable industries in the UK started out with help from Government and got themselves on a journey to free market support. With the right approach, an entire industry can develop in this country. As we have heard, the industry is confident that, after developing 30 sites with Government support, it will be able to stand on its own two feet.
There are other opportunities that we will discover as we develop this technology. Drilling at the Eden Project has found concentrations of lithium that are higher than any other concentrations of lithium elsewhere in the world. We might expect to find that in other parts of the UK.
The industry can create 10,000 direct jobs, through £1.5 billion of investment and deliver on levelling up across the UK. I know there is a willingness from the Minister and, as the Prime Minister explained at Prime Minister’s questions today, policy support from the Government. We need to take a step back and think about what is the cleanest, simplest and quickest way to get this industry going. The ask from industry around a tariff is the best way to do that. We may be able to look at the pots of money that are already available to deliver that. On that note, I will finish and again thank the Minister for the time she has given today, and before, in supporting this industry.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for setting the scene and, in doing so, giving us the chance to participate in the debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), who is clearly knowledgeable on this subject.
Across the United Kingdom, we see a growth in businesses with methodologies and ways of harnessing renewable energy. There is an exhibition at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre about Northern Ireland’s centenary and about businesses in Northern Ireland. I was about to tell the hon. Member for Midlothian about one of those businesses, which is not geothermal but it is in the renewable sector, but he was called to speak and I did not get the chance to tell him much.
The business is not just about harnessing renewable energy, but storing it. It is called the Electric Storage Company and Chris Doherty, its programme manager, told me how it can galvanise renewable energy and store it in a battery system for such times as it can be used on the grid. Again, this is innovative, thought-provoking and workable. I have to say that, in all honesty, I do not have a lot of knowledge of what the hon. Member for Midlothian has presented today, but I like to learn. Even though I might be of an age, that does not mean that I do not want to learn. I learn something every day, and today, by listening to other speakers, especially the hon. Gentleman, I have learned a wee bit. I have also done a wee bit of research about geothermal energy in order the understand how it works.
I have always had a particular interest in green energy. As everyone knows, I represent the Strangford constituency, the door to which is the Strangford lough, which the constituency is named after and which used to have a SeaGen tidal turbine. At one stage, it was said to be large enough to meet the electricity needs of one large town or perhaps a couple of large villages close by. The Electric Storage Company has told me today that it is discussing how the sea turbine in Strangford lough can be put to better use. Queen’s University Belfast, through its biology station in Portaferry, has been instrumental in that process. This is about having really good ideas, being visionary for the future and making those possibilities real. With SeaGen, we have the potential to become less reliant on overseas production and more reliant on what God has given us—a reliable, twice-daily tide and strong undersea currents. The Electric Storage Company says that it is about harnessing nature’s energy, and that is also true of the project referred to by the hon. Gentleman.
Although we cannot write a blank cheque to fund research into renewable energy, we must still invest in producing energy that does not harm this beautiful country. Geothermal energy is one such approach and it has massive potential to reduce the impact on the countryside that we love. I am not as knowledgeable on the subject as the hon. Gentleman, but I am intrigued enough to want to know more and understand how it can be used to help the environment.
In the deep subsurface of the Earth, ground temperatures are no longer affected by the sun but result from heat that is generated from the Earth’s interior. That reminds me of the film, “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”, which Members are probably familiar with. I am of a vintage that can remember when it first came out many years ago. That was science fiction, but today we are looking at things that are possible, and I believe that this is one such thing.
Ground temperatures increase with depth—around 2.7°C per 100 metre depths in the UK. The feasibility of extracting this heat depends on several factors, including the availability of feasible geology, whether the target temperature can be reached at economically drillable depths, and whether the geothermal source is located near areas of heating demand, such as cities. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), who has just left the Chamber, referred to coalmining, as did the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich and others. The main party spokespersons will probably refer to it, too.
Extracting heat requires the drilling of deep boreholes of 1 km to 3 km for use in heating, and of up to 5 km for electricity generation. Deep geothermal plants can provide heat directly to high-temperature district heating networks without the need for a heat pump. Individual plants can provide heat for thousands to tens of thousands of households. Let us not underestimate the impact and possibilities of this particular energy resource. Although this seems to be the stuff of science fiction films, there are Members in this Chamber, including the Minister, who are blessed with the ability to make the resources meet people’s needs. We must give them the opportunity to do so.
The hon. Member for Midlothian referred to people in his area, which I will refer to towards the end of my speech. I told him earlier—and I meant it—that I am always impressed by the ingenuity across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Scotland has on many occasions given us food for thought on what we can use elsewhere. That is what I see in this project; it is a way forward.
The Library briefing, which is always helpful, has produced some interesting statistics on geothermal energy. In 2017, a study estimated that the UK had enough resource theoretically available to easily surpass all its energy demand in 2015. Wow—that is a big statement to make, but even if that is halfway true, it is something we cannot ignore. It has potential and possibility, and we need to chase it up.
The amount technically available was much smaller than the theoretical resource, of course, and recovery would depend on depths drilled and areas targeted, but there is potential, and we need more investigation of this matter to better gauge what we can get out of it and how we harness that.
Similarly, in 2018,
“a study estimated that the available heat from deep geothermal resources (sedimentary basins, ancient warm granites) and flooded mines”,
which some hon. Members have referred to, could be,
“equivalent to approximately 100 years heat supply for the entire UK.”
We have only ever had two mines that I am aware of in Northern Ireland, one a coal mine and one a salt mine, so our potential here may not be great, but there is potential and it cannot be ignored.
I have been excited by the plans to build a large-scale renewable energy park in Aberdeenshire, which the hon. Member for Midlothian referred to and which I know the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), will mention as well—designed to deliver up to 200 MW of environmentally friendly power to the Scottish grid. I am anxious to see the results of that, but I am concerned, and I am happy to put this on record—I hope the hon. Member for Midlothian does not mind my saying so—that the funding for it is coming from Chinese investment.
I will not say I am against the idea of Chinese investment, but I suspect that everything China does has an ulterior motive. When it comes to this particular project, as I have said to the hon. Gentleman, who is also a friend and whom I support in many of his debates in this House, I believe we should be beholden to no one, especially not the Chinese. I was pleased today to see that we in this House have told the Chinese ambassador that if our MPs and peers cannot go to China, he cannot eat his sweet and sour pork in this House either. I am particularly pleased about that—maybe that is facetious, or maybe I digress, but it makes my point.
We must be able to resource these projects with British funding. I have seen plans for new energy formats coming to Northern Ireland, and there is a real fear of the unknown. The Government must lead the way in looking into this new way of doing things, so I look to the SNP spokesperson, the shadow Minister—the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead)—and ultimately I look forward to hearing from the Minister. I believe we have the potential to supply our own energy, relying on external influences, and we must invest in ourselves, in our potential and in every part of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—always better together, we can work forward together and do well together.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this timely debate on the UK’s opportunity for geothermal energy extraction.
This topic is really important to me as the Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent Central. We are a pioneer city, at the forefront of exploring the geothermal option. I am delighted that this debate places a spotlight on geothermal, which is more environmentally friendly than conventional fuel sources, provides a more reliable clean energy source than other renewable options and offers an operational lifespan of more than 100 years. In addition, geothermal supports the transferability of skills and jobs from the oil and gas sector and provides development opportunities in regions such as the midlands, bringing new jobs and investment to areas that do not currently benefit from renewables such as wind power.
Crucially, the technology supports our transition to net zero. As we look to reduce our carbon footprint through a circular economy based on the principles of reducing, reusing and recycling, it is fitting that Stoke-on-Trent is at the forefront of this movement. The Potteries, home of pots and pits, retains a huge underground maze of former mine tunnels. The coal from those mines fired the kilns and the steelworks, and blackened the skies across the city at the height of its heavy industrial past. We are now powering our city up again, but this time as part of a new green industrial revolution, reducing pollution by investing in improved public transport, growing our nature recovery network, reusing the infrastructure of a former polluting industry to deliver new, clean energy, and recycling the hot water within the mine tunnels through our district heat networks.
Several factors make Stoke-on-Trent an ideal location for the development of this technology. First, the area has ideal geological conditions. Its geothermal gradient, which shows how much the temperature increases as we dig deeper, is greater than expected due to an ancient volcano deep beneath the surface providing untapped potential. We are leading the way with the Stoke-on-Trent district heat network. I thank the Government for providing £20 million for this pilot project. The district heat network features 18 km of piping and has led to affordable and clean energy for a community in the city and the first dedicated skills academy.
The project led by GT Energy to develop a deep geothermal heat plant in Etruria Valley in the city already has planning permission. The development would be the first of its type in the UK and would comprise the initial drilling of two deep exploration boreholes to a depth of approximately 4,000 metres. I believe it will be the first in the world to feed into a district heat network. The proposed development has the potential to bring a host of benefits to the local area, including creating green economy skills and jobs, reducing carbon emissions by 11,000 tonnes per year and generating heat equal to the energy needs of around 4,000 homes.
The exciting project is shovel ready and could be weeks away from starting with the proper Government support. I am grateful to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for enabling Stoke-on-Trent City Council to create a procurement framework to engage with local suppliers of district heat networks. This provides the council with a crucial link to local companies that can complete the required work and enables best practice to be shared more widely as the market grows.
Fundamental to the development of the geothermal market is, as we have heard repeatedly, early Government support. Government support for this early stage technology will unlock private investment, support the industry’s development and reduce cost to consumers over time. Early Government support has been shown to work in other countries in developing geothermal markets by providing confidence to geothermal developers and their investors. With increasing project delivery, market confidence grows and projects become more cost effective and sustainable, requiring less Government intervention as the market matures.
We have heard that this has been the case in other countries such as France, which now has a more mature geothermal market that is cost effective without the need for ongoing Government support. I welcome the Government’s support for the sector through initiatives such as the heat investment network project. Can the Minister confirm that geothermal energy, as a low-carbon technology, will be within the scope of the new £270 million green heat network fund running from 2022 to 2025?
As we approach COP26 and call on our global partners to step up their commitments towards achieving net zero, it is right that we should consider how we can harness the UK’s potential. Does the Minister agree that shovel-ready projects, such as the geothermal project in Stoke-on-Trent, are vital in developing this key energy source ahead of other countries, further demonstrating our commitment to carbon reduction?
I thank my friend and colleague the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for bringing forward this debate. As he said, it is not a new idea, but it is certainly a good one. As part of the mix of renewable energies, it must have its place. In every single speech I have heard the word “potential”, but we need to take it further. We need a road map, commitment and investment. From Lothian to Birkenhead, to Strangford, to Stoke-on-Trent—North and Central—and to Crewe and Nantwich, there is a hunger to see this succeed.
The scars that our landscape left behind after the decimation of the coal mining industry could finally pay a legacy, which would be a fitting tribute to generations of proud coal miners. As we transition from oil and gas, we must not let those skills be lost to foreign investment or simply discarded.
Today I am wearing my James Watt tie. He was a fellow Grenockian who has sometimes been wrongly credited with inventing the steam engine. What Watt did was look at ineffective technology and refine it—in his case, with the steam condenser. Hey presto! We had steam engines that were powerful, safe and practical. The industrial revolution was born. Bearing in mind the damage that that might have caused the planet, we may want to debate on another day whether that has been a good thing, but today I see those comparisons. The viability of geothermal heat has increased with every report that has been produced by the House of Commons Library since 2012. Technology that seemed to be just too expensive to be practical has become viable. Rather than add to the pollution, geothermal harnesses the Earth’s natural energy.
We have heard about a number of potential sources, but primarily it has been mine water. I want to add unused railway tunnels to the list, and not just because I have miles of them within my constituency of Inverclyde. Whenever a new technology comes along, there will inevitably be a cost associated with developing it, but I would venture that when it comes to clean, green renewable energy, we should factor into that the material cost to our planet if we do not develop clean, green renewable energy. We will get to a tipping point, when no amount of money, research or ingenuity will save our planet from overheating. That is the true cost of not investing in renewables now, and it is a cost that nobody wants to pay. In conclusion, I sincerely hope that the UK Government do not bury their heads in their sand, when we could be burying deep thermal bores into the ground instead.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to reply to this afternoon’s debate on behalf of the Opposition.
I am in a particular position as far as geothermal energy is concerned. I am not standing up to say what a good idea geothermal energy would be for the future, if it were to be introduced, but to say what a good idea geothermal energy has been already. It has been introduced, and it has been running in my constituency since 1986. Indeed, in a former life, I was substantially responsible for getting the scheme into place in Southampton, with a little help from the then Department of Energy, which had drilled a test hole in Southampton to see how the water came up. The responsibility for capturing the water coming up, converting it to steam and putting it into a district heating scheme lay entirely with Southampton City Council, of which I was leader at the time. The results of that can be plainly seen by all. The water comes up at 74° Celsius and is therefore easily convertible into very high-grade heat and a substantial electricity production facility. Indeed, it produces something like 40 GWh of heat, and about 12 GWh of electricity, per year in and around Southampton—a heat network of about 18 km.
I am hardly likely to stand here this afternoon and say anything negative about geothermal energy. I congratulate every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate on their focused commitment to that form of energy and on their understanding of the processes, which leads them to bring that focused commitment. That is a testament to the support that there is across the House for getting that form of energy seriously on the map. Having mentioned my background in Southampton, I regret to say that the one in Southampton remains the only geothermal energy plant operating in the UK, from 1986 to this day.
I am very encouraged by the United Downs development, which is drilling at the moment, and the activity that is starting in Stoke-on-Trent, which is really encouraging for geothermal for the future. I am also encouraged by the developments mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley)—the use of deep mine water and repurposed existing boreholes for geothermal purposes. All of those are encouraging developments.
The deep mine hot water that is available is essentially geothermal water that occurs in parts of the country where the heat of water is considerable, as it is in Southampton. That is what is coming into the bottom of those mines. It is a lucky accident of history that the mines were dug where that water is hottest. That is a tremendous resource that is beginning to be harnessed as water for steam and electricity production.
Geothermal is not a resource available uniformly across the country. We need to be clear about that, so that we do not get any Members from East Anglia advocating deep geothermal, because that would be a quixotic pursuit.
I appreciate that there are the obvious sites that we know about; but I know from my discussions with people in the industry that they feel that the areas mapped and identified so far are an underestimate. There may be places where we think we cannot reach but where, as the technology develops, it will be possible to unlock sources.
The hon. Gentleman is right. According to what has already been mapped and known about via the British Geological Survey and other agencies, it so happens that every Member present this afternoon has a constituency right on top of an area of sedimentary laid-down rock associated with aquifers, all of which are ideal for deep geothermal exploitation. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is not actually on a sedimentary rock formation but is next door to one. His efforts could be directed at persuading his neighbouring Members of Parliament to get going on geothermal projects just down the road from his constituency.
Although I might not be able to claim specifically for Strangford, I can say that all of Northern Ireland should take advantage of where those opportunities are. This debate is about how we can all do it better together. If we can do that, we can all gain an advantage.
Indeed. The other point I would make about availability is that we are not just talking about sedimentary rocks. As we know from Cornwall, we are talking about hot rocks, granite batholith formations, which can extract heat just as effectively for geothermal energy. That is the geology lesson over and done with.
As hon. Members have mentioned, we have this tremendous resource in front of us in the UK. In a recent report, the Renewable Energy Association estimated that if we delivered, say, 12 heat projects per year over the next 30 years, the UK could expect to generate up to 50,000 GWh of heat annually by 2050 and about 400 GWe—a huge contribution, in particular to net zero energy extraction and use. As hon. Members have said, geothermal is about the cleanest energy configuration that we can think of. It is infinitely renewable and completely reliable, as it just carries on producing the heat and electricity for ever and a day once it is in place.
We have a tremendous resource, but we have heard about the frankly isolated projects going on in this country. As far as the development of geothermal is concerned, they continue to be isolated. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) mentioned just how many projects are already under way in the rest of Europe—hundreds of projects in Germany, dozens of projects in France, a lot of projects in Italy. They are way ahead of us in exploiting this resource.
That is my particular concern. Over a number of years, we have dragged our feet on getting going on geothermal. I am sorry to say that the last incentive in Government support for geothermal energy development expired in March 2021, with the ending of the renewable heat incentive commercial and industrial element assistance. As far as I know, although the Minister might helpfully be able to disabuse me of what I am about to say, nothing else is planned for the immediate future. The Energy White Paper certainly made no mention of geothermal energy, other than an inset about some mine water extraction about halfway through. That is a terrible omission given the depth of the resource that we know we have, the relative ease of exploitation and the tremendous benefits that would come from such exploitation.
I want to say to the Minister—I hope and trust that she will still be the Minister at the end of this afternoon’s proceedings although, more likely, she will still be a Minister, but in a much more elevated position—assuming that I am still talking to her tomorrow, that when she goes back to the Department and looks at the progress of the heat and buildings strategy, which I think is still being discussed and not quite out yet, but almost ready to go, she should jump up and down, and thump on the table, and insist that the strategy contains a serious planning mention of the role that geothermal energy can play in the process over the next period. As we have heard this afternoon, it could play a tremendous role. It would be simply unthinkable if, over the next few years, we were not to exploit that resource to the best of our ability, because we need to—for net zero purposes, for clean energy purposes, and for local energy that does the business for local communities from what is absolutely under their feet as they go about their business.
I am sure that the Minister will be able to respond to me positively, to say that that is what she will do pretty immediately, at the end of our proceedings this afternoon; because the Opposition, at least, are wholly committed to the idea that geothermal should take its rightful place in the UK’s energy economy. I hope that the Minister not only shares that commitment, but is willing and able to make that commitment a reality within the next few years.
Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) on securing this very important debate. It is so important that we focus on making the best use of all our renewable resources in the enormous challenge of achieving net zero by 2050. That is our contribution to the global challenge of reducing the climate change shocks that are affecting not only the most vulnerable countries around the world, but all of us in our own communities.
The Government are committed to decarbonising our energy system, while supporting our economic recovery from covid-19, with investment in existing, emerging and new low-carbon technologies and the creation of new green jobs. We have made significant progress on decarbonising electricity, and we continue to take action to decarbonise our transportation need. However, as highlighted by the Climate Change Committee, decarbonising our heat requirements is a significant challenge ahead of us.
With that in mind, we are supporting the development of low-carbon heat networks and looking at the best ways to harness low-carbon heat through developing capacity and capabilities in new sources, one of which could be geothermal energy—although, as the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) said, geothermal energy is not new and is already proving its worth in Southampton. That said, the UK has limited access at the moment to the large naturally occurring geothermal resources that other countries, like Iceland, have tapped into much more intensively in order to decarbonise. There are challenges to overcome to exploit our geothermal energy to the degree that some other countries have.
Opportunities in the UK are perhaps more local and regional in nature. I thank the hon. Member for Southampton, as ever, for the science lesson. I enjoyed the geology lesson. That is new in our repartee over the last few months, so I thank him for that. It is a really important point: there are very clear regional and geological areas in which geothermal could be considered as one of a range of technologies that we might deploy to meet our climate change targets. A number of hon. Members have, of course, set out how that might be achieved in their own areas.
The Government support the development of geothermal projects, provided that it can be done at an acceptable cost and, of course, in an environmentally appropriate manner. It is always very helpful for me to understand where the best opportunities are to realise that potential and what creative things the industry might be doing to tackle the barriers and be innovative in the right environment.
One of the main barriers to deploying deep geothermal, of course, is the high capital cost needed to drill safely. There are also uncertainties around costs and revenues because of the inherent geological risk. As a result, many of the UK’s geothermal projects have so far had difficulty securing competitive financing, because investors lack experience of UK geothermal energy. The projects are therefore often seen as high risk compared to other technologies that are more established in the UK. This is a similar challenge to that seen with other technologies, such as solar energy or offshore wind, in their earlier years, so perhaps that should give succour and comfort to those championing this area of potential development.
My officials in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are engaging very closely with industry leaders to assess what options there are for reducing deep drilling and development costs and the methods of reducing and allocating risks so as to make best use of this energy source. Based on our experience of supporting local authorities to develop heat networks, through our heat network delivery unit, and on advice from the British Geological Survey and the Coal Authority, there is clear evidence that geothermal has really good potential as a renewable heat source for heat networks in many parts of the country.
Geothermal heating schemes are, however, all different. As we have heard this afternoon, they extract heat from rocks or water at different depths and hence different temperatures. This is not an entirely straightforward industry. It is not a uniform system; it is not a wind turbine or a solar panel. There are two broad approaches: deep geothermal schemes, where water is sent down to be heated by hot layers of rock before being extracted at high enough temperatures for use in district heating systems directly; and shallow geothermal, where the temperature of the water extracted needs to be boosted by a heat pump before it can be used for heating. Given the different nature of the technologies, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to bringing this technology forward, which is why my officials are working closely with industry partners.
The Government must balance their support for renewable heat sources with the reality that not all of these schemes will be economically viable with the technology available at the moment, given that the quantity and temperature of the extracted water can vary considerably from scheme to scheme, and there may be alternative renewable heat sources that are better suited to a specific community’s needs. Having said that, I recognise the potential role in supporting our heat decarbonisation objectives, and that is why geothermal heat projects are eligible for the Government’s heat network support.
The heat networks investment project has already supported two shallow geothermal projects in Gateshead and County Durham, with a total of £9.7 million of funding. These schemes will use geothermal heat from mine water to heat homes and non-domestic buildings. Geothermal power projects are also eligible to apply under the newly launched auction round four of our contracts for difference scheme for generation, which will open in December this year.
The Government have also invested £31 million in UK Geoenergy Observatories, which will provide a world-class infrastructure for a wide range of geoenergy-related research. Publicly run, owned and funded, each observatory will contribute to world-class science that puts the UK at the forefront of delivering clean energy at the scale required to help us achieve the net zero target that we have set ourselves by 2050.
I thank all Members who have spoken today and who continue to bring their enthusiasm and passion to the debate. Stoke-on-Trent is extremely well represented by amazing advocates in my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon)—the latter is a fantastic saleswoman who sees Stoke as the potential centre for the new geothermal revolution that is coming. We were hard-pressed not to know her passion, and I thank her for that.
I also want to thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It is always a pleasure to hear him in a debate. It was lovely to discover him in an arena where he is not as knowledgeable as many others in the room, but his longevity in the House usually gives him an advantage. I hope that he goes away with the challenge set by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test to see how he too can take up and champion geothermal across Northern Ireland and bring the opportunities there as we look to invest in them.
In answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central, geothermal heat projects are expected to be in scope for the £270 million green heat network fund that will open in April next year. I hope that that helps those who are looking to bid in that space to get going now.
The debate has been really helpful. I find potential solutions exciting, and my officials are working hard to see how we can progress. It is always incredibly helpful to hear from colleagues. The enthusiasm of colleagues this afternoon in making a strong and passionate case for the future progress of the technology is inspiring. I look forward to working with them all in the weeks and months to come.
We have seen from this afternoon’s contributions from a range of constituencies across the different nations of the UK that there is a genuine appetite to see the technology developed and to take advantage of the fact that this natural resource is sitting there in different ways in different constituencies. I thank the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan), for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), for their contributions. There is a genuine appetite for this and a real opportunity to benefit all our communities. Perhaps it is the “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” that the hon. Member for Strangford outlined.
It is encouraging to hear the actions that the Government are taking, although I did not hear about a specific strategy for geothermal, which is what I hoped for. Perhaps that will come and we can have yet another debate as more projects develop. The point was made several times about the impact on communities at the time of the pit closures and how they were hit hardest. They are the ones at the centre of the mine water projects who could have such a boost and a benefit from getting some of these projects up and running. We do not need to allow environmental damage from mine water pouring out into communities when we could actually be using it to heat new homes, schools and heat hospitals. Not just business benefits come from that, but a real community and public sector benefit.
Certainly, I would like to see a lot of ambition from Midlothian Council in trying to take advantage of the significant resource it sits on top of and to move forward with projects. It could be a real pioneer in taking the technology forward. Beyond that, I am sure we will all come back to this in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. It will be very interesting to see how the technology could be developed.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered opportunities for geothermal energy extraction.
Merthyr Tydfil: City Status
May I remind hon. Members to wear masks when not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission, and to give one another and members of staff space when seated and when entering the room?
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Merthyr Tydfil city status.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I have agreed to take interventions from my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and for Newport West (Ruth Jones).
Yes, and they will be brief.
As part of the Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations, towns across the UK will have the opportunity to apply for city status. It is my contention that none has contributed as much to the modern world as Merthyr Tydfil. When people ask me, “Why should Merthyr Tydfil be made a city?”, my answer to them is, “Why on earth not?” Why should Merthyr Tydfil be less deserving than Preston, Newport, Stirling, Lisburn or Newry? What secret formula do they and other cities have that Merthyr Tydfil lacks? The answer, of course, is that Merthyr Tydfil is as industrious, as ambitious and—I might be biased—even more beautiful. It is thoroughly deserving of city status.
This bid, this collective endeavour, for city status is as much about reminding us, as representatives and residents, why Merthyr Tydfil is as worthy of becoming a city as any other town in the UK. I am pleased that the campaign has already won the support of our Member of the Senedd, Dawn Bowden, the lord lieutenant for Mid Glamorgan, Peter Vaughan, the high sheriff of Mid Glamorgan, Jeff Edwards, and Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, along with residents, businesses and well-wishers from beyond Merthyr Tydfil’s borders. I am pleased, too, that the mayor of Merthyr Tydfil, Councillor Malcolm Colbran, has made the journey to be with us here today.
Merthyr Tydfil was the cradle of the industrial revolution. It went from a small farming village in the mid-1700s to the largest town in Wales by 1851 as a result of the rapid expansion of the ironworks. By the 1820s, Merthyr Tydfil was the source of 40% of Britain’s iron exports, and it became the largest iron-producing town in the world. Iron forged in Merthyr Tydfil supplied the Royal Navy and helped to shape the modern world. Iron from Merthyr Tydfil helped not only to power the industrial revolution, but to build the railroads of the American frontiers. Coal from Merthyr Tydfil was shipped all over the globe and helped to create cities such as Cardiff. On 21 February 1804, the world’s first ever steam railway journey ran for 9 miles from the ironworks at Penydarren to the Merthyr-Cardiff canal in south Wales.
I am personally proud that the first ever Labour MP and first leader of the Labour party, James Keir Hardie, represented Merthyr Tydfil in this House. The year 1831 saw the Merthyr rising. During that week-long revolt, people marched under the red flag, using it for the first time as a symbol of working people. The red flag was later adopted internationally as the symbol of the working class. More recently, Merthyr Tydfil and particularly the village of Aberfan have developed a very deep and personal connection with Her Majesty the Queen, along with other members of the royal family.
But history alone does not a city make, no matter how world-changing that history is. Merthyr Tydfil has seen considerable change, certainly over the past 20 years. Investment in the area has brought a brand-new college offering university courses to the town; a new hub of civil service jobs at the Welsh Government offices; and improved transport links, including the 21st-century bus interchange that recently opened, thanks to £10 million of Welsh Government investment.
Merthyr Tydfil has always been the “capital of the valleys”, with people travelling from far and wide to visit for retail and leisure. Our proximity to the world-famous Brecon Beacons national park and attractions such as BikePark Wales and Rock UK’s climbing centre have seen tourist numbers increase dramatically.
The town also has a thriving cultural offering. Local pubs are well known for their live music, with the New Crown recently awarded as the “best live music entertainment restaurant” at the Welsh Enterprise Awards. Merthyr Tydfil has two theatres providing a mix of English and Welsh-language productions and events, in partnership with students and staff at the College Merthyr Tydfil. The annual Merthyr Rising festival provides a mix of culture, music, arts and political discussion, and it has grown year on year.
The town’s links to Roman Britain are remembered with events such as the Tydfilians Roman Run, which started in 1980 to commemorate the martyrdom of Tydfil, the saint from which the town derives its name, 1,600 years ago. The race follows the route between the forts of the Roman legions stationed in Wales from Brecon to Merthyr Tydfil, across the Brecon Beacons. The council’s ambitious Cyfarthfa plan is a 20-year vision made up of 70 short-term and long-term projects. The plan will also turn the former home of the Crawshay ironmasters—the famous Cyfarthfa castle—into an international museum, with hopes of doubling the size of the surrounding ground as well as conducting urgent repairs to both the furnaces and the castle.
Sadly, not everyone is as passionate and optimistic about Merthyr Tydfil’s future as I am. The proposal to make Merthyr Tydfil a city has drawn the predictable snark and cynicism from social media that we have come to expect. Online commentary has focused on Merthyr Tydfil’s lack of a cathedral. Sadly, this is true, but having a cathedral has not been a requirement for city status since 1889. The social media brigade, largely from outside Merthyr Tydfil, has also deemed the town too small to become a city, despite the fact that 12 cities in the UK have a lower population than Merthyr Tydfil.
Thankfully, I have received a great many positive comments from residents and businesses who are optimistic about the opportunity that city status presents for Merthyr Tydfil. I believe that city status would build on the progress that we have already made and allow us to realise myriad advantages for the town. There are the obvious economic advantages of city status, which would help the local authority to attract inward investments, promote wider interest in the town from across Wales and other parts of the UK, and encourage greater tourism to our remarkable scenery.
Merthyr Tydfil is not just the metaphorical heart of the valleys; it is the geographical centre, too. Merthyr Tydfil is literally at the crossroads of the A470 and the A465, with links to Cardiff to the south, to mid and north Wales, and to the midlands, Swansea and west Wales.
I know my hon. Friend will agree that Merthyr Tydfil has been at the very heart of Wales’s political, industrial and social history. It has quite simply shaped the world that we live in. I am privileged to have visited my hon. Friend’s constituency many times, and I consider him to be a very dear friend. I know that his campaign to add Merthyr Tydfil to the growing list of Welsh cities should be successful. As he has already said, Merthyr Tydfil is a city of the valleys. My home town of Swansea was bestowed city status, and I sincerely hope that Merthyr Tydfil gets the opportunity to achieve the same.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and for her support. Indeed, Merthyr Tydfil is well placed to be a city of the valleys, attracting businesses and jobs.
By supporting the bid, the local authority and residents are showing their pride in Merthyr Tydfil and our collective ambitions for the future. I believe that Merthyr Tydfil’s bid for city status speaks for itself. We are a town that has shaped the world for generations. If the bid is successful, Merthyr Tydfil will take its place among the great cities of our country and face its future with pride and determination.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about a very important subject. As a member of a town that became a city in 2002 during the Queen’s golden jubilee, I am really pleased to be able to stand here and support him today. My predecessor—the late, great Paul Flynn—made a powerful speech that I am sure contributed to Newport becoming a city, so I am sure my hon. Friend’s speech today will help engage everybody in the importance of Merthyr becoming a city.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and for her support. Hopefully, Merthyr Tydfil will have the same success in its bid for city status that Newport had in 2002. Pride and determination have been shown in Merthyr Tydfil over the centuries; I am sure this bid will harness that, and bring people together to support the town in its efforts.
In conclusion, Merthyr Tydfil has a rich and proud history, as I hope I have outlined. We also have a bright and exciting future. I hope today’s debate will go a little way to help in raising awareness of the future that I know Merthyr Tydfil can—and will—achieve.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) on securing this debate, and on making a beautiful and compelling speech about a place he clearly feels a very deep connection with and passion for. I also thank him for his work to promote the idea of a city for the valleys. He is a great champion for his constituency, and I know that communities in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney have long been supporters of royal events and occasions.
I am very pleased to hear that Merthyr Tydfil is considering putting in an application for the honour of city status. I know that the hon. Member launched the campaign earlier this month and that it has widespread support in his community—a key criterion in the competition. The Government look forward to receiving applications, not just from Merthyr but from all parts of the UK. I am delighted to say that, for the first time, the city status competition will also be open to applications from the Crown dependencies and overseas territories.
I found Merthyr Tydfil’s motto, often translated from Welsh as “Not Force but Fellowship”, a fitting description of the spirit of this competition. Yes, towns and cities will be competing for prestigious honours in this competition, but there is also an important opportunity for towns such as Merthyr to showcase their history, and for communities to rally their sense of civic pride—so ably described by the hon. Member in his compelling speech. It is a town that just keeps giving. Merthyr Tydfil’s achievements are not confined to forging the iron and digging the coal that powered the industrial revolution, or its role in the age of steam. They continue to this day, whether that is in the college that he talked about, or the town’s role in the Welsh tourism and cultural scene. Indeed, in this age of celebrity, Merthyr Tydfil’s achievements include the production of reality stars such as Liam Reardon, who, I understand, won this year’s “Love Island.” I wonder whether the hon. Member would consider as part of his application a twinning bid with my constituency borough of Havering, because Millie Court, the other winner of “Love Island”, is from there.
I will speak a little more broadly about the civic honours competition, and some of the Government’s other plans for next year’s very special platinum jubilee. However, let me begin by saying something about the history of city status. As the hon. Member is aware, it is a rare distinction. It is one of the civic honours granted by Her Majesty the Queen, under the royal prerogative, on the advice of her Ministers. Although the honour does not come with any additional funding, functions or powers, as the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) described, its rarity and prestige makes it something that continues to be much sought offer when the opportunity arises.
There are 69 cities in the UK: 51 in England, seven in Scotland, six in Wales and five in Northern Ireland. The process of how a town can become a city has evolved considerably over time, as the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney recognised when he talked about cathedrals. Historically, city status was directly linked to the presence of a cathedral, stemming from the reign of King Henry VIII who, following the Reformation, re-founded former monastic cathedrals as bishoprics, giving many of them city status. This led to the precedent of the right of the monarch to grant such a status. As the hon. Member has noted, the presence of a cathedral is no longer a requirement, nor is there a population threshold below which an application cannot succeed. I hope he can provide those facts to the detractors on social media.
By the middle of the 19th century it was established that awards of city status should be made by letters patent; these were issued with the consent of the monarch, on the advice of the Home Secretary. A further convention developed in the 20th century, whereby the award of city status and other civic honours was open to competition. Indeed, since the 1970s there have been five such competitions, with the platinum jubilee competition marking the sixth. With the exception of the competition held to mark the millennium, all competitions were held to mark the anniversary of Her Majesty the Queen’s accession to the throne. I am delighted that next year we have another opportunity to celebrate.
Let me turn to the civic honours competition that was launched by the Government earlier this year, in celebration of Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee. We have already heard about the opportunity to be awarded city status, but the competition is also open for local authorities to apply for a grant of the civic honours of a lord mayoralty or a lord provostship. The competition, which closes on 8 December 2021, provides local authorities with a once-in-a-decade opportunity to enter and make the case for why their area deserves to be granted one of these rare honours. I hope that this debate is just the start of the speeches that will come from hon. Members who grasp the opportunity presented for their town. As part of the applications process, the Government are asking to hear about a number of factors, including what gives a place a distinct identity—I think that the hon. Member can tick that box—details about its record of innovation, its civic pride and cultural infrastructure, and any associations with royalty. The full details are set out in the entry guidelines, along with the application form, on gov.uk.
This is a fantastic opportunity for local authorities to showcase and celebrate their area’s culture, heritage and identity, and I entirely understand the hon. Member’s endeavour to secure city status for Merthyr Tydfil. As well as the town and the broader area’s association with royalty over the years, which he set out so clearly in his speech, I know that Merthyr has a lot to celebrate in terms of its record of innovation, as the cradle of the industrial revolution. I pay tribute to its mayor for coming today, because that signals the commitment of the area to that history and to Merthyr’s future as an exciting place in the UK.
As the hon. Member noted so proudly in his maiden speech in Parliament, Merthyr Tydfil was home to the largest ironworks in the world in the mid-19th century and at one point was the source of 40% of Britain’s iron exports. I know that there is a lot more to say about the town, which he has fittingly described today, and I wish him and his town the very best of luck with their application.
I will conclude by saying a little about some of the wider plans that we have for the platinum jubilee, because I know that communities across the UK are already thinking about it and are very excited about the chance to honour our monarch. As everybody will be aware, Her Majesty the Queen will become the first British monarch to celebrate a platinum jubilee; it is something that I think we should all mark. I understand that work is also under way to mark the occasion in Parliament itself.
Earlier in the summer, the royal household announced its exciting programme for next year’s extended bank holiday to mark Her Majesty’s jubilee. The plans mix ceremonial splendour and pageantry with cutting-edge artistic displays, and include the traditional nationwide fanfare and celebrations. The plans for the weekend include a chance on the Sunday for communities across the UK to come together with street parties or the Big Jubilee Lunch.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is co-ordinating the production of a platinum jubilee medal, which will be given to frontline public servants in the armed forces, the emergency services and the Prison Service. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is leading the Queen’s green canopy project, which is a unique tree-planting initiative, so that people from across the UK can plant a tree for the jubilee and play their part in creating a lasting legacy, in addition to the very exciting civic honours competition. That is just a flavour of the plans for the platinum jubilee, but more announcements will be made in the coming months as momentum grows.
I will finish by thanking the hon. Member again for securing the debate and other hon. Members for their contributions to it. As I say, I hope that this is the first of many speeches from hon. Members who grasp the opportunity that the competition provides for their local area. The Government look forward to receiving applications not just from Merthyr but from other eligible places and to announcing the winners, hopefully early next year.
Question put and agreed to.
Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission, and to give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government’s Levelling-up agenda.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. I am grateful to see Members and the Minister here today. I would completely understand it if the Minister wants to keep her phone on. I am sure we all wish her well with the reshuffle. We will see what the next hour or so brings.
I declare an interest: I am a metro Mayor. I have always supported the Prime Minister’s intention to level up the country, but it is outrageous that the UK has the worst regional inequality of any comparable developed nation. The gap is stark, from life expectancy to income, from unemployment to education, from productivity to health, and covid is making it worse. That is not a small thing. It is an injustice—a stain on our country—and tackling it should be a matter of raging and persistent urgency, not some optional extra in the national political agenda. I continue to want to work with the Government to do that, but as the Minister knows well, it is not words that count but action.
To be fair, it is not that the Government have done nothing. I acknowledge the help that we have had through the transforming cities fund and the getting building fund, among others. There have been some welcome policy shifts too, such as devolving adult education, reforming the Green Book and creating the UK Infrastructure Bank, but tackling deep-rooted inequality requires a special sort of intervention. It demands scope, endurance, resources, a national strategy and local leadership.
So far, the Government have fallen well short. First, transformative ambition needs transformative resources. Instead, we have old money relabelled as new and distributed with more concern for politics than progress. The flagship levelling-up fund, worth £1.3 billion a year on average, replaces a local growth fund that was worth 14% more, and half its budget this year is taken from the towns fund. Even worse, the levelling-up fund puts the Chancellor’s Richmondshire constituency, ranked 251 out of 317 in England’s deprivation index, in a higher category of need than my constituency of Barnsley, which is ranked 38. That is no one-off. A third of English areas due to get funds are not in the top third of the most deprived regions.
Likewise, the shared prosperity fund is supposed to match the historical EU support that it is designed to replace, but EU funds were due to increase sharply this year, so many areas, including my own, will miss out. I ask the Minister: will the Government compensate us for that? Almost a third of the English areas selected to receive money under the SPF’s precursor programme, the community renewal fund, are not among the most deprived local areas. Almost all of them are entirely represented by Conservative MPs. Meanwhile, of the 45 places receiving a share of the towns fund spending, 39 are represented by Conservative MPs. The Public Accounts Committee found that the fund’s earlier selection process was not impartial.
We are starting to see a pattern develop, and it gets worse when we consider that these politicised, fragmented and inadequate funds also come against a major backdrop of cuts elsewhere. As we saw in the Chamber this afternoon, the Government are intent on ending the £20 uplift in universal credit, cutting income for 5.5 million families by more than £1,000 a year and taking billions out of the economies of more deprived areas. That of course follows the £15 billion of cuts to local government in the past decade, which has fallen hardest on the poorest areas.
The Government trumpet their spending through the national infrastructure strategy, but it is unclear how much will go to deprived areas and when it will arrive. What we do know is that the Government are wobbling in their commitment to two of the biggest projects in the north: HS2’s eastern leg and Northern Powerhouse Rail. For them to be postponed or scaled back would make any claim of concern for levelling up utterly risible. I ask the Minister to assure us today of the Government’s commitment to those two huge projects.
When the debate concludes, I will hit “send” on South Yorkshire’s bid for £660 million of city region sustainable transport settlement funding. If the Government want to end the long-standing bias in transport investment towards more affluent areas, I hope that they will back that bid in full, and those of other relatively deprived areas such as mine.
It is not just how much money and where it goes that matters; it is how it is spent. It is alarming that the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy described levelling-up policy and funding as
“lacking in any overall coherent strategic purpose”
with little clarity about who is responsible, how progress will be measured or, indeed, what the objectives are.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this forward. The Government’s policy of levelling up is to benefit all the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, we do not see that coming our way in Northern Ireland. We believe that, if it is a levelling-up agenda, we should benefit as well. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be projects across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, to benefit us all, whether they are specific projects, or businesses that can qualify for projects that are happening elsewhere in the United Kingdom?
I am grateful for that intervention. My hon. Friend makes an important point. He knows I have a long-standing interest in Northern Ireland. He is right to make the point that every corner of the United Kingdom should seek to benefit from investment coming out of national Government. The Prime Minister has spoken on occasion about levelling up the whole of the country. The reality is that there are particular areas that are more deprived and require additional support to unlock their potential. I absolutely concede that, along with my own region, Northern Ireland is definitely one of those.
There is a very good opportunity for the Government to demonstrate their commitment to do this through the forthcoming White Paper, not just in terms of setting out a plan but linking it, mindful of the COP conference taking place this year, to the green transformation that we need, as well as to other priorities. Critically, that national strategy from national Government must be based around local leadership. Levelling up cannot succeed without local knowledge, engagement and accountability. Levelling up cannot be done from desks in Westminster and Whitehall.
Yet the reality is that, almost everywhere, the Government’s model is to force local authorities to scrap for inadequate, restricted, one-off pots of cash, designed according to the Government’s priorities and not to ours. It seems a long time since the general election, but I remember the Conservative manifesto specifically promised to
“trust people and communities to make the decisions that are right for them”.
They need to have the confidence now to mean what they said then.
In South Yorkshire, we are not waiting for that. With our local authority leaders, we have developed what we call a plan for the north, which sets out a road map to transformation. I invite the Minister to look carefully at the detail of that plan. In South Yorkshire, we have fantastic assets to act as catapults for development, such as the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre but, to translate that into wider change, we need funding and support for a comprehensive local industrial strategy, from skills to finance.
At the same time, levelling up cannot be just about business and infrastructure. It needs to be about investing in early years and education, in housing and health. It is about tax reform and funding local government. It is about the environment and public services. Arts and culture is another good example, which can bring major economic benefits—more than £5 of revenue for every pound of public investment. That also helps to improve quality of life and perception of a region. In the very near future in South Yorkshire, we will lay out how we will support our creative sector with much more than just words. That is the test for any part of levelling up. For all the grand talk, the Government’s actions so far suggest a limited agenda, yet they still have the chance to change that. The forthcoming comprehensive spending review is where we will know once and for all whether the Government’s commitment to reducing regional inequality is serious or merely cynical. There are six weeks to decide which it is. I very much hope that they do the right thing. One way or another, it is by their actions that they will be judged.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this debate, and I welcome the Minister to her place. I draw attention to the fact that I am on the Lowestoft place board, and Lowestoft has secured a towns deal.
Levelling up is vital. It is about giving hope to local communities that have been ignored for too long. It is about tackling deep pockets of deprivation and giving people the opportunity to realise their full potential. I shall briefly outline three issues of concern. The first is the importance of investing in people. Infrastructure is incredibly important, but there needs to be a focus on investing in skills and employment support to help people proceed from low-skilled, low-wage jobs and to climb the ladder to rewarding and better-paid jobs. It is necessary to invest in accessible childcare to allow people to better access and then stay in the labour market.
Secondly, although I support the freeports initiative, I urge the Government to stick with and improve enterprise zones. Like other enterprise zones all around the country, the Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth enterprise zone, set up in 2012, has been incredibly successful. By reallocating the existing footprint of the enterprise zone around Lowestoft port, over 300 new jobs can be created, 40 new businesses can be supported, and between £1 million and £3 million of retained rates can be generated.
Finally, I remain incredibly concerned about the methodology for prioritising investment for the levelling-up and community renewal funds, which I fear is flawed. Lowestoft has deep pockets of deprivation very similar to neighbouring Great Yarmouth, but, unlike the latter, it is not a priority place. I do not begrudge Great Yarmouth, but the methodology for assessing need on a district-wide basis fails to properly identify where additional support is needed.
I discussed the issue earlier this week with the Arts Council, East Suffolk Council and Suffolk County Council. The flaw could be addressed if the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport approve the provision of Active Lives data on a far more local and pinpointed basis. I also urge the Minister to look closely at the methodology proposed by the Salvation Army, which is detailed in its report on the levelling-up agenda and highlights how the current approach fails to properly take into account the considerable challenges that coastal communities, such as Waveney and Lowestoft, face.
In conclusion, the Government have been very successful in identifying the importance of levelling up, which has struck a chord with the public. However, to ensure that we deliver on that commitment and that the public are not left disillusioned, a more refined, joined-up and people-focused approach is required. That is needed if the strategy is to work, with all communities around the UK being given the opportunity to truly catch up and claim their fair share of the proceeds of growth.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing the debate, which is certainly important. Levelling up is indeed an important Government policy, but for something that is so central to the Government’s vision, it is sometimes difficult to see exactly what it means in practice and, critically, whether the lofty ambitions set out in the big speeches actually lead to delivery on the ground and bring about the kinds of changes that my community wants to see.
Whatever yardstick the Government use, what people see changing for the better in their areas will be the real determinant of whether there has been any success in levelling up. Many of my constituents would say that a tangible improvement to Ellesmere Port town centre would constitute a very good start in that respect. So many people want to have pride in their town and see it thriving, so I am pleased to say that, alongside my local council, we have put in a bid for the levelling-up fund to enable us to make a start on rejuvenating our town centre.
Of course, that is just a start, and much more will be needed. The question hangs in the air: if the bid is unsuccessful, what is plan B? Should not everyone get a slice of the pie? Should not levelling up be a policy that benefits everyone, not just the lucky winners of a municipal beauty contest? Should we not empower local communities to deliver on their own priorities and provide them with the tools and resources to do so, rather than asking them to jump through multiple hoops in what is a very competitive bidding process?
The town centre in Ellesmere Port has been struggling for a long time. Like in many other towns, the rise of the internet and changes in shopping habits, which have been accelerated by the pandemic, have led to shops closing down on an almost weekly basis. We would absolutely welcome a cash injection from the levelling-up fund, but it needs to address not just the symptoms but the causes of decline. Where are the plans to tackle the massive disparities between north and south in employment opportunities, earnings and life expectancy? Why do so many young people feel that they have to leave where they live and move to a city, just to get opportunities?
It is a scandal that where someone is born and to whom they are born are still some of the biggest determinants of their life chances. If levelling up is to be the truly transformative project that its biggest supporters claim it to be, it has to be so much more than an annual Westminster competition on Westminster’s terms. Give power and resources back to local communities—they know what they want, and they will be around for the long term in order to deliver it. People already feel that they do not have the power to take decisions about the most important things in their lives, such as whether a local hospital should stay open, where a new school might go, and even how often the buses run. To empower local communities, we need a different approach—no more crumbs from the table.
We do not want politically motivated, short-term fixes that have only the electoral cycle in mind. We need a new, long-term approach that actually attempts to tackle the underlying issues, and that really empowers and enables our local communities by giving them the responsibility, power and resources to shape their own futures, allowing them to finally take back control. We need reinvigorated places where people spend time as well as money, and there needs to be much more joined-up thinking about how the world will change in the future.
The move to all-electric vehicles in the next decade is a perfect example of that. Do we have the charging infrastructure to meet the demand? I do not think we have, and I know from the answers I have received to written questions that a huge number of properties will never have access to a charge point. Why do we not have somewhere in town centres where people can access charge points? People would have another reason to come into their town centre, and they could very well spend some time and money while they wait for their vehicle to charge. I think that is a great idea, but in order to achieve it, local authorities need the capacity, the resources and, indeed, the authority to plan and deliver what is needed. They need the necessary powers and the proper funding.
Civic pride, community, identity, jobs and opportunities all suffer when town centres are in decline. We owe it to the people in our communities to think big and have the ambition to deliver town centres that are equipped for tomorrow’s world—ones that will not only survive, but thrive in future generations. When we see the appetite for new things in our world, we know that people are willing to seize the change and try to make the world work in a different way. The sight of empty shop units in a town centre tells them that, for too long, their concerns have not been addressed. It is time that was changed.
I absolutely want levelling up to work, but I also want it to mean something. Tackling some of the deeply engrained issues that I have referred to today is central to that process, not just having a quick headline before the Government move on, because when the spotlight fades, my community will still face those challenges. However, it now expects the Government to deliver on the promises they made and I hope that we see that happen.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time today, Mr Robertson, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important debate. I will read out some statistics, because for too long, sadly, Stoke-on-Trent was talked about in a negative light by my predecessors, so I will talk about how great Stoke-on-Trent actually is and what it has been doing under not only a Conservative Government but a Conservative-led city council, led by the fantastic Councillor Abi Brown.
Stoke-on-Trent was ranked first for jobs growth in 2020. Between 2015 and 2018 it saw wages increase by 11.7%, with a 3.9% annual increase. In 2019-20 we built over 1,000 new homes, of which 97% were built on brownfield land. We are the eighth fastest growing economy in England, which includes London. We have created over 8,000 jobs in the last five years. We have the Ceramic Valley enterprise zone, which is one of the most successful enterprise zones in the UK. I am delighted that Tunstall Arrow phase 2 is effectively already under way and bookings are being made. The city council has done a fantastic thing by carrying on the business rates relief, using its own finances to encourage more businesses to come to the area. There is a fantastic story here for Stoke-on-Trent.
I am very sorry to get into the petty party politics, as some people might accuse us of, but I do so because when the Labour party lost Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, it was because it spent too long talking the area down and never talked it up. It spent too long telling people how poor they were and how deprived they were, but never offering a solution to the problem. In fact, Labour’s legacy in Stoke-on-Trent was to build a hospital—the Royal Stoke University Hospital—with a disastrous private finance initiative debt, which means £20 million a year is being stolen from the frontline to pay that debt. Labour built a hospital with 200 fewer beds than the old hospital, which is even more insane.
We saw jobs and ceramics enterprises being shipped off to China, which means I am very grateful still to have Churchill China, Steelite International and Burleigh Pottery in my constituency. They are still doing well, but sadly that industry dying meant that towns such as Burslem and Tunstall, two of the five original towns of Stoke-on-Trent, are now in a much worse state. Those places were forgotten, because for 70 years they had Labour Members of Parliament.
I am the first ever Conservative Member of Parliament for my constituency. What has happened over time, as we have seen that transition from Labour to the Conservatives, is that things are now happening. By the way, that does not mean that I do not acknowledge that there are challenges in Stoke-on-Trent. As I say, the mother town of Burslem has one of the highest number of closed shops anywhere in the United Kingdom. The town used to thrive off Royal Doulton and many other Pot Bank factories, but now that is simply not the case. I am trying to find a future for that town. I was delighted to have spent my summer handing out a survey asking residents for their views—over 300 responses have come in—and I am working with the city council to create a vision, perhaps for an arts and creative culture that will link in with Middleport Pottery.
In Tunstall, the high street is predominantly privately owned. I know that because I rent my constituency office on that high street—it is in an old shop. The top end of the high street is falling into disrepair, but I am delighted that the city council is working with me to hold private landlords to account for allowing their shops to fall into disrepair.
However, to offer the Minister more evidence of levelling up, it is the Conservative-led Stoke-on-Trent City Council that has invested £4 million into Longton town hall, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), and it is spending over £4 million on Tunstall town hall in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. That will see council offices, a police post, a children’s centre and much more bringing this heritage building back to life, which will bring more footfall to the town centre and hopefully see it rejuvenate.
There is so much more opportunity. I fell in love with the city back in 2018, when I first started campaigning there, because I saw what others did not, which is a people who were desperate for change but just needed someone to go and fight for them. I am absolutely delighted to be their champion, as I have said many times.
I know that we have just heard some hon. Members talk about the town deal fund. I am a member of Kidsgrove’s town deal board. It is important to remember that these towns got this money before I was even elected as a Member of Parliament, but it was a Conservative Government who decided that the town of Kidsgrove, which is linked with Talke and Newchapel, would benefit from a town deal fund that, in total and including the advance town deal payment, came to £17.6 million. I can tell Members that when I go out door-knocking in Kidsgrove, the people there cannot believe what that money has done.
We have invested £2.75 million in Kidsgrove sports centre, which means that this facility will reopen in spring 2022. Rather than building a new one at higher expense to the taxpayer, the existing one will be refurbished and reopened. Why is that so important, Mr Robertson? In 2017, the then Labour-run Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council was offered the sports centre for £1, and it said no. There was a fantastic, community-run campaign led by Mark Clews, Dave Rigby, Ray Williams and Councillor Gill Burnett, who was a Labour councillor but has since become a Conservative over the decision on the sports centre. They got the borough council behind it, and they certainly got me behind it. Ultimately, we will see that facility reopened, which means swimming and a gym will return to Kidsgrove, which has one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the country.
We are also seeing the upgrading of the town centre with the new indoor town centre hub, which will hopefully have a new GP surgery in the middle, as well as a post office, and will link in with the job centre based in Kidsgrove. This will hopefully bring a bit of a coffee culture to the town centre. That will also be linked with Kidsgrove railway station. I give credit here to my predecessor’s predecessor, Joan Walley, who secured £5.5 million from the Access for All fund for the station, which now has a new footbridge. I decided that we should use the town deal board money to upgrade the ticket office, which will have a community café and more space for the volunteers, who do a fantastic job of looking after the station. There will also be 200 car parking spaces and a bus terminal, after the bridge was strengthened, meaning we will have a better integrated transport system. There will also be one hour’s free parking for people to do the three-minute walk to the town centre.
We are going to unlock the Chatterley Valley West employment site with over £2 million of investment, which could bring up to 2,000 jobs to the local area. It baffles me that the Labour councillors in Talke & Butt Lane—the ward where I live—moan that this money has been spent about 200 feet outside the Kidsgrove parish area. They are moaning that we have invested more than £2 million in a strategic employment site that will bring 2,000 jobs to the area. Again, in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, Labour is showing that it is far more interested in seeing money not spent in our local area, and not championing the local cause.
We have built one of the UK’s leading pump tracks at Newchapel recreation ground, which has had visitors from Worcester and Scotland, while BMX riders such as Kyle Evans, a former Team GB European champion, have used the facility. For £100,000, it has created a buzz in Kidsgrove, giving young people access to more facilities. When I was elected, I was told that there was nothing for young people to do. Now the sports centre is coming back and there is a new pump track.
Finally, we have worked with the King’s Church of England Academy, which now has FIFA-standard 3G AstroTurf pitches. The schoolchildren can use that facility during the day and the school can open it up to the community during the evenings and weekends, bringing revenue to the school to invest in the community.
This is what a town deal has done for my area, and I am proud to be part of it. I will benefit from the fact that the swimming pool exists—as a Kidsgrove parish resident, my daughter, who is just over a year old, will be able to learn to swim in her local swimming facility. Every pound invested by the community into that sports centre is going straight back into it, because the community group that ran the campaign are taking over the day-to-day running of that fabulous facility.
Not only have the Government done all of that, but they have delivered on the second largest announcement of civil service job moves of any Department, after Darlington. I know that the Home Secretary looks forward to spending her time up there on occasion. However, she might not be aware that, under the Places for Growth programme, 550 jobs are coming to Stoke-on-Trent via the Home Office. A new innovation centre will provide jobs at all career stages, including apprenticeships to help Stokies get into great civil service careers. Initially, there will be 50 caseworker roles, with a further 200 jobs at an asylum co-ordination hub, and that will expand to about 560 jobs by 2025. In addition to the caseworker roles, the centre will include operational, IT, policy and corporate functions, and will offer exciting career paths to local people. There will also be a number of senior civil service roles in Stoke-on-Trent, meaning that the people there will have a voice in Government. If anyone wants to understand why the people of Stoke-on-Trent voted overwhelmingly to leave—by 73%, in my constituency—it is because they thought that if London did not care about them, then Brussels would not have a bloody clue about their local area. That is why we are finally seeing a big change there.
What can the Government continue to do? The shopping list has not ended unfortunately, Minister. Stoke has had an appetiser and a bit of a main course, but we are still hungry for more, and dessert will come in the form of the levelling-up fund bid that we have submitted. We are lucky to be rated as a grade 1 priority area. We thank the Government for listening to our calls and understanding the deprivation.
It is hard not to be enthused by the hon. Gentleman’s energy. I congratulate him and his colleague, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), who is no longer present but was here for the previous debate. Does he agree that it is very important to have a partnership and relationship between the MP and the local council, and that it is part of the success story that he refers to?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who I love taking an intervention from—it is a parliamentary privilege. He is right: the relationship between the local council and the local MP is so important, because if we end up butting heads nothing will happen. That is not benefiting the people who have elected us to serve them.
I take the fact that those votes will end. I do not sit here arrogantly; they were lent votes, and if I do not deliver, I will be sacked. Every single one of my constituents is a Lord Sugar, so they will hire me or fire me. I take that responsibility absolutely seriously. I say on every doorstep that I do. That is why I do not stop banging on about my local area. That is why the Minister must be bored to death of hearing about Stoke-on-Trent from me and my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) and for Stoke-on-Trent South—the Stoke mafia, as we have come to be known in the Tea Room. We will keep fighting for our local area. Councillor Abi Brown is a tour de force—a young, dynamic, forward-thinking council leader paving the way, and now having a major role in the Local Government Association as well.
Let us go over the levelling-up fund bid, which for me is a litmus test of the Government’s commitment. It is a £73.5 million bid. Some £3.5 million will go into Tunstall, which will turn an old library and swimming baths back into a mixed-use facility, including flats, a multi-purpose exhibition space and a café. It will turn one of the largest city centre regeneration areas in the west midlands into a thriving hotel, flat accommodation and hopefully indoor arena that will specialise in e-sports. There is so much potential in those fantastic bids, which are in with the Treasury. I know that the Minister wants to make my Christmas. One way that she can achieve that is by ensuring that we deliver on those bids. We have bid for the transport elements as well.
We have also bid on the Stoke-to-Leek line through the Restoring your Railway fund. It is a fantastic bid, with four constituency MPs bidding for it jointly. It will unlock people being able to commute around north Staffordshire, meaning that we finally have better transport. I hope that, alongside rail, we will get some Bus Back Better opportunities, because 30% of the people of Stoke-on-Trent do not have access to a car, and the current bus service is not good enough.
Thank you, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for securing this important and timely debate. He set out very comprehensively why levelling up matters so much and cannot be left as a slogan. It must become a reality, because the communities that we represent all rely on it.
The Government tell us that one of their key priorities as we emerge, hopefully, from the pandemic, is that we do so as a healthier country. For the levelling-up agenda—the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) touched on this—that must mean tackling health inequalities. It is one of the glaring indicators of inequality between cities and regions, but I worry that over the last 18 months we have seen a pattern where health and leisure facilities in areas with the biggest pre-existing health inequalities have been the ones at greatest risk of closure.
According to ukactive, more than 400 sports and leisure facilities have closed permanently since March 2020, including the much valued and loved West Denton pool in Newcastle North, which has sadly not reopened due to the devastating financial impact of the pandemic. According to the 2019 indices of deprivation, the neighbourhood where that pool is located is already in the top 10% in the country for health deprivation challenges. Much of the surrounding area has similar issues. Combined with the overall decline in physical activity during lockdowns over the last 15 months, I am really concerned that its closure will lead only to the worsening of long-term health outcomes for the communities that I represent.
When I met with the Minister for School Standards yesterday alongside water safety and swimming campaigners, they emphasised to him that children’s swimming ability varies hugely by socioeconomic status. According to Sport England, 84% of children and young people from the most affluent areas can swim the statutory 25 metres required by the national curriculum when they leave primary school, whereas only 41% from the least affluent families do the same. Water safety is about a lot more than just being able to swim, but I worry that the pool closures in disadvantaged areas—not just Newcastle—will create a problem of children from less affluent backgrounds disproportionately failing to meet those minimum standards. Therefore, potentially they will find themselves in much greater danger when near the water. Access to affordable local swimming pools is central to helping children in less affluent areas not only keep fit but be safe.
We need to level up health inequalities. The Minister could make a great start by backing Newcastle City Council’s bid to the fund to develop a new state-of-the-art net-zero-carbon swimming pool and leisure development in outer west Newcastle. The Chancellor is a keen swimmer, having recently decided to add a 12-metre pool to his own grade II listed north Yorkshire manor. I hope that when the Government come to consider bids to the levelling-up fund, the Minister will agree that Newcastle North’s constituents in the outer west of Newcastle should have access to a pool, too.
I will speak briefly about High Speed 2. Like many colleagues in the north of England, I have been concerned by reports that Ministers are again considering the cancellation of phase 2b, which runs from Leeds and connects to other major cities via the east coast main line. Committing to the eastern leg of HS2, alongside Northern Powerhouse Rail and east coast main line upgrades, are all essential to make HS2 work for the north. It is not just about speed; it is about providing that connectivity and capacity that we so badly need. The Government have created a lot of uncertainty over its future, seemingly reopening the question of phase 2b time and again, even though the Oakervee review concluded that it should go ahead. If the Government are serious about HS2 being a project for the north, which is how it has been sold, it cannot be just for London and Birmingham. In the upcoming integrated rail plan, they must commit to integrate and build all phases of HS2, along with Northern Powerhouse Rail and badly needed upgrades to the east coast main line.
Enough talk about levelling up—the Government need to walk the walk on this issue. That means investing in our communities, our health inequalities and our transport infrastructure, so that we can genuinely level out not just between north and south but between and within our northern communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I too congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this important and timely debate.
The last time I spoke in Westminster Hall was on the similar topic of transport funding in the north of England. I thought, “I can’t resist getting involved in this and sticking my oar in.” I made a couple of points that I hoped were helpful to Members, based on our experience in Scotland over many decades when it comes to getting money out of the UK Government. I said that they could play with the formulas in the Treasury Green Book all they liked but if the Prime Minister, when he was Mayor of London, claimed that £1 spent in Croydon was worth more than £1 spent in Strathclyde, it could be taken that he also meant that £1 spent in Croydon was worth more than one spent in Merseyside, Teesside, Tyneside or Humberside. Clearly, levelling up is not in this Prime Minister’s DNA.
We should scrutinise closely how his Administration carry that agenda forward. We should not be the least bit surprised that when we looked specifically at the £1 billion allocated from the towns deal, we saw that 39 of 45 places that benefit happened to be represented by Conservative MPs. Imagine that.
In Scotland, we do not have metro Mayors, but for a time I was co-leader of Aberdeenshire council, and on behalf of that local authority, I put pen to paper on what amounted to, in total, a £750 million city region deal between Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen city. That brought the Scottish Government and the UK Government together; it brought the public and private sectors together, and it got local government involved. It treated everyone fairly, as equals, and it is bringing significant benefits. We got that to diversify the economy and to bring prosperity to some parts of the north-east of Scotland that needed it, as well as to home in on some of the areas where we felt we had a comparative advantage, but we did it, in stark contrast to the UK Government’s levelling-up agenda, by respecting the spheres and the tiers of Governments at all levels.
Since then, we have seen the power grab of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and the way that the UK Government have tried to bypass devolved Government. It is a disgrace, but it is very clear to see why that happened. The UK Government want to direct money not where it will do the most levelling up in a lot of cases, but where they think it can do the most political good for the Conservative party.
We can see exactly why that is in Scotland. The Conservatives know that they cannot win an election. In fact, they came within about 0.2% of seeing the Scottish National party being re-elected as a Government and being sacked as the official Opposition. Knowing that they cannot win an election in Scotland, they instead seek to bypass the established spheres and tiers of Government, undermining the only national Government that is directly elected and accountable to voters in Scotland. I think that is a terrible shame because there was an opportunity to work together, to respect the spheres and tiers of Government, to look in the round at the powers that the Scottish Government have and to give them the borrowing powers they need to invest in the long-term infrastructure and societal change that we need to level up.
In north-east Scotland, the Conservatives have complained long and loud about local funding. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). He lives in a tier 1 area. Aberdeen city has been put in tier 2 and Aberdeenshire has been put into the lowest tier possible. These are the areas that have been punished and penalised most through Brexit and have received the very least through the levelling-up agenda so far. Added to the loss of the EU funding that they could have expected, this simply rubs salt in the wound.
It is now clear beyond doubt, viewed from where I represent, that this Government have absolutely no intention of building a fair recovery. Giving the Scottish Government the powers they need to build back better and to build back recovery through an independence referendum is clearly the only way to enable us to build back better and build back fairer.
Thank you for your chairmanship today, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) for tabling this debate. As he said, he comes to this issue not just from the perspective of a local MP but also as the Mayor of South Yorkshire. He spoke eloquently about the challenges facing his area, which are shared by many areas across the country.
I do not propose to use the time available to go over the familiar ground of what area has been allocated what fund. Those issues have been well aired and the disparities are there for everyone to see. Instead, I want to look at the wider picture and to begin by asking the Minister to define levelling up. What do the Government mean by it? Can she define it in clear and simple terms?
There is a long history to efforts and attempts to tackle regional inequality. In the Government that I served, we launched the new deal for communities. My own constituency received £53 million from this for the All Saints and Blakenhall area, more than twice what the whole city has received under its recent towns fund bid, more than a decade on. We had Sure Start, the Building Schools for the Future programme, rising investment in the NHS, falling waiting times and major cuts in child poverty.
We introduced tax credits to help lower paid working people. We did not cut their incomes by £20 a week, as the Government will do next month, a cut that will affect 12,000 families in my constituency and millions of families across the country. We had regional development agencies covering the whole of England. These were abolished by the coalition Government and replaced by local enterprise partnerships, which we were told would lead to regeneration through private sector-led boards. Who ever hears about LEPs now? How did they become the poor, unloved children of the Conservative Government, created and then ignored by Ministers? What is the Government’s problem with the LEPs they created? Is their crime being too local?
Levelling up has to be considered alongside what local areas have lost over the past decade: billions of pounds cut from local authority budgets; 773 libraries closed in England; 750 youth centres closed; 1,300 children’s centres closed; and school funding per pupil cut by 9% over the past decade, the biggest fall in 40 years, a direct attack on the opportunities and life chances of the very young people who need education the most. There is no greater leveller up than education. It is more powerful than any new road, building or bus lane. It is the platform upon which barriers are torn away. It is the weapon through which glass ceilings are broken. And on this most fundamental of issues, opportunity has been taken away and not enhanced, so before we talk about levelling up, we need to ask: who did the levelling down? The Government would like the public to believe that they have been in power for only two years, but that is not the case; they have been in power for 11 years.
What of levelling up itself? We welcome every new pound of investment and every new job created. We want every part of the country to succeed. We want the best possible opportunities for people, no matter where they live or the circumstances into which they were born. But that will not be achieved by pots of capital expenditure alone. Even when it comes to the money, the new levelling-up fund replaces a local growth fund that was actually worth more, and half of its budget this year is taken from the towns fund. It is the reannouncement of the same money over and over again.
Then there is the basic concept itself, and this is the heart of it. A true levelling-up agenda would focus on people, not just capital expenditure. Unless we help people to succeed—help them to deal with the costs that they face, for example in relation to childcare and the early years, and enable them to make the most of their talent through properly funded, excellent schools and great second-chance education later in life—true levelling up will not happen. We will have some extra infrastructure spending, but that is what it will be.
Let us take the verdict of the Government’s own Industrial Strategy Council, issued shortly before it was abolished by Ministers. It said that
“the proposed approach appears over-reliant on infrastructure spending and the continued use of centrally controlled funding pots thinly spread across a range of initiatives. Evidence, historical and international, suggests this is unlikely to be a recipe for success. Sustained local growth needs to be rooted in local strategies, covering not only infrastructure but skills, sectors, education and culture. These strategies need to be locally designed and focussed”.
The truth is that the Government do not want this to be locally led. They want it to be centralised, controlled by Ministers and given out solely at their discretion—the subject of Friday visits in high-vis jackets. They are not talking about skills and education, because those things are not tangible enough for press releases and election leaflets. They want physical projects that they can point to.
We read today that the agenda may even be used as an instrument of political control inside the Conservative party. Reports suggest that the Government Whips have threatened to withhold funding from Conservative MPs’ constituencies as a mechanism for stamping out potential dissent on the Government Back Benches. The Chief Whip is alleged to have said, “My pen hovered over your name,” to one potential rebel. Why should MPs’ constituents lose out because their MPs had the temerity to exercise their own judgment or the gall to stand up for what they believed in? Public money should not be used in that way. Whips have always tried to get MPs to vote the party line. That is their job. But the allocation of public funds should not come into it. That shows the inherent flaws in trying to do this in such a centralised way.
The challenge for the Government is clear: define what levelling up is; ensure that the definition includes people as well as bricks and mortar; and have a genuine local voice in how this is done, rather than the centralised approach that has been adopted so far. If Ministers do that, we might make some progress, but if they continue on the current path, the danger is that the verdict of their Industrial Strategy Council is what comes to pass.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) on securing this debate on a topic about which he has been very vocal. We both care very deeply about it, and I hope he understands that the Government feel the same way.
In a speech on this issue delivered exactly two months ago today, the Prime Minister said:
“it is the mission of this government to unite and level up across the whole of the UK, not just because that is morally right, but because if we fail we are simply squandering vast reserves of human capital and we are failing to allow people to fulfil their potential and we are holding our country back.”
Changing a situation in which for too many people geography turns out to be destiny is this Government’s defining goal. That is what levelling up means: opportunity for all, wherever and whoever.
Hon. Members raised a number of important points, and I will try to address as many of them as I can in the time allowed. Bids are being assessed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Transport and other relevant Departments. I cannot discuss them here, but successful bids will be announced this autumn. I wish all constituencies and local authorities that have put forward bids to the Government the very best of luck. We want to do as much as we can for everybody. Resources are not infinite, but we will do the very best we can.
The hon. Member for Barnsley Central said that it is about not words, but action, so I hope he will be happy for me to summarise briefly what the Government have done and what we intend to do. Opposition Members complain that we are not investing enough, but the fact is that last year’s spending review announced record investment in infrastructure with all the benefits that will bring. This year’s review, which will conclude on 27 October, will build on that progress. It will focus on strong, innovative public services, a transition to net zero and delivering our plan for growth. To emphasise the quantum of money, core departmental spending is set to grow in real terms at nearly 4% per year on average over this Parliament. That means, in 2024-25, £140 billion more per year in cash terms than at the start of the Parliament, so it simply is not true that we are not investing.
One of our more exciting policies that the Treasury has really been promoting is freeports, which create good-quality jobs. We think they will do so much. They will become magnets for dynamic, fast-growing businesses, generating prosperity in areas where people may sometimes feel that they have been forgotten. At the Budget, we announced eight new freeports, one of which is in Felixstowe. I know it is not Lowestoft, but it will have positive benefits for Norfolk and Suffolk, and will benefit areas such as Lowestoft.
My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) asked about coastal communities. He said a lot that I will address further in my remarks, but at Budget the Government invested quite a lot in policies that will benefit coastal communities—not just the levelling-up fund but the £5.2 billion flood and coastal defence programme, which starts this month. We are also allocating £1.2 billion over the years to support the roll-out of gigabit-capable broadband in hard-to-reach areas. I know he will appreciate that.
I want to quickly mention the fact that in Stoke-on-Trent, we have £9.2 million to install gigabit broadband, making us the first gigabit city in the country. That has been done with Government funding and VX Fiber. We brought that project in under budget and saved the Treasury £600,000. I thought this was a great opportunity for the Minister to congratulate the city of Stoke-on-Trent on delivering once again.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I have been really bowled over by how the Stoke mafia have been such champions for their area, never talking it down. I thank him for reminding me about the amount we have given to Stoke. I believe we have also given Lowestoft about £24.9 million within the towns fund, so money is going to all the right places—the places that need this cash.
Building infrastructure is also essential, and we have launched a number of schemes, such as the towns fund. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central mentioned the UK Infrastructure Bank and said that it is all very well that we have it, but it is a critical thing. It is up and running and planning its first investment. Crucially, it will partner with the private sector and local government to kick-start major infrastructure projects, contributing not just to levelling up but to achieving net zero. A third of its initial £12 billion in funding is specifically earmarked for local and mayoral authorities, just like his. The expectation is that these investments will also spark a crowd-in effect, with private backers keen, themselves, to invest in the kind of infrastructure we need. The Government cannot do everything. We need the private sector to take part in this. I did not hear the hon. Member for Barnsley Central mention the private sector in his speech, and I hope that he might do so in his closing remarks. The private sector is crucial in delivering levelling up, and I am very happy to meet him and speak to him about what it can do. It cannot be just Government.
Hon. Members also talked about skills and education. Absolutely—I completely agree with them. Skills and education will be the cornerstone of our future economic success. Here, too, we are working hard to change lives, whether through the £95 million lifetime skills guarantee, the £43 million we have provided to expand employer-led skills retraining boot camps across England this year, or the £3,000 we have been giving employers for every apprentice they take on before the end of this month.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) talked about health inequalities and her bid, which I wish her every success with. We very much recognise this; I am also the Minister for Equalities, and the Government have been doing quite a lot within this space. However, I remind all Members that funding is very tight. Last week, when we did vote for additional health funding, Opposition Members did not walk through the Lobby with us to vote for extra money for the NHS.
Returning to the point about what the Government are doing, local authorities have a part to play, as the hon. Member for Barnsley Central and others said. We are not into top-down politics, or Government imposing solutions by decree, whatever it is they say. We think national, but we do act local. That is why we have given local authorities the power to drive forward funding applications. We have given lots of powers to local authorities, and I would be very keen to hear what our mayors and local authorities are doing with those powers.
We are also trying to avoid what has historically been a siloed approach. The levelling-up fund, which is run by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport, was designed together with the Treasury. That is an example of how we are doing better working together, and it is why I am very happy to respond in this debate, even though many of the issues that hon. Members have raised are managed and administered by other Departments.
We have also talked about taking a more flexible approach to devolution in England. I know that the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) is requesting far, far more, but I am afraid that is not something we will grant at this time. We do want to do devolution better, rewriting the rulebook and giving new deals for counties, so that the people who know their communities best can do the best for them. Through the devolution deals, we have already committed £7.5 billion of unringfenced gainshare investment for nine mayoral combined authorities over 30 years, to be spent on local priorities.
I will also mention, specifically for the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, that through the city region sustainable transport settlements, eight MCAs are set to receive £4.2 billion over the next five years. Through the transforming cities fund, Sheffield city region—soon to be the South Yorkshire mayoral combined authority—has itself received a total of £171 million to fund local transport projects, including a new bus rapid transit link in Barnsley. That is just part of the investment that the Government are making across the country.
The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) asked what exactly it means to level up. I hear that again and again. I feel that we repeat ourselves, but people still do not take it in. Levelling up is the chance for the Government to improve life chances and everyday life for people in underperforming places. Those places have not been underperforming since 2010—they have been underperforming for decades, under successive Governments.
We acknowledge the gains we have made and that there is still work to do, but structural issues are geographic for some places, and we believe that we have the right policies to tackle those. Many of the examples that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) gave show how we can deliver that.
There were lots of accusations about the levelling-up fund being pork barrel politics for Conservative constituencies. I utterly reject that. It is absolutely untrue. It is also untrue nonsense that the Chief Whip is deciding which MPs will get funding. Those are just nonsensical media speculations. We, on this side of the House, know that we are doing right for the people of this country. That is why we have more Conservative seats than ever, and many, like Stoke, used to be Labour.
For those who are unsure, the levelling-up fund is intended to invest in infrastructure that improves everyday life across the UK. We recognise that it does not always go to the most deprived places. It is a formula that takes many things into account, and it will prioritise those bids, as has been said, from places in highest need.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).