Thursday 8 September 2022
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
Menopause and the Workplace
Women and Equalities Committee
Select Committee statement
Before we start, I would like to repeat the statement made by Mr Speaker in the House of Commons, who sent his best wishes on behalf of everyone to Her Majesty the Queen and the royal family, who are in our thoughts and prayers at this moment.
Caroline Nokes will speak on the publication of the first report of the Women and Equalities Committee, “Menopause and the Workplace”, for up to 10 minutes, during which I cannot allow any interventions. At the conclusion of the statement, I will call Members who wish to ask questions on the subject of the statement, and call Caroline Nokes to respond. I must remind everyone that questions should be brief. I call the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Caroline Nokes.
Thank you, Mr Robertson, and I associate myself with the comments made by yourself and by Mr Speaker.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting me time in this Chamber and the opportunity to make this statement. I pass on my thanks to the Clerks to the Women and Equalities Committee and to the entire Committee for their incredibly hard work. It is now over a year since we launched the inquiry, a year in which we have seen menopause and its health and workplace issues rise to prominence. I think it is fair to say that there was a time, not that long ago, when nobody in this place would have wanted to talk about the menopause, and women of a certain age—that is, my age—would have been very anxious about talking about it publicly for fear of the stigma and taboo that is sometimes associated with menopause.
There has been a massive sea change in recent years. We have seen debates, both in this Chamber and on the Floor of the House, where Members—both male and female—have been very happy to talk about their own experiences and champion the change that we wish to see for our constituents. It was really encouraging to see the large number of Members who took part in the debate on World Menopause Month last year. I am sure that the hon. Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and I will be applying for another debate this year. We have had long discussions about the menopause workplace pledge, menopause workplace policies, and the importance of employers and businesses, whether large or small, adopting menopause-friendly policies. Indeed, we saw Mr Speaker sign the menopause workplace pledge on behalf of the House of Commons and the civil service, and we have also seen private companies such as John Lewis and Royal Mail sign that pledge.
What matters to me and my Committee, however, is not just a commitment from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to work hand in hand with businesses signing up to those sorts of pledges and introducing policies, but that those policies are implemented and acted on. When we launched the inquiry, we discovered that, although things have improved, this is no time to be complacent. In 2019, Bupa published research showing that almost 1 million women had left their jobs due to menopause symptoms, and that many women are still facing stigma in society and at work and are struggling to get diagnosis and treatment.
We launched the inquiry because menopause is an inevitable and natural part of growing older, but stigma, poor medical treatment and feeling compelled to give up work or to not take on promotions at the peak of one’s career should never be considered inevitable or normal. We took evidence from academics, lawyers, doctors, experts in business and people with lived experience, and they all said the same thing: yes, things are getting better, but there is still a long way to go.
We also looked at menopause as a health issue—the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East on hormone replacement therapy is very well known. On health, we found that stigma around menopause is still a significant problem for all women, but it is magnified for certain groups, such as minority ethnic women. I pay particular tribute to Karen Arthur, who came and gave evidence on behalf of black women going through the menopause. Certainly, younger women and LGBT+ people who have faced premature menopause and surgical menopause have faced particular challenges because it is not seen as a problem for them.
We have welcomed the inclusion of menopause on the relationships, health and sex education curriculum, but we want to see a really inclusive and high-profile public health and education campaign on menopause. There is some great work being carried out by organisations such as Pausitivity. Indeed, in my own county of Hampshire, great campaigners such as Jo Ibbott and Claire Hattrick have worked so hard on this issue. However, what we really want to see from the Department of Health and Social Care is an inclusive and high-profile public health campaign.
We heard that far too many women struggle to get an accurate diagnosis and that access to specialist services is limited. Women told us horrendous stories of being dismissed and ignored and having to really fight to explain what was going wrong with them to their GPs in order to get the appropriate prescriptions. The issues of access to HRT and the cost of prescriptions have been raised many times in this Chamber, but they are worth reiterating. Although we were pleased to see the appointment of the HRT tsar, we are worried that she is now headed back to her previous role as head of the vaccine taskforce while there are still shortages and protocols around 12 of the 13 HRT medicines.
At this point, I would like to pay particular tribute to the work of the Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), who did fantastic work on this in her previous post. We are sorry to see her go. It is poignant that today is the first day that over-the-counter HRT medicines have been available—I pay tribute to her for making that possible.
Women are staying in work for longer. Women over 50 are the fastest growing demographic in the workplace. However, despite being among the most experienced and skilled workers, and, indeed, role models to younger workers, some women are leaving their jobs, being forced out or forced to cut back their hours.
We heard about the many ways in which menopause can affect work, such as through problematic symptoms. Some 99% of respondents to a survey we ran outlined that they had at least one problematic symptom. In a modern society, it cannot be right that women are being discriminated against and that the menopause is contributing to women reducing their hours or leaving work altogether. We are losing skills, future generations are losing the benefit of their wisdom, and the economy is haemorrhaging talent.
The positive benefits of being menopause-friendly are obvious. They include not only strong reputational benefits, but the ability to retain the best and most experienced staff and to help women to thrive in the workplace. All of this will help to reduce the gender pay and pension gap. We heard that supporting menopausal employees need not be resource-intensive or costly. We heard of some fantastic schemes about menopause workplace champions. When employers ask, “What is the one thing we can do to support our female employees going through the menopause?”, the answer that invariably comes back is, “Give them space to talk and someone that they can trust to take their issues to.” Some of the organisations we spoke to had fantastic “Ask me” T-shirts, encouraging women to speak up and speak out.
We were shocked, however, to find how little awareness and guidance there is that the menopause can be both a health and safety at work issue and an equality issue. We have called on both the Health and Safety Executive and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to urgently issue menopause-specific guidance.
The current law makes it extremely difficult for women to bring a claim. I regard bringing a claim to a tribunal as a failure of workplace policies, but it does happen, and we have to ensure that it is easier for women to bring a menopause-specific claim. Both sex discrimination and age discrimination require a comparator—I know that hon. Members will immediately see the problem with a menopausal woman having to compare herself to a sick man in order to get redress. Too many women have been forced to resort to disability discrimination legislation in order to bring a claim. We considered whether any measure short of legal reform would help, but concluded that the Government needed to enact section 14 of the Equality Act 2010 to allow women to bring claims based on dual discrimination and to consult on making menopause a protected characteristic.
In conclusion, I hope that this important report will continue to drive social change and further encourage cross-Government action. It is imperative that all Government Departments are involved, including the Department of Health and Social Care, BEIS and the Departments for Education and for Work and Pensions. We need to improve the diagnosis and treatment of women and keep those many menopausal women who should be thriving at work in work. While we heard of many terrible experiences for women, we also heard from some utterly inspirational women and organisations. Let us continue the hard work that we have started, and find the ability to celebrate menopausal women’s contributions to society and the economy. I hope that the Minister will look at the work of the women’s health strategy, where menopause has been a priority—and the recently appointed women’s health ambassador, Dame Lesley Regan, is already doing great work—and make sure that women’s health, particularly menopausal women’s health, remains a priority.
I thank the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee and the entire Committee for this important report. It rightly brings attention to the additional discrimination in the workplace and stigma that women from ethnic minorities go through during the menopause phase, which is often neglected in the wider conversation. Disappointingly, however, these problems were not mentioned in the relevant section of the Government’s women’s health strategy. Does the right hon. Lady agree that the Government should give consideration to the specific issues faced by ethnic minority women?
I thank the hon. Member for her question. She makes an important point. Not all women will experience the menopause in the same way, and not all cultures will address it in the same way. One of my biggest challenges as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee is to make sure that we address the intersectional issues. Fifty-one per cent. of our population are women, and the Committee will always be champions for them, but we must also address the different ways in which people of different ethnicities and ages and those with different disabilities will encounter various challenges relating to not just the menopause but health and workplace issues. It is imperative that we keep emphasising that, and that we do not take a one-size-fits-all approach to the issue of equalities, because it is simply not appropriate.
As well as making up over 50% of the population, women are the fastest growing group in the workplace and are staying in work longer than ever before. Does the right hon. Lady therefore agree that it is vital that the Government appoint a menopause ambassador to champion good practice, and that they commence section 14 of the Equality Act 2010 to allow dual discrimination claims? And a fellow member of the Women and Equalities Committee, does she agree that, despite the fact that the word “women” has this week been dropped from departmental and ministerial titles relating to women and equalities, women, as well as equalities, will always remain at the top of the Committee’s agenda?
I thank my fellow Committee member for her question. It is important that we have a menopause ambassador. The hon. Member is right to point out that the largest growing demographic in the workplace is women over 50. I would like to see much more effort go into championing—I hate to have to say this, but I declare an interest—women over 50. We potentially have ahead of us the best part of 20 years of further contribution to make to the workforce before hitting retirement age. It is imperative that we champion—I hate to use this word—older women, women with experience, and women who can act as role models. It is crucial that we do so. A menopause ambassador would be a good step, and I would like them to have a cross-cutting remit so that they can consider what can be done at DWP and the Department of Health and Social Care, and how menopausal issues can be championed in education and, of course, at BEIS. That would be a wide remit, and I am absolutely fixated on this. We should be looking at ways in which we can ensure that there are opportunities for women to retrain and to access finance to establish and grow their own businesses. There would be a massive boost to the economy if women were starting and scaling up businesses at the same rate as men.
The hon. Member makes an excellent point about dual discrimination, which the report covers in detail. The report does not call for menopause to instantly be made a protected characteristic, but we do say that the Government should consult on that, and I hope that they will have the courage to do so. We also say that section 14 of the Equality Act should be enacted immediately. I apologise for this very long answer, but that would give women the ability to bring a discrimination case on two protected characteristics—namely, age and sex. That would be a really important step forward, because we know that the menopause happens only to natal women and to those women who have transitioned to be legally men, so we must not exclude them and it is crucial that we do not forget about them.
We know that discrimination against LGBT+ people can be more severe than against others. A dual discrimination claim could be enacted swiftly and easily, and it would mean that women would not have to bring claims about the menopause under disability discrimination legislation. The menopause is many things—it is hideous, it is hot, it takes away your ability to concentrate and can leave you unable to sleep—but it is not a disability. Interestingly, many of the cases that have been brought under disability discrimination legislation have been found not proven, because it is not a disability.
The hon. Lady made a final point, one which is core to the work of my Committee, about the inclusion of the word “women” in women and equalities. I am absolutely determined that, in my time as Chair, the Committee will champion the rights of women and the inclusion of women, and will not see women erased.
I commend the right hon. Lady and the Select Committee for the report, and I thank her for her contribution. As hon. Members will know, I have supported this issue the whole way through, primarily because my own wife was going through it, and that gave me experience and understanding.
I understand that there are more women, including those over the age of 50, in employment than there have been for a great number of years, so this report is really important. Has the report been shared with other Administrations? I am very keen to ensure that we in Northern Ireland have the same opportunity to make important changes. Employing six ladies in my office, as I do, I understand that it is important to give space. Let us do that in Northern Ireland as well.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I can think of many an occasion when I have heard him speak in debates on the menopause, and I thank him for his commitment to the issue. He is right to point out that there are more women in employment now than I think at any time previously during my lifetime. That is a huge bonus and benefit that we should celebrate. We must hold up those women over 50 or those menopausal women in employment as role models and champions. They are the vanguard for a younger generation, and can be the menopause workplace champions who can provide the advice and that safe space for talking about this.
This issue absolutely applies across the whole of the United Kingdom, and we have to spread best practice. My Select Committee is tentatively considering a visit to Northern Ireland. I very much hope that we will get consent from the Liaison Committee to go on our first visit to Northern Ireland, and we hope to squeeze in a little trip to Dublin at the same time. People are looking to us as world leaders on this issue. I have been stunned at the number of parliamentarians from overseas who have contacted me about the work that we are doing here in the United Kingdom on the menopause. It is imperative that the work is shared among the devolved Administrations as well.
I am very grateful to the Women and Equalities Committee and am enjoying the outbreak of agreement across this Chamber today—it is not always that way. The right hon. Lady’s comments about why it is so important that we talk about this issue resonate with me. It is not a niche issue. I talked about it with some constituents at the Neilston Menopause Café last week, or the week before—I can’t remember; that might be brain fog. It was an extremely useful opportunity for women at a particular point in their lives to have those conversations. Does the right hon. Lady agree that bringing that opportunity into the workplace context is particularly important, so that people can and do understand that the menopause is absolutely normal?
If I may, I will push my luck a little and ask a second question. The right hon. Lady mentioned prescription charges, which we do not face in Scotland, but does she agree that another issue for women who go through the menopause may be inadequate sick pay, which can exacerbate already troubling issues? Could the Committee focus its attention on that, given its impact on so many women?
The hon. Lady makes a number of important points. She has been to her local Menopause Café. There is a brilliant group in my constituency called What the Fog? I will be doing a seminar with it in a few weeks’ time. It is imperative that we normalise this in the workplace. I have spent the summer talking to organisations and businesses, large and small. I talked to an enormous group of women at Scania in Milton Keynes. It was incredibly. Just giving people the space to share their own experiences was really important to them, and it got the conversation going.
The hon. Lady has absolutely hit the nail on the head about the cost of the menopause. There is a cost to business, to the economy and to individual women. What we call for in the report is a trial, from a large-scale public sector employer, of menopause workplace leave. I would love to see a public sector organisation come forward and volunteer to do that. We understand that it is difficult for some women; they will have horrendous symptoms, but they can get it through it, and maybe leave is the answer.
Support for Local Food Infrastructure
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of support for local food infrastructure.
It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. At the outset, I should declare my own interests. For many years, I have been a partner in two family farms in Suffolk, and from this June I chair a community interest company called REAF—the Renaissance of East Anglian Fisheries—which has the objective of reinvigorating the East Anglian fishing industry for the benefit of local communities such as Lowestoft in my constituency. REAF’s objectives very much coincide with the issues that will be raised in this debate.
On the farm where I grew up and still live, we have a pig unit. Forty years ago, pigs were conceived, born, reared and fattened on the farm, with feed milled and mixed there, and when the time came they went to an abattoir that was also in Suffolk. Today, things are very different; the piglets are born on different farms, moved to ours for rearing, then sent to abattoirs that are often a long way away. There is a risk that I will become dewy-eyed and sentimental—yes, the new way of doing things may be more efficient, but it is also of less benefit to local economies and communities, and an enormous number of food miles are generated. In many places local food infrastructure no longer exists. This needs to be addressed, as research carried out by Sustain confirms that local food systems provide better environmental, economic and social returns.
While much of this debate is focused on the long-term structural improvements that are needed to local food infrastructure, it is necessary to highlight the enormous pressures that currently impact all aspects of food production: the dramatic rise in energy prices, the supply and crippling cost of fertiliser and carbon dioxide, and the acute shortage of staff. If Government policy promotes the development of greater local supply, with the necessary supporting infrastructure, then we can embed greater resilience against these punitive outside forces.
It is important to provide some background information on the current state of the food sector. The groceries market in 2020 was worth £200 billion. The nine largest food retailers control over 90% of the market and, on average, farmers get only 9% of the agrifood gross value added. The 2021 Groceries Code Adjudicator survey showed a backwards slide on fairness: some 39% of fish caught by UK boats is landed and processed abroad, with little benefit coming back to local fishing communities such as the one in Lowestoft. To improve the situation, there is a need for investment in food infrastructure, including hubs for collaborative produce marketing, processing facilities, storage and refrigeration premises, abattoirs, dairy and creamery facilities, better signage and promotion of markets, improved digital and IT systems, farmers’ markets and grain and oilseed pressers.
Hubs can be provided at showgrounds, as the Suffolk Agricultural Association and the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association are doing. As the drought persists in Suffolk—but perhaps not at the Oval—it is important to highlight the need for improved water infrastructure.
I wholly support all the very important infrastructure investments that my hon. Friend has detailed, but on water, which is a vital ingredient in the mix, I want to raise my concern about local food partnerships. Because they are not commercially operated, they are suffering in this drought due to the water restrictions. I believe that some water companies are using their discretion, but South East Water is not. Is my hon. Friend sympathetic to my request to South East Water to revisit its policy and provide the relevant level of water support to local food partnerships, such as mine in Eastbourne, so that they can truly take their place and be part of the local food infrastructure?
Yes, I am sympathetic to that, and I will touch on water infrastructure a number of times during my speech. We probably have not realised its significance and importance up until the past few weeks, when it has become apparent. The harvest on the farm I come from was okay, but as these conditions persist, what will next year’s harvest be like? These problems will not just be here for this season; they may be here for some years to come.
The Countryside Alliance highlights five challenges that we need to address. There is a need for enhanced food security, which is particularly important given the appalling ongoing war in Ukraine. We need to bear it in mind that the UK produces some of the best food in the world, with the highest standards for safety and animal welfare, and we must build on that sound foundation.
A network of local abattoirs is vital, both to shorten the food miles and to enhance animal welfare. There is a need to improve public sector procurement, as highlighted in the Government’s food strategy. Last year, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended that access to procurement contracts be widened to smaller local suppliers without delay. There remains a need to improve food labelling, as that can empower the consumer. Finally, it is absolutely vital that digital infrastructure be improved in rural areas, as good connectivity allows businesses to find new and local markets and enables customers to access local produce online.
The Groceries Code Adjudicator, into which the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is currently carrying out a review, plays an important role in monitoring, ensuring compliance and enforcing the code, which helps strengthen the food supply chain of suppliers, retailers and consumers. Although that is not a matter directly for this debate, it is vital that the Government retain the adjudicator.
In Suffolk and Norfolk in 2019, the New Anglia local enterprise partnership set up its Norfolk and Suffolk Agri-Food Industry Council, to which REAF is making a presentation next week. The council’s role is to provide a strategic direction for the industry, which has a gross value added in the two counties of £3.1 billion and a workforce of 71,700. It produces 16.6% of the UK’s fruit and vegetables and 17.6% of our poultry.
The local infrastructure issues into which the council believes there is a need for strategic investment from the Government are as follows. As we have heard, there must be investment in water infrastructure to tackle the shortages that fruit and vegetable growers are increasingly facing. Shortages of electricity at key sites are blocking development opportunities. That is a problem at Ellough, on the outskirts of Beccles in my constituency. In transport and logistics, there is a need to improve key infrastructure routes and enhance cold chains—refrigerated facilities right along the supply chain.
The council highlights the need to ensure farmers and rural communities still receive the same level and quality of support, whether financial or through advisory services, under environmental land management schemes and the UK’s shared prosperity fund, as they did before we left the EU. Under the Government’s current proposals, Suffolk will receive less through the shared prosperity fund than it did through the previous EU structural funding. The allocation under the previous regime was estimated at between £18 million and £24 million, while under the shared prosperity fund it is proposed that it will be about £12 million. Anecdotally, there are reports of other areas receiving uplifts. Suffolk MPs have written to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to highlight this iniquity, and anything that my right hon. Friend the Minister in his new position can do to address it will be greatly appreciated.
It is important to showcase examples of good practice, where local initiatives are strengthening local food infrastructure. Three examples that I will mention come from very different backgrounds. First, in 2012, just outside Beccles in my constituency, Josiah Meldrum, Nick Saltmarsh and William Hudson founded Hodmedod to supply grain, pulses, flour and other products from British farms. They wanted to get local food systems working, to challenge the dominant just-in-time distribution systems and to bring more pulses and wholegrains back into the British diet as crucially neglected crops. They work closely with farmers, processors, packers and manufacturers to produce the crops, pack them after harvest and create the ever-growing range of products that they sell to customers online and in shops. The business relies on close relationships between farmers, buyers and those in the supply chain in between to ensure that the system delivers good livelihoods. They have invested in processing machinery to support that.
Secondly, while water companies are very much under the microscope at present, it is important to highlight the work of Anglian Water in providing latent heat from its sewage treatment plants to industrial-scale greenhouses at Fornham near Bury St Edmunds and at Whitlingham near Norwich. It is also making fertiliser from the sewage treatment process.
Finally, last week, the Government committed to making a significant investment in the Sizewell C nuclear power station on the Suffolk coast. Much work remains to be done before EDF can make a final investment decision and work can start on the site; it is carrying out preparatory work that includes the provision of a desalination plant, which in due course could help address the water challenge we have touched on. The energy and agricultural sectors need to work together to provide for our future water needs. That involves ensuring that groundwater is not extracted to such an extent that it exacerbates the biodiversity challenge that we are already facing.
As to how we can deliver meaningful investment to local food infrastructure, to benefit not only local businesses and producers but local people and communities, it is important to mention that the Government are coming forward with initiatives to improve the situation. Those include the fisheries and seafood scheme and the rural England prosperity fund that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced last week. Its launch of the review of the pig supply chain is also to be welcomed, as the industry is currently loss-making and clearly not working in a fair and transparent way. That said, however, my sense is that more can be done. The National Farmers Union highlights the need to improve the planning system. With regard to investment, it points to the need to make the UK the go-to place for investment in agriculture and food production. It proposes a regulatory system that protects consumers and the environment while incentivising innovation and investment, through both planning and fiscal policy.
The Government can take a number of steps to boost local food infrastructure. They include targeted productivity grants, which allow farmers to secure the win-win of more profitable and more sustainable food production that uses resources more efficiently; and investment in research and development and in agri-tech, involving effective two-way knowledge exchange, so that British farmers and growers can have access to the best tools and technologies. The NFU highlights the need to increase procurement opportunities for regionally produced food and prepare local food strategies. The strategies should be developed with LEPs, which have the best understanding of local food supply needs.
Sustain highlights the need to use “all the tools in the box” to promote local growth in shorter supply chains and with innovation at local and national level. It emphasises the need for public money for start-up funding to get new businesses established. That in turn would act as a catalyst for private sector investment. There is also a need for tax relief and low rents on local authority-controlled properties for local SME food businesses to help get them established in those difficult first two years.
Sustain also proposes that the UK Government should use the existing budgets and pots of funding—such as the UK shared prosperity fund and the community ownership fund—to create a £300 million to £500 million local food investment fund to provide strategic support across the UK for investment in localised agrifood infrastructure and enterprise.
Mr Robertson, you will be pleased to hear that I am coming to a conclusion. While these are troubled times and the immediate outlook is very uncertain, there is no reason why, working together, national and local government, public and private utilities, businesses all along the supply chain and local communities cannot bring about a sea change in how we produce, sell eat, and celebrate our food. That, in turn, can build self-sufficiency, embed long-term resilience and enhance community pride. If we do that, we can provide an exemplar, which can be a flagship for global Britain.
I welcome the Minister to his place. He is very much the right person to be answering this debate. I look forward to his reply and hope he will endorse that ambition and commit the Government to working with a very wide range of interested parties to deliver that truly sustainable future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing this debate. As many people in this room are, I am passionate about food, particularly locally grown food. Our relationship with food, and how and when it can go wrong, is also important to me. I am very pleased to take part in this debate on food infrastructure because I think it is a critical point that is affecting many communities up and down the country.
I would like to commend the work of groups such as Regather, Our Cow Molly, which is a great dairy—the last dairy—in Sheffield, and the Sheffield Foodhall. They play a vital role in the local food infrastructure of my city.
Food prices, as we know, are spiralling. It is tempting to blame all of that on the war in Ukraine—Russia and Ukraine are obviously the largest producers of grain in the world—but the instability created by the war has only contributed to an existing problem. The Office for National Statistics figures for the retail prices index on food and catering were increasing way before the war—back in March last year.
One of the key drivers of rising food prices, and the volatility in prices, has been speculation on the international commodity markets. The UK imports just over half of its food, making it even more vulnerable to that volatility. The news that the pound has slumped to a 37-year low against the dollar will only increase the price of imported food, hitting people even harder in their pockets. Yesterday’s Financial Services and Markets Bill, which repeals the MiFID II regulations on commodity trading, will make that situation even worse.
The effects of that international context are writ large in statistics published by the Trussell Trust. Last year, it issued 2.2 million three-day emergency food parcels—an increase of 14% since the start of the pandemic, while, according to the Food Foundation, a shameful 13% of households are currently skipping meals. It is therefore vital that we are having this debate on local food infrastructure.
Building resilience to the chaos of international markets will need a concerted international effort to stop speculation—an effort that is currently missing from Government policy. It also means that building up capacity and food security at home has never been so important. A critical part of that must be supporting and expanding our local food infrastructure. We need investment to plug the gaps in local supply chains, to strengthen them, and to expand their capacity. We also need to fund advice and mentoring for farmers on business planning and sustainable farming methods, and, as the NFU has said, much more effort needs to go into encouraging public and private sector businesses to procure local food.
Our planning system also needs to change. It needs to encourage the diversification of food outlets and the growth of infrastructure supporting shorter supply chains, and it needs to safeguard the best land for agricultural use—it is pointless to waste nutrients if we can avoid it. We need to use shorter supply chains to build wealth in our communities. According to Sustain, every £10 spent on a local box scheme results in total spending of £25 in the local area, compared with just £14 when the same amount is spent in a supermarket. Changing food procurement guidelines and processes—making them more flexible to support local food suppliers—will be crucial for keeping money locally.
Most of all, however, we need a national strategy that joins up the action on the ground and that guarantees a right to food. During the pandemic I called for more support for people who were not getting access to food, and mutual aid and community organisations sprang up across the country, including Acorn, Voluntary Aid Sheffield and Sheffield Foodhall in my city. They delivered food to vulnerable people across the country, and the Government also stepped in to deliver food directly through local authorities. Just as Bevan saw in the Tredegar Medical Aid Society a blueprint for delivering universal healthcare, we should see in this network the beginnings of an infrastructure to deal with food insecurity. These community hubs should be formalised and given the backing and logistical support that they need to provide affordable food for people who need it. In this collective network, we can see the shape of a national service that would provide food for all and ensure that nobody went hungry. It needs only to have material and logistical support, and co-ordination from the state, and it must be integrated into existing local food infrastructure, which is waiting to be exploited.
A food system that leaves us vulnerable to chaos in world markets, or that results in more than one in 10 households skipping meals in one of the richest countries in the world, is not fit for purpose. The scale of the problems in the system must be matched by ambitions to build a new one. The seeds of the new way of doing things have been sown in the decentralised network of organisations, businesses and community groups that make up our local food infrastructure. We must nurture them and ensure that they grow into the local, democratic and sustainable food systems that we need and that many are crying out for.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing the debate and on his excellent speech. Like me, he has long championed the vital role of food in every aspect of our health, from the health of our children and communities to the health of our nation and planet.
To solve the current challenges that we face as a nation, growing the economy to create jobs and fund our public services will be essential. In a country where 99% of businesses are small and medium-sized enterprises—5.6 million in total—we need to support our local businesses in every town and city, and in every village and neighbourhood, if they are to survive and thrive. The Government can only do so much; as consumers, we need to do our part by reflecting on how we buy goods and services, and on what impact those decisions have on our local economy.
Many local businesses are food businesses—from our local corner shops that we depended on during covid lockdowns, to the cafes, restaurants and pubs that are the lifeblood of our high streets, and the market stalls that sell us fruit and vegetables, local cheeses or baked goods. I am always pleased to highlight the new food businesses that bring variety to my local high streets and increase the choices that we have in Stoke-on-Trent. In Hanley, recent additions have been the bao buns at Dumpling King, the lamb patties at Hamilton Bay and Asian fusion cuisine at Wagamama. The monthly artisan market that brings local producers into the city centre, and the fruit and veg stall outside the main entrance to the Royal Stoke Hospital, are evidence that there is growing food choice and better access to healthy food in my city. The local economy also benefits from new businesses such as Long Rest and Geek Retreat, which combine entertainment and refreshment by offering gaming alongside food and drink.
Businesses offering food and drink are key in complementing a retail offer that has been steadily shrinking. Changes in consumer buying patterns mean that our high streets are no longer dominated by large retail chains, so the rise of local independent businesses that are personally invested in the local community will be the key driver of the renaissance of town centres. Local people judge the success of regeneration by how their high street looks, and pride of place is vital to residents’ feeling of wellbeing and optimism about their local area. Too many areas are blighted by half-empty high streets, with negative impacts like uncleanliness and antisocial behaviour.
My personal passion for the food agenda has been shaped by two years of chairing the all-party parliamentary group on the national food strategy. While a number of recommendations from the Dimbleby review have been taken up by the Government, the fundamental challenge of how we systematically tackle the many broken elements of our food system remains unsolved. To provide a holistic solution, we need a food taskforce across multiple Departments and a good food Bill to enshrine reforms in law. This year in the UK we have experienced the hottest and driest weather on record. Conditions have caused crop failure and nature loss, making our land less productive. That is a system failure, not the fault of individual farmers or consumers, but we all face the consequences.
There is much to be done, and I am determined to champion innovation and investment in our local food infrastructure in Stoke-on-Trent. To that end, I would like to invite the Minister to a food summit that I am hosting at Staffordshire University on 4 November. The theme is
“From Field to Fork—The Future of Food,”
—that is a bit of a mouthful—
“exploring solutions to climate, health and food security challenges”.
I have invited food innovators to showcase their businesses and ideas.
To build national resilience to food insecurity, we need to grow—quite literally—our local food production and enable smaller food businesses to thrive. We also need to back local food manufacturers and retailers, which create employment opportunities, and welcome their engagement in community ventures. More than that, we need to grow community involvement in the redistribution of food, to minimise food waste. We need to encourage more community restaurants and food enterprises—more places that offer low-cost food, such as food clubs and pantries, which ensure that food surplus from the supply chain is not wasted. These need to be organised from within neighbourhoods and communities at the most local level.
We need cookery classes and clubs, as well as community kitchens, to help with the cost of food preparation and to teach new skills. Growing schemes in community allotments are springing up around the city. There is definitely more that can be done to support improving the urban environment, such as planting community orchards on public land that has lain fallow for many years and represents a cost to councils. Does the Minister agree that local authorities should be supported to pilot schemes that develop surplus land and premises for urban farming and sustainable food production, delivering benefits for the public good? Does the Minister also agree that it is time for a major conversation around our food system, with the basic principles at its heart of buying local, supporting British producers and working together to ensure that consumers everywhere have access to good-quality, local food.
Only communities can build a strong and sustainable local food infrastructure. However, Government can help in a number of ways, from setting procurement standards, which ensures that more locally sourced produce is supplied to our public sector, to incentivising urban growing and new community food enterprises or investing in projects relating to diet and public health that promote good food choices. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned the national food strategy report to identify many of these challenges. Now is the time to take forward the solutions.
I thank you for giving me the chance to speak, Mr Robertson, and I particularly thank the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for raising the issue. He and I have many things in common, including that we represent coastal areas where there is fishing and farming. He has clearly illustrated his depth of knowledge on the subject matter, and we thank him for that.
My five-minute speech will focus not just on all the good things that Strangford has, because it would take more than five minutes to say them, but on the bigger story as well. Can I say how pleased I am to see the Minister in his place? I miss him as Leader of the House, but I am pleased to see him here to take up the cudgels on behalf of farming and fishing. I wish him well and know that we will be able to enjoy and take note of his knowledge of those areas.
The United Kingdom is largely self-sufficient in terms of our food and drink industry. The UK food supply represents some 6.8% of gross value added. It is worth £107 million and provides 4 million jobs, with around half a million people in farming and fishing. In Northern Ireland, food and drink is a £5.4 billion industry. As I was sitting here, I was thinking about beef and lamb because they are significant in my constituency. They are worth £1.3 billion. Some 5,000 staff are involved in processing beef and lamb, and 20,000 farmers are active in that industry. Also, we export 70% of that beef and lamb, because in Northern Ireland we produce more than we eat as the population is only 1.8 million. For us, the UK mainland is so important for our produce for export. Our success is down to pure and fresh manufacturing from local farmers and countryside, right through to our fishermen who provide the local seafood from Portavogie harbour in my constituency of Strangford and down as far as Annalong and Kilkeel in South Down.
Strangford is lucky enough to have numerous food infrastructure manufacturers. We have incredible vegetable suppliers in Willowbrook Foods, and Mash Direct and Rich Sauces. Strangford has one of Lakeland Dairies’ main factories—one of nine it has across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—which distributes dairy products across Northern Ireland and further afield. Newtownards high street has four butcheries, which are all very successful and have their own regulars who dare not go anywhere else. Those four butchers employ some 80 staff. They do a lot of work in their butchers’; it is not just a butcher’s front shop, but more than that.
A thriving food economy supports and brings benefits for local nature and habitats. Financing our rural communities is crucial to securing good food infrastructure. The International Institute for Sustainable Development said that those areas around the globe where people are suffering hunger are fairly rural areas, which lack basic services such as energy, due to a lack of infrastructure. Food security is a global effort—the Minister might wish to reply on that—and we must ensure that we commit our efforts to enabling others to prosper through trade and other food facilities.
Recently, concerns have been voiced—which we all share—over the rise in food prices due to the cost of living. In 2020 to 2021, in the peak of the pandemic, 6% of all UK households were food-insecure. The Trussell Trust, whose first food bank ever in Northern Ireland was in my constituency of Strangford, provided 2.2 million three-day food packages during that period. That was echoed in my constituency, and our local food bank has seen a rise in the number of households getting assistance from the Trussell Trust and other charitable organisations. They tell me that the demand now is even higher than it was way back then; we worry about that. To secure the future of our food security and infrastructure, we must deal with those pressing issues, such as food poverty, which our constituents are facing daily.
In 2022, the national food strategy aims to secure the resilience of our food supply system, so that UK-wide consumers have a choice in accessing healthy and affordable food. Our constituents deserve a food industry that can provide for them. Moreover, we must ensure that access to the market is readily affordable and available, and that praise is given to those in the food and drink sector for assisting in providing decent food infrastructure.
The Government have a food infrastructure strategy for England. I encourage the Minister and his Department to ensure that food infrastructure is given nationwide consideration and that, most importantly, the effects of the Northern Ireland protocol do not have an impact on Northern Ireland’s contribution to the UK’s food security and infrastructure. The Minister at DEFRA has always had a close relationship with our Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Edwin Poots. I have no doubt whatsoever that that will continue and it is important that it does. The sector provides so much for all of us, together. I always say this and I do not take away from it: we are always better together. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, all the four regions together and working as one, and those exports, if we can all do them together, mean that we all benefit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairing, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this important debate. I also want to welcome the Minister to his place this afternoon. I know he farms himself, so I hope he will listen. He has visited my beautiful constituency and heard of the plight of my 1,400-plus farmers and the more than 90,000 hectares of land farmed in North Devon.
I take the opportunity to sing the praises of my fantastic farmers and to echo the pleas from the NFU:
“We want British agriculture to be the number one supplier of choice to shoppers in the UK and across the world. To achieve this, we stand ready to partner with government to build the British food brand at home and abroad and to ensure that, wherever possible, our schools, hospitals and military have access to fresh, high quality British food.”
I very much hope that the new Administration will ensure that we take further steps to deliver that. As part of that, I hope there will be further support and guidance for our smaller farmers—farms in Devon are nearer 60 hectares, which is smaller than the UK average of 85 hectares—to ensure that those smaller producers are able to optimise their food production in a sustainable way for the future, so that we can go on to enjoy British produce that much more and that much closer to home.
I had the privilege of leading the red meat debate not that long ago. I want to draw on some of those facts, because I think the work that has been done on the food strategy highlights the need for us to have a nutritious diet. However, the rush to replace our meat and dairy products with other items does not necessarily constitute either a healthy or an environmentally sustainable option.
There are currently 278 million dairy cows worldwide. We would only need 76 million if they were all as efficient as a UK cow. Eight litres of tap water are needed to produce one litre of milk, but 158 litres of tap water produce one litre of almond milk. Therefore, before we all rush for some more crushed avocado, we need to think about where those things have come from and the journeys they have made to get to our tables. A good British bacon sarnie might actually be the right breakfast choice. I hope that people will think about those choices, that we can see more red tractors on all our produce, and that we are able to help our fantastic British farmers deliver their fantastic British produce to our supermarkets and shops more readily.
Another factor to look at within British food is the high environmental standards that farmers currently operate to, not to mention the nutrient density of the products that we are eating. The complexities of food and the science around it are sometimes neglected behind the media hype and the current fashions for Veganuary. As we move forward with the food strategy and the evolution of our farming industry to become even more sustainable and productive, I hope that we are able to find a healthy balance between people being able to make their own food choices and helping our fantastic British farmers do what they do best—produce fantastic British food.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby). She is in fact a vegetarian, so I am pleased to hear her talking about the benefits of eating meat.
I am proud to represent a constituency that produces fantastic, high-quality food—a lot of which is already sold through local retailers. The subject certainly resonates with farmers and growers, as I know from my regular discussions with them. Whenever the media comes across some new way of making food more local and more sustainably produced, inevitably one finds that farmers and producers are ahead of them and already doing it. Many of those businesses provided vital support to their communities during the pandemic. I thank them for that, and I promise them my support in what might be challenging times ahead.
In my constituency we have businesses such as Meonstoke Village Store and Westlands Farm Shop, which sell a wide range of locally sourced produce. We have Middle Farm Produce, a fantastic dairy farm in Cheriton, which has a vending machine so that people can buy directly in the most convenient way. We also have Reeve Butchers and Delicatessen in Clanfield, which makes fantastic sausages; Meon Valley Butchers in Wickham; Buckingham’s Artisan Butchery in West Meon; and many others, selling excellent food.
That links with the real issue in local food—abattoirs. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) has already mentioned that. I realise that there are factors such as workforce availability, but the key challenge facing the sector is still regulation and Government support. If we want to reduce food miles and support local food, we must help abattoirs. They are facing increasing regulatory costs, which are disproportionately affecting smaller abattoirs. As the regulations increase, the margins reduce and prevent investment. If abattoirs cannot invest, modernise and update effectively, then the small, local abattoirs risk their entire existence. There has to be some recognition of their work and the role they play within local and small supply chains, because without them we will have no local supply chain. I shall be grateful if the Minister would look into that.
There is a frustrating stereotype that farming is somehow negligent or exploitative in how it produces food or manages the countryside. We should address that through education, as well as marketing in the food and farming sector. Getting the food from the farm to the fork with fewer stages and miles between the two points is not only environmentally beneficial, but an insurance against national or global supply chain disruptions. At present, I am hearing from everyone involved in food production, food service and retail about the increasing costs that they are facing. The global challenge resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has direct and local consequences for everyone, but I can assure everyone who is involved in food production in Meon Valley that they have my support and my thanks for everything that they have done to rise to the difficult challenges of recent years.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this debate and I congratulate the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), on his appointment. It is one of those rare beast occasions when we have a round peg in a round hole. I am sure that he will be a Minister for agriculture.
In Thanet, we have Thanet Earth, which is probably the prime example of sustainable crop production in the United Kingdom. It is the largest greenhouse complex in Europe—at present, it is the size of about seven football pitches—and grows a variety of tomatoes under glass. It is highly successful and I think that it is blazing a trail, but—this is the “but”—most of the agriculture in the “Garden of England” and most of the agriculture in Thanet is still out in the open fields, or what is left of the open fields. That is my problem and the point that I will discuss.
We have two issues. One is the spread of solar farms on agricultural land, which is unsustainable and in my view unforgivable. There are acres of rooftop, acres of carparks and acres of public space on which solar farms can and should be put. They should not be put on agricultural land and I hope that practice will stop forthwith under the new Administration.
The second issue is agricultural policy. Our desire to be sustainable in food production is simply not compatible with our housing policy. I raised with the previous Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Question Time some months ago the need for a moratorium on house building on agricultural land. In Thanet, we have grade one and grade two alluvial soil. It is some of the finest land in the country, but we are smothering it with houses.
The issue of water supply has also been raised today. The more we smother our agricultural land with housing, the more our aquifers, such as the Thanet aquifer, will dry up. Actually, that might not matter very much, because if we do not have any land to grow crops on, crops will not need watering.
All I want to say, and this really is all I want to say to my right hon. Friend the Minister today, is this: please can we get back to the days when the Ministry for Agriculture, as it then was, had a veto over change of use on agricultural land, and can we have a moratorium on building on agricultural land, so that we can grow the food that this country needs?
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale). I agree with absolutely everything he said. The Campaign to Protect Rural England talks about there being 1.3 million acres of brownfield sites across the UK, which plays well to his point that we should look at those sites and at buildings for solar panels rather than using green fields.
It is also a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) on securing it. It is a timely debate, because of covid, the supply chain problems that we have had and the cost of living, and also because support for our farmers and our fishermen is absolutely essential. I pay tribute to the previous Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Neil Parish, for his work on this matter in the reports published by the Committee late last year. The work of that Committee has been absolutely tremendous and it has made a number of good suggestions.
I welcome the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), to his place. It is really welcome news that we have a farmer in that role; I know that my farmers are delighted he is there, and I hope that he will come down and visit us.
The subject of this debate cuts through to the very heart of localism in terms of our approach to and support for local businesses. Dare I say that I think we ought to be a little bit more French? It is not often that I am supportive of some of the measures that the French Government put in place, but one thing that can be seen in local communities across France is how they support local farmers and local producers within their communities —indeed, there are not as many supermarkets in the surrounding areas as are found elsewhere.
That French appetite for, interest in and manner of operating with their own farmers and fishermen must be replicated in the UK. We have been talking about localism for the last 12 years and we now have a real opportunity to implement it. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) discussed how we talk about food and how we encourage people to learn how to cook. Actually, an extraordinary number of opportunities for people to learn have already been provided by the private sector. There is a small group called Cookable, which helps people in schools and in workplaces by giving them better lessons on how to cook and how to have better engagement with the food they eat. On top of that, we have to think about how we educate people about the food they eat and where it comes from. What programmes can be put in place in schools to get children on to farms and fishing boats to ensure that people are more aware of the fact that the good-quality food we produce in this country is worth supporting and eating?
I will spend most of my time today talking about the south-west food hub. In 2014, David Cameron launched a plan for public procurement. The plan was that £1.2 billion worth of food should be bought by the public sector, improving standards. In response to that plan, the Crown Commercial Service committed to introducing a dynamic purchasing system to allow SMEs to register for Government contracts. In 2016, that was successfully piloted in Bath and north-east Somerset. The pilot demonstrated that food costs did not increase when buying from local SMEs, and it generated cost savings of 6% in the first year due to increased transparency and shorter supply chains.
Due to that pilot, the south-west food hub was selected by the Crown Commercial Services to do a scaled-up pilot. Unfortunately, the CCS has now reneged on its agreement with the south-west food hub and the hub has been dropped. That is a real mistake, because there is an opportunity here, with an organisation that is already set up, to build on two successful pilot schemes to ensure we get better local homegrown food into the stomachs of our constituents and on to the shelves of our shops. We have to have a long-term strategy about that. We are doing it for oil and gas and we are doing it for our energy infrastructure. Let us think about how we can do it for our food production and how we can support our farmers and fishermen.
It is interesting that in the Agriculture Act 2020 there is a requirement for the Secretary of State to come forward and talk about food security. I really hope that is going to happen this autumn—the time is now. It is a perfect opportunity for us to talk about how we can improve the self-sustainability of the United Kingdom, and our own food security. It is levelling up in the perfect form. It will not even cost us money.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Robertson. I commend the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this debate. His passion for the subject has always been clear in the time I have known him in Parliament. He started with some quite startling facts about the nine largest retailers controlling over 90% of the market in food, and the huge percentage of fish caught here that is processed off-shore and the impact that has. He also expressed some concerns about local food partnerships. We heard from other Members about the planning changes that are needed, and how £10 spent on a local box scheme means much greater spend in the local area. That point was well made. The need for a wider conversation about our food system was another important point.
I thank Sustain for its very useful briefing ahead of this debate. Much of it reflects what is going on in Scotland, where food policy is devolved. As I often do, I will share with Members some of what is already under way in Scotland. One of Sustain’s recommendations is for all local authorities that do not have a food partnership to aim to start one, in collaboration with the Sustainable Food Places Network, by 2025. Scottish councils are well represented in that network; half of all our local authorities now have a food partnership and are members of Sustainable Food Places—with more to follow in the next few years.
Last year, the SNP Scottish Government ran a consultation on a local food strategy. It had three main themes: connecting people with food, connecting local producers with buyers, and harnessing the buying power of public sector procurement. Nearly 300 people participated in 18 workshops designed and co-ordinated by Nourish Scotland in partnership with Scotland’s Sustainable Food Places Network and the Scottish Government. There was broad support from everyone for local food, but a number of barriers were identified, some of which we have heard about today. They include a need for suitable infrastructure and short supply chains, for local food to be affordable and accessible for all, and for more land to be made available and accessible for those who wish to enter the market. There was also acknowledgment of the value of dynamic purchasing systems and the need to extend public sector procurement for local food to all publicly owned settings, which I note is one of Sustain’s key recommendations. Work is now under way to address the key challenges identified, building on the ideas and suggestions made at that time, as well as relevant Scottish Government strategies and policies.
Underpinning that action is the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act 2022, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament in June. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that Act, which begins to lay the foundation for a transformation of Scotland’s food system. It requires the Scottish Government and a range of public bodies to produce good food nation plans that are geared towards ensuring that high-quality, locally sourced food is affordable, accessible and a practical, everyday reality for everyone. An independent food commission will also be established which will scrutinise and make recommendations on those plans and give progress reports.
Alongside that, the Scottish Government’s vision for agriculture, published in March, aims to transform how we support farming and food production to deliver nutritious food that is local and sustainably produced. Work is under way now with farmers, crofters and land managers to ensure that they have the right support to continue delivering high farming standards and to create more localised supply chains, enhance producer value and cut food miles. That ties in with the consultation on the forthcoming agriculture Bill at Holyrood, which covers a range of areas including promoting quality and sustainable food production, and ensuring a fair income for farmers and crofters, which is crucial.
Another tangible way in which the SNP Government are investing in and boosting the profile of local and regional produce is through the regional food fund, which awards projects grants of up to £5,000. Since its launch four years ago, the fund has supported an incredibly eclectic range of collaborative initiatives from all over Scotland. This year, 24 projects have been granted awards, from food and drink festivals and events to food tourism collaborations, and from online and physical markets to e-commerce. Regional food groups will deliver projects such as a “buy local” campaign from Eat and Drink Dundee, and a food heritage project by Lanarkshire Larder.
A number of hon. Members have made the point that harnessing local food is all the more crucial in the context of the cost of living crisis and the need to bolster our food security. This summer, the annual rate of inflation reached its highest level since 1982, and perhaps even before. Food and non-alcoholic drink prices were 12.6% higher in the year to July 2022. The research firm Kantar forecasts that the average annual grocery bill will rise by £380—a shocking figure. We know that low-income households are hit the hardest by price increases, as they spend a higher proportion than average of their income on energy and food.
Supply chain challenges, rising energy, fertiliser and transport costs, as well as labour shortages, have contributed to escalating prices. Although those problems have been exacerbated by Russia’s war on Ukraine, our food security was already under threat. Recent years have seen an unfair burden placed on community organisations such as food banks, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted very effectively. The folks running those services do an utterly incredible job. I have to commend those operating food banks in my own constituency—they are providing lifeline support—but food banks are a symptom of a dysfunctional food and social security system.
The Scottish Government intend to incorporate the right to adequate food in Scots law. A draft national plan has been published to end the need for food banks as a primary response to food insecurity. Achieving that means focusing on tackling the causes of poverty holistically, through fair work, social security and helping to manage the cost of living. For instance, the SNP Government have used their limited powers to increase Scottish social security payments by 6%, and have just announced that they are increasing the Scottish child payment to £25 per child for those who are eligible. We urgently need a similar raise in reserved benefits. Another reserved area that we are greatly concerned about is the UK’s pursuit of post-Brexit free trade deals, which is a subject that was well aired in the debate on the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill earlier this week.
I hope the Minister has heard the very sensible suggestions that Members have made, as well as their commitment and passion for local food production and the benefits it can bring. I hope he will take that forward in his new post.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. For the second time today, I welcome the Minister to his place. His predecessor, the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), always dealt in a thoughtful and dignified way with the constant questioning and assault that came her way, generally from her own side before I started. I wish her well in her new post.
I commend the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), with whom I have worked on many issues relating to the east of England. I hope I am not doing his career prospects too much harm by saying that I agreed very much with his introduction and many of the points he made. I associate myself with his observations about the shared prosperity fund, which I suspect we shall return to on other occasions, the role of the Grocery Code Adjudicator and the review of GSCOP.
I thank the organisations that have provided briefings. It is always dangerous to give a list in case somebody is missed, but I was particularly struck by the contributions by Sustain, the NFU, the Countryside Alliance and the 3F Group in the south-west.
We are having this discussion at a time when many of our constituents are suffering great anxiety about the food bills they face now and will face in the winter. There are no two ways about it: the situation in terms of rising costs is serious. There is nothing more serious than the increasing number of people facing food poverty in the UK. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) for setting out the figures, and I make no apology for repeating them. The Food Foundation told us that, as of April, 7.3 million people, including 2.6 million children, were in food poverty, and in 2021-22 the Trussell Trust supplied 2.2 million three-day emergency food parcels to food bank users. Just yesterday, the Trussell Trust released a statement with details of a survey in August that estimates that more than 2 million people skipped meals across the previous three months to keep up with other essential costs.
Those are sobering numbers. With the cost of the family shop rising week by week, I fear that the number of those experiencing food poverty and relying on food banks will increase. Although we are all extraordinarily grateful to our local food banks—I pay tribute to all the volunteers and supporters in Cambridge—it cannot be right for the Government of a rich nation like ours to rely on them to feed people. As many others have observed, our role must really be to put food banks out of business by ensuring they are no longer needed.
A couple of weeks ago, I was pleased to meet Cambridge Sustainable Food and other local food poverty charities from across the county, which shared with me a public statement voicing that very concern. They said:
“Our member organisations are experiencing a perfect storm of increases in the numbers of people seeking help with food, often people who never expected to find themselves in this position, whilst donations of food and money are reducing as people are tightening their belts. We feel that the voluntary sector is plugging gaps in state provision for vulnerable households and worry that we will not be able to cope with rising demand”.
I wholeheartedly share their concerns.
Part of the solution will be supporting local food infrastructure, as other hon. Members have described well. Labour strongly supports such initiatives. On food security for local economies, there have been a number of reports showing that money spent on local food produce results in money staying in the local area and creates more jobs per pound than if that money were spent in the supermarket. The Sustain report in July 2021 found that for every £10 spend with a local food box scheme resulted in total spending of £25 in the local area, compared with just £14 when the same amount is spent in a supermarket.
On environmental concerns, we have heard a number of excellent examples of local food infrastructure working well in constituencies up and down the country. It has been a pleasure to hear details of those schemes from colleagues, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam.
In my constituency, CoFarm, run by founder and chief executive Gavin Shelton, is another great example. Established in 2019, it has since been successful in delivering several remarkable benefits to our local community, from tackling food insecurity to supporting the rebuilding of local biodiversity and ecosystems, as well as reducing health inequalities in an area of my city where life expectancy is 10 years lower than in the most affluent parts. I have been a regular visitor, and it is really impressive.
We know that the model of local food production works. We saw during the pandemic how local farms and local food infrastructure were able to respond to the needs of their local communities, and did so really well. Of course, that local food production will always sit alongside the wider food production system. It is not a replacement; it is complementary. It works for local economies, for the environment, and for people whose health is improved partly by the very act of participating—it really helps mental health. We want that model to be supported with Government investment, to ensure that more food can be sourced and eaten locally. As the agricultural support system is changing, it is perhaps worth reflecting on the fact that many of those small, local producers have never been supported by the systems that excluded those under five hectares. It may be time to revisit that.
There are many other things I could refer to, but in passing, I would like to pick up on some of the points made about local abattoirs. For instance, when one talks to people who want to return to mixed farming, it becomes pretty clear that it is very hard to do so without the local ability to raise livestock in the way those people would like. Sadly, I see from reading this week’s Farmers Guardian that another one has just gone—Glossop-based Mettrick’s.
Turning to the fishing sector, I very much associate myself with the comments made by the hon. Member for Waveney, and strongly commend his work with REAF. In my time as the shadow Fisheries Minister, I have been struck by the amount of fish that is driven around the country because we do not have local processing facilities, and how much more we could do—particularly with small fishers—to develop an important premium product that people would really like to have access to if we had the support to improve those facilities.
I am sure the Minister is aware that Labour’s mantra has been to make, buy and sell more in the UK; I suspect he will hear more about it—endlessly—in the coming months. It has been very well received. The future Labour Government will ask every public body to give more contracts to British firms, and will pass legislation requiring them to report on how much they are buying from domestic sources with taxpayers’ money, which we believe will help British farmers and local food producers.
We welcomed the Government’s indication in their response to the national food strategy that they were moving in a similar direction; although we were, in general, disappointed with the response to the national food strategy, that was a glimmer of hope. However, that was the previous Government. Maybe today, the Minister can confirm to us whether that is still the intention, because in the Prime Minister’s final hustings with the NFU on Friday, she rather suggested that she did not approve of top-down targets. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what the current thinking is.
We are committed to fixing the food system, in order to meet the health and environmental challenge identified by Henry Dimbleby in his national food plan; end the growing food bank scandal; ensure that all families can access healthy, affordable food; and improve our food security as a country. We want to buy, make and sell more here, and to make changes to public procurement so that our schools and hospitals are stocked with more locally sourced, healthy food. Local food infrastructure will play a vital and important role in achieving all those things.
Mr Robertson, am I correct that I have until 3.08 pm to try to catch as many of those comments as I can?
I apologise now if I do not manage to respond to all the points that have been made.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing the debate. It is clear from the number of people who have taken the trouble to be in the Chamber today that lots of colleagues across the whole House are interested in this topic; it is a demonstration of how important this issue is, not only to Back Benchers but to the Government. I also thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for his kind words. That is twice he has given me kind words today—I am very much enjoying this honeymoon period. [Interruption.] I am sure it will not last too long.
First, it is worth pointing out that the food and drink industry is a vital cornerstone of our national economy. It contributes about £139 billion annually across all the agrifood and seafood sectors, and employs 4 million people. We are determined to have a productive, secure and resilient domestic food and drink sector, and we are supporting businesses to ensure that that is the case. We are rightly proud of our food and drink sector. We will always champion our farmers and producers and support them to grow, innovate and thrive. We have heard in the debate today various suggestions for how innovation can take place and how we can assist companies that operate in that sector to innovate.
The food strategy published earlier this year sets out how we can make the food we eat more sustainable and healthier for consumers, while maintaining the resilience of the supply chain and creating a prosperous environment for food and drink businesses across the whole country. The UK has had a highly resilient food supply chain, as demonstrated when we responded to covid-19 as a nation. It is worth pointing out that although there was enormous pressure on some food supply chains, at no point did the UK run out of food. Our food security report in December 2021 highlighted that. We are well equipped to deal with situations with the potential to cause of disruption.
Our high degree of food security is built on supply from diverse sources, including strong domestic production as well as imports through stable trade routes. We produce 61% of all the food we need, and we can grow 74% in the UK for most of the year. That draws me to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), who talked about education and getting kids in schools to understand our food networks and how food is produced, and seasonality has a huge part to play in that. I know that some people in the food retail sector will be frustrated by customers that turn up on Christmas eve and say, “Why is there no UK asparagus?” Education of our consumers will play an important part in food resilience as we move forward.
Although the food supply chain is under some strain owing to multiple concurrent pressures, the sector has proven itself capable of keeping supply strong. We can expect that to remain the case over the winter months. However, it is worth pointing out that Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has had a massive impact on energy and food supplies across Europe. We are part of that global network and are feeling the winds of pressure from that invasion.
The Government have already taken action to support farmers. This year we pulled forward the basic payment schemes, so 50% of the payment has already gone out. There is a £37 billion package of support for households. The Government are determined to tackle the cost of living, and of course the House heard earlier from the Prime Minister as she set out further plans to support people through the coming months.
We have introduced a set of questions into the family resources survey to measure and track food bank usage, and DEFRA is working with delivery partners to tackle barriers to food redistribution. DEFRA continues to use regular engagement, working with retailers and producers to explore a range of measures so that they can ensure the availability of affordable food.
We are giving support to local food. SMEs are at the heart of the sector. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) said that 98% of small businesses are food and drink manufacturers. Such businesses often use local supply chains to source ingredients, with low food miles and championing sustainability. The Government are focused on helping these businesses grow, including through exporting, selling direct to consumers, accessing public sector procurement opportunities, and promoting their products at a regional level. That point goes right to the heart of the debate and the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney. Clearly, the infrastructure required to support that is vital.
Several colleagues mentioned the lack of abattoirs or fish processing in certain locations, but there is a reason to be optimistic. There are companies that are exploring mobile abattoirs as one concept that might be able to assist local markets to thrive and expand. As part of our support for these businesses, the Government hosted a regional food and drink summit in Birmingham in March. The summit successfully brought together SMEs and regional organisations to share best practice and access help to grow their businesses.
Following on from that, we are continuing to empower businesses and regional organisations to leverage growth opportunities, champion their regional food identity and develop links with local tourism, which will be holding a workshop later this year in the east of England—we would be delighted if my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney could attend and celebrate the fantastic food and drink from businesses in Suffolk and in his own constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) referred to tourism and to the beautiful landscape of North Devon—I had the privilege of taking my wife to the South Molton sheep sales—that probably says more about my performance as a husband than as a Minister—which was a recognition of those supply chains and how important they are to that local economy.
We recognise the importance of local sourcing. This was reflected in the Government’s hospitality strategy published last year, which included a commitment to develop a blueprint for hospitality-led regeneration. Street food venues will be encouraged to connect with local food producers and reduce food miles and waste, boost employment, and grow local economies.
In addition to the Government’s work, we recognise the role that local organisations play in supporting local food and drink. For example, the New Anglian Local Enterprise Partnership has funded a food enterprise park just outside Norwich. This is part of a plan to develop a food and drink cluster between Norfolk and Suffolk to facilitate growth in the agrifood sector and encourage food and drink production across the area. It is also vital that we work as united nations, that we co-operate with friends in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and that those food production networks are easy to access and to celebrate. The food that is produced in those other parts of the United Kingdom will be vital to keep us all fed and healthy.
[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]
It is clear that local partners will continue to play a key role in growing local food, and we will be supporting and promoting food and drink businesses as we continue to work with these organisations to support local businesses and grow local economies. Supply chains form a crucial part of our local food infrastructure. The Government want all farmers to get a fair price for their products and we are committed to tackling contractual unfairness in the agrifood supply chain. There is a lot of debate about the Groceries Code Adjudicator—I sat on the original Bill that introduced it—but it has had an impact in making sure those in the retail sector conduct themselves in the right way.
We recognise the role that small abattoirs play in supporting local, rural economies. Representing a Nottinghamshire constituency, I can tell the Chamber that there is now no longer an abattoir in the whole county; farmers have to travel to access that sort of facility, and I know it is the same in many other counties. We are working with the Food Standards Agency and the Rural Payments Agency to streamline our administrative burdens, and our DEFRA industry small abattoir working group is engaging closely with the industry to ensure we take a strategic view of the issues facing the sector.
I raise the point of skills and labour. We know that labour is a critical part of our mission to support food producers, both nationally and locally. As announced in the Government’s food strategy, we have commissioned an independent review to tackle labour shortages in the food supply chain. The review will continue, and will consider how automation may help. New technology may well be able to assist us as we move forward, and of course that brings its own economic opportunities, as we are able to develop new technology and market it around the world if it is proven to be successful. The food strategy also announced that we will release an extra 10,000 visas for the seasonal workers visa route, bringing the total to 40,000 visas for 2022.
There were a few comments made about land use, not least by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale). Land use is going to rise up the political agenda. My right hon. Friend, and other Members, will have heard the Prime Minister talk about the siting of solar panels on agricultural land. I share his view that the first priority should be to put solar panels on warehouses, schools and leisure centres before we take agricultural land out of food production. I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes who referred to the large amount of brownfield sites around the country that should be used first for housing developments or those sorts of schemes.
There are lots of reasons to be optimistic. There are lots of opportunities for us as a nation to support our great food producers and lead the world in some of the technology that is available; we should certainly promote that around the world. I am hugely proud of our food and drink sector and I recognise the important role it plays up and down the country in rural areas. We will continue to engage with the industry to develop strong local food infrastructure and ensure that British food is recognised at home and abroad for its high quality and welfare. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney for bringing this debate and look forward to his concluding comments.
It is great to see you in the Chair, Dr Huq. We have had a wide-ranging debate, so I will quickly go through some of the issues we have discussed. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) took me back nearly 40 years to one of my favourite films, “Trading Places”, which is all about speculation on the commodities market. That might have been funny, but she raised a serious point. With local supply chains and local food, we can insulate ourselves against such speculation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) reminded us that supply chains extend right into urban areas—they go a very long way. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) reminded us of the importance of water as an ingredient in the food infrastructure that we must provide for. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his own passionate way set out the importance of supply chains, reminding us how far those supply chains extend, and highlighted both the worries and distress caused by food insecurity and the great work of the Trussell Trust.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) promoted the importance of the British bacon sarnie—as a pig farmer, long may that continue. However, when we have that bacon sarnie, I sense that it might not be British bacon in there at the moment. We need to make sure we get back to that. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) reminded us of the support the food industry provided during the pandemic. Indeed, the industry is now very much stepping up to the plate so that we are well prepared for the cost of living crisis and the challenge over this coming winter.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), who is probably the Member I have known longest in this House, very much welcomed the Minister as being a round peg in a round hole. My right hon. Friend also reminded me that—Father, I have sinned—we do have a solar farm on our farm, but he made his point well. I was a surveyor before I came to this place; in those days, it was much clearer cut. We knew what we could put and where. I sense that the planning system has got blurred at the edges, and we need to address that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) went all French, which I never thought would happen, but he made a good point. The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) emphasised the importance of short supply chains; her point was made well, too. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), with whom I work very closely in an East Anglian environment, highlighted that local food production is a model that we can and should build on. He emphasised the environmental, economic and health reasons for that. He also reminded me of something I omitted: the great work done by care farms. In my constituency, we have the Pathways Care Farm; just outside it is the Clinks Care Farm. They are doing great work—in not only food production, but supporting people and getting them back on their feet.
Finally, it is great to see the Minister in his place. Let us swap the South Molton sheep sales for next year’s Suffolk Show.
That this House has considered the matter of support for local food infrastructure.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the future of coastal communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on coastal communities, and in my capacity as the MP for the beautiful constituency of Hastings and Rye, I am leading this debate on the future of coastal communities, and I am grateful for the support received from Members on both sides of the House.
Coastal communities are integral to the UK’s environmental, social and economic wellbeing. The covid-19 pandemic profoundly impacted on our coastal communities, exposing and exacerbating long-standing social and economic structural challenges, which need an urgent and co-ordinated response for there to be a sustainable recovery. Coastal communities are also the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with erosion and flooding posing an ever greater threat to both the built and natural environments.
We have long been a proud maritime nation and historically reliant on our coastal communities to help deliver national prosperity, but today too many of them face shared challenges and disproportionately high levels of deprivation. These communities have enormous potential, which can be unleashed with ambitious vision, partnership working and the right investment from both the public and private sectors. Both Labour and Conservative Governments have been alerted to the challenges of coastal communities over the years—lots of reports, but not enough real action.
In 2007, a Communities and Local Government Committee report on coastal towns highlighted the shared characteristics of coastal communities, including poor-quality housing, deprivation, the inward migration of older people, and the nature of coastal economies. The report said that coastal towns have too often been on the margins of central Government regeneration policy, with its focus on inner cities. The report led to the creation of the coastal communities fund.
Later, in 2019, the House of Lords Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns and Communities published a report entitled “The future of seaside towns”, highlighting familiar challenges and making a number of recommendations. The challenges highlighted included the lack of transport connectivity, poor education standards and attainment, skill shortages, high levels of population transience and disproportionately high levels of people claiming sickness and disability benefits. The recommendations identified how regeneration could be supported in coastal towns, including through a dedicated source of funding specifically for coastal communities beyond the completion of the coastal communities fund.
We have seen that fund replaced with the UK shared prosperity fund, but it is disappointing that many coastal local authorities, such as Rother District Council and Hastings Borough Council, received the minimum amount of £1 million—a quarter of the amount received by inland Chorley in Lancashire, which received over £4 million, or Cannock Chase, which received over £3 million. Often the funding pots are competitive. The APPG for the south east, which I also chair, published a report this year called “Financing the future—what does levelling up mean for South East England?” One of the report’s recommendations is that levelling up must address the issue of short and long-term local government finance, with an emphasis on certainty and flexibility—not one-off and often competitive funding pots.
To really plan for the future of our coastal communities, we need long-term strategies and locally led plans. Improvements to coastal transport networks and targeted investment for school improvement programmes were also recommended in the Lords Committee report, hence my consistent campaigning for a faster service from London via Ashford, linking Rye, Hastings, Bexhill and Eastbourne not only to each other but to London. That is essential for better connectivity, which will in turn encourage and boost local employment opportunities and economic growth.
I welcome the new education investment area funding for East Sussex—Hastings has been designated a priority education investment area—but we must do more. Education and skills are vital tools in social mobility and are essential for economic wellbeing and social inclusion. It is vital for economic growth that education and skills evolve with the needs of the modern labour market. In that regard, our coastal communities have enormous potential in terms of the green revolution, but they are not being given the focus needed to unleash that potential and become a greater resource for the UK.
In 2020, the Office for National Statistics produced a significant study of coastal communities. It highlighted what we already know about the challenges, including the prevalence of deprivation, slower employment and population growth—even a decline—and an ageing population. A poll commissioned by Maritime UK revealed that coastal communities are set to lose 49% of their young people amid employment concerns. Jobs were cited as the overwhelming reason why Maritime UK and the Local Government Association coastal special interest group jointly published their “Coastal Powerhouse Manifesto” in September last year, urging the Government to form a coherent plan for the coast and highlighting a number of areas in which action must be taken to catalyse investment, level up coastal communities and realise the potential of all the UK’s coastal regions.
To date, coastal regeneration funding has largely focused on heritage, recreational and arts projects. Those are important, but further specific action is clearly required to generate higher wages and higher-skilled jobs. Maritime UK’s “Coastal Powerhouse Manifesto” sets out proposals to extend freeport benefits to all coastal areas, boost connectivity to the rest of the country, develop new skills in coastal communities and install a shore power network across the coast to provide the infrastructure to charge tomorrow’s electric vessels. It is also worth noting the research and recommendations of the KMPG and Demos report “Movers and Stayers: Localising power to level up towns”, which was published in July.
Most pertinently, last year, Professor Chris Whitty published his annual report on health disparities in coastal communities. Life expectancy, healthy life expectancy and disability-free life expectancy are all lower in coastal communities. The standardised mortality ratios for a range of conditions, including preventable mortality, are significantly higher. Life expectancy at birth in Central St Leonards ward in my constituency is 11.2 years lower for males, and 8.7 years lower for females, than in Crowborough North East in the rural, more affluent Wealden district.
Such case studies consistently emphasise that coastal communities face not only challenges with the recruitment and retention of health and social care staff, but knock-on challenges with service delivery. Last week, I visited the Parchment Trust, a local charity in Hastings that provides occupational and day-care services for people with learning and physical disabilities. Those at the trust do amazing work, but they struggle with recruiting and retaining staff—largely because of the pay they can offer. East Sussex County Council, which commissions services from the trust, has limited resources but an above-average population of elderly people and people with social care needs, and that is not reflected in local authority funding formulas.
Professor Whitty clearly outlines in his report that tackling the underlying drivers of poor health—including deprivation, poor educational attainment, housing, alcohol and/or substance misuse, homelessness and rough sleeping, underdeveloped transport infrastructure and a lack of diversity in jobs and coastal economies—and focusing proportionate and appropriate NHS and care resources to provide for physical and mental health and social care needs will help to prevent ill health in the long term. That will benefit not just our coastal communities but the whole UK.
High levels of deprivation, driven in part by major and long-standing challenges with local economies and employment, are important reasons for the poor health outcomes in these communities. Tackling deprivation is key, and although the levelling-up White Paper articulates how policy interventions will improve opportunity and boost livelihoods across the country, it does not specifically target coastal communities. For the Government’s spending, taxation, investment and regeneration policy to bring about meaningful changes in these communities, they must be at the heart of the Government’s levelling-up plans.
However, we must not focus solely on the challenges facing coastal communities, because they also offer fantastic and unique opportunities. Coastal communities have unleashed nature-based potential both on land and in our oceans—for renewable energy industries and in the fight against climate change, which can also drive social and economic benefits. Our coasts and seas contain some of the UK’s most varied ecosystems, and investing in coastal restoration and adaptation projects offers low-income coastal communities opportunities that yield financial returns on investments, create jobs, stimulate local economies and regenerate and revitalise the health of our ecosystems.
We might look, for example, at the work my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) is doing with the Sussex Wildlife Trust on restoring the kelp forest off the coast of Worthing, which is helping to capture carbon. Restoring and maintaining blue carbon habitats in our seas could create jobs directly in conservation, as well as indirectly in nature-based tourism, helping to level up our coastal communities even further.
Coastal communities have their own distinctive and unique role to play in our regional and sub-regional economies, as well as in the national one. We must ensure that all places create and share in prosperity, so that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy a higher quality of life. If given the necessary social, economic and environmental support and investment, our coastal communities can be an even greater national resource, rather than a problem requiring a solution. It is therefore vital that levelling up recognises the unique challenges that coastal communities face and responds to them with meaningful policy action. It is also vital that this Government recognise the unique opportunities that coastal communities present to us economically, environmentally and socially and respond to them with meaningful policy action.
To address the challenges and exploit the opportunities of coastal communities, we need a dedicated Minister for coastal communities who can work across Government, supported by a national strategy for coastal communities and the reinstatement of a cross-departmental working group for the coast. This much-needed recognition and investment from the Government will help to secure the future of the coast and generate improved economic resilience and environmental sustainability through creating better connectivity, economic diversity and stronger communities and by restoring pride in our coastal identity as an island nation.
Order. There are actually quite a few more people standing than submitted to speak through the Speaker’s Office, so I am afraid I will have to impose a time limit of three and a half minutes with immediate effect. We will see how that goes—it might shrink further.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I have the great pleasure of representing Wirral West, which forms the north-western part of the Wirral peninsula. The coastal towns and villages of Meols, Hoylake, West Kirby, Caldy and Thurstaston offer stunning views across the Dee estuary to Hilbre island and the Welsh hills in the distance, or out across Liverpool bay to Crosby, Formby and Southport. It is an area well known for the opportunities it provides for sport and leisure activities, both for local people and people from much farther afield.
Last Saturday, I visited the Royal National Lifeboat Institution station in Hoylake for the West Kirby and Hoylake RNLI meet and greet day. It was a fantastic event, and provided the opportunity for visitors to climb on board the lifeboat and the hovercraft, explore the lifeboat station and meet the staff and volunteers. I heard about the rescues they perform, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the immense courage, selflessness, skill and strength that they show in saving lives at sea. The RNLI is massively important to the local community, which supports it a great deal and is rightly proud of the work it does. Standing in the lifeboat station and looking out across the beach caused me to reflect on the wide range of water sports and activities that take place there, including walking dogs on the beach, riding horses, going out to Hilbre island to look at the seals, sailing, kayaking, paddleboarding and so forth.
The coast is a fantastic amenity for locals and visitors alike, and it is heavily reliant on one key ingredient: the sea. The quality of water matters, but it is at risk from sewage. I am concerned that it may now also be at risk from industrialisation, because this morning the Prime Minister announced that she will lift the moratorium on extracting shale gas. My constituents will be extremely concerned about that announcement.
The natural world is immensely important to the character of Wirral West. Back in 2013, under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government, a conditional licence was granted for underground coal gasification in the Dee estuary. Like fracking, it is a risky technology for extracting fossil fuel. I have led a campaign against UCG in the Dee since 2013, and public opposition to the industrialisation of the Dee off West Kirby and Hoylake is extremely strong. The estuary is a site of special scientific interest and a place of international importance for bird life. It is important that we protect the quality of the ecosystem, so my constituents will be alarmed by the Prime Minister’s announcement this morning. I call on the Government to think again, restore the ban on fracking and put in place an outright ban on UCG too.
Sewage is also of great concern. One of my constituents wrote to me about her experience of kayaking. She said that she
“noticed a horrible scum on the water”,
which entered her kayak. She added that
“the evidence of raw sewage was obvious”.
Given that the Prime Minister was responsible for cutting millions of pounds of funding earmarked for tackling water pollution during her time as Environment Secretary, people have every right to be concerned that the Government will not take this issue seriously.
I do not have enough time, so I will carry on.
I ask the Minister to respond to that point. The Government recently published their storm overflows discharge reduction plan, but although it appears to provide for an increase in the monitoring of overflows, the question remains whether the Environment Agency and Ofwat will then use that data to take tough action. I call on the Minister to set out how the Government intend to address sewage on our beach, UCG and fracking.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) for her excellent speech and for bringing forward this debate. I reiterate her request for a coastal Minister, as the issues we experience around the coast are unifying. As we look to level up this great country under the new Administration, I very much hope that we can move away from the north-south divide and level up around the coast.
The hon. Member for Wirral West (Margaret Greenwood) did not take my intervention, but I also represent a very beautiful coastal constituency and I have been concerned about water quality this summer. It is very important that we recognise the difference between algal blooms and sewage discharge. My constituency has not had sewage discharge this summer, but we have had significant algal blooms due to the heat.
I do not want to focus on sewage today. I want to use the opportunity of having the levelling-up Minister here to talk about coastal communities and the issues that are particularly prevalent in the Devon and Cornwall peninsula following the pandemic, with the immense shortage of affordable housing that our local residents can move into and purchase.
Our beautiful area has seen a surge in short-term holiday lets and the second homes market. I very much hope that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport consultation on holiday lets registration goes ahead. I also hope that there are opportunities in the Minister’s Department to impose planning restrictions to reduce the number of holiday lets that come to market. When new properties are built, a change of use should be required if they are to become a short-term holiday let. Communities such as mine need homes for people to live and work in. We love our tourists and we would never want to stop them coming, but our housing market has got completely out of balance.
In North Devon, we are not the most productive, unfortunately, and our wages are really very low. Full-time workers in North Devon currently earn £13.29 per hour, while the south-west average is £14.67 and the Great Britain average is £15.65. Our property prices have shot up by over 22%. We are the second fastest growing property price area in the country, but our house building rate has not grown that much and the vast majority of what is being sold is going in the form of second homes or holiday lets. If this continues, we will no longer have coastal communities; we will have winter ghost towns. We need urgent intervention through the levelling-up White Paper to tackle the issue.
Ilfracombe in my constituency is regularly defined, unfortunately, as being home to the poorest wards in the whole of Devon, and among the 5% poorest wards in the entire country. The issues in towns such as Ilfracombe have been documented for decades, yet we seem unable to grasp the fact that these things are happening all the way around our coast. Each coastal MP will have similar stories to mine. Life expectancy for people in Ilfracombe is 10 years less than that for those in the south of the county.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on securing this important debate.
For too long, the specific needs of our coastal communities have been neglected and their voices continue to be ignored. Many of our once proud resorts are tired and lacking in investment, while many people are locked into low-paid, no-prospect jobs.
Along the north-east coast, we have a particular problem that is devastating our marine ecosystem and the fishing industry from Hartlepool to Whitby, as well as hitting tourism. Dead crustaceans and other wildlife continue to be washed up on our shores, and the catches of many local fishermen are down by 90%. Some have told me about their catches. One put down 1,100 pots but caught only seven velvet crabs; he told me that he would normally catch thousands a day. A father and son went out fishing recently and had their worst day ever. Normally, they would have caught 80 kg of lobster and 250 kg of crab. Instead, they caught 5 kg of lobster and 30 kg of crab—less than 10% of their usual haul. Of the catches that are secured, I am told that buyers are now turning elsewhere and prefer to buy from areas further south, because too many of the crustaceans in our area are weak or already dead.
In a Westminster Hall debate that I secured at the end of June, I was told by the then Minister, the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), that this issue would remain at the very top of the Government’s agenda, but clearly that is not the case. At a time when fishermen are already feeling the economic bite of declining catches and reduced economic opportunities, they have had to fork out from their own pockets and crowdfund investigations in order to try to understand what was happening. They commissioned Tim Deere-Jones, an independent marine pollution consultant with 30 years of experience, who said that there is “no empirical evidence” for the Government’s preferred algal bloom theory as the cause of the problem. Instead, he suggested that the cause is linked to the chemical pyridine, because the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ own data indicated that quantities of it were over 70 times higher in crab samples taken from Saltburn and Seaton than in a control sample from Penzance.
I know that the results of an independently led university investigation will soon be available, but I can advise the House today that its very early results appear to support the pyridine theory. Our coastal community believes that this warrants further, comprehensive investigations by the Environment Agency into the presence of pyridine in the Tees and the possible consequences of that for marine life. I ask the agency to engage even more with our local universities when the report comes out.
Many believe that dredging is resulting in dangerous substances entering the sea and the Government will be aware that there is considerable anxiety locally about dredging in connection with the Teesworks development, which we all want to succeed. In a statement about the dead crustaceans, the South Tees Development Corporation said that
“all official scientific investigations to date have ruled out dredging”
as the cause of the problem. However, in a Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science report about the South Bank Quay dredging, its officer notes that
“the data reviewed from previous studies and from desk-based sources provide an understanding of the shellfish features in this region, although it is acknowledged that these data do not represent the exact area potentially being impacted by the present project.”
Our sea is dying. I need the Government to tell us what they will do to find out exactly what is causing it and what they will do about it.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Dr Huq.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) for securing this important debate on the future of coastal communities and for her excellent suggestion that there should be a Minister for coastal communities. I will add that an island Minister would be good, too.
I will address three points: why coastal communities are special, why they need support, and how we can support them. I represent Ynys Môn, the isle of Anglesey, a unique and beautiful place We have a huge seasonal tourist industry. It is a fabulous place to visit, and I encourage all to do so. Indeed, it is such a special place that my Ynys Môn constituency will have protected status at the next general election, something for which I successfully fought.
However, the Anglesey that visitors see in the summer is not the Anglesey that local people experience year round. Outside the holiday season, many shops and restaurants shut their doors, or struggle through, and the further across the island one travels from the mainland, the harder those challenges become. We have one of the lowest rates of gross value added of any constituency in the UK.
Holyhead, where I live, is the second busiest ro-ro port in the UK, and a major route to Ireland. It sits at the far end of Anglesey and contains some of the most deprived areas in the UK, but it needs a different response from similarly deprived inland areas. To visualise why, take a map and draw a circle of 5-mile radius around Holyhead: over three quarters of that is sea. Now, I like fish, but they do not set up businesses, they do not employ people and they do not provide aspirational role models for our young people. Our towns once had bustling town centres. Holyhead used to have not one but two Clarks shoe shops, and now it has none. The loss of major employers such as Wylfa and Anglesey Aluminium has decimated local employment, which is why so many people end up in low-paid seasonal jobs, or leave to seek careers elsewhere—draining our communities and taking away our precious Welsh language and our culture.
How can we support coastal communities and give them a thriving future, with opportunities for local young people to stay, work and raise families? We need to recognise that coastal communities face unique challenges and deserve targeted support. I recently supported Isle of Anglesey County Council’s levelling-up fund bid for £17 million to regenerate Holyhead town centre. That investment would put the town centre back in the hands of the community, funding heritage projects to attract locals and visitors, supporting new businesses and offering secure, quality employment to our young people. However, the criteria for general funds, such as the levelling-up fund, usually give no specific weight to the special needs of coastal communities. The way to secure the future for coastal communities is to recognise their unique needs and provide targeted support. The young people of Ynys Môn deserve the same local opportunities as those in other parts of the UK.
I have spoken about why coastal communities are special, why they need support and how we can support them. I am honoured to represent Ynys Môn. The people of Ynys Môn put their trust and faith in me, and it is a privilege and responsibility that I take very seriously. Anglesey is also my home. It is one of the best constituencies in the UK. My father had to leave Wales to find work; I am working hard to ensure that young people right across Anglesey have a future, and that that future is on Anglesey, a coastal island community. Diolch yn fawr.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on introducing the debate. I am a Member for a coastal constituency. Indeed, I live a stone’s throw away from the breathtaking view of Strangford lough. I enjoy the animal life and the majesty of the coast, but I also have first-hand experience of the pitfalls of coastal erosion. That is what I want to focus on.
Moneys have been allocated from Westminster to Northern Ireland in the past for coastal erosion. Professor Andrew Cooper and Professor Derek Jackson stated in 2018:
“A strategic approach to shoreline management is urgently needed to address the challenges of marine flooding and erosion: current shoreline management is reactive and poorly structured and continuation of current practice will lead to coastal degradation and loss of amenity value. There is an absence of adequate information on which to base coastal decision-making.”
With that in mind, we cannot even quantify the issues unless we have the information on how the coast works: the rates of change, the sources of coastal material, the patterns of sand movement, the impact of storms and post-storm recovery along the coastline. Establishing a coastal observatory for Northern Ireland is critical for us. I very much look forward hearing from the Minister, and I wish her well in her role. It is my desire that the moneys set aside for levelling up will help us in Northern Ireland to develop this conversation, and develop strategic action that we can take part in.
Being part of a coastal community does not just mean that we get fresh sea air, which we do. It does not just mean that we have great views, which we do. It means more than that. It can also mean being socially isolated. A journey that is no problem for those who can nip on a local bus in town to a hospital appointment can become an all-day excursion for those who live in a rural area. Those are the issues of isolation and the problems that need to be addressed in any approach to coastal communities.
Coastal towns are more likely to have higher levels of deprivation—I know that that is the case in Northern Ireland. They are also prone to be home to older generations. For instance, 30% of the resident population in small seaside towns were aged over 65 in 2018, compared with only 22% in small non-coastal towns. That is replicated in my constituency of Strangford. The fishing village of Portavogie, which the shadow spokesperson for the Scots Nats, the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), visited some time ago, once had two fish-producing factories, as well as hundreds of fishing crew, but now we have a fraction of those jobs, and we are still seeking the post-Brexit economic boom.
The coastal communities fund has done some tremendous work supporting funding for volunteers and employment opportunities for vulnerable people, parents and families returning to education. It can help restore tourist attractions, business units creating employment and an environmental apprenticeship scheme. My constituency has seen some of those small things happening with the restoration of the Ballywalter lime kilns in my constituency and with sporting projects.
Looking to the future, the Minister, who is responsible for this and for helping us in Northern Ireland, should speak in favour of a holistic, UK-wide approach to ensure that every community feels the warmth of the coastal fund and any improvement scheme.
Thank you, I think, Dr Huq. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I also thank the other hon. Members present for their contributions; there have been too many for me to refer to in my own short speech. Finally, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on securing this debate, and on her valuable work as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on coastal communities.
The UK has some of the most beautiful coastal settings in the world, and I am proud that Aberconwy is among them. However, although coastal communities are full of wonderful things and remind us of holidays on the beach, eating ice creams and enjoying the British summer weather, they are no stranger to complex challenges. During recent decades, our coastal communities have disproportionately topped the list of those areas in the United Kingdom most vulnerable to economic and environmental changes and shocks.
Just as much as Aberconwy has the beauty, charm and heritage of our coastal communities, it faces many of the challenges, and they have been compounded by the current energy crisis. That link is where I will focus my remaining remarks. I welcome the Government’s statement this morning, ensuring that the average household in Aberconwy will pay no more than £2,500 per year for their energy bills for the next two years from October. I also welcome the support that will be provided to businesses over the next six months. The interventions ease fears, protect jobs and promote growth.
In north Wales we have some of the most expensive electricity supply costs in the UK. At the same time, we have vast potential to produce clean energy and reduce energy costs. We can secure our energy and reduce energy prices in the long term through addressing that. I welcome the Government’s support and commitment to maximise energy production, such as nuclear and renewables, to make the UK a net energy exporter by 2040.
We are familiar with energy production in Aberconwy. Tidal range has the capacity to deliver predictable, large-scale generation with none of the problems of intermittence associated with other renewable technologies. The proposed north Wales tidal lagoon would have a generating capacity of more than 2 GW, create 20,000 jobs, generate clean electricity reliably for a century, and provide protection to our exposed coastline.
Such a scheme and the new nuclear power station at Wylfa mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) offer long-term and sustainable economic benefits for our north Wales coastal communities. They offer the potential of transformative investment, providing constituents and communities with security and hope for the future. They generate both economic resilience and environmental sustainability in the long term. They go way beyond short-term relief and tax-and-spend economics. They exemplify investment for growth and are a long-term solution to much more than the challenges of energy. They can deliver for our nation and, more importantly, for our valuable and vulnerable coastal communities.
It is a privilege to serve with you in the Chair, Dr Huq. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on securing this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it.
I represent Waveney, the most easterly constituency in the United Kingdom. Lowestoft, the principal town, was formerly the fishing capital of the southern North sea. Unfortunately, over the last 40 to 50 years, the economy has declined significantly and we have deep pockets of deprivation, which are exacerbated by the current cost of living crisis. However, the community is coming together to support those people who will face real challenges and hardship in the course of the next few months.
I want to emphasise that there is cause for optimism. CEFAS has its headquarters and labs in the town, and they are being refurbished and rebuilt. East Coast College has opened the energy skills centre, ready for the renewables opportunities off our coast. The Gull Wing bridge—the long-awaited third crossing—is under construction, as is the Lowestoft flood defence scheme. We are about to start work on various town deal initiatives. Over the last three years there has been public investment of £250 million in the local town. That is very important, and I sense it is going to bring about meaningful change, with an economy based on renewables, energy and a revived fishing industry, as well as tourism and leisure.
I want briefly to highlight three issues where coastal communities do lose out. They relate to Government funding. The first is education funding. Suffolk is a member of the F40 group—it is not a group to be proud to be a member of—which is made up of the 40 local education authorities that receive the lowest amount of funding from Whitehall. Coastal communities have real educational challenges. That iniquity needs to be addressed. On local government funding, Suffolk, like many coastal communities, is a two-tier county authority. Suffolk receives £310 per head, compared with the £560 per head received by metropolitan areas, and the £729 per head for inner London. Those issues need to be addressed. Similarly, our enterprise zone needs to be rebalanced and reallocated land. I am sure that I will take that up with the Minister in due course.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. Having been relieved of my ministerial duties just a few hours ago—shortly after responding to your question in the Chamber this morning—I could not resist the opportunity to contribute to this debate on my return to the Back Benches. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on securing this debate, just so that I could return to speaking after a while of not being able to do so.
I represent a constituency with two coasts—it is one of only three such constituencies in the whole country—so the matter of coastal communities is very close to my heart. Representing a Cornish constituency, I find that very often the image portrayed of life in Cornwall is idyllic. The series running at the moment on Channel 4, “Finding the Cornish Dream”, is a slightly warped version of what life if actually like for many people in Cornwall, because there is no doubt that coastal communities in Cornwall are among the most disadvantaged in our country. That is why it is so important that we have debates such as this, and that we continue to remind the Government of the importance of supporting our coastal communities to ensure that they can thrive and be prosperous in the future.
I add my voice to those calling for a Minister for coastal communities. Just after the last election, I had a discussion with the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), about the need to put in place a Minister for coastal communities. I actually volunteered to take that role, but unfortunately the pandemic took over and we never managed to conclude that discussion. Perhaps the new Prime Minister would like to consider appointing a Minister for coastal communities, and if she really needs someone to do it, I am more than happy to return to Government.
There are a number of challenges that we need to face in supporting our coastal communities. We are too heavily reliant of tourism and hospitality, as important as that sector is. Much of our employment is seasonal, so we need to help our coastal communities to diversify their economic opportunities. I say to the Minister that one thing that should be done for coastal communities in Cornwall is address the biggest issue that we face—that of housing. Housing is unaffordable for most local people. The impact of the pandemic on the holiday let market and the increase in the number of holiday lets mean that too many people in Cornwall cannot find anywhere to live. Businesses are affected because they cannot find staff, because people are willing to come and work in Cornwall but cannot find anywhere to live. I know the Government are consulting on what to do about holiday lets, but I urge the Minister to make it a priority and ensure the Government act on holiday lets, so that local people in Cornwall can find somewhere to live.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq, and I thank my near neighbour my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart). Three minutes is not enough time to do justice to the beauty of my coastal community, but Debussy composed “La Mer” there, so I will rest there. Nor is it enough time to do justice to some of its challenges, so I will focus on just two aspects: climate change and transport. I put it to the Minister that therein lie both opportunity and threat, and it is all about the sea.
Those rising sea levels have caused consternation and concern and have inspired quite ambitious plans from the Environment Agency. Eastbourne will potentially see the most ambitious coastal defence scheme rolled out across the land, with over £100 million of investment to secure the town’s future. I thank the Minister for her and her predecessor’s work on this particular issue because within that vital defensive work there are countless opportunities to add value and bring about regeneration. Whether in aquaculture and new visions for growing kelp and mussel beds or in safety, lighting and access to the seafront, there are many opportunities for us to exploit, so I look forward to continuing to work with DEFRA on that enormously important scheme.
Coastal communities rise or fall by their transport connectivity. As my hon. Friend said, there have been many reports and much good work has been done in Eastbourne on roads, rail and air. I put on the record the absolutely driving need for road investment on the A27, for the high-speed rail signalled by my hon. Friend to connect us to London, the north and the continent, and for Gatwick’s second runway, which is hugely significant for a coastal community that is dependent on tourism.
I have managed to confine myself to just six specific asks in my remaining time. There should be an emphasis on that fairer funding formula. Eastbourne actually has an average age of 45—contrary to Daily Mail reporting—but we have a high percentage of older people, and we need that enhanced level of funding to provide social care. There should be active promotion with Visit England for the year of the coast 2023. I echo my earlier points on transport. VAT was defining previously; it could be again. There should be a Minister for the coast, because the issue crosses all Departments—Health, Transport, Business, Treasury. It could be a strategic post.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on securing the debate. Although I no longer represent a coastal community, my constituency borders such communities and many of my constituents work in them and rely on their economic, cultural and social success. I also wrote a chapter called “Coastal Communities in the 21st Century” in the 2019 book “Britain Beyond Brexit”, edited by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman).
My first point is that coastal communities are diverse in population and economy size, and there is no one size fits all. Communities in Cornwall and North Devon are very different from those in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Member for Hastings and Rye and for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell). However, they do have one thing in common: the Government’s productivity drivers and initiatives on skills, innovation, competition, enterprise and investment work less well in coastal communities. That is largely due to the hub-and-spoke nature of the UK’s infrastructure, as resources are focused on the major arterial routes out of large conurbations.
Since the book was published, we have had the covid pandemic. That has meant that digital connectivity has been an issue in many areas, not least remote coastal communities where the problems are not only with broadband but with mobile coverage, as many people on holiday in Cornwall—including myself—have found. However, working from home has increased dramatically, so improving digital connectivity is one of the most cost-effective ways of providing incentives for businesses and people to move out of central conurbations and into coastal communities.
I believe that transport is the largest barrier for coastal communities. Those communities are often at the end of the line, meaning that cars are the only way to get around. It takes the same amount of time as in the Victorian era to get a train from London to many coastal communities, which is not good enough. Even to places such as Portsmouth, it still takes one hour and 40 minutes to travel 70 miles by train. The fastest time from London to Great Yarmouth is two hours and 38 minutes to travel just 136 miles, and Newquay in Cornwall—only 256 miles away—is just under five hours by train. By contrast, it takes two hours to travel the 200 miles between Manchester and London, and from Birmingham, it takes one hour and 29 minutes to go 126 miles. Members can imagine how galling it is to hear about HS2 train times if you live by the sea.
It is just as bad to travel between coastal communities, too. It takes two hours and 40 minutes to travel the 58 miles between Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe; sometimes, it is possible to cycle those routes faster. That is the crux of it—poor transport links and poor digital connectivity are two very negative forces pushing down on our coastal communities. One is, sadly, very expensive to fix; one is much cheaper, so I hope that Government policy is directed towards digital connectivity and bringing coastal communities into the 21st century. That would at least take one negative away while longer-term transport solutions are found.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on securing this debate. I pity Members of Parliament who do not get to represent coastal communities: along my 58 miles of coastline, I am fortunate to have large towns such as Brixham, Salcombe and Dartmouth, as well as the surrounding villages. It is a bit of a mixed bag: in Brixham, we see huge opportunity coming through a growing fishing sector that had a record year last year and is on course to have a record year this year. It sends much of its fine produce up to Grimsby and the processing plants there, which is very welcome. However, to make that opportunity go further, we need to ensure that Brixham secures funding from the levelling-up fund, which will enlarge the harbour and support the high-tech businesses that are based there, such as the photonics industry.
One of the biggest problems I see in my patch is that of GPs and rural healthcare. Far too many minor injury units and cottage hospitals are closing, and too many GPs are unable to give as much access to residents as necessary; access to dentists is also poor. We need to look at how we roll out better rural healthcare, a point that is most keenly felt in coastal communities. The point about bus routes, which has already been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), is well placed: we have terrible transport links at the moment. We need to make good use of the reduction in bus fares that has just been announced by the Government, which is going to take place in January and last for three months, with low-price fares to encourage people back on to the transport networks. It is a chicken-and-egg scenario: the only way we are going to get more bus routes is by getting more people to use buses in the first instance.
My third point is about fishing and aquaculture. Since all Members present are coastal MPs, I encourage them all to join the all-party parliamentary group for shellfish aquaculture, because aquaculture can increase opportunities within our coastal communities, as well as help to sequester carbon and produce sustainable food. One of the largest mussel farms in Europe is off my coastline, and it is doing extraordinary work.
Finally, turning to the point that was so well made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), housing is a big problem. In Salcombe, the average house price is £800,000, so there are no homes available for local people, and the story is similar in Brixham and in Dartmouth. We need to build houses with covenants—houses that are there for local people at locally affordable rents—and we need to do so quickly, because quite frankly, my communities are being hollowed out by those extraordinarily high prices. There is a lot to do, and I know that as a group, we can work on a cross-party basis to make sure we get the very best for our communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on securing this important debate. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as an unremunerated director of the not-for-profit Housing and Finance Institute, which has put forward a strong case for coastal renaissance in its “Turning the Tide” research paper.
We are an island nation, so it is somewhat surprising that so many policies, and the funding that goes with them, appear better designed to support our big cities than to support our coastal towns and villages. Coastal communities have a different design and construct from other areas. They are sometimes described as the end of the line, but in Dover and Deal we like to say, “Welcome to the beginning of Britain”. However, that end-of-the-line thinking dominates Whitehall. It is extremely damaging to the allocation of much-needed infrastructure investment, and to business, as whole swathes of business opportunities are moved to the so-called central belt in the midlands or even further north.
My constituency is the gateway to and from the European continent, and it is vital that investment in it is supported through its continued and future growth, which will benefit the country as a whole. For Dover and Deal, that means investment in the A2 upgrade, which is part of the roads investment programme, in port health and in port border infrastructure, which is the subject of a levelling-up bid from Kent County Council, and in our people through the education and skills necessary to make the most of the opportunities that have arisen since we left the European Union, and to reflect a modern, digital and creative economy. That is the subject of a second levelling-up bid, led by Dover District Council, and I commend both bids to the Minister.
In the time I have remaining, I will focus on coastal community deprivation. In the 2015 deprivation indices, more than two thirds of the 30 most deprived small areas were in coastal communities, and nine of the 10 most deprived small areas were in seaside places. Rolling forward to the snapshot of the latest available figures, which are from 2019, 25 of the 30 most deprived small areas are in coastal communities, and all of the top 10 are in our small coastal areas.
A notable feature of coastal communities is a high incidence of the private rented sector, as well as a lack of new or affordable housing. The proportion of private rented sector housing increases in a gradient across all the quartiles as the average multiple deprivation score increases. Additionally, there is a significant incidence of poor-quality housing, which has a causative effect on other indices of deprivation. Prioritising our coastal communities and their housing is essential. Policymaking needs to move on from the Victorian industrial focus and focus on our modern age.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq, and I shall do my best to stick within the guidelines that you have given. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on securing the debate. I understand that she hails originally from Northumberland, a county that has a particularly special place in my heart, not least because it is where I have my earliest memories of seaside holidays in places such as Berwick-upon-Tweed and Seahouses. It is certainly a place that means a great deal to me.
Throughout the debate we have heard a great deal about Members’ huge affection for our coastal communities, their way of life and what they have to offer as places to live and visit, and as places where people can work and raise families. Sadly, as we have heard, they are also places that face particular economic challenges. Despite the prosperity that openness to the sea can bring or has previously brought, our coastal communities can experience particular combinations of economic and social fragility. For example, they often have a heavy dependency on tourism and seasonal labour to take advantage of the economic opportunities. There is also a heavy dependency on a relatively limited number of industries in many cases, and such places are more prone to high levels of unemployment. Their attractiveness and proximity to the sea mean that there is real pressure on house prices and a lack of affordability, particularly for young people—all of which can feed into a cycle of decline that builds in business fragilities. Coastal communities are also at the sharp end of the effects of climate change, including coastal erosion and the impact on biodiversity. They are key to the success of our future energy policies, delivering energy security and tackling climate change.
My own constituency goes much further inland than it does up the coast, but I do have a very special, beautiful piece of coastline, from the northern part of the city of Aberdeen to the nature reserves up past Collieston. There has been considerable debate about not just onshore planning decisions but marine spatial planning issues, for example on the interaction between biodiversity on land and the development pressures for housing or, in one particular case, a golf course closely associated with a former occupant of the White House. There is a constant tension between the infrastructure that is needed for offshore energy, whether hydrocarbons or other types, and other demands on the sea, such as our traditional fishing industry.
A good local example of an extremely successful development is the Aberdeen Offshore Wind Farm, also known as the European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre, which is made up of 11 offshore turbines just off the coast of Aberdeen and produces enough energy to power the entirety of the city. I had the great pleasure of going out on a boat just a couple of weeks ago to visit it. It also has a community benefit fund that supports community projects.
Beyond that, there is the ScotWind project. Scotland’s current peak energy demand is around 5 GW. ScotWind is set to allow for a capacity of nearly 25 GW. Certainly, our coastal communities are at the forefront of that energy revolution, as well as the development of hydrogen, as the means we might use to store excess capacity that is generated and not required in that moment. It is incredibly frustrating, at a time when we are experiencing some of the highest energy prices in Europe, for people to be able to look out of their windows and see the infrastructure but not be able to see the benefit of that infrastructure on bills due to the way we choose to structure our energy markets.
There is an elephant in the room here—the impact of Brexit, both directly and in the tardy nature of any benefits that might come through. I think particularly of our fishing industry in Scotland, but it also impacts our wider food and drink sector. Let me just take the example of langoustines. They are the most important shellfish species in terms of landed value and social economic support. In 2019, more than £91 million-worth of langoustines were landed in Scotland, making it the second most valuable stock after mackerel. We exported about 18,000 metric tonnes from the UK to the EU in 2010. That figure had halved by 2019.
I was interested in the comments made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on the impact on the Portavogie community, which I had the great pleasure of visiting with him. There are similarly sized communities along the north coast of Scotland, where processors are not only experiencing trade barriers to exporting but facing energy bills that have increased nearly fivefold. If that is a worry for the processing sector, we can only imagine the worries the catching sector has as a result. If they are unable to supply the processors, the market has gone, and the opportunities for fishing will be exported entirely overseas.
On funding for our coastal communities, Aberdeenshire benefited hugely from structural funding from the European Union. Between 2007 and 2012, for example, it received more than £23 million of European funding, leveraging in total funding to the value of £60 million, from funds such as the European regional development fund, the social fund, the fisheries fund, LEADER and Interreg. In contrast, the Aberdeenshire Council allocation from the shared prosperity fund for the next period is only £8 million. There is a great deal of catching up to do.
In my final minute, let me go back to a previous political life as a local authority councillor in Aberdeenshire, when I had the great pleasure of serving on the North Sea Commission and was vice-chair and then chair of the marine resources group, which concerns itself with themes such as achieving a productive and sustainable North sea, a climate-neutral North sea region, a connected North sea region and a smart region. It brought forward many policy initiatives and allowed regional representatives from Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Scotland to come together to discuss those shared opportunities and challenges.
I think I am correct in saying that at this point in time, although the chair of the overall North Sea Commission used to represent Southend—the council—no English authorities are currently represented. Our Norwegian friends and allies consider the organisation a very effective way of ensuring that bilateral links are maintained and of having discussions. It is a great shame that England, the largest country in the North sea, is not connected in to that organisation. I urge my English colleagues to go back to their local authorities to ask why not.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dr Huq. I thank all who have contributed to this incredibly important debate.
Covid has exposed many things, including the dysfunction of the British state. It is overcentralised, slow, wasteful and clunky. Our economy too often delivers great gains for too few in too few places. We need a new model of economic growth to spread wealth, security and opportunity fairly. As we have heard from the contributions today, nowhere is that more true, sadly, than in many of our coastal communities.
Coastal communities, like many former industrial towns, have seen 40 years of managed decline as the great industries of fishing, shipbuilding and port work have all but disappeared for many. Tourism, boosted in some places throughout covid, has not been enough to mitigate the decline of industry. Added to that, the natural geographical challenges for many of these towns—their location on the edges of our country—have often forced them to the periphery of our economy, but, as we have seen in this afternoon’s debate, not from our minds or hearts.
The problem has been turbocharged by 10 years of austerity that has hit our coastal communities hard, ripping apart the social fabric of those towns with the loss of very good jobs. Too many young people are faced with a choice between family and community or opportunity. Too many have had to get out to get on. For the many people who are left growing old hundreds of miles away from children and grandchildren, that is their inheritance, and it has been squandered.
A recent report by the Centre for Progressive Policy found that Conservative-held seaside towns were particularly likely to be pushed into poverty by the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), and his failure to tackle the cost of living crisis. The Office for National Statistics found that the population declined 32% for smaller seaside towns between 2009 and 2018. So, stuck in a low-growth, high-tax cycle, Britain is now unique: a major country that believes it can power a modern economy using only a handful of people in a handful of sectors in one small corner of the country.
Coastal communities do not represent a small section of our society that can easily be forgotten. Approximately 18.5% of the population live in coastal communities—a huge pool of talent and resources that the economy needs. To get the economy growing nationally, we need it working everywhere. We must combat the decline in wages and job opportunities faced by coastal communities, rebalance the lack of opportunity, and entrust local communities with regeneration plans to bring back ageing high streets and infrastructure. That is what levelling up was meant to be about.
The future of levelling up under the new Government is uncertain, and so, too, is the future for many coastal communities. They are absolutely right to have pride in their areas and their rich history. I was born and raised in one. If we visit any of them, we meet people with unlimited energy and ambition for the future of their towns. They are crying out for a Government who will match that ambition, but they have been sorely let down.
Our fishing communities have been sold short by a deal that does not secure our future as an independent coastal state in full control of our waters. Hastings and Rye’s is the largest land-based fishing fleet of under 10-metre fishing fleets in Europe. Has Brexit delivered the utopia for them on quotas? No. Many fishermen in Hastings have said they feel stabbed in the back when it comes to the Brexit deal they have been given. Paul Joy and the New Under Ten Fishermen’s Association have said that they are angry about the deal the Government failed to secure for them. Their share of the cod quota has gone up from 9.3% to just 10% over five years.
The tourism sector has also not received enough support throughout the pandemic, and there has been a serious lack of affordable housing. Our coast is one of Britain’s greatest assets, but the people who live there have been let down by a lack of investment and poor infrastructure. A 2019 Lords Select Committee on Regenerating Seaside Towns and Communities report found that, in most seaside towns,
“Inadequate transport connectivity is holding back many coastal communities and hindering the realisation of their economic potential.”
I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) speak about her campaign to secure better rail along the south coast. I thought, “I have been taken back all the way to the 2010 election, when her predecessor was campaigning for the same thing.” After 12 years of a Tory MP and a Tory Government, they are no further down the track in getting electrification between Hastings and Ashford. Coupled with limited access to education, particularly to further and higher education institutions, that curtails opportunities for young people, who deserve so much better.
Poor-quality housing was among the most significant problems reported by coastal residents. The stock of second homes and holiday lets continues to increase—up 40% in three years in England—pushing local people out of affordable housing. We desperately need to improve digital connectivity in coastal areas. We have seen how reliant we are on it over the past three years, and we will be even more so in the future. Many coastal towns have tragically become hotspots for rough sleeping and homelessness.
On all those key indicators, the Government have not delivered, even after the delivery of some pots of funding, such as the coastal communities fund. At the same time, those communities have borne the brunt of Tory deregulation and cost-cutting. Water companies in England and Wales pump raw sewage into our nature an average of every two and a half minutes. Areas such as beaches, playing fields and bathing waters have faced 1,076 years-worth of raw sewage over a six-year period. Hundreds of campaigners, such as the energetic Helena Dollimore, have taken to beaches in Hastings to protest the dumping of raw sewage on our beaches. If Ministers really value our coastal communities, they should stop dumping raw sewage on them.
Now from Rye to Redcar, where thousands of dead crustaceans washed up on the beaches, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) powerfully set out. Those communities deserve answers and an investigation. If the Government and the Tees Valley Mayor have nothing to hide, they should welcome the scrutiny.
I want to hope for better, but the new Prime Minister was responsible for unleashing cuts of tens of millions of pounds to the Environment Agency. Environment Agency data shows that, in subsequent years, the Tories presided over a doubling of the rate at which water companies dump raw sewage. It never needed to be this way.
Under the previous Labour Government, one of the first places to see the potential of investment in wind energy was Grimsby. Now a new generation of young people are powering the world from the Grimsby docks through clean energy and life-changing apprenticeships. Communities know best what their natural resources and assets are, so they should have more say in and control over their investment and regeneration plans. We need to bring power, ownership and assets back to people and communities so that they have a stake in their future. That is why we want to replace the right to bid with a far more powerful right to buy, which would mean that communities got first refusal on local assets and the right to buy them without competition. Assets of community value include pubs, historic buildings, football clubs and high street shops—the things that make up the social fabric of our societies. This is about giving communities financial autonomy, which makes them more resilient and insulates them from decisions made at the whim of Whitehall.
The Welsh Government are introducing new planning laws and stronger licensing systems for holiday lets and second homes, which means that communities in Wales will be able to reap the rewards of thriving tourism while preventing areas from becoming ghost towns when holidays end. It will also put an end to people being priced out of their own neighbourhoods just so that homes can stand empty for months on end. As we have heard, that is a problem across the country, but particularly in Cornwall and the south-west. The Government must learn an important lesson from that. By trusting and working with the community, we can find the right balance. We can bring jobs, growth and income while protecting the fabric and spirit of our coastal communities, which matter so much.
It is an absolute honour to be here and speak in this debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) for raising the important issue of coastal communities and their future. This Government’s central mission is to level up the UK by spreading opportunity more equally across the country, bringing left-behind communities up to the level of more prosperous areas. I am delighted to have the opportunity to set out our ambitious plans to realise the potential of every place and every person across the UK.
We have already made progress towards levelling up coastal communities through initiatives such as rolling out gigabit broadband, introducing a fairer school funding formula, opening freeports, increasing the national living wage, recruiting more police officers, and further local devolution with more powers being passed to local people, away from Westminster.
My Department’s coastal communities fund, which ran from 2012 to 2019, made great strides towards levelling up coastal communities, with investment of £229 million into 369 projects in coastal areas through England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The coastal development fund was important for coastal communities around the country. The Minister’s predecessor said that fishermen in Redcar could access the fund for infrastructure—perhaps a new fishing boat or equipment to improve their fishing. However, there are no fish left in the sea for them to catch. Does the Minister agree that we need further investigation into the ecological disaster we have on our hands on Teesside?
With respect, I am not sure I agree with that statement. Coming from the coastal community of Great Grimsby, where our fishing industry is taking advantage of the increasing Brexit opportunities for quotas, I accept that we need to ensure that fishing is sustainable to ensure that we have a future industry. However, I am not quite sure I agree with the hon. Gentleman there, but DEFRA is not my portfolio or my specialism.
Yes, I will write to the hon. Gentleman with those details. Thanks to the coastal communities fund, more than 7,000 jobs have been created, 2,000 existing jobs have been safeguarded, thousands of training places for local people have been produced and more than 3 million visitors were attracted to coastal areas. It is estimated that those visitors brought hundreds of millions of pounds of expenditure into our coastal communities, and that the funding supported almost 9,000 existing businesses, while helping to launch hundreds more.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I will certainly take it back to the Department, although I am not sure how long I will be in this position. I hope it will be for a little bit longer.
With regard to other funding streams and the success of the coastal communities fund, it is right that we now focus our regeneration efforts around coastal communities through our larger and more expansive programmes as part of a more joined-up approach to levelling up. As we have heard from many Members today, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is not the only Department touched by coastal communities. There are also the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport—the list goes on—but I will go back into the Department and make sure that we are talking across all Departments to ensure that we get those benefits that Members are looking for.
We also have a long-term ambition to reduce the alphabet soup of Government funding streams. Now that the coastal communities fund has closed, my Department has taken care to ensure that coastal communities of all sizes remain at the heart of our continuing regeneration programmes. For example, there are 22 coastal towns that are each recipients of towns deals worth up to £25 million, including places such as Whitby and Birkenhead. Overall, coastal areas will benefit from over £673 million-worth of investment via the towns fund alone. The towns fund is specifically targeted at places with high levels of deprivation, which makes it a good fit for some of our coastal towns, as we have heard today. Our towns deals unleash the potential of our local communities by regenerating towns and delivering long-term economic and productivity growth—productivity has been a theme throughout the debate. This is through investments in urban regeneration, digital and physical connectivity, skills, heritage and enterprise infrastructure.
Other coastal communities, such as Maryport and South Shields, are benefiting from future high streets fund grants to revitalise their high streets. We have also heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) and for Dover (Mrs Elphicke), who have put in bids for other funds as well. We need to make sure that we continue to revitalise our high streets for our future generations. The future high streets fund is focused on renewing and refreshing high streets, by boosting footfall and reducing vacant shopfronts, for example. In total, coastal communities will benefit from £149.7 million-worth of funding via the future high streets fund. Every one of our programmes, from the community ownership fund to the levelling up fund, features multiple coastal communities on their list of successful bids.
I am struck by the Minister’s list of extensive investments. My own contribution referenced investment. However, Opposition Members mentioned what is happening in Wales, where the proposal is to introduce another tax—a tourism tax. We heard tax mentioned this morning and a tourism tax mentioned here. It seems to me that there is a contrast here between approaches of investment for growth and taxation. Would the Minister agree?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that clear. We have been having lengthy discussions over the last few weeks about the disadvantages of adopting new taxes. Implementing tax cuts and developing and helping the economy are vitally important. We need to make sure that, throughout the UK, we try to have a consistent approach that helps members of the public, instead of playing political games.
A number of Opposition Members, including those on the Front Bench, have raised the issue of sewage discharge, as though it is a new phenomenon that has never happened before, when it has in fact been going on for decades. We are the first Government ever to take action on this issue—I know that, because I launched the plan two weeks ago. Does the Minister think I should send a copy of that plan to the Opposition Front Bench, because they seem to have missed it?
I have heard the point from my hon. Friend, but I need to make quick progress.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye, who called this debate to discuss the future of coastal communities. I hear her calls, and those from other Members, for a coastal communities Minister. That is not part of our Government policy, but hopefully, while I am in this place as the Member for Great Grimsby, everyone will know that I understand exactly the situation that she and other Members are talking about. I will cut short what have left to allow her to wind up.
I thank the Minister, the SNP spokesman the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), and the other Members present for their contributions. It is of regret that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), chose to politicise and personalise her response in an otherwise constructive cross-party debate. Having stood against my predecessor in 2015, she is still fighting a battle for Hastings and Rye, rather than focusing on her new role and constituency. My concerns are for 2022 and the future, not the fight of 2015.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).