Wednesday 19 December 2018
[Dame Cheryl Gillan in the Chair]
Train Operating Companies: Yorkshire
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the performance of train operating companies in Yorkshire.
It is truly an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) and for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker) and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for co-sponsoring this important debate.
Back in June, I stood in the Commons Chamber in a rail debate and my opening words were, “What a mess”. Six months on, I have to repeat that statement: what a mess.
Seven months ago, I had a meeting with Northern rail just ahead of the implementation of the revised timetables. I was unequivocally assured that services would improve and that that would be the answer to a lot of the issues that my constituents were experiencing. I was told that the new timetables had been stress-tested and that everything would be fine. Instead, what we got was absolute, total and utter chaos—and I do not use that word lightly. Trains were delayed and cancelled day after day after day. People were late for work, school and college. Vital medical appointments and even funerals were missed, all because of a half-baked plan that was obviously unworkable from day one. In August, I met TransPennine Express and was given yet more warm words and platitudes, but once again there was very little action.
In my constituency, in the six-month aftermath of the May timetable, Dewsbury and Ravensthorpe stations were in the bottom 10 of all smaller stations in the UK for performance: the eighth and third worst respectively. My neighbouring constituency, Huddersfield, was in same bottom 10 of the league table for larger stations. Minister, I will not allow my constituents to receive such treatment from your Government. Things have to get better.
The picture across the whole of Yorkshire has been bleak, hence the title of the debate. Not a single station in Yorkshire was in the top 100 best performers. I am sure the Minister knows that, given that he also represents a Yorkshire constituency. According to The Yorkshire Post and On Time Trains, only 29% of services had been on time at York and Huddersfield stations since the May timetables were introduced. If we look at the 100 busiest stations in the UK, eight out of the top 10 worst stations for on-time performance in the past six months are within the so-called northern powerhouse, with York and Huddersfield being the two worst in the whole country. If we look at all stations in the UK, Slaithwaite, in the neighbouring constituency of Colne Valley—my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley will talk a little more about this later—has the worst service performance of any station. Again, eight of the 10 worst performing stations in the UK are within the northern powerhouse. In contrast, nine of the top 10 best performing stations in the country are in London. This country does not revolve around the capital city of London; there is much more beyond the M25.
Neither is the picture over recent months greatly improved. Using data from trains.im, the monthly performance figures show the region’s two biggest providers, Northern and TransPennine, offered an abysmal service in November, with only 67% and 65% of trains on time respectively—easily as bad as at the height of the timetable crisis and among the worst in recent years. Apart from Brexit and the NHS, this is the biggest item that comes into my mailbox. I do not know how many times I have seen pictures of timetable boards in various stations with lists of cancelled or delayed trains. It really is not good enough.
I must commend The Yorkshire Post—not always the biggest fan of my party—on the work it has done on this issue, which has been absolutely fantastic and is very much appreciated by the many beleaguered commuters who experience the chaos. Earlier this month, it reported that almost 80 trains a day were being cancelled, with overcrowded services frequently running with reduced numbers of carriages. A new timetable, implemented from last week, thankfully offers some small hope of improvement. The first week went better than the first week of the previous timetable, but that would not be hard to beat. When compared to figures over recent months, significant improvement is yet to be seen. From the available data this month, some 77.7% of Northern’s trains have been running on time, up a feeble 0.1% from May’s mayhem. TransPennine has achieved only 73.4% of trains on time this month, down on the 75.5% achieved in May, but up marginally on figures from June and July.
Passengers are understandably weary of promised improvements, and the Rail Minister’s assurance that the situation has stabilised will undoubtedly be met with a degree of cynicism. For six months, my constituents have been given nothing but empty promises and false assurances. It was bad enough through the summer, but we can add to their misery the recent dark, freezing cold mornings on station platforms that are less than adequate, many with little shelter from the elements, and barely fit for purpose. Compensation was promised, but for many it was never received. Hours were spent filling in forms to no avail. I have heard of rail users who purchase their tickets through corporate reduction schemes being refused compensation. Apparently, because they get a discount on their travel, they should not be entitled to refunds, despite the fact that many pay more than £1,000 a year and the level of inconvenience and lost work hours were the same for them as for everybody else.
An expanded compensation scheme has been announced this week for Northern’s customers, starting with 25% for 15 to 30 minutes’ delay. That is reportedly funded by the Government, not the privately owned operator. Sadly, it is far too little far too late. Why was the money not invested in our rail services to prevent the need for such an enhanced compensation scheme? Even as Northern warns that passengers will not see an improvement in services until May 2019, unbelievably its fares are set to rise by 3.2% in the new year. It is clear that regulated fares should be frozen into the new year. I call on the Minister to back the Transport Committee’s suggestion of discounts for those renewing their season tickets for 2019, meaning no price increase.
My constituent, Sophie, has been commuting from Mirfield in my constituency to Leeds every weekday for the past three years. Sophie is partially sighted and has to rely on public transport to get to work. She wrote to me last week to express her many grave concerns. She spoke about the issues at Mirfield station, which I have been raising for more than three years, and how the platforms lack basic facilities, with one being completely inaccessible to people with disabilities. Indeed, the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability points out that across Yorkshire and the Humber, 33% of train stations are not step-free, making them inaccessible for many disabled people.
Sophie also reports a lack of appropriate shelter against the cold winter elements and how nearly every morning she has to queue to buy a ticket when she arrives in Leeds because the train is so overcrowded that the conductor has not been able to pass through the train, and the one new ticket machine at Mirfield is on the opposite platform and is often out of order. Sophie feels incredibly grateful that she is still in employment. She says that it is solely down to her having an understanding boss who has afforded her the flexibility to work around the many train delays that she has had to endure. The past six months have been hell for Sophie and many people like her.
I also want to mention my constituent, Alex, who works near Manchester. He gets the train every morning from Dewsbury. He has had to take nearly two thirds of next year’s annual leave allocation because of the trains’ lack of punctuality. He feels he is getting to the point where he has to consider whether it is worth making that journey to work every day.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Alex’s case exemplifies the bigger point that if we are to rebalance our economy successfully, we need to get the rail infrastructure right between the great northern cities of Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester. Does she agree that that requires investment in the long term, and, in the short term, making the best of what we have? Does she also agree that it is an outrage that one in four of the rail services scheduled from Sheffield to Leeds last Monday, for example, failed to arrive on time?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I absolutely agree. A very similar level of service is being delivered to my constituents, so I fully sympathise with his constituents.
Late or cancelled trains have a wide impact. Many of us consider a train to be something that gets us from A to B. Of course that is true, but the disruption is also having a significant impact on people’s mental health. They have no idea whether they will be able to get to work, and can get into quite serious trouble when they are late for the fourth day running. People might rely on them, such as clients or customers. They do not know whether they will get home in time to put their children to bed or see their partner. That is having a massive effect on family life and on social mobility, as not everybody drives. It is also affecting employment opportunities. I have spoken to a number of people who now say that they cannot get to work. They do not drive, so using the train is the only option, and it is not worth the stress.
Our region’s railways are among the least reliable in the country. Ironically, this week Northern rail unveiled a new advertising campaign, designed with safety in mind, to prevent passengers from boarding the trains as the doors are closing. The advert states that the train will depart the station “to the second”. If only! As I see it, there are two major issues with that. First, someone in the advertising department either has a very strange sense of humour or has severely misjudged the situation, given that so many trains have not departed on time during the last six months. Secondly, the campaign is in preparation for when Northern rail removes guards from trains, thus compromising customer safety and further eroding the service on offer to rail users in the north.
As a result of the chaos, many of those who drive, as I alluded to earlier, are turning back to their cars as a means of transport. Falling passenger numbers require action to boost confidence in and accessibility to the rail network. That has sadly not been forthcoming. Rail in the north is still very much the poor relation of services across the country. Recent research from the Institute for Public Policy Research North revealed that spending on transport in Yorkshire and the Humber fell by more per head from 2016-17 to 2017-18 than anywhere else in the country. It reported that, last year, spending per head on transport in our region was £315, which is more than three times less than the £1,019 spent in London. It is simply unacceptable that promised investment has been scrapped, downgraded or delayed, while money is funnelled into London and the south-east.
When it comes to the causes of the poor service, leaves on the line can be blamed for only so much. Indeed, when discussing compensation for rail passengers on BBC News this week, the Minister admitted that the infrastructure is not there to cope. Work to electrify key lines in the north-west was supposed to be finished two years ago, yet delays to that have had a knock-on effect across the north and have been blamed by Northern rail for its postponement of planned service improvements in Yorkshire.
The Minister blames decades of decline for the infrastructure’s inability to cope with network growth, yet it seems likely that the Transport Secretary is set to back a deeply flawed plan for the trans-Pennine route. If the plans that have been mooted go ahead, the tunnels will not be big enough to carry modern freight trains, and insufficient track is planned to allow faster trains to overtake slow ones.
My hon. Friend and neighbour is making a great speech. I must apologise—I have just sat on a broken-down train for half an hour, so she has even more sympathy than usual. She is right: what happened to the northern powerhouse? What happened to those promises of investment in our region?
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for that intervention, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to that question.
Frankly, what we have heard from our Transport Secretary, who recently said that he does not “do trains”, shows an appalling lack of ambition for the north. It will do nothing to address the problems of reliability, as both passenger and freight demand on the lines increase. Ministers need to get to grips with much-needed rail improvements. The system is clearly broken, and local rail users know that more than a mediocre compensation scheme is needed to fix it. Passengers need to know that when there is a delay or cancellation they will receive proper compensation, and Northern rail’s expanded delay repay scheme announced this week is welcome. However, the scheme is reportedly funded by the Government. Going forward, it is not acceptable that the taxpayer foots the bill for the failing system, while shareholders continue to be put first.
What people really need is to know is that, rare exceptions aside, their trains will be reliable and punctual. The Transport Secretary has overseen review after review of the rail network, but it is still clear that the franchise system and the separation of infrastructure and operations simply do not work. Resources are not being targeted to where they are most needed, and there is an overarching lack of accountability. The Transport Secretary has cancelled massive projects such as Crossrail for the north, but has still been able to dig up money for London and the south-east—all while Yorkshire saw the biggest fare increase in the country.
We need clarity over responsibility within our rail network to ensure that services put the interests of passengers first, not the financial priorities of shareholders or the political priorities of Ministers. What assurances can the Minister give me that there will be real improvements to Yorkshire’s rail network, and on what timeframe? Beyond an optimism that operators will adopt more passenger-focused services, what sanctions will be imposed where that is not delivered? Also, where rail operators fail, as they have persistently over the last year, what moves will be taken to renationalise those services, and how low is the bar for that to be a real consideration?
Enough is enough. My constituents and I are sick of hearing warm words and platitudes from the Government. I say to the Minister, from one Yorkshire MP to another, I implore you to give commuters in the north proper consideration and to commit to an improvement of services that will see an end to their daily misery.
Just so colleagues know, I will call the two Front Benchers at 10.35 am and 10.45 am. That will give the hon. Lady who led the debate the opportunity to wind up. I will not put a time limit on speeches, but Members can see how many people want to speak, and I would like to give everybody the opportunity to do so. I call Kevin Hollinrake.
Thank you, Dame Cheryl; it is a pleasure to be called in the debate and to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) for securing this important debate. I have an awful lot of time for her, and a great deal of time for Dewsbury, having stood there as a candidate one year—not against my hon. Friend, who I am sure would have wiped the floor with me. I endorse many of her comments completely, particularly those regarding the impact on her constituents.
I was lucky enough to be chosen to lead a debate in September on exactly the same issues. I have to say that since that debate things have got worse, not better. I spoke about some of the commuting difficulties for my constituents, regarding not just the service itself, but the lack of communication around the services. Scheduled services running from York to Scarborough were stopping at Malton and unloading all passengers at that station, which has no toilets and no café. People did not know that they would be unloaded at Malton; they expected to go through to Scarborough.
It was completely disgraceful. The least people might have expected was for TransPennine to have told them at York that they would be unloaded at Malton. They could therefore have stayed at York until the arrival of a through train to Scarborough. It is simply unacceptable that, this summer, 56 trains were stopped at Malton in those circumstances; in the summer of 2017, only six trains were. That represents how bad the service has been.
TransPennine has made lots of promises about improvements. It has said that changing the driver rotas should improve things, and that some of the improvements in the north-west should have resulted in improvements to the service. However, that improvement in the service has simply not happened. In fact, November was the worst month this year for punctuality on the service through to the east coast—only 65% of trains arrived on time, and 20% of trains were defined as late, which is again the worst performance of the year. It is simply not acceptable for TransPennine to say, “We’ve had these problems and things are getting better.” They are not getting better. The least we might have expected is for the communication to be getting better, and it does not seem to be.
I concur with my hon. Friend’s comments on increases in rail fares. Generally, it is right that fares increase, as long as some of the investment goes into our railways—it is clearly good that we are seeing the levels of investment that we are in our railways. However, where there is such terrible performance, it does not seem right that the people responsible for that performance also increase fares. I wonder what the Minister can say about that. Are there any sanctions available to him that he could impose on TransPennine to emphasise that it should not put fares up until the service has improved, as an incentive to improve the service? The political pressure is just not getting through. We are all talking about this, but the service is not improving.
I wrote to the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, to ask for the inclusion of TransPennine in the inquiry into Northern and Govia Thameslink. I felt that the inquiry related to communications, and I do not know why it did not include TransPennine. At this point in time, when things have not improved and the service is clearly below par, it seems perfectly reasonable that the regulator should look into that in a more detailed way. Could the Minister apply pressure on the regulator to include TransPennine in the inquiry?
There is some good news; there is no question about that. Despite some of the comments about investment, we are seeing higher levels of investment. Part of the problem has been the investment in the north-west. The delays in the engineering works for that have had the knock-on effect of causing delays on the trains. We are looking forward to the doubling of the frequency of journeys from York through to Scarborough by the end of next year, which will be welcomed by many of my constituents, with longer trains, better trains and new trains. That is all very good, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury that we need a more strategic approach to investment right across the north.
My hon. Friend signed the letter that I sent to the Chancellor; in fact, 82 parliamentarians, including many who are here today, did so. It asked for a doubling of investment right across the north over the next 30 years. We are waiting for the Transport for the North report, and when we get that, the 82 parliamentarians who signed that letter need to work together collectively to lobby for a step change in investment over a long period of time. I think the figure of £100 billion is what we had in the letter. Some of that funding was for Northern Powerhouse Rail, which we all want to see—to bring forward that scheme so that it arrives at the same time as High Speed 2. I prefer to call that scheme Crossrail for the north, because that might move us up the pecking order.
On the comparison with investment in London, London is a great place, and I love being down here, but the level of investment is phenomenal. That leads to prosperity, because higher productivity leads to higher prosperity, and people in London are 50% more productive than people in the regions—not just the north, but right across the country. That is why average wages in London are 50% higher than in the rest of the country, and certainly than in the north. One thing leads to another. Investment leads to productivity, which is good for the UK economy and great for our constituents, because they become more prosperous as a result. We need a longer-term approach. It is a wonderful vision that we might see Crossrail for the north, or Northern Powerhouse Rail, connecting Liverpool to Manchester to Bradford to Leeds to York to Hull to Scarborough. It will transform opportunities right across the north, and that is exactly what we want.
The hon. Gentleman and I are joint chairs of the all-party parliamentary group for Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire. Will he agree that many of us still believe that calling a halt to HS2 and investing that money in the sorts of trains our constituents travel on every day is better than this vanity project, which is going to cost £100 billion?
That is a very interesting point. I am sure, Dame Cheryl, that you have your own view on it, which you might wish to express. At the very least, I would like to see Northern Powerhouse Rail, High Speed 3 or Crossrail for the north—whatever we want to call out—delivered at the same time. That is far more important than the north-south journeys.
The critical thing for me is to connect the cities, which gives opportunities to rural areas as well, and the key issue is devolution. The money and the powers should be devolved up to the north, so we do not have to come to Whitehall to ask for the money or to discuss where it should be spent—we should get the money in a long-term settlement. Devolution is key. It is great to see one of the current Mayors here, the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who is trying to work through the Sheffield devolution deal, which is very welcome. I think that devolution to the cities across Yorkshire—rather than to the wider county—is far more workable, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman will make a great job of the devolution deal he has on his table.
I am absolutely determined, as many here today are, to make sure we get a step change in investment, and to solve the shorter-term problems that the hon. Member for Dewsbury pointed to in her very compelling speech.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who spoke thoughtfully and forensically about the rail issues across Yorkshire, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), who spoke with great passion and vigour. I will just make a few remarks very quickly.
There are two main lines throughout the Keighley constituency, the Airedale and Wharfedale lines, which were electrified in 1994. Many people built their lives—their journeys into work and their children’s journeys to school, and so on—around those lines. Traditionally, they have been high performing, which makes it even more frustrating for so many people that over the last year the performance levels have sunk abysmally low. I will not rehearse the statistics we have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury, but there is a frustration among Members of Parliament about what we can do to change the situation. We plead with Ministers. We plead with Northern and TransPennine. To be fair to the ordinary middle managers there, they try to get back to us, but they seem powerless to effect change.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in order to achieve improvements, we will work in a cross-party way with the Minister and with the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton, and that we will do anything in our capability to try to make things better for our constituents?
That was very well put, and I was going to make that point. I am genuinely pleased that we have the Minister and the shadow Minister in their places. There is now some Yorkshire influence on the issue and, I hope, some Yorkshire common sense.
In my frustration, I have been considering who we can write to, so I am writing today to Deutsche Bahn, which ultimately owns Northern rail. We are told that we cannot possibly have nationalisation, but we have a nationalised rail company in Northern rail—it just happens to be German. The whole reputation of Deutsche Bahn is under threat here. I hope that, in the new year, a very senior executive of Deutsche Bahn will come to this House and talk to hon. Members from Yorkshire.
Let us make it a joint letter, sending Christmas wishes to Germany.
Without delaying the House too much longer, it would be remiss not to mention the strike, which is causing difficulties for the Yorkshire economy. There was some good news when it appeared that Transport for the North and, I think, the Government acknowledged that there would be a second person on all trains, but there seems to be an issue about the detail of what that second person would do. In Scotland, a deal was done where the guard would continue to have a safety-critical role—the driver would open the doors and the guard would close them. There are compromises that can be reached. Having beer and sandwiches at No. 10 is perhaps out of fashion, but we need Minsters to get the different parties together to end this strike and have proper negotiations.
Many of my constituents travel from Otley to my hon. Friend’s constituency to catch the train on the Wharfedale line, and they all find that the trains are overcrowded. Without the guard, they would really struggle to use that service, particularly as the bus and train times are not compatible with each other. They need that additional support when they reach train stations on the Wharfedale line.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. His constituents are very welcome at Burley in Wharfedale, Menston, Ilkley and so on. I believe in the critical safety role of the guard.
I will move on to talk about Boxing day trains. One consequence of the disruption on Northern and TransPennine is that they are not fulfilling their promise—it was in the franchise—to run Boxing day trains. Northern and their franchise were meant to run 60 Boxing day trains this year, and TransPennine were meant to have proposals that would be funded by Government. There are no Boxing day trains in Yorkshire, but there are four lines in the south-east of England that will be running Boxing day trains. The following football teams have home games in Yorkshire: Leeds United, Sheffield United and Barnsley. Harrogate are playing against Halifax—a big local derby in the lower leagues—and I will be watching Guiseley play against Bradford Park Avenue.
There is demand for public transport and trains on Boxing day. Buses now run in Leeds, Bradford and some other Yorkshire cities, whereas they did not a decade ago. Some people cannot go home for Christmas from London to Yorkshire, because they have to be at work on 27 December and they cannot get a train back on Boxing day. There are also the issues of the environment and of loneliness—not everyone relishes being at home for 72 hours at a stretch, in some cases on their own. I appeal to the Minister: let us have Boxing day trains, as in the franchise, on Boxing day 2019. I think he can be the man to deliver that.
We have not yet heard much of London North Eastern Railway in this debate. I understand that it has promised to have seven direct trains to London, which were meant to start in May 2019—previous transport Ministers have assured us that they would. My understanding is that they will now start in the autumn of next year, and I wonder whether the Minister can confirm that today. Lots of businesses in Bradford are really looking forward to those direct trains to London.
Finally, I want to share a railway success story, which is about the role of heritage railways. They will be running across Yorkshire during the holiday period. My distinguished predecessor Bob Cryer was instrumental in saving the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway, and my distinguished predecessor Ann Cryer is president of that railway. I have to report to Members that its “Santa special” on Christmas Eve is completely full—even the local MP cannot get a ticket. I am assured that if there are any cancellations, tickets will be available on Facebook.
It is always a delight to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (John Grogan), and I particularly agree with his comments about Northern, which were very well made. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) on securing this timely debate. She set out very clearly the appalling statistics of what has been happening over the past six to nine months in Yorkshire and the suffering that passengers have had to endure.
I want to talk specifically about TransPennine and First Hull Trains. Both companies are part of FirstGroup, which made millions in profit in the last financial year. I will give some experiences of passengers. The first reads:
“Happy Bank Holiday weekend, TransPennine Express. I’m sure we’ll have a good one too when my husband eventually gets on your train service from Leeds to Hull. He’s still sat on the platform. It’s the fifth night in a row, and he has missed his son’s bedtime.”
I have also had constituents write to me to say that they are moving away from Hull because of the unreliability of the service when they want to commute to Leeds. On overcrowding, which has become an issue over the past year:
“If you want intimacy but you’re too scared to seek it out, take a TransPennine Express train instead, and press yourself against four strangers for two hours.”
TransPennine Express decided earlier this year as part of its timetabling changes that it would increase the length of the journey from Hull across to Manchester by adding four additional stops. When questioned about this by the Hull and Humber chamber of commerce, TransPennine apparently said that the
“timetable development will enhance connectivity to and from Hull.”
It actually adds about 15 additional minutes to the journey. There was no consultation or discussion—TransPennine just decided to do this themselves. This does not fit with the northern powerhouse—connectivity between the great cities of the north. It should be reducing journey times, not increasing them.
When we three Hull MPs asked to meet Leo Goodwin, the head of TransPennine Express who has a pay package of £360,000, he would not. In fact, when we had the meeting with the chamber of commerce, we empty-chaired him: we had a chair with his name on, because he would not come and talk to us. We shamed him into coming to explain to us why TransPennine had taken that action. It is clear that there are cancellations and there is late running, and people are being squashed in like sardines on the service from Leeds.
In Hull, we feel like we are the end of the line and often forgotten. We are not getting new trains; we are getting refurbished trains as part of the TransPennine refurbishment stock. The city of Hull does not have a direct train to Manchester airport, but Scarborough—a small and important town—does. We now have longer journeys across the Pennines due to the changes that TransPennine made, and we do not have a direct service from Hull to Liverpool—the area that we know is the spine of the northern powerhouse.
I would like the Minister to respond to our requests. We think that we should have a half-hourly additional express service from Hull and a direct link to Manchester airport. I also want to mention TransPennine Express, because it runs Hull station on behalf of Network Rail. We have been voted the ninth-worst station in the UK by Passenger Focus. We had £1.4 million spent to improve facilities that were supposed to be for city of culture in 2017, but which did not finish until 2018. We have smaller waiting rooms, smelly toilets and gaffer tape over the signage in the station. We have a Christmas tree that was put up and then surrounded with bollards and hazard tape. The lack of pride that TransPennine has in our station just beggars belief. We have had no station manager for months; we have had remote management from Huddersfield.
I have a similar problem at Dewsbury. We do not have any toilets in our stations, and TransPennine Express have suggested that my constituents and passengers using the station should use the pub nearby. For cultural and other reasons, many people are not comfortable going into the pub to use the bathrooms. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a disgrace that a very busy station should not have any toilet facilities in this day and age?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. There are real questions for the Department for Transport about whether TransPennine is meeting its franchise specification.
We were really proud in Hull to get the open-access operator Hull Trains in September 2000—we had to fight to do so. It has been a brilliant flagship open operator service since 2000, but it has really deteriorated in the past 12 months. It has only four trains, which are constantly being taken off to be repaired. They are class 180s—people who know about these things have told me that they are not fit for purpose for the route that they travel every day on the east coast main line. Customers are so frustrated at the cancellations and the services that stop at Peterborough or Doncaster. They do not feel that Hull Trains is giving them fair information in good time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), who unfortunately cannot be here this morning, has asked me to say that Hull Trains is due to get new trains at the end of 2019, which is very welcome. However, we think that First Group needs to put pressure on to get those trains to us sooner. The past 12 months have been disastrous for Hull Trains’ customer relations. We need those trains in Hull as soon as possible. The managing director told me that she might be able to get an additional train from somewhere else after Christmas. That is welcome, but Hull Trains really needs to sort itself out. I am pleased that the Minister, a Yorkshire MP, is in his place, and I hope we will start to see some real changes over the next few months in rail services in the north.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) on securing this important and timely debate. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson). Nobody here needs reminding how terrible a year this has been for rail passengers in Yorkshire and across the north. Since the introduction of the timetable changes in May, we have seen what the Transport Committee rightly called a
“period of intensely inconvenient, costly and, on occasions… potentially dangerous disruption.”
Northern Rail, which serves Bradford on the Leeds-Bradford, Airedale and Wharfedale lines, has provided especially poor service. Since the new timetable was introduced, an average of 2.5% of trains have been cancelled, and 4.6% have operated in our region with fewer carriages than planned. On a typical day, about 100 to 200 passengers are left behind at stations in Yorkshire. They are stranded and are late for work and critical appointments that they need to get to. Unfortunately, despite the criticism that the train operating companies and the Department for Transport have come under since May, we have still not had a significant improvement in service levels. In fact, The Yorkshire Post found that rail punctuality is even worse now than it was in the immediate aftermath of the timetabling change. In November, only 62% of TransPennine Express services and 67% of Northern services arrived on time. Eight months on from the initial problems, it is shocking that the industry appears not to have got a grip on this issue. Passengers in Bradford and across Yorkshire have experienced almost a year of delays, cancellations and disrupted service. Despite that, fares continue to rise above inflation. It is simply not good enough; we deserve better.
As the Office of Rail and Road reported, the responsibility for the fiasco must be shared between the train operating companies, Network Rail and the Department for Transport. Each failed to prepare for the changes, and there was a clear lack of leadership at all levels.
It is also worth looking at the longer term causes of the crisis. There has been a persistent and longstanding underfunding of transport infrastructure in the north. As well as addressing the immediate problems with the performance of train operating companies, the Government must commit to revising the way that rail investment decisions are made. As a start, they should commit to working with Transport for the North to deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail as a priority. Bradford, like other towns and cities across the north, urgently needs that high-speed rail link to meet growing demand and fulfil our economic potential. It is only by investing in rail infrastructure, planning for future timetable changes and ensuring that passenger interests are at the heart of our rail system that we will prevent a repeat of the unacceptable service we have seen in recent months.
My hon. Friend referred to the work of the Transport Committee, which looked at timetabling and rail infrastructure investment. Does she share my concern that, according to the figures for the national infrastructure and construction pipeline, planned spending on transport per capita in Yorkshire is set to be the lowest of all the regions? It was not only lower in the past, but will be lower in the future—in 2017-18 and 2020-21?
It is really simple: deep into the 21st century, towns and cities in Yorkshire should be connected by a regular, good, safe service that everyone can depend on. How can it be that my constituents and I cannot get to Bradford easily from Huddersfield? Why has the line between Huddersfield and Wakefield been closed, with a tremendous impact on those cities? Will my hon. Friend join me in going on those trains and waving banners?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is an immense frustration for me, as a Bradford MP, that we are not properly connected with the rest of the north. That causes problems and limits my constituents’ learning, development and job opportunities, which are crucial to a city like mine.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) for securing this important debate on a subject that concerns so many of our constituents and impacts negatively on the quality of their lives.
Here we are in Westminster Hall. The Chamber is prepared, the Chair is in her place and the Clerks are ready to give advice. The Westminster staff have ensured efficiently that everything is in readiness for our debate. We are on time and we have enough seats. Members and Ministers are prepared. It is the expectation that that will happen. When my constituents buy a ticket for a rail journey or a season ticket, which will be subject to another price hike of more than 3% in January, their expectation is that there will be a regular, accessible train service with enough carriages and available seats. Their expectation is that the trains will get them to their destination on time without stress or discomfort. Those are not unreasonable expectations. They expect that that will happen, just like this debate.
Sadly, the reality for my Colne Valley constituents travelling on the TransPennine route to either Leeds or Manchester is that they are packed like sardines on trains with not enough seats available. There are frequent cancellations and severe delays. For the privilege of all that, they pay among the highest fares in Europe.
Slaithwaite and Marsden are two of the worst-performing stations in the country. Recently at Slaithwaite, 4% of trains have run on time. In the same period, 6% of trains were cancelled. It is not right that there is a greater chance of a train being cancelled than running on time. There are frequently two or three-hour gaps in service. That is what commuters in my constituency face daily. They struggle to get to work on time, and some have been issued formal warnings. They spend less time with their families because they need to leave earlier, or they struggle to make childcare arrangements to accommodate unpredictable service changes. Many have told me that they are reluctantly starting to drive to work because the services are so unreliable. The human cost is significant, and I do not believe the Government fully comprehend it.
This is not just about individuals. Businesses in my constituency have felt the impact since the chaos began in the summer. Rail user groups estimate that usage at peak times is down by about 30% since the timetable change. People may be less likely to visit our picturesque villages and support our local businesses if they cannot guarantee that they will be able to get home after their visit.
I have been working with local rail groups—Slaithwaite and Marsden Action on Rail Transport and Stalybridge to Huddersfield Rail Users Group—along with my hon. Friends the Members for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams), to campaign on these issues and advocate for a better service. I have met the Secretary of State three times. In our most recent meeting, he agreed to facilitate a discussion between rail user groups and senior rail officers about improving co-ordination between Network Rail and train operators. It was accepted that the poor accessibility at Marsden station is unsatisfactory and that, to address it, temporary ramps should be put in place as soon as possible. I will not hold my breath.
In the meantime, my constituents are returning to their cars, changing jobs or even moving away from our lovely Colne Valley villages. They want to be home in time to put their children to bed or pick them up from nursery. They want to get to work on time or catch their flight to go on holiday. Those are not unreasonable asks.
One way commuters in my constituency are using their additional time while they stand on cold platforms is by sharing their experiences with rail companies and me on social media. I would like to share some of the feedback I have received on Twitter. Jane said:
“This morning I forked out £2,572 for my annual season ticket to Manchester. Tonight I arrived into Huddersfield 21 minutes late and missed my hourly connection. It’s not good enough.”
“People need to wake up and see what impact the May timetable changes have had on our villages. All I want for Christmas is to be able to get to work on time. #unhappycommuter.”
“The timetable’s changed but I think they just blewit. They still can’t get trains t’stop at Slewit!"
We are coming up to Christmas. A present for my Colne Valley constituents would be on-time, regular and accessible trains, with enough seats and space for passengers, and affordable ticket prices. Instead of the 12 days of Christmas, we have the 12,000-plus delays of Christmas. Colne Valley people deserve better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) on securing this important debate. As a fellow Yorkshire MP, I share her concerns, as well as those highlighted by all hon. Friends present, about the unacceptable train services in our region. She spoke very well and highlighted that she knows only too well the problems with those services. We all receive huge amounts of correspondence from rightly dissatisfied constituents.
Time and time again, constituents share with me the unacceptable number of delayed or cancelled rail services. People in Barnsley are forced to endure—particularly at rush hour—the ancient, overcrowded and overpriced trains that they are packed into when one eventually arrives. Many are forced to spend a fortune on alternative travel arrangements on top of the already inflated rail season tickets for which they have paid nearly £2,000—the annual cost between Barnsley and Leeds, for example.
I will use this opportunity, as so many hon. Members have done, to share some of the stories that constituents have shared with me. One wrote to me about the toll that the substandard rail services are taking on their mental health, as delays consistently cause them to arrive home late and miss out on family life. Another voiced his worry that his son, who is working his first job at a shopping centre little more than half an hour away, is forced to leave hours early to make it on time, and still faces termination to his employment because he cannot manage to do so. That is, quite simply, completely and utterly unacceptable.
Those people are just trying to go about their daily lives, get to work on time and get home again. Instead, they are continually out of pocket, let down, and possibly even laid off because of the appalling mismanagement of our rail services. We saw the chaos caused by the timetable changes earlier this year, which so many hon. Friends have talked about. Since then, we have seen no progress. We have had more delays, more cancellations, and the same antiquated trains.
What is more, my constituents in Barnsley East are told that spending per head in Yorkshire and the Humber has actually fallen under the great northern powerhouse project, while it has doubled in London. Is it any wonder that nearly two thirds of the public back taking our rail services out of the hands of these dodgy profit-driven private companies and back into public control, to be run in the interests of the customers who depend on them?
Thank you Dame Cheryl; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I thank my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), for securing this important debate. Our constituencies are both served by the trans-Pennine rail route and we face many of the same issues.
The local rail network is vital to many of my Batley and Spen constituents, and crucial for our long-term economic prosperity. Its importance has increased since 2010, as our bus services have been slashed due to a lack of Government investment. The town of Batley—home to the only active railway station in my constituency—lies between Leeds and Manchester on the trans-Pennine rail route, but as one constituent who commutes from Batley every day succinctly put it, the service “has descended into farce”. What should be a simple commute has turned into a recurring nightmare.
Every time I visit Batley station, commuters are eager to share their anger: anger at the packed train that does not stop and whizzes past; anger at the cancellation announced seconds before the train is due to arrive; and, for those lucky enough to cram themselves on to a carriage, anger that they are paying so much for the privilege. Now, almost eight months on from the timetable debacle, I discover that Batley station is ranked in the bottom 15 in the whole nation for performance. Over the last six months—bear in mind that Batley is a small station—459 services have been cancelled. Less than 10% of services overall have been on time.
Barely a week goes by when a constituent does not alert me to yet another failing. Just last week, I was contacted by several people who were furious that the direct TransPennine service from Batley to Manchester had been removed without their knowledge. They only made the discovery as they arrived at the station on Monday morning. They now have to change in Huddersfield, subject to further potential delays and cancellations.
Such chaos and uncertainty are damaging to my constituency. People have to make frantic phone calls to employers with the familiar message, “I’m going to be late, again.” Children wonder where their parents are as they struggle to get back in time to collect them. Some are considering uprooting their families from the communities they love out of exasperation. Those are not just stories, Minister; they are people’s lives.
After several meetings with Ministers on Transport for the North, Northern and TransPennine, it is clear to me that the issues go way beyond just reliability and performance. Shamefully, Batley station does not have permanent disabled access. Of the 16 stations in the district of Kirklees, only eight can accommodate disabled passengers. Those people are effectively barred from travelling independently, and miss out on the amazing culture and opportunities in nearby cities. The Equality Act 2010 requires that all station operators take reasonable steps to ensure that they do not discriminate against disabled people. Hopefully, the Minister will update us on the precise action that the Government are taking to ensure that operators meet this crucial legal requirement.
Underpinning all of this is the infrastructure, which is sadly lacking. Detailed plans for the long-promised electrification of the trans-Pennine route remain as elusive as ever. When I inquired earlier this year, the Secretary of State refused to tell me whether the whole route would be electrified. Perhaps the Minister can venture a response. Although I welcome the much-vaunted introduction of new rolling stock to our network—which, incidentally, has been delayed until next spring—given the existing infrastructure, I fear it will have little effect on reliability.
Batley station is only as welcoming as it is thanks to the attentions of a fantastic group of volunteers called the Friends of Batley Station. They have spent weekends planting flowers and creating a café, with the backing of local businesses, such as PPG and Batley Bulldogs. Volunteers, however, cannot give us a better service. We desperately need long-term strategic investment.
The latest analysis by IPPR North shows that transport spending has risen twice as much per person in London as in the north since the launch of the northern powerhouse. Last year alone, public spending on transport in London was three times higher than in Yorkshire and Humber. The so-called enhancement package of £15 million to be used across the north, which was announced by the Government last month, amounts to little more than a drop in the ocean. That is unacceptable and indicative of the chronic under-investment in the north.
Where do we go from here? Transport for the North’s strategic transport plan, which includes plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail, has some exciting and potentially transformative proposals, but I feel that more work needs to be done to ensure that towns feel the benefits, along with cities. That plan will of course need the Government’s backing to become reality. We were promised an interconnected northern powerhouse, yet it remains a challenge to get from one town to the next. Franchisees, such as TransPennine and Northern, have serious questions to answer, but the buck stops with the Government and, ultimately, with the Secretary of State for Transport.
The Minister will no doubt repeat the “record investment in transport” mantra, while failing to note that the lion’s share of investment has gone to projects in the south. Will the Minister tell me when exactly the people of Batley and Spen will see significant investment in the rail services on which they rely? My constituents are sick and tired of feeling like second-class citizens, and deserve clear answers on an issue that will have a deep and long-lasting impact on our community.
Thank you, Dame Cheryl; it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair—you have heard the sheer anger of our constituents about the state of our railways. Today’s debate could have been called, “Why we desperately need an alternative Government to run our railways.” We have a detailed worked-up plan that will address the real challenges that commuters face on a day-by-day basis.
My hon. Friends the Members for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) highlighted that this is not just about personal stories, but about lives having to change because of a failure of timetables and the governance of our railways. We know the particular difficulties that people have had because of the halting of the electrification programme, which has had a catastrophic impact. The timetable fiasco resulted from that—
I will just begin my speech, if I may.
There are excessive fare hikes, poor infrastructure, franchise changes and no certainty for the future. The Williams review critiques how dreadful the whole infrastructure is and how it is imploding around our constituents, who want only to turn up at work in time and to live out their lives. This is a disgrace.
The reality is that the Government are not interested in the detailed solutions that we have been working towards for eight years to put the railway system back together, working across the industry with all stakeholders. That is why we need to move forward. If the Government want to join us in that, we would welcome that conversation, but to date they have blocked us. There is a real difference in policy. I note what the hon. Gentleman says, but also what my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) says. We need to look at the penalties that should be placed on these rail companies, such as freezing fares where there has been rail failure. It is wrong that people pay more for more failure on the railways.
The reality is that the Government have failed. Their ideology that is driving this forward is falling apart. Under the new model of publicly owned railways that we will put in place, we will see long-term security, long-term planning, long-term investment and stability for the whole rail sector.
We know about the inequality. We have heard the statistic about how London and the south-east have had so much more investment than we have in Yorkshire. There are consequences when we do not see the resources there. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) said, let us think about the vitality of connecting Sheffield to Leeds and Manchester—connecting the major cities of the north. In fact, the connectivity between Leeds and Manchester is the same length as the Piccadilly line. Think about the frequency and the reliability of the Piccadilly line compared with what we see at the moment.
We have heard tales of woe from across the trans-Pennine route. We have had a downgrade of the downgrade that was already planned—that came out of the board meeting a week or so ago. That downgrade will have serious consequences, because the Government have removed vital reliability from the service. Not only have we lost freight elements, as my hon. Friends have mentioned, and journey time savings—my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) highlighted how journey times will extend with more stops on the line—but we have lost the reliability factor. That means that the only marker that will have an upgrade is capacity, because there are larger trains. Even then, we will not reach the potential on that line.
Dirty diesel is being put on the route as opposed to full electrification—the only thing that will deliver the reliability that is required. We have heard that this is all part of a stepped process: in control period 6 we will see some of the upgrade, and it will be completed in CP7. Will the Minister tell us what certainty there is that in more than 10 years’ time—we must remember that timeline, because we need connectivity today—CP7 will bring about that full upgrade of the trans-Pennine route? That is the crucial route for the north and we need the upgrade now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North highlighted the appalling state of stations. We must remember that stations are places of service—they are where people wait and they need facilities. Public toilets are a basic public health necessity and they must be there to meet passenger needs. We need to make sure they are put in place. We also need to make sure that our stations are accessible. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen about the situation in Kirklees, where only eight of 16 stations are accessible. We have heard about Marsden station from my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker), and about Mirfield station. I was with Leonard Cheshire just last week at York station—even there, there was only one information point in the whole station. If a passenger is in need, where do they go? It is unacceptable.
We heard about the Equality Act 2010, but we must remember that it has been 23 years since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, which called on stations to make reasonable adjustments. Quite clearly, that is shameful. We are nearly a quarter of a century on and we still deny disabled people the right to access railways. It is not just physical adaptations that are needed; we need to change the environments to accommodate neuro diversity. I suggest that the Minister talks to the TSSA, which is a leader in this field, about how we can accommodate autism and other such things, and make sure that our stations are supportive of people with sensory impairments.
Let me give the Minister a gentle reminder: guards are on trains not just to close doors, which is vital for passenger safety, but as the passenger champion to make sure passengers are safe—whether disabled or non-disabled—throughout their whole journey. It is vital that the Government get to grips with this agenda and ensure that passengers are looked after, as it is a public service, and that guards are back on our trains. It is an easy dispute to resolve, yet the Government seem so entrenched in their ideology that they do not want to move forward on this issue.
Our new model of public ownership will have the passenger at its heart. We will make sure that we take decisions in an integrated way, closer to where the passengers are, that power and resource are in the right place, and that we plan for the long term. We have a 30-year lifetime of infrastructure and rolling stock to make proper investments, to make sure there is a smoothing of skills, and to ensure good employability across the industry. Whether with operations, maintenance or enhancements, we will make sure that we timetable in such a way as to sustain our railway, so it does not fail passengers.
We want real investment in new technologies. It is heartbreaking that we go back to old technologies on our railway systems, because we see such advances taking place elsewhere in Europe and in the world. Yet in the UK, we are still stuck on Victorian railways. We have to move that agenda forward, because that will deliver the reliability that our passengers need and demand from this Government.
We have great opportunities ahead of us; we have heard Northern Powerhouse Rail mentioned. That will get the vital connectivity into Bradford if we have anything to do with it. We will make sure that the north is properly connected and has that modal shift where people move from road to rail—not just passengers, but freight. We have a real crisis with our environmental and carbon footprint. We have to see a modal shift. That will bring about the connectivity that hon. Friends talked about with bus services, making sure the whole system works together. We have the National College for High Speed Rail in Doncaster. I urge employers to make the best use of that academy as we move forward.
Finally, I want to talk about the franchising system. There is recognition that the whole system is broken. The train operating companies are self-serving; they have not provided the essential public service that, perhaps, was envisaged in the beginning; and they are certainly now orientated on profit. Rather than go through the franchising process, the Government have created 12 direct awards, and we clearly need to move on. We need real integration and Labour’s policies will be a catalyst to providing that essential connectivity for the sake of our economy and our environment, and to ensuring that people’s lives are restored and put back in order.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I thank everybody who has contributed to this passionate debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) on securing it.
We all agree on the importance of our region and the critical role that rail plays in helping it reach its full potential. I have listened to representations about rail services on the network in my home county, and I wish to set out a few thoughts about what went wrong, how the Government responded, and our plans for the future. We have heard powerful speeches about how the problems experienced across rail in the north last summer impacted on people’s lives—whether that was people getting home or having access to work, healthcare and so on—and I entirely recognise and agree with that. There is a personal dimension to this, as well as a bigger economic one.
I will come on to talk about fares and plans for the future, but let me focus on some of the points raised today. A number of colleagues raised a point about disabled access. As we know, our rail transport infrastructure is primarily Victorian. Successive Governments have run an Access for All investment programme, and that has continued, including a £300 million extension in the next control period. We published our inclusive transport strategy last July, which for the first time included work on hidden disabilities. As colleagues may remember, I was in the Department for Transport a couple of years ago, and we had our first ever conference on mental health and transport. That was a significant moment—I was pleased that we went calling as it attracted so much attention. Work on making our transport system more accessible and easier to use for people with disabilities, including hidden disabilities, is central, and I am sure no hon. Member here would disagree with that.
One underlying point has been that the quality of rail performance in the north has been unacceptable. That is correct; it is clearly the case. Following the May timetable change we had a very difficult summer on our railways, but lessons have been learned, especially in regard to future timetable changes, which we have already started to implement. A timetable change on 9 December landed significantly better than the changes in May, and I will expand on that shortly.
The problems in May had a number of causes, including the impact of engineering works. Long delays to the two electrification schemes in the north-west impacted on Northern, which had planned for those schemes to be completed, but they were not. It then had to completely re-plan its timetable in less than half the normal time, together with associated staff training and changes. However, we have made some headway on that. A change on the scale of that in May was, quite frankly, coupled with insufficient time for planning, which of course impacted on passengers. It was a complete failure right across the industry. That is why we set up a full inquiry into those timetable changes, chaired by the independent regulator, the Office of Rail and Road, under Professor Stephen Glaister. He has published interim reports, with a final report published just a few days ago, and the Department are reviewing its recommendations. As I said earlier, lessons from that incident must be learned, and the impact on passengers must be placed at the centre of every planning decision.
In a former life I was a headteacher, and I used to work out the timetable in the summer term to set out where the children would be and with which teacher. I never had classes with no teacher in September because I thought strategically. Who is responsible for the chaos that happened under this timetable? As a former headteacher I would have taken responsibility if I ended up with two classes and no teacher, or just one teacher. Who is responsible?
I have given way a lot, and I have a lot to get through if I am to get to the answers. I will make a bit more progress before I take more interventions.
The May timetable change was a significant problem caused by ambition not being followed through with sufficient time to implement it properly—that obviously did not happen in the school of the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker). In September we appointed Richard George, a respected industry figure, to co-ordinate and lead efforts by the operators and Network Rail to look at performance across the north. He is reviewing the performance of the region’s rail network and making recommendations to improve reliability. His focus will be on operational improvement in the short and medium term.
Mr George is an independent expert, and he will act on behalf of railway customers to assist organisations in delivering organisational improvements. He will have a facilitation role in helping industry to reach the right decisions and focus on improving passenger services. He has already helped to highlight particular problem areas, and he will provide his conclusions in the new year. In the meantime, Network Rail has established a programme management office, so as to prepare better and to improve management of future timetable changes. An early recommendation from Network Rail was that it would be prudent for most of the changes planned for December 2018—including those in the north—to be deferred until May 2019. As colleagues have noted, we accepted that recommendation.
The modest changes that took place on 9 December were designed to improve performance, especially that of TransPennine Express through Yorkshire. I am pleased to report that the results in the first week—I recognise that these are early days—were encouraging, with TPE’s punctuality for the first few days 15% higher than the equivalent period in the previous week.
Several Members mentioned the compensation offered for the problems in May, and we took early action to ensure that passengers were compensated for the disruption they experienced. Not everybody was disrupted, but there was disruption in many parts of the country, not just the north, and those who were delayed significantly were able to reclaim money under the delay repay scheme. We required Northern and TPE to establish compensation schemes targeted at the people affected. That meant that the compensation was more generous, and money was put back into passengers’ pockets more quickly. More than 14,000 claims from season ticket holders and regular travellers on Northern and TPE services have been submitted, and £1 million has been paid in compensation to date. This week the delay repay scheme was extended to cover delays of 15 minutes. That focuses on helping people to seek redress if something goes wrong, but our focus now is on improving reliability and the operational performance of the railways, so that we do not need such compensation schemes.
Industrial relations were raised, and that issue is having a significant impact on the economy right across the north of England, not just in Yorkshire. In an effort to break the deadlock, leaders from Transport for the North and I recently made clear a shared desire to have a second person on board Northern trains, not just on the platform. As I have said, if we need to change the franchise contract, I will not block that in any way. Indeed, we will go further and play our part in helping to develop a funding package to cover any financial implications from such a change. In looking at the dispute, I see that Northern and the Department for Transport have confirmed that individual jobs are secure and pay is secure right up to the end of the franchise. There can be change with respect to having people on trains. All those changes are what people who travel on the networks are looking for. In view of that, I call on the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers to suspend the strikes and get talking again. I want the company and the union to sit and talk, and to bring things to a conclusion.
The Williams review is a significant piece of work. It is a root and branch review of the rail industry, led by the independent Keith Williams. We are seeking ambitious recommendations for reform that will ensure that the rail network delivers greater benefits for passengers. The investment from the Government and the private sector must result in improvements for passengers, to provide better capacity, better trains and more frequent services.
Passengers are at the heart of it. The point is for customers to be at the heart of the rail network, which of course includes such access, but I do not think that there will be any debate in that area. We all want there to be improved access. The points that the hon. Lady made about stations in her constituency are true—and they are, I am afraid, true for many of us. That is why Governments of different colours over successive generations have continued to invest in disabled access, and will continue to do so.
The Williams review is important in making sure the rail network is fit for the future. We have had huge success within the rail industry in the past 20 years, with the number of passengers more than doubling. Each year 1 billion extra passenger journeys are taken. However, we must ask ourselves whether the network is structured for the future, to allow for growth.
I am always available for colleagues and am happy to arrange meetings. I know that engineering work is going on around the Christmas period this year, and I shall be going to see it. That is affecting the possibility of running Boxing day trains this year; but let us look to the future. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.
We shall shortly run out of time for debate, and I want to spend a moment looking ahead. I gently remind colleagues who talk about a lack of investment in the north that although I have some sympathy as to investment, a little caution is required in taking snapshots of figures. The figures for London reflect Crossrail, but analysis of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority figures for planned central Government spending on transport infrastructure in the four-year period we are now in—from 2017 to 2020—shows that the northern regions will have a higher spend than the southern ones.
I thank the Minister for giving way. The point is important, because he talks about the northern regions, but this debate is about Yorkshire. As I said earlier, Yorkshire and Humber is set to receive the lowest level of spending of any region, according to his figures, at £726 per head compared with £1,026 in London and £1,139 in the south-east. It is much less than the spending in the north-west and west midlands, which will alter the figures. Yorkshire and Humber is losing out.
That was a repetition of the point that the hon. Lady made earlier, so I do not need to address it.
I gently remind hon. Members that we had a zero-growth franchise, which was put in place by the Labour party, and we are playing catch-up on under-investment. Labour Members may say that Labour invested steadily when it was in government, but the evidence is the exact opposite. We had a zero-growth franchise and are catching up from it. Let me consider what that catch-up might look like.
Although 2018 is clearly a year that passengers in the north would wish to forget, we should not overlook the fact that train services in the region will be changing fundamentally. A significant amount of investment will bring passenger benefits. On the infrastructure side, the electrification between Manchester and Preston, which I mentioned earlier, was finally energised last week and the first test trains are now operational. [Interruption.] It will benefit services across the north. That is my point. Electric passenger services will be phased in during the spring. Across the region platform lengthening is under way. Of course I recognise that performance is not good enough, and that is why we have made a change in the control period 6 budgets and priorities. Under CP6 there will be a budget of £48 billion. That covers the period from 2019 to 2024. The priority was moving away from enhancements to catching up on core reliability—the maintenance of the network.
Will the Minister address the issue of the trans-Pennine route and the fact that reliability has now been taken off the table as part of the CP6 upgrade? It is vital that it should be put back on the table, to ensure that we get the connectivity that we need between Manchester and Leeds.
If I get time I shall come on to the trans-Pennine upgrades, but the core purpose of the CP6 investment, which is a record from any Government in British history, is to increase reliability and punctuality.
The key thing that passengers will notice is new trains. New rolling stock will come in on Northern, TransPennine Express and London North Eastern Railway networks in the coming months, including the removal of Pacers by the end of 2019. By this time next year the vast majority of the 500 brand new carriages committed by Northern and TPE will have been delivered, and the remainder will have been completely refurbished. TPE will have introduced its new Nova trains on the north trans-Pennine route and all the Pacers will be gone from Northern. There will be more services to add to those already delivered, especially at weekends; there will also be later last trains in the evenings and earlier first trains on Sundays. Elsewhere, LNER will begin introducing its new Azuma trains next year.
The trans-Pennine upgrade is a huge Government initiative—a £2.9 billion upgrade covering York to Leeds and Manchester. It is one third of the expected rail upgrade investment in the next control period, so it is a significant point. By the way, freight has been mentioned, and it is of course still under our consideration for northern trans-Pennine.
No, because I am running out of time. I have 50 seconds left.
We have a trans-Pennine upgrade that is bigger than anything ever considered or delivered by Labour. We are delivering it for the north in a way that has never been considered before.
Northern Powerhouse Rail, which some have called Crossrail for the north, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The scheme is being developed for the north by the north—by Transport for the North—and the Government have given a budget to help it to do that. Crossrail in London was mentioned as if money were piling into it. The money that has gone into Crossrail was, of course, a loan. Transport for London needed that loan to help it deliver the project. It was not a grant.
Of course, it is fair to say that rail services across Yorkshire and the north as a whole have not been good enough. That is entirely understood, but I want to leave colleagues in no doubt that we recognise the importance of the Yorkshire rail network and that steps are being taken to improve it. More than that, I hope that in a year’s time passengers will be able to experience the change as investment comes on stream, and the benefits to match our vision for a 21st century railway in Yorkshire.
I am incredibly disappointed by the Minister’s response. He did not respond to a number of points. Once again it seems that sorry is the hardest word. He can be in no doubt—he must have heard loud and clear—that things need to improve and must improve. [Interruption.] He is chuntering from a sedentary position. I am not sure what he said, but I sincerely hope that we shall not be here again in six months reporting on a lack of progress, or further deterioration. Yorkshire towns and cities will no longer tolerate being second best, and I hope that he has heard that.
I am grateful to all the hon. Members who took part today, including the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). I am sorry to single him out, but there are 17 Tory MPs in Yorkshire. Where are they? One has turned up today—and the hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak) has turned up in the past minute. It is not good enough. Does that mean that rail services in the rest of Yorkshire, represented by Conservative MPs, are fantastic? [Interruption.] Well, not all of them—where are the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), and the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns)? The Minister has heard the stories of human suffering and misery, social mobility, mental health and life chances. My constituents and others in Yorkshire deserve better.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Second Home Ownership: Cumbria
I beg to move,
That this House has considered second home ownership in Cumbria.
It is a pleasure and an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl.
My constituency is an awesome place, with the Lake district, the Yorkshire dales, the Arnside and Silverdale area of outstanding natural beauty, the Cartmel peninsula and the rolling hills of south Westmorland alongside the stunning old grey town of Kendal. It may come as a surprise to some that we are Britain’s most popular visitor destination outside London, but it comes as no surprise to us; we know we are awesome, and we are delighted that over 40 million people a year visit us because they agree. Some 60,000 people work in Cumbria’s tourism industry, an industry that is worth £3 billion a year to the economy, and last year the Lake district was granted UNESCO world heritage site status, which has already seen a further increase in visitor numbers to our area in the year just passed.
We are proud to be a place of welcome and a place of warmth and generosity. However your Cumbrian journey begins, however you chose to stay with us, we are glad you are with us, and that includes folks who have a second home. However, this debate is an opportunity to face up to some facts: while we want to extend nothing but kindness and acceptance to all, including those who have a second home in Cumbria, I cannot ignore the fact that the rights of those who can barely afford a first home are being eroded by excessive and increasing second home ownership in so many of our communities.
I will start by clarifying what we mean by the term “second home”. When we use that term, we do not mean holiday lets, which are a significant part of the all-year-round tourism economy. A second home is a property owned by someone whose main home is elsewhere and who lives in that second home pretty rarely, maybe for a few weeks or weekends a year. There is no getting away from the fact that high numbers of second homes rob communities of a permanent population and the consequent demand for local services. They rob those communities of life and vitality, and they can rob them of the resources they need to be sustainable.
Second home ownership also contributes to pushing up house prices beyond what is affordable for most local families. There are 3,819 registered second homes in South Lakeland, but that is unlikely to be even half the picture. Given that second home owners, thankfully, no longer benefit from a council tax discount, they no longer have a financial incentive to register their property as a second home. It is assumed, then, that the majority of owners now simply do not register at all, and 3,819 is therefore likely to be a colossal underestimate. Anecdotal evidence suggests that second home ownership has risen significantly since the time when there was an incentive to register, from 7,000 properties in South Lakeland in 2006 to a likely figure of around 10,000 second homes or absentee-owned properties today.
Ten thousand homes. That is 10,000 homes that do not have a permanent occupant, 10,000 homes not sending children to the local school and 10,000 homes not providing weekly demand for the post office, bus service, pub, church or village store. When second home ownership gets to a critical level, the absence of a permanent population begins to have tangible consequences. Schools in places such as Satterthwaite, Lowick and Heversham have closed because there was not a year-round population big enough to sustain them. Several of my schools today have fewer than 30 pupils. They are brilliant schools, but every time a house in the village is sold to a second home owner, they see their future becoming a little bleaker.
Bus services have been pared back out of season in the Lakes and the Cartmel peninsula for the very same reasons. The village store in Backbarrow closed 18 months ago and awaits a new buyer as the number of full-time residents in that village continues to dwindle. With not enough kids going to local schools, not enough people visiting the local shops and not enough people using the local bus service, it all means that those services end up becoming non-viable and that beautiful places can become empty places, with communities struggling to survive.
Over the weekend, I visited a small hamlet in the Lakes—I will not name it—where there are a dozen houses, precisely half of which are second homes. All the residents of the remaining six properties are pensioners and, as it happens, are under serious threat from their private landlord, who is contemplating evicting them to sell the houses as holiday homes. I am dealing with that matter separately, but even as things stand, each of those residents fears being the last one left as their community dwindles away. A few weeks previously, I met an older gentleman in the Rusland valley who exemplified their fears. He was the last permanent resident of his small hamlet. The only people he ever saw were the people who came and went, renting the homes in his neighbourhood; I would not exactly call them neighbours. He was isolated and, frankly, deeply unhappy.
Last week I made an early-morning visit to the Troutbeck Bridge Royal Mail sorting office, to thank the team for their immense work in the run-up to Christmas. While I was there, the manager of the sorting office told me of an older lady who had been found by the postie, 18 hours after she had had a fall. The settlement near Ambleside where she lived was almost entirely second homes and she was the only full-time resident. She no longer had any neighbours, and in this extreme case that could have cost her her life.
The Government have talked a lot in recent times about loneliness. It is something we are all the more conscious of as a society as Christmas approaches, when the absence of community and family are felt so acutely. Despite their loneliness agenda, the Government have so far done nothing to address the fact that second home ownership is leaving vulnerable people in the shells of once-thriving communities. Those are homes that should be lived in, not just maintained.
The problem affects larger communities too; I could list countless other examples in communities such as Hawkshead, Coniston, Grasmere and Dent, each with around 50% of its properties not lived in all year round. Then we have Elterwater, with a staggering 85% of its properties owned by those who are absent for most of the year. Hon. Members will be unsurprised to hear that Elterwater’s post office closed a few years ago.
It is no surprise that the loss of vital services so often follows the loss of a permanent population. To put it bluntly, excessive second home ownership kills villages. We are a resilient and proud people in Cumbria, working hard to make our own luck. I think of the community-run shop in Witherslack, the community-run post office in Storth and the affordable housing groups in Coniston and Grasmere—all proof that local people are determined to fight against the tide and keep our communities alive and thriving. It feels to me that this is another of those issues that the Government overlook because they have taken their eye off the ball, trapped in the dark forest of Brexit and incapable of focusing on the day-to-day challenges that our country faces.
I am determined to give our communities the best chance to defeat the threat of second home ownership and I am here to tell the Minister that this is a problem that can be solved. The good news is that there is a clear set of actions that the Government could take if they wanted to, to breathe life back into our communities—three actions in particular. First, they could close the business rates loophole that incentivises even greater levels of absentee second home ownership. At the moment, some second home owners are avoiding local taxation altogether. They claim their second homes are let for holiday accommodation, but then make no real effort to let them out at all. As a result, they can bring the homes within the business rates system, instead of paying council tax on them. However, because their “business” will have an income of less than £12,000 a year, it will qualify for small business rate relief, and therefore no council tax or business rates will be paid at all, so no contribution whatsoever will be made to local services. This, frankly, is a scam, and one that hurts communities like mine.
I commend the Government for launching a consultation on tackling this loophole, but it seems to me that they could take action now, and that the action they need to take is pretty obvious. The Government should bring the law in England into line with that in Wales, where an owner needs to prove that their property has been let for a minimum of 70 days per year in order to qualify as a business. At a stroke this would mean that thousands of second homes would be brought into paying tax and contributing towards the local communities that they damage by their absence.
Secondly, the Government could give local authorities the power to levy higher council tax on second homes. Earlier this year, the Government announced that they are introducing provisions to allow local authorities to triple the council tax on homes left empty for five to 10 years, and to quadruple it on those empty for more than a decade. That is a welcome move, but it raises the question of why the Government have not extended those powers to second homes. If they were to do so, councils could choose to set a higher rate of council tax on second homes in those places where there is a threat to the sustainability of the local community.
Closing the business rates loophole and allowing local authorities to increase council tax on second homes would have some impact in dissuading people from buying second homes in those towns and villages that are most under threat. I suspect that someone who can afford at least £500,000 for a second home will not be put off by another £2,000 or £3,000 a year in council tax, but the key purpose of these moves would be to secure additional funds, to be used to provide compensatory subsidies to schools, post offices and bus routes suffering from the lack of a permanent population, and to pump-prime new affordable housing developments for local families, to give those communities a fighting chance of reviving and surviving.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing the debate. He puts forward worthwhile suggestions on how to sustain local villages. However, loneliness is also an issue, as he referred to. Does he feel that church groups and organisations can play a key role in sustaining those people who live on their own in small, dispersed communities? Does he feel that, along with sustainability, the Government should also address loneliness and the role that churches can play?
I think that churches play a big role in communities, and not only in that they are often physically present and can be the last thing that survives as a community centre in a village whose permanent population is contracting. The challenge to Christians is to look out for those lonely people in need. A church is more than just a building, as the hon. Gentleman knows.
Across South Lakeland, average house prices are 10 times average household incomes, and in some villages it is 20 times. I am determined that local families in Cumbria should be able to live and to make a living in the communities that they grew up in. The new homes that could be built by those additional funds could make a vast difference to thousands of local people. In the last few years, South Lakeland District Council has enabled the building of 1,200 new affordable homes for local families in places like Grasmere, Ambleside, Hawkshead, Sedbergh, Windermere and Coniston. I get letters from residents in those communities who are the polar opposite of nimbys: “In my back yard, please” say so many people throughout our area who want their village to survive and thrive.
Thirdly, although taxation measures will make a difference, the Government should act on planning law. Second homes should be made a separate category of planning use. If I wanted to change my home into a chip shop, my kids would be utterly delighted but I would have to apply for planning permission for change of use. However, if I wanted to sell my home to someone who would use it as a bolthole for four or five weekends a year, I could do so freely, yet in a very real sense the use of that home would have substantially changed.
To turn a first home into a second home should require planning permission from the local council or the national park, and I would expect planners to say a flat no to such applications in one of the many communities already under the greatest threat and pressure from excessive second home ownership. By taking this action, the Government could enable an immediate cap on second home ownership and would, over time, allow second homes to move back into being permanent family homes, rebuilding, reviving and renewing our communities.
One feature of representing an awesome place is that the problems we face can often be disguised—easy to miss at first glance as we are blinded by the glory. The blight of excessive second home ownership is one such example. It is a blight that I want the Government to tackle today. I want you, Dame Cheryl, and the Minister to come on holiday to the lakes and the dales, to enjoy Cumbria and to know that you are welcome. The Minister of course does not need inviting to the dales, but he will get my point.
I do not want any second home owner out there to think that I am having a personal go at them. I am not. However, my job is to fight for our communities so that they can remain awesome. I ask the Minister to do those three things without delay, to help us to keep them so.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing the debate. He is my constituency neighbour, and I know that it is often difficult for him to live in the shadow of beautiful North Yorkshire. However, he did a commendable job of explaining how his constituency plays a good second to North Yorkshire, and I pay tribute to him for that.
The hon. Gentleman has raised second home ownership regularly, both with me and in the House. His passion for and knowledge of the subject is well known and was firmly on display this morning. Second home ownership is a particular concern for his constituents, who live in an authority that ranks seventh in England in terms of the proportion of second homes. He knows that I have a local familiarity with concerns about second home ownership, with a particularly high prevalence of it in the Yorkshire Dales national park.
Residents living in areas where second homes constitute a significant proportion of the housing market can find themselves facing a particular set of challenges. Some believe that second home ownership exerts pressure on the affordability and availability of housing for local residents. It is also perceived to present a hurdle for aspiring first-time buyers looking to put down roots in their home community. Furthermore, vacant second homes can have an adverse impact on community cohesion and the long-term viability of local services and amenities.
However, we must not lose sight of the benefits that second home ownership can bring, or the possible diverse reasons for purchasing a second property. Second homes can boost local economies and tourism and provide employment opportunities, while also encouraging regeneration. In some cases, individuals may not use local services for parts of the year but will continue to contribute to their upkeep through the payment of council tax, freeing up local resources to benefit the local community. The Government are not in the business of being directive when it comes to an individual’s choice of where to purchase property.
There may be various reasons for second home ownership. Although second homes and holiday homes are often conflated, second homes may be properties in use to enable an individual to access employment in the local area. That said, the Government recognise that second home ownership can present various challenges, which is why we have taken various steps to mitigate them. I would like to spend some time outlining those and address the hon. Gentleman’s specific points as well.
The first issue is the second home council tax discount. Under the coalition Government, working in partnership with the hon. Gentleman’s party, we empowered authorities to vary or remove entirely the second home council tax discount, in the light of local circumstances. Local authorities have made extensive use of that change: 94% of second homes no longer receive any discount, and that is the highest proportion in the past five years.
The second step was the empty homes premium. Under the coalition Government, we also worked with the hon. Gentleman’s party to introduce a discretionary empty homes premium of 50% on properties that have been empty and substantially unfurnished for two years or more. This year, 299 out of 326 billing authorities charged a premium on almost 62,000 empty homes. We recently took that further, with cross-party support to put in place legislation to enable a 100% council tax premium to apply when a property has been left empty for more than two years, and for higher premiums for longer timeframes. I am sure that that will be another valuable tool for authorities to use in addressing their local housing market, including empty second homes.
I apologise for interrupting; I am very grateful for what the Minister has said. Will he acknowledge this point? I can tell him that in a constituency such as mine, the number of empty homes is in the hundreds and the number of second homes is in the thousands. Surely, therefore, the action needs to be taken at least as much on the latter as on the former.
I very much take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I point out that I am going through a range of measures and that in different parts of the country second homes and empty homes can actually be conflated. London, for example, is a slightly different case, as he will know, and I appreciate that in Cumbria and my constituency it is not necessarily the case. However, what I referred to is part of the toolkit that local authorities can use to tackle this particular issue, and it demonstrates the Government’s progress in the general area of ensuring that homes are available for those who need them in the areas that they want to live in.
The third step along the path was to tackle the issue of holiday homes and business rates. Second homes are not the same as holiday lets, but in some circumstances a second property is purchased as holiday-let accommodation and, in the case of holiday-let accommodation, properties are assessed for business rates, rather than council tax, if they are available for short-term lets for 140 days or more per financial year. Any property registered for business rates may qualify and, indeed, is likely to qualify today for small business rate relief.
Concerns have been expressed by many local authorities and hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), that some second home owners may be exploiting what has been termed a loophole to reduce their local tax liability by declaring that a property is available for let, but making little realistic effort to let it out, potentially giving them access to small business rate relief and thereby meaning that they pay no rates or council tax whatever. It is only right that genuine holiday-let businesses can apply for the relief to which they are entitled, and we should not overlook the genuine benefits that short-term lettings can bring. However, I and the Government take extremely seriously any suggestion of council tax avoidance. That is why, following a commitment in the last Budget, we have launched a consultation on the local tax treatment of holiday lets; it runs until 16 January.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the example in Wales, and he was right to do so. It informed my thinking as we designed the consultation; indeed, the questions posed in the consultation are very much suggestive of an approach that has been adopted in Wales. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has already been encouraging his constituents to respond to the consultation, and I know that he supports the measures referred to in the consultation to strengthen the criteria under which holiday lets are liable for business rates.
The fourth measure to tackle the problem that we are discussing involves stamp duty. Moving beyond council tax, the Government have raised stamp duty rates for those buying additional homes. Since April 2016, anyone purchasing a second home has paid a stamp duty charge three percentage points above current rates. There were more than 300,000 first-time buyers in the past financial year alone; that is an increase of more than 5% on the year before.
The Minister is being generous with his time. I acknowledge that what he refers to is an important and welcome move by the Government, but of course the money raised goes to the Exchequer. The communities that suffer as a result of this issue are the local communities. At the same time, they have seen a 40% reduction in local government funding. Therefore, if we are taxing—however we do it—those who are fortunate enough to have a second home, surely the money should be spent in the communities that suffer.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and actually the next thing that I will talk about from the toolkit of things that the Government are doing is community housing plans and how the Government are directing the centrally raised money specifically into communities, such as his and mine, that have a high prevalence of second homes. But before we get on to those details, I will finish on stamp duty. It is worth noting the other significant support for first-time buyers in the form of the total removal of the need to pay stamp duty on homes worth up to £300,000. That will benefit many people in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The Government will also consult in January on a new stamp duty land tax surcharge of 1% on non-residents buying residential property in England and Northern Ireland, to help to control house price growth and so help to ensure that residents of the UK can get on the housing ladder.
As the hon. Gentleman said, money should be channelled back into local communities, and I am pleased to tell him that that is exactly what is happening. The Government’s community housing fund has allocated part of the additional revenue raised from the higher stamp duty rates to areas with the potential to deliver community-led housing. That specifically includes areas, such as his and mine, with high rates of second home ownership. The community housing fund will make £163 million available across England between April 2018 and March 2020, and has already provided funding for numerous schemes since 2016. I think that this addresses the hon. Gentleman’s idea of a council tax premium to generate funds. This is already happening in his own constituency: £2.36 million has been allocated to South Lakeland District Council in the first year of the scheme, in recognition of its position as one of the authorities with the highest density of second homes and most affected by issues of local affordability. The money included £90,000 towards sheltered housing in Windermere, funding for the Helsington Community Land Trust to provide additional homes in Brigsteer, and salary funding for a community-led housing officer post. I am sure that those schemes will be warmly welcomed by the hon. Gentleman and others across South Lakeland, and I look forward to seeing how the local authority plans to use the remaining grant that it has to support further such schemes.
The final issue is neighbourhood planning. The planning system now enables local residents to put in place neighbourhood plans that manage second home ownership—notable is the one in St Ives. It is right that local residents should have the opportunity to express their views on the design of their areas, including the second home ownership of new builds, and ultimately to approve neighbourhood plans via a referendum. I am pleased to say that more than 700 such plans, including a number across the wider Lake district, are now in force.
I want to touch on the hon. Gentleman’s point about planning. I hope that he will forgive me: as I am not responsible for planning policy, I cannot answer him directly, but I spoke this morning to my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, who is responsible for planning and who is looking forward to his meeting with the hon. Gentleman. I hope that the hon. Gentleman can raise that particular issue with my hon. Friend. I am aware that the current case law around planning says that decisions on planning applications can be made only on the basis of a land use planning consideration. It is not clear that case law says that a switch from a primary home to a second home constitutes such a change, but the hon. Gentleman can discuss that with my hon. Friend.
To conclude, I am sympathetic to the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman. He makes a powerful case in representing his constituents and highlighting second home ownership constructively and positively. Although it is important to recognise that second home ownership can take different forms and deliver benefits, the Government recognise the potential issues faced by communities with a high proportion of second homes. That is why the Government have put in place the wide-ranging measures that I have set out. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that although the dynamics of individual choice and local housing markets are complex and best addressed at local level, the Government have been proactive over the past few years and, indeed, very recently in playing our part to help to address the issues. I look forward to continuing the conversation on this issue with the hon. Gentleman, his colleagues and others and with local authorities and communities so that we are doing everything we can to ensure that our local communities remain thriving, vibrant places that we are all proud to call home.
Question put and agreed to.
Heritage Action Zones
[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered town centre heritage action zones.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful to have secured this debate. I called it primarily because of the welcome decision by Historic England to create a Stoke-on-Trent ceramic heritage action zone.
The HAZ will focus on the historic centre of Longton, a market town in my constituency, the conservation area of which is currently described as “very bad” but “improving” on the heritage at risk register. The area retains much of its ceramics industrial heritage, and my constituency has the largest number of surviving bottle kilns. It is not alone on that list: Trentham mausoleum in the west of my constituency is on it, too. However, we are confident that Trentham mausoleum, the only grade I listed building in the city of Stoke-on-Trent, will soon be leaving the heritage at risk register following significant refurbishment works and the securing of its future through community arts use. However, it is not certain that Longton town centre will be leaving the heritage at risk register any time soon. As such, Longton will be the focus of my speech, but many of the issues it faces will be relevant to other town centres up and down the country that have, or aspire to have, heritage action zones.
Stoke-on-Trent is made up of six historic market towns, each with their own centre. I shall return to the implications of that in my list of asks to the Minister. Longton has a strong industrial past and we want to have a strong industrial future, too. Thankfully, after decades of decline, Longton is currently enjoying a manufacturing renaissance, including in the ceramics industry. That has seen parts of the Aynsley factory—the Sutherland works—brought back into use recently. There are many such great buildings from the Victorian years of our greatest success that need to be brought back into use, to deliver success in the future. At the same time, it is only through success that those buildings will have a sustainable future, so they need to be brought into sustainable use to encourage businesses and footfall into our town centres.
Sadly, in places where post-war regeneration has happened, historic buildings have too often been pulled down and replaced by things that can only be described as crude. Historical features have been blighted by out-of-place modern features, which are not in keeping with the historic architecture. I understand why planning permission was granted; there is often a feeling that a site with any economic activity is better than a site with none. However, the cumulative effect of out-of-place developments since the second world war is a town centre that has come to close to losing its sense of place altogether. That is why what is left of the historic town of Longton town centre is a conservation area, and why I am determined that the five-year HAZ will succeed in delivering a much longer-term legacy.
From the front door of my constituency office, I can tell I am in Longton. It has the characteristic view of high Victorian architecture, rich in ornamental features and details—some Italianate, some partly gothic—and lots of traditional red brick and tiles, as is common in the Potteries, with window placements of carved stone. It is a mix that says: Longton, the Potteries and Stoke-on-Trent. However, the view from the back door of my office is of a carpark and a modern retail shed, which could be pretty much anywhere in Europe. It is not distinctive—same new, same new.
If we are going to attract more visitors, more shoppers and more businesses, we need to do better at presenting our uniqueness, which can only come from those integral historical features. Our local tourism appeal will never come from looking like everywhere else in the world; it must be in looking like Longton and the Potteries—the home of bottle ovens and pottery works. That is one of the key paradoxes of globalisation: when people can go anywhere in the world, their preference is to see places that are like nowhere else on earth. Celebrating, preserving and enhancing our local distinctiveness is fundamental to our sense of place, sense of destination and sense of identity. It is fundamental to the sense of local pride that we have something special to offer the world.
With suitable heritage interventions, Longton has the potential to be a thriving commercial centre for the south of Stoke-on-Trent. There are 224 outlets within the town centre and a total of 65,000 square feet of floor space, about one fifth of which is, unfortunately, vacant. That is substantially higher than the regional average of 12.1%. The residential population within a 2.5 km radius of Longton is more than 80,000, but very few people live in the centre itself. One of the key objectives of the HAZ, therefore, is to focus on housing within the key urban conservation area, restoring heritage buildings creatively for residential use in the high street and getting more people living in our town centres above shops once again. Often, this means reinstating shopfronts that are more in keeping with the local architectural style and restoring access to flats above shops that have long since fallen out of use.
As in many town centres, the lack of occupation has been one of the key inhibitors to maintaining heritage buildings. Thankfully, urban living is back in vogue, particularly in quirky buildings, but modern expectations for communications, plumbing, insulation and so on will need to be met. The private rental sector outside the HAZ area is already relatively strong, with many renters paying monthly rent of twice what a mortgage repayment on the same property would cost. However, much of that is old terraced housing, and there is a singular lack of private rented apartments. There is a market yet to be made.
It often proves exceptionally difficult to get property owners to convert properties in town centres to residential use. Where there is a market for residential conversions, the up-front cost of converting much of the stock available can prove, in a low-value market, to be considerably more than the post-conversion values. There has been an unwillingness in the private sector to take the necessary risks where the market is untested and lower value, and therefore market-making measures are needed to de-risk development and incentivise conversions. That has been provided in part by the housing infrastructure fund, but further investment in road and rail links to potential housing sites would always be welcome. I was especially pleased to see the Government announce the future high streets fund as part of the recent Budget. That could provide critical support in helping to address the viability gap in converting historic town centre properties into alternative uses.
It was also fantastic to have my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), the Minister with responsibility for high streets, visit my constituency recently, to see for himself and speak to local retailers about the challenges faced in our town centres. The HAZ can play its part by getting the town joined up in the ambition to move forward. However, alongside it we need incentives to address market challenges and viability constraints, and I hope the future high streets fund can provide those. A clear plan of action to increase residency, new businesses and footfall in our town centres can stimulate and leverage the increased private investment that our property market needs.
Improvements are also needed to the local public realm, Longton’s public transport network and the sense of liveability and visitability that a prospering urban centre needs to improve. It is not just about regenerating the high street in Longton; two town squares—Times Square and Union Square—do not function as visitable destinations at the moment and need improving. Dominating Times Square is the imposing Longton town hall building, which dates back to 1863. It is great to see Stoke-on-Trent City Council investing £1.9 million in plans to bring the historic Longton town hall building back into use. The building was saved by the local community from demolition in 1985 and is now, thankfully, grade II* listed. This important building will now provide a hub for the south of the city, to enable people more easily to access services in one place. There will also be investment in the fantastic adjacent Victorian market and improvement to facilities, including new public toilets.
Re-establishing the civic nature of our town squares could also establish a welcoming heritage route for visitors through the town to Gladstone Pottery Museum. Sightlines could also be opened up to the heritage landmarks of St James the Less church and the Sutherland Institute, which houses Longton library. It would, of course, mean having to improve the local traffic, with better public transport, and I hope that the existence of the HAZ will focus minds on that.
That is particularly pertinent now that we have secured funding for Stoke-on-Trent through the transforming cities fund, as outlined in the Red Book, and I thank the Government for their work on that. Getting the right balance of vehicles and pedestrians will be necessary to make the HAZ a success. I hope that the transforming cities fund will help better to join up our public transport links, and especially to improve bus links, which are severely lacking. There is plenty of capacity for numerous cultural and leisure uses, including niche retail, dining, start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises—private sector investment that can be leveraged if we get the basics of attractive buildings and the public realm right.
I note that in Historic England’s excellent publication, “Heritage and the Economy 2018”, evaluation evidence from the Derby partnership scheme in conservation areas revealed that footfall grew between 12% and 15% in the partnership scheme area while it fell by 26% across the country. I understand that Derby’s partnership scheme involved grants for the sympathetic renovation of historic shop fronts using local tradespeople over an eight-year period. That is the kind of success that Longton traders—key partners in the HAZ—are keen to replicate.
Longton is on the same train line as Derby, and it can easily compete with that city if it draws the right lessons about best practice. We also need to establish better rail services for Longton. That was the focus of my last Westminster Hall debate a few weeks ago, which my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) also contributed to. I am glad that the Department for Transport has taken that message seriously and recognised the huge economic potential for growth in local rail connectivity.
That matters because Stoke-on-Trent is on the up, and we want to keep it that way. It is a city enjoying a modern industrial revolution in its traditional and new industries. It is one of the fastest-growing and best places to start a new business in the UK. Some of our key ceramics manufacturers have grown by more than 50% in the last few years. Heritage buildings in my constituency are once again full, with pottery manufacturing just one of the productive activities taking place there.
We are much more than ceramics, however; we have learned that we have to be. The economy in Stoke-on-Trent is more diverse than ever. Manufacturing is booming in the city and there have been significant advances in hi-tech, digital and research. There is an increasing vibrancy in the wider area, with two growing universities, Keele and Staffordshire, one of which is based right outside Stoke-on-Trent station.
The HAZ has to provide invaluable opportunities for academic research, such as the 3D scanning that has been undertaken of bottle ovens. That fascinating process has underlined the fact that no two bottle ovens are the same. They are all listed, of course, but only as “bottle oven”, because not enough detail has ever been known about them. Most are grade II listed, and at Gladstone Pottery Museum they are grade II* listed. The HAZ has an important role to play in filling the gaps in our city’s collective knowledge about those important historical features.
The city’s living industrial heritage is catalysed by a burgeoning tourist industry, which also has massive potential for growth in Stoke-on-Trent. According to VisitEngland, and backed by Historic England, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery is the sixth most-visited free attraction in the west midlands in 2016. Visitor numbers increased by more than 25% from 2016 to 2017, to 176,000. The attraction of Stoke-on-Trent to tourists is clearly strengthening and I want to ensure that the south of the city—Longton, Fenton, Meir and Trentham—shares in that success.
As Historic England rightly stressed to local partners, the fundamental purpose of the HAZ is to increase the number of people who come to visit Longton and see and enjoy the heritage that is preserved there by the work of the HAZ. It is important to note that the HAZ is in addition to existing plans for heritage-led regeneration. As the authentic capital of world ceramics, Stoke-on-Trent has much to offer in destination-based tourism and experience-based tourism—for example, there are opportunities to have a go at throwing a pot in the actual potteries.
I look forward to VisitBritain running campaigns to bring international visitors to our area. Many already visit the award-winning World of Wedgwood in my constituency. The percentage of overseas visitors that it attracts is more in line with a London attraction than other sites in the midlands. Bringing those visitors into Longton, with its authentic Potteries skyline, would be great for local traders, who are only too keen to welcome more visitors to the town.
Tourism is not just about overseas visitors. We can do much to support VisitEngland to boost domestic tourism to Longton as the home of the Gladstone Pottery Museum and the largest collection of remaining bottle ovens in the Potteries, as I have said. My first ask to the Minister is this. What communication channels are there between Historic England, VisitEngland and VisitBritain to ensure that the heritage action zones in the regions will be promoted by professional tourism marketers based in London?
Historic England has rightly made it clear that the purpose of Longton’s town centre HAZ is to increase visitor numbers. Will VisitEngland and VisitBritain be primed to help with that? The benefits of UK tourism are overwhelmingly enjoyed by London. I do not begrudge our capital city its success, but I hope that we can have help where it is due to grow our tourism on the back of it.
Sadly, Longton has lost a lot of its bed space. Some hotels were pulled down altogether to make way for retail units that are now empty; others have been converted into office space. Much hotel accommodation was originally provided with travelling merchants in mind, as in most places across the country, and in our case it was linked to the ceramics trade. Staffordshire as a whole has one of the lowest levels of hotel beds per head of population, despite the increasing demand, which means that, amazingly, some hotels now charge London prices.
We are starting to see growth in that market. There are new and expanding hotels in Stoke-on-Trent, such as a Hilton under construction in the city centre as well as the expansion of Premier Inn and a Best Western in Meir Park. I hope that the HAZ will make Longton a more attractive destination for growing business-related markets. We certainly need to stimulate investment from accommodation providers for tourism and business travel.
Down the road in Leek, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), a great example of a heritage building, the Victorian Talbot hotel, is being saved and revived by Premier Inn to suit contemporary demands and expectations for modern hotel accommodation. That demonstrates the potential to convert historic properties to new uses.
If Premier Inn, Travelodge—or Wetherspoon, for that matter—or any of the other modern hospitality companies that sustainably save and revive historical buildings would like a tour around Longton and my constituency, I would be only too delighted to provide them with one. When such properties are empty and up for sale, it is right to be proactive in encouraging potential new owners who might find that the vision of the HAZ conveniently aligns to their existing business model.
I note that tourism is the latest industry to explore a sector deal and that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is keen to secure such a deal. Indeed, the Department stipulates that it must focus on accessible destinations with good accommodation, which is precisely what Longton can be if all the work is joined up properly. If we were to achieve a sector deal for ceramics that involved the proposed new international research centre for ceramics, we would need increased availability of accommodation for business travellers.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for meeting me last week to discuss that aspect of the ceramics sector deal and the bid to Arts Council England for investment from the cultural development fund to dramatically improve creative facilities at Staffordshire University. I am glad that he is keen to visit my constituency to see how the various projects supported by his Department can link with the council and local enterprise partnership frameworks to maximise efficiency and impact.
That is a reminder that the HAZ does not exist in a vacuum. It complements other projects and developments in the city, and it needs to knit in with other Government initiatives and the work of national public bodies. For example, the HAZ in Longton could be complemented by attractive partnership work with Network Rail. That is my second ask: can the Minister bring any pressure to bear in cross-governmental tourism forums for Network Rail and train operators to be plugged into the HAZ project?
The iconic girder rail bridge in Longton is a local landmark, and it is as much a part of the sense of place and destination as the impressive town hall and Victorian market opposite. The potential for increased rail and passenger numbers is significant. The railway arches could also house commercial enterprises—as, indeed, they did previously.
Rail needs to play a much bigger role in the future success of our city to get people from place to place locally and to make it more accessible for visitors and tourists, so any support that the Minister can offer for Stoke-on-Trent’s bid for Access for All funding for Longton station and to improve local rail services would be welcome. The platforms at Longton station can only be reached using stairs, which makes access to the HAZ by alternative means of transport especially difficult for people who are less mobile or who have a disability. More generally, improved rail services would significantly encourage more tourists to visit the area, and especially to visit Gladstone Pottery Museum.
As a further ask, can the Minister comment on any possible links between the HAZ projects for preserving heritage buildings and Sir Roger Scruton’s commission on beauty? The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government announced last month that the first aim of the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission is
“To promote better design and style of homes, villages, towns and high streets, to reflect what communities want, building on the knowledge and tradition of what they know works for their area.”
There seems to be an obvious crossover with what we are trying to achieve in Longton. We want to ensure that the buildings of the past, which make up the character of our area, have a future, and that modern design is respectful and complementary, adding to the urban fabric of our communities.
Business improvement districts may also have a role to play in ensuring that there is investment in making our town centres more welcoming environments. A BID is currently being developed for the city centre. If it is successful, I hope that it will be followed in other town centres across Stoke-on-Trent.
As I have mentioned, there is real potential for the future high streets fund to address the gap in viability of converting some of our historic buildings for future use. I also ask the Minister what opportunities he sees for town centre HAZ schemes to benefit from the future high streets fund announced by the Chancellor in his latest Budget. Where there are issues of viability, it is important that sufficient capital is available to help to incentivise and match fund private investment.
I will also touch on the support that the Heritage Lottery Fund can give through its townscape heritage grants. In 2016, we submitted a bid to HLF for funding and the west midlands HLF committee identified the Longton town centre townscape heritage programme as a high priority. Unfortunately, however, it was rejected at the second round by the HLF townscape heritage decision panel. My understanding is that it was rejected because such funding is allocated on a geographic basis. Since nearby towns had received funding previously, we missed out, no matter how good our bid was.
That cannot be the only justification for the refusal of a high-priority bid. That refusal has meant that the restoration of a number of prominent historic properties within the conservation zone has not been able to go ahead. I ask the Minister to consider closely the criteria for the future awarding of HLF grants, to ensure that Longton and the other towns that make up the Potteries do not miss out on the funding that is needed to restore important historic buildings and bring them back into use. We have a significant number of heritage buildings that are at risk and in a poor state of repair. They need support if they are to have a meaningful future.
In conclusion, the town centre HAZ is a great opportunity to put Longton firmly on the tourist map. Local partners are working with Historic England to agree a plan, managed and chaired by a board, to kick-start the process of bringing historic buildings back into use. I cannot stress enough the importance of that work in a town such as Longton, which is turning a corner and keen to share its successes as a city that is on the up.
We can save the heritage buildings that make people want to visit us by restoring them for alternative commercial and residential use. That would increase footfall, bringing people back into our town centres, benefiting local retailers and providing jobs. A town centre HAZ gives property owners a welcome forum to ask for advice from the local council and Historic England. It can also inspire new entrants to the local property market, who can secure the future of our heritage buildings with sustainable commercial uses. It is essential that we incentivise property owners to convert properties for new uses, ensuring that the important historic fabric of our town centres has a long-lasting future.
As a former landlord who once owned a historic building, I can attest to what my hon. Friend is saying. The upstairs rooms of that building were offices, but they are now being turned into flats. Does he agree that such work should not just be an isolated case in the north-west of England, but should be rolled out across the land?
Absolutely; we need to ensure that historic properties up and down the land are converted for alternative uses, so that the future of those buildings is preserved for posterity.
Other bodies need to play their part. National tourist boards should be primed to encourage more people to visit and stay in our area, and to enjoy the many local tourist attractions right around the city.
I finish by saying that if the Minister would like to visit Longton, I would be delighted to show him how we are putting his policies into action. I look forward to hearing his response to this debate.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing this debate and particularly on bringing into the open the examples of town centre heritage action zones that he has mentioned. Of course, he concentrated on heritage-led regeneration and it was right for him to do so. However, he also concentrated on the need to use buildings to their greatest effect, stressing the importance of bringing buildings back into use as we go through the process of improving town centres.
The starting point for me on this issue is how all of this activity can help to show, first, that we can breathe new life into the high streets of our towns and, secondly, how we can help to regenerate people’s shopping experience, eating experience and just the experience of enjoying a good environment in which to take a stroll, enjoy sport or whatever.
I look at this issue wearing two hats. First of all, I look at it wearing the hat of an archaeologist, which I was until a little while before I came into this House, and I also look at it wearing the hat of a planning expert. I use the term “expert” loosely; it is a term that is applied to me, rather than one that I apply myself.
I will consider the archaeological perspective first. We need to stress that people are genuinely interested in the archaeology and the history of the place in which they live. If I ask someone in one of the two towns in my constituency what their impression of the town is, they will always refer to some moment of history in describing how the town has grown.
Neither of the two towns in my constituency has become a town centre heritage action zone: the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that neither Henley nor Thame fall into that category. I know that he does not wish for us all to use this debate as an opportunity to lobby him to include our own towns within a HAZ, but let me not disappoint my colleagues by staying away from that subject. I do not actually mind which one of the two towns the Minister chooses—he could even choose both—but it would be nice to have one in a HAZ.
I will stay on the subject of archaeology for a little longer. We have a development in the centre of Henley, just off the market square, that has had to have archaeological excavation before the planned buildings can be put up. That excavation has revealed a fascinating pattern from the 12th and 13th centuries, which shows how the town developed. It did not develop in an ad hoc way; instead, it developed on a medieval plan in a very focused way. The medieval planners were obviously very good at setting out the town. It would be really nice to believe that, in encouraging people to use Henley town centre and to enjoy the heritage there, some way could be found to include that find within the developments that will go up on that site, rather than just referring to it in the name of the street or by changing the name of that particular part of the town. That is an important element to bear in mind.
Since invitations are being given out to the Minister, I urge him to come to Henley and see that site for himself, so that he can hopefully put Henley forward as one of the next towns on the HAZ list.
I said that I approached this wearing two hats. The other hat is that of a planner, and somebody who was very much involved with the Government in producing the national planning policy framework in its original form and commenting on its second form. I wonder whether the Minister would take my advice that this issue needs to be looked at again. We do not judge planning applications in this House; that is the function of the local district council. However, when I go around the country in my role as Government champion for neighbourhood planning, I am astonished at the appalling glass, concrete and steel buildings that have gone up in our town centres. I do not want our town centres simply to become pastiches of what they were at a set point, but it is important to stress that there is good design from the 18th, 19th, and indeed 20th centuries that helped to shape town centres and give credibility to their status as heritage locations. When the Minister looks at heritage action zones, he ought to include buildings that were built in those times.
None of these proposals, on their own, will overcome the issues that have been raised by the internet. None of them will overcome the habitual appearance of nothing but charity shops on our high streets, except in Henley where they are matched by the number of coffee shops —it is always possible to get a decent cup of coffee in Henley. However, they will go a long way towards helping overcome some of those issues and talking about the pride of the place, making that town’s heritage part of its future. For that reason, I urge the Minister to look carefully at those issues when he comes to the next list of heritage zone areas that he will bring into force, or rather that English Heritage—sorry, Heritage England; I am falling back into old money—will bring into force when it next thinks about this.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on highlighting the opportunities that town centre heritage action zones offer to towns such as Congleton, which I have the privilege of representing. Indeed, I believe that Congleton would be an ideal candidate for such a scheme, because the funding and support provided would add real value to the energy that is already demonstrated in the town by volunteers, councillors, council staff and local businesspeople. That energy already makes Congleton a pleasant and enjoyable place to live, work and visit. However, the heritage action zone scheme—£40 million announced this autumn to improve up to 60 historic high streets, over a four-year programme of high street improvements and cultural activities—could, I believe, add an extra bonus to the work that is already being done locally.
Congleton has a strong community life. Only recently, the pedestrian area of the town centre has been beautifully improved, which has added much to the enjoyment of shopping within the town and the opportunities that local retailers have to promote their produce. In addition, there are many activities in Congleton throughout the year, a few of which I will touch on in a moment. Congleton town centre itself, opposite the historic town hall, has a number of buildings in the Lawton Street conservation area that would benefit from the support that the town centre action zone could provide.
Congleton is of real historic interest, and there are many towns across the country like it: places that local people know are enormously interesting and attractive, but people outside those towns are often unaware of. They are places where people who live within a short distance—an hour or so—could come to spend a pleasant day out, or even a weekend. My belief is that some added investment in the town centre would act as a catalyst to providing additional tourism opportunities at the weekends. For example, just a few minutes out of town, we have Brereton Heath country park; Little Moreton Hall, the black and white timbered National Trust property; and Astbury Mere, where young people go sailing and there is a beautiful park for dog walking. All of these areas, combined with greater interest and support in the town centre itself, would mean that we would attract visitors not only for a day, but for a weekend. Why travel long distances to enjoy a break away when often, within a short distance of where we live, there are some really interesting historic towns? However, as Heritage England has said, those towns are often unsung outside of their immediate area.
Congleton has a great history. It was a mill town in the 1700s, and as well as making silk, it was almost unique in producing a material called fustian, linked with velvet cutting. Ribbon weaving started in Congleton in the 1750s, and continues to this day with Berisfords Ribbons, which is a key business in the town and a member of the very active East Cheshire chamber of commerce, based in Congleton. I hope that the Minister will visit Congleton to see what an ideal candidate it would be for a town heritage action zone. Jackie MacArthur, the town centre marketing manager for Congleton, is based at the town hall, and like her colleagues, she does a tremendous amount to support the life of the town. She has said:
“Congleton is very proud of its heritage and is getting geared up to celebrate 750 years of its charter (2022)”—
in fact, it is in its 750th year since the mayor was established as we speak.
“The town held its first heritage and antiques festival this year. The town has a fine Grade 1 listed Georgian Church…built between 1740 and 1742…one of the finest examples of a Georgian church interior in the country.”
I am pleased to say that that is currently undergoing major restoration work, costing over £350,000, which underlines the historic value of the property.
The town has aspirations to improve other buildings in the town centre area, including the cenotaph and Bradshaw House, built in the 1820s, which I have spoken about before in this place. It would make an ideal location for Congleton Museum, but it is currently unoccupied, and has been for some time. It is a historic grade 2 listed Georgian building; it is a few yards from the town hall, so it is right in the centre of the Lawton Street conservation area. It is currently owned by Cheshire East Council, and it would enable Congleton Museum, which has now been in existence for 17 years, to expand.
Congleton Museum, a charitable trust run entirely by volunteers, is now the area’s leading museum in collecting and analysing archaeological finds. It has been entrusted with the care of important hoards from wider afield, but it simply has inadequate room to display them. Its status has brought about many partnerships with the national museum community, including the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. However, it desperately needs to move from its current cramped premises at the back of Congleton town hall into new premises, and as I say, Bradshaw House would be an ideal building for it to move into. That would provide not only museum space, but a café and plenty of room for school visits, which the museum currently hosts but could offer much more of if that move could be made. If Bradshaw House could be renovated, that would be an important and practical way in which a town centre heritage action zone could make a difference for the people of Congleton. The local energy that exists needs that additional national support to make it happen.
I want to touch on two or three of the events that Congleton holds to give a flavour of what happens throughout the year. On 24 November we had our Christmas lights switch-on. It was a whole day of organised events and thousands of people came to the town centre of Congleton. We had a Christmas market in the streets and the town hall full of charity and school stalls. We had a lantern parade, the lights switch-on and fireworks. I pay tribute to the town hall centre staff and all the volunteers who made it happen.
As another example of the rich depth of cultural activities, on Saturday I will be at the Congleton Choral Society’s Christmas concert with the philharmonic brass ensemble in the town hall. It has several concerts a year, and I am privileged and honoured to be president of the choral society. Its performances really are of an exceptionally high quality. Any visitor who wants to spend a weekend in Congleton and its surroundings would enjoy visiting the buildings and the more recognised tourist attractions, and almost every weekend there is a concert or a show at the Daneside theatre, which is a very active local theatre in walking distance of the town hall.
Visitors during much of the year can enjoy the incredible floral displays across the town. Council staff, councillors and volunteers are tremendously committed to putting in hours of time over the year to create an attractive town for people to live in and visit. I commend the town because last month for the eighth consecutive time we won the gold large town award at the North West in Bloom awards ceremony. Also, the town was overall champion at the Cheshire Community Pride awards, and at the end of October achieved a gold award at the national Britain in Bloom awards in Belfast: a real accolade for the townspeople of Congleton.
As a historic town, Congleton could not be a more appropriate place for a town centre heritage action zone. I unashamedly invite the Minister to visit. I look forward to meeting English Heritage representatives to discuss how the town could benefit. Its website states:
“Working with local people and partners, including local authorities, Historic England is helping to breathe new life into old places that are rich in heritage and full of promise—unlocking their potential and making them more attractive to residents, businesses, tourists and investors...through joint-working, grant funding and sharing skills...places will be recognised and celebrated for their unique character and heritage”.
I do not think there is a better place than Congleton for that to happen.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I do not intend to distract the House for very long because we have had a good and thorough debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing it. We did not hear much about Wedgwood in his 23-minute speech, but it is entirely appropriate that a representative from Wedgwood’s hometown secured this debate.
As we know, Wedgwood was one of the great pioneers and entrepreneurs of the industrial revolution, but his field of interest extended far wider than simply the business of pottery. He was a great civic entrepreneur. What he created in Etruria was a model not only of modern factories, but of modern communities. He was a civic entrepreneur with a great interest in civil engineering, so his great push behind the Grand Union canal literally changed the economic geography of our country by providing the crucible of the industrial revolution in the west midlands, with new access to the ports, particularly the ports of Liverpool.
This debate needs the inspiration of great forebears such as Wedgwood. That is a long way of saying that I think the starting point for this debate and the consensus on which I want to start is the idea that our heritage and history bring us together. A deepening understanding of the place around us helps us to develop a sense of our own place in the world around us. That is why heritage action zones are such a good idea and I, too, add my congratulations to Historic England and its partners in local authorities and elsewhere on introducing and developing the initiative. We can learn a great deal from it.
Heritage action zones are particularly important for the Opposition, because we know now that culture is an important driver of modern economic development. We have seen it in towns and cities around the world. We saw it in spades in the extraordinary year of culture in Hull and we are now seeing it in the great city of Coventry, superbly led by my friend, the leader of Coventry Council, George Duggins. Many of us relish what will go on in Coventry. I hope the Minister will have the opportunity to spend some time there and draw out some of the lessons from that successful council’s leadership to inform others.
I want to add a particular note about industrial heritage and its role in town centre action zones. I agreed very much with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South when he underlined the importance of that particular aspect of town centre heritage. I commend the superb report written and presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), who chairs the all-party group on industrial heritage. He underlines the way in which industrial heritage can often be better protected and celebrated by ensuring that there are good development plans for town centres. The history that we find in our town centres is often one of the big magnets—one of the big draws—and therefore one of the secrets to economic development in the years to come. My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen wrote:
“Industrial heritage has to be accessible: both physically, and to our modern, diverse communities.”
That is a lesson that we are now seeing incorporated in some action zone plans.
However, we have to be honest about the challenges. The scale of the fund, £55 million, comes nowhere near close to filling in the gap carved out by a 32% cut in council funding over the past few years. As the son of a planner, I feel quite strongly—this will echo some of the comments that we have heard this afternoon—about bad planning decisions scarring the urban landscape taking shape around us. Very often, such decisions are made these days because there are no planners left. In the great city of Birmingham, for example, very few people are left in the planning department. As for the number of architects now employed by local authorities, once upon a time I think half the country’s architects were employed by councils, but now there are very few left. I am afraid that that has implications for the quality of planning decisions and the urban environment that we will leave to the people who take our place.
Equally, we have to be realistic about the economic pressure that now weighs heavily on our high streets. That is of enormous importance to this House. Our high streets contribute some £100 billion to our economy and employ some 21,000 people. It is not a marginal issue in the debates that we have about the future of our economy; it is of critical importance.
The Heritage Lottery Fund, through its programme, “New ideas need old buildings”, made the point that our historic quarters are very often the crucibles of new ideas, new businesses, new jobs, new potential and new opportunities, which is something that we see in my home city of Birmingham. In the jewellery quarter, for example, ably represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), we see a flourishing of small business that has helped to ensure our city is now the second biggest home for start-ups outside London. If we wander around the jewellery quarter, we see a lively amount of economic activity as new businesses begin to flourish.
In conclusion, I want to make three points to the Minister—advice, perhaps, from the Opposition. I have two general points and one specific point. I will follow others in adding to his list of good ideas that need much closer attention. The first is that, given the economic pressure on high streets and the scale of cuts that have been made in local authorities, the Minister and those of his poor officials not currently engaged in no-deal planning in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport would do well to look at Labour’s idea for a £1 billion cultural capital fund to put in their bid to the comprehensive spending review next year. If the House believes that culture has a critical role to play, not just in equipping the country for the digital economy, but in making sure that we put the requisite level of investment into the ideas we have discussed this afternoon, it will not happen for free. Local authorities are not geared up to supply the funds that are needed. Therefore, it is important that a good strong culture bid goes to the Treasury from the Department next year.
The second idea that I urge the Minister to look at is the Daily Mirror’s high street fightback campaign. The Daily Mirror has done a good job, zeroing in on a concern that is of huge interest around the country. It has been well backed by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and its general secretary Paddy Lillis, and it has developed a common-sense manifesto of ideas, such as free bus travel for young people, free wi-fi, good bus routes, a register of landlords for empty shops, and regular reviews of business rates. Those are good ideas, which the Department should champion if it wants to advance the agenda set out by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South.
I want, finally, to make a point about Birmingham. As the Minister will know, the second biggest civic collection outside London is in Birmingham. The civic collection of art and historic artefacts is worth something like £2 billion—there are about £1 billion-worth of paintings, and about £1 billion-worth of objects. Many of the objects are now languishing in a warehouse in Nechells that has a leaky roof and is prone to floods.
Why on earth are we allowing High Speed 2 to develop, in the middle of our city, something that looks like a shed, with limited design and cultural potential? Why are we not using that massive-scale investment in a brand new High Speed 2 station, at the heart of the industrial revolution, to create the greatest science museum in the country? Why do we not designate the area around Curzon Street a heritage action zone? Why do we not use the hundreds of millions of pounds of new investment to create a space enabling us to take the objects out of the warehouse—artefacts going back to the days of Boulton and Watt—and build a facility that means that anyone who arrives on the high-speed train in Birmingham knows they are arriving at the home of the industrial revolution? The director general of the Science Museum and others from our home city will lobby the Minister about that in the coming months. However, some positive vibrations from the Minister about the notion would be welcome this afternoon.
It is a pleasure, as Heritage Minister, to respond to the debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. I offer my sincere thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for securing the debate, and to all the hon. Members who have given their valuable input.
Our heritage is a vital resource for this country. It gives places their character and individuality. We know from research that the density of heritage assets is highly and positively related to the concentration of firms in a local economy, and that distinctive and characterful working spaces are a pull factor for businesses. It seems counter-intuitive to some people, but high-tech modern businesses function well, and their staff enjoy working, in heritage buildings. Those buildings are a tremendous draw to any area. It is estimated that creative and cultural industries are 29% more likely to be found in a listed building than in a non-listed building in England, so we should look after and value our listed buildings, and recognise them for the assets that they are. In 2017, the heritage sector alone provided estimated total gross value added of £29 billion, which is equivalent to 2% of national GVA.
We see that in many cases. Heritage buildings are an attraction to all types of business, including high-tech ones. The importance of our heritage was fully recognised in “The Culture White Paper”, published by my Department in 2016. It was the first White Paper on culture to be published by any Government since 1965. It made commitments to several new schemes, including Historic England’s heritage action zones, which several Members have spoken about today. As colleagues know, the zones are a flagship scheme to target areas of untapped potential, bringing historic places back to life to attract residents, tourists, businesses and investors, and to create economic growth in villages, towns and cities across England.
The scheme, like many of the schemes in the White Paper, champions a joined-up approach whereby Historic England works in partnership alongside local partners such as local authorities and local businesses. A first round of 10 heritage action zones was announced in March 2017. They included Sunderland, Nottingham, Hull and Coventry—the latter two were of course selected as the UK city of culture for 2017 and 2021 respectively—and Walworth in London, which was one of my first visits when I took my present ministerial post in January. I also enjoyed a visit to Coventry this year.
A further eight heritage action zones were announced as part of my Department’s heritage statement, which was published this time last year. The second round included Stoke-on-Trent, where, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has his constituency. I congratulate him again: I understand that he is the youngest MP of his intake—I am sometimes mistakenly seen in the same way. [Laughter.] I do not know why everyone is laughing.
My hon. Friend is a heritage star, who cares very much about heritage and his constituency, which is reflected in the fact that he secured the debate, and in the speech he made. I understand that Stoke-on-Trent City Council is due to refurbish Gladstone Pottery Museum as part of the heritage action zone. That will of course help to attract further visitors. I recommend that if it has not already done so, the pottery museum should contact Arts Council England about eligibility for the museum development grant programme, which provides a network of advice and support for all accredited museums. There could be some suggestions for increasing visitor numbers, and for financial sustainability.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South mentioned VisitEngland and VisitBritain. VisitEngland’s role is primarily about developing tourism products, as in the successful £40-million Discover England fund. That £40 million is put into a fund by the Government to encourage tourism outside the London area. Domestic marketing is not part of its current remit, although I am considering that at the moment. Tourism to the area is not one of the primary focuses of the heritage action zone initiative. It is a secondary focus; we obviously want tourists to visit. When the projects within heritage action zones start to become more public facing, Historic England will work with local and national organisations including VisitEngland to encourage tourism. We very much want that. Tourism is doing well in this country and numbers are healthy and increasing, but we always want more. Historic England is monitoring the outputs of the heritage action zone programme against a set of programme indicators and surveys.
Historic England has completed a full year of data collection for the first 10 heritage action zones. I believe that monitoring data for round 2, which includes Stoke, is currently being collected by Historic England, so it is still a bit early to evaluate the impact on visitor numbers in those areas. I applaud the work of my hon. Friend in supporting the heritage action zone in his area, and the work he has done to support that growing industry in his constituency.
Officials from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and from my Department are currently working with the ceramics sector to explore how they can support the industry. I was delighted that last month the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced the Government’s intention to deliver a sector deal with the tourism industry. We have entered into negotiations with the industry about what precisely that will look like, and we have asked it to come to us soon with a strong offer to help increase skills, accessibility and data sharing. When that sector deal is concluded, I am convinced that the tourism industry across the country will benefit. Potential rail improvements to aid tourism are a matter for Network Rail rather than my Department, but we work closely with the Rail Delivery Group—I think I met it earlier in the year—and I will ask my officials to discuss the matter further.
Historic England welcomes the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission as an addition to the range of initiatives taken in recent years to improve the quality of design across England—something I think we all want. That will help to raise awareness of the importance of design in regeneration, and support a sense of community and place. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has done a lot and encouraged a great deal in that area, and the commission is a very good thing.
I was pleased this year when the impact of heritage-led regeneration through the heritage action zones scheme was recognised in the Grimsby town deal. Indeed, the Greater Grimsby heritage action zone was announced as part of that town deal, highlighting the many links between heritage and this Government’s industrial strategy. I am sure there is more to be done in other areas.
Hon. Members can imagine my delight when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the Budget £55 million of funding for my Department for heritage high streets. The Government are working in many ways, and in many different shapes and forms, to help the high street and deal with the issues raised by internet shopping. That £55 million for heritage high streets was very positive and, as hon. Members will know, part of a wider £675 million future high streets fund—a very large sum. Some £40 million of that fund will provide a most welcome boost to Historic England, an arm’s length body, to run a purely high streets-focused heritage action zone programme, beginning in 2019. I see that as a major success of which I am very proud, and that Budget commitment from Her Majesty’s Treasury shows just how much the Government recognise the importance of the country’s heritage. It is a major investment.
Since 1998, the Heritage Lottery Fund has invested significant amounts of national lottery funding in townscapes. I encourage everyone to participate in the national lottery because those good causes, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, are a positive thing. Since 1998, a minimum of around £300 million has gone mainly, but not exclusively, to townscape heritage and townscape initiative programmes. HLF decisions are taken at arm’s length from Government. A couple of colleagues mentioned my input and offered me very generous invitations to visit various parts of the country, but such decisions are taken at arm’s length from Government—perhaps that is just as well when my hon. Friends ask me these things—and we are, quite rightly, not involved in the grant-making process, which is done independently.
The heritage action zone scheme aims to bring in funding from across the sector, and others, for local benefit both economically and—just as importantly from my perspective—for the historic environment. A heritage action zone can apply for funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, although not for a part of a project that is already being funded as part of the heritage action zone initiative. Therefore, Historic England could fund one part of a project, and the Heritage Lottery Fund another. There is nothing to stop that happening. Indeed, round 1 heritage action zones are sharing Historic England funding of £6 million, and benefiting from a further £18 million secured in match funding. About £1 of investment from Historic England generates further investment from the public and private sectors of £3.10—more than triple—so it is worth doing.
We must have regard to the public purse and—unlike previous Governments—to spending within our means in all the things we do. However, we must certainly have a very special regard for heritage, and I thank again all hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate. I would be delighted to visit the Stoke-on-Trent heritage action zone, and indeed Henley and Congleton if the diary allows. My Department is looking at some possible dates next year for either the Secretary of State or me to visit Stoke-on-Trent.
I thank the Minister for his kind and helpful comments. He recognised how important heritage and heritage buildings are to our economy, as well as the wider value of investing in our heritage. I am pleased that he mentioned the White Paper and the support given by the Department for that agenda. I thank him for his suggestions, particularly those on Gladstone Pottery Museum and the help that could be given to its programme of improvements.
I thank the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) for his comments. I did not agree with everything, and I hope he will not mind if I correct him on one thing. Although the modern-day factory and museum are in my constituency, Wedgwood was born in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) in Burslem, which is one of the other five towns that make up the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent. He was not born in Longton, I am afraid.
I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for their contributions, and particularly for sharing their knowledge of their constituencies and the importance of that heritage. Finally, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), who mentioned the importance of converting properties.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered town centre heritage action zones.
Leaving the EU: UK Orchestras
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effect on UK orchestras of the UK leaving the EU.
I am delighted to be serving under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Christopher, and to see the Minister and the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) and the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) in their places.
British orchestras are a global success story. They tour around the world, forge new markets in emerging economies and contribute to UK soft power and cultural exchange, but Europe is their most important marketplace. They are particularly worried about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, which could put the survival of some well-known British orchestras at risk. Even with a deal, if the UK is going to leave the EU, orchestras need assurances, particularly ahead of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. I understand from the conversations I have had that the key concerns are: first, the risk and danger of increased bureaucracy and costs associated with European touring after Brexit; secondly, funding, particularly given constrained public support; and, thirdly, the difficulty in recruiting and retaining EU nationals. I will take each of those points in turn and put six specific questions to the Minister.
I turn first to the increased difficulties in touring. Touring is intrinsic to the business model of British orchestras. Additional costs from controls on migration could price UK orchestras out in quite a fragile marketplace. Extra costs could include medical insurance, because of the loss of the European health insurance card; carnets for transporting musical instruments, if we are not in the customs union; border delays; and the cost of work permits. The planning cycle for orchestras is often more than two years ahead of performance, so contracts with promoters in the European Union have already been signed far beyond March of next year. Fees have been fixed. Additional costs from Brexit could push already contracted tours into loss.
Recognising the additional costs that orchestras will face, has the Minister had any discussion with the Treasury about increased public funding? Some EU promoters have chosen not to book UK orchestras because of uncertainty about Brexit.
That is not the first issue that comes to mind when one thinks about the challenges ahead, but it is an important one, and it is absolutely right for the hon. Gentleman to raise it.
Public funding for British orchestras has been cut sharply since 2010, as has funding from devolved Governments and local authorities, and there has been a cut of up to 30% from Arts Council England. Since 2016, the orchestra tax relief—I have no doubt the right hon. Member for Wantage had something to do with that—has been vital to the financial sustainability of orchestras, but at the moment we do not know whether British organisations will continue to be eligible for funding through Creative Europe or the other EU programmes, so UK Government investment is absolutely vital to orchestras, concert halls, festivals and promoters. What assurances can the Minister give at this early stage about funding for culture in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review?
Corporate sponsorship is down since the 2008 downturn. Arts and business incentive schemes saw corporate sponsorship rise to a total of just over £170 million in 2006-07, but it fell after that. In 2011-12, it was down to £113 million. Figures have not been published since then, but reports from orchestras suggest that it has continued to decline since. Can we look at new opportunities for incentivising corporate sponsorship? The Association of British Orchestras has proposed a tax incentive for investment in cultural organisations along the lines of the existing tax credit for research and development. Is that an idea that is being pursued?
Unlike in other countries, orchestras from the UK do not get any financial support for touring. They tour on an entirely commercial basis, so they are relatively expensive for foreign promoters. That is particularly difficult in new markets where the costs and risks of touring are greater. Might there be consideration of a new international touring fund in the new era?
I turn to recruitment and retention, which we have been discussing in the House this afternoon with the Home Secretary as he published the migration White Paper. British orchestras, operas and ballet companies rely on guest artists, conductors, soloists, singers and dancers being able to travel in and out of the UK, often just for a single engagement. Orchestras may have to replace an artist who has cancelled because of illness or injury at very short notice, and the replacement artist needs to be somebody who knows the particular role or repertoire. There may well be nobody suitable in the UK.
A lot of orchestral musicians—permanent or freelancing —are overseas nationals. The average percentage of EU nationals in UK orchestras is 8.3%. In some well-known orchestras, they account for more than 20% of the permanent musicians. The Government have rightly included principal and sub-principal orchestral musicians on the shortage occupation list. That means that orchestras can recruit under the tier 2 points-based system from outside the European Economic Area without recourse to the resident labour market test. Other players are subject to such tests, but the Association of British Orchestras has secured an extension to the recruitment period of up to 24 months, recognising the rigorous and lengthy auditioning and trialling process that is required. Recruitment under the points-based system is bureaucratic and costly, and orchestras are worried that if that system is extended to Europe after Brexit, as is proposed, there will be major new red tape and costs for them.
The salary threshold for entering the UK with an initial job offer is £30,500, which is above the average starting salary for non-soloist musicians in lots of orchestras, particularly outside London. The threshold for obtaining indefinite leave after five years is £35,000 a year. Public spending cuts mean that orchestral salaries have flatlined and roles in orchestras may well not meet those thresholds. We have heard from the Home Secretary that there will be a year’s consultation around exactly how the arrangements will work, but I think the Minister will recognise the concerns that orchestras have, if they are to continue—as they must—to attract global talent. Orchestral musicians are highly skilled, but they are not highly paid.
The Association of British Orchestras, UK Theatre and One Dance UK have written to the Minister with responsibility for the arts, the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), urging him to work with the Home Office to secure an exemption for highly skilled performing arts workers who earn below the £30,000 threshold in the proposed Brexit system, and to clarify the position of freelance musicians. That letter requested a meeting. Will he or the Minister who is responding to the debate meet the organisations who signed the letter to discuss that concern?
There is a worry about social security contributions. In the EU, a UK orchestral musician uses an A1 form to prove that they pay social security contributions in the UK, which exempts them from paying social security and health insurance in other EU countries when they are on tour. If, after Brexit, UK musicians no longer have access to the A1 system, it is likely that additional social security deductions of 15% to 20% will be taken from their pay. The financial viability of touring might well be wrecked. Will Ministers seek to ensure continued access to the A1 system after Brexit, perhaps through a bilateral agreement of the kind that is already in place with Switzerland? The recent political declaration commits to maintain
“reciprocal arrangements on the future rules around some defined elements of social security coordination.”
That form of words is not binding, and it is not clear to which elements they refer. I wonder whether the Minister can assure us that the A1 system will be included in those elements that should have reciprocal arrangements, and that steps will be taken to ensure that there will be no additional delays to issuing A1 certificates, because delays could be problematic as well.
There is a longer-term worry that recruitment problems will be compounded as higher education institutions attract fewer students from the European Union. Like many specialist performing arts institutions, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama recruits 20% of its students from the European Union, but already the number of applications from the EU has fallen. It was 495 in 2015-16, but it is 385 in the current academic year. UK institutions’ ability to be world class will be reduced if the skills pipeline of the sector is diminished by our leaving the EU.
We have heard a lot about the impact of leaving the European Union on manufacturers and banks. There will also be a major impact on orchestras, but that has not been widely debated. I am grateful for the opportunity to air these important concerns. The arts and creative industries are estimated to account for 800,000 jobs in London alone.
Let me just recap my questions to the Minister. Has she had any discussions with the Treasury about higher public funding to offset new costs for orchestras that arise from our leaving the European Union? What assurances can the Minister give at this early stage on funding for culture in the spending review? What progress has been made in considering tax incentives to encourage support? What consideration has there been of the possibility of an international touring fund? Will Ministers meet relevant organisations and consult them on exemptions to the salary thresholds for visas?
Thank you very much, Chair. It is a remarkable display of your flexibility, and another reason it is such a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second day running. I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on securing this important debate and on putting the case for supporting our orchestras so effectively. I also congratulate the Minister—it is extraordinary that as the right hon. Gentleman was speaking, her Christmas card arrived in my inbox, drawn by Jessica Stinton of Ridgewood High School in Stourbridge. Jessica is now written into the record in Hansard for her beautiful picture of robins. The motto is:
“A time for everyone to come together.”
I think that this debate is a time for everyone to come together to support our orchestras, and the arts more generally, as we go through the turmoil of Brexit. The challenges that our orchestras face are also faced by many different arts organisations—perhaps not professional organ players, who might find it harder to tour, but certainly people in the visual arts—[Interruption.] I can feel that I have provoked my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell). If one wants to know about the quality of Oxfordshire’s cultural sensibilities, it is worth noting that only Oxfordshire MPs have turned up to this debate voluntarily.
My right hon. Friend is right to speak of the quality of Oxfordshire MPs and to say that I am an organist—I think that adds to our contribution to the arts as Oxfordshire’s dedicated MPs. I want just to correct him on one thing: he is right to say that I cannot fit my organ in the back of a trailer, but many churches and halls around Europe have organs that can be used, provided that it has been arranged in advance.
That is true. Yesterday I was at the Battersea Arts Centre, which houses a Wurlitzer organ—the largest electric organ of its type in the UK. I hope that my hon. Friend will have the chance one day to play that organ, which is currently being restored.
I digress. The point that I wanted to make is that while I was delighted to receive the Minister’s Christmas card electronically, a physical Christmas card is more tangible—just as a wonderful recording of an orchestra is a brilliant thing, but we ultimately aim to see it perform live. That is why the touring of orchestras is so important, and why British orchestras have seen more than a million more people attend live performances in the past eight years. Another important point is that our orchestras are very much part of this country’s soft power, as are all the arts. In my role as trade envoy to Vietnam, I was lucky enough to see the London Symphony Orchestra perform in Hanoi this year—that is one example. That is why I hope that the Minister will focus on the arguments that have been put forward by the right hon. Member for East Ham on the need to support orchestras and their ability to tour once we have left the European Union.
The right hon. Member for East Ham put some questions to the Minister, and I want to quickly outline three important themes. The first is obviously the physical ability to tour. We know that some of our orchestras have already lost bookings in the EU because of uncertainty about Brexit. It is not clear what future work permits might look like or what impact future customs arrangements might have on the movement of instruments between borders. We do not know how delays at the borders might impact on touring or what additional costs might come about from the loss of access to the European health insurance card. A whole host of uncertainties surrounding the physical aspect of touring in the European Union after Brexit need to be addressed.
The second point that the right hon. Member for East Ham touched on is that there will no doubt be an increase in costs for our orchestras, should they wish to tour in the European Union. It costs a lot to go on tour—I think it cost the London Symphony Orchestra about £1 million to do their south-east Asian tour. The costs are relatively low to tour in the European Union at the moment, but they will increase. The right hon. Gentleman was right to call on the Government to start to look at a fund to support international touring, perhaps with support from the Foreign Office or even from the Department for International Development. I was lucky enough to see the London Symphony Orchestra teaching in Hanoi as well as performing.
The third point that the right hon. Member for East Ham made is that the physical movement of people is important for orchestras. Something like 20% of musicians in our top orchestras come from the European Union. The salary threshold of £30,000 does not necessarily reflect the kind of salaries that are earned by people who are starting up their careers, or even by senior members of orchestras. When I was a Minister, I experienced some of the difficulties of getting artists from outside the European Union into the UK to perform. Those kind of obstacles really need to be looked at and overcome. I hope that, as well as considering a touring fund, the Minister will work with the Arts Council England to ensure that there is a special immigration section staffed by experts, who are able to wave through visas as quickly as possible to ensure that touring can be as friction free as possible.
Mr Chope, I thank you for the opportunity to make my points in this very important debate—while focused on orchestras, it is also a model for the wider debate on the future of cultural exchange between the European Union and the UK after Brexit.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) on securing a debate on this very important matter. I thank him for advance sight of his speech and questions.
The Government take extremely seriously our responsibility to champion and support our world-leading orchestras, which connect us to more than 400 years of creativity from across the world—particularly within Europe. I agree profoundly with the right hon. Gentleman about the value, success and soft power that our orchestras represent. They help to educate young people and contribute significantly to our cultural life and economy. We take none of that for granted, and we have a range of policies that support our orchestras.
In England, the Arts Council invests more than £25 million a year in orchestras, and related classical music organisations and activities, through the national portfolio. In 2017-18, Arts Council England awarded more than £2.8 million to a range of classical music projects across England through its lottery-funded Grants for the Arts programme, and more than £10 million through strategic funding programmes.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about new tax reliefs. Although that is a matter for the Treasury, I will comment on it as much as I can. The Government keep all tax reliefs under review. Any proposal for a new tax relief must be assessed for its effectiveness, wider economic impact, ability to stand up against abuse, and cost to the Exchequer. I am pleased to note that the orchestra tax relief, available across the UK, was introduced in April 2016. The most recent statistics for the relief show that, since its introduction, 205 productions have benefited and have received £6.6 million-worth of support from the Government.
On other future funding, the spending review will set the first funding envelope after the UK has left the EU, and will look at all Government spending. It gives us the opportunity to look at UK priorities and argue significantly for the hugely important area of culture, including, of course, performing orchestras. The Government have made clear our intention to undertake that spending review in 2019. Leading up to the review, we will continue to listen to the concerns of the sector, and of course we will consider any spending in the light of implications following our exit from the European Union.
The UK Government value the UK’s thriving cultural landscape and have listened to the sector’s concerns about the European market. We will continue to be in close dialogue with the sector, and we will seek a far-reaching relationship on culture and education with the European Union that is mutual beneficial for the UK, the EU, our cultural communities, including orchestras, and our citizens.
Some leading classical musicians have expressed concerns about the future as we leave the European Union, and those concerns have been represented in this debate. I assure them that their voices are being heard. My Department is working hard to ensure that Departments across Whitehall understand what our orchestras need from our future relationship with the EU, and what they need in terms of contingency planning in the unlikely case that we leave the EU without a deal. In either case, we are confident that the creativity and resilience of our orchestras will continue and thrive.
Right hon. and hon. Members have touched on a range of challenges for orchestras, and I will address them in turn. It is tragic that some orchestras have lost bookings on account of Brexit, as we heard from the right hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). The movement of people is important. A key challenge for our orchestras is how the rules about the movement of people might change. Those concerns have been raised, and I want to address some of them, particularly in the light of the White Paper, which was published this afternoon.
The White Paper is an invitation to interested parties to express their views. I trust that the right hon. Member for East Ham will make his views on the issues pertaining to orchestras apparent during the consultation inspired by the White Paper. In the future, it will be for the UK Government and Parliament to determine the domestic immigration rules that will apply. The Immigration Bill will bring migration from the EU under UK law, enabling us to set out future immigration system in domestic legislation. The movement of people is clearly important to the orchestras of our country. We will continue to work with the Arts Council, and we will look at the proposals it is making for visa waivers in this sector.
In the immigration White Paper, we set out further detail on the system, taking into account the recommendations of the Migration Advisory Committee’s report on European Economic Area migration in the UK. The future system will focus on high skills and welcoming talented and hard-working individuals who will support the UK’s economy, enabling employers to compete on the world stage. The Home Office is launching a year-long engagement to enable business and other stakeholders, such as orchestras, to shape the final details of policy and process.
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether my colleague, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism, would meet with the Association of British Orchestras. Following the publication of the White Paper, he will certainly be able to meet the right hon. Gentleman and the Association of British Orchestras to discuss this matter in greater detail.
Orchestras have expressed concern about the salary threshold. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Migration Advisory Committee threshold of £30,000. We will discuss with businesses what a suitable salary threshold should be. If a skilled job is considered to be in shortage in the UK, a lower salary threshold is likely to apply. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that skills do not necessarily relate to salary, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is well aware of that.
Sir Christopher, should I allow a little time for the right hon. Gentleman to sum up?
I apologise. I am never clear on that point.
As hon. Members pointed out, it is not only the movement of people, but the movement of objects, that is important to orchestras. They move a huge amount of equipment around with them, much of it valuable, historic or both. They work on tight timeframes and are under pressure not to separate musicians from their instruments for long periods. I am aware that some musicians are worried that new customs processes will lead to increased cost, delay and inconvenience, which could disrupt touring schedules.
Hon. Members will know that the Government’s plan for EU exit aims to preserve frictionless trade for the majority of UK goods. Furthermore, in the political declaration, the UK and the EU recognise the importance of the temporary movement of objects and equipment in enabling co-operation in the cultural and education sectors. That, of course, includes musical instruments.
Orchestras are also concerned about customs processes in the unlikely case that the UK leaves the European Union without a deal. I hope hon. Members will understand that the issue of customs processes in the event of no deal is a broader, but no less important, issue than the one before us today. My Department has been working closely with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to understand the pressures on our orchestras to ensure that we are prepared and that communications reach the right people and contain the information they need to allow orchestras are prepare.
Another challenge that was raised is the importance and value of EU funding programmes to the UK’s cultural sector, including orchestras. Creative Europe provides support for international cultural relations and creative projects. Collaboration is vital for culture to thrive. Creative Europe has demonstrated that international partnership enables the cultural sectors to share expertise, build relationships and produce exemplary creative works.
As the Prime Minister made clear in the White Paper on our future relationship with the EU, the UK wants to build on our long history of working together to continue to produce and promote excellent culture.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).
Public Service Pensions: Government Contributions
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the reduction in Government contributions to public service pensions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. This debate is important to highlight the impact, across the public sector, of the reduction in Government pension contributions.
The Government are implementing a further reduction in the discount rate for public service pension schemes from 2.8% to 2.4%, which will take effect in 2019-20. Clearly, the reduction in Government contributions to public sector pensions is going to increase the strain across the public sector. Although the changes will have an impact across public services, for the purpose of the debate I will focus mainly on the police and fire services.
The reduction in Government contributions to public sector pensions will clearly add further strain to our frontline services, which have faced huge financial challenges, following eight years of Tory austerity. By 2021, police services will be expected to find around £420 million in order to set a balanced budget—that could mean losing a further 10,000 police officers. The change is also estimated to cost fire services £150 million by 2023, which is roughly equivalent to the cost of running 150 fire stations for a year.
To provide a bit of background, in the 2016 Budget the Chancellor announced a discount rate reduction from 3% to 2.8%, with effect from April next year. The Treasury decided more recently, however, that a further reduction—to 2.4%—was required. In September 2018, the Government said that the Departments and devolved Administrations would need to meet, in full, the increase in costs in the 2016 Budget announcement. The Treasury has advised that public bodies will be supported in meeting unforeseen costs in the 2019-20 financial year, when the changes first take effect, but compensation beyond the first year cannot be guaranteed.
Public service providers would have to increase employer contributions to the Treasury with no guarantee that additional moneys would be compensated beyond 2019-20. If public bodies were not compensated for the increased contributions beyond the first year, that would mean an indirect spending cut. Affected employers will therefore be forced to make costly changes without any certainty that Government funding for frontline services will be proportionately increased in years to come.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for securing this important debate. Does he agree that although it is right and proper that NHS funding is ring-fenced until 2023-24, other frontline services, such as firefighters and the police, must also have the same protection as a matter of right, in recognition of the type of work that we call on them to carry out—to protect and serve?
I agree. All our emergency services do important work on our behalf, and that work needs investment. They cannot do that important work while worrying about how they are going to fund it.
There are significant concerns that the Treasury has introduced the changes as back-door spending cuts for already tightly squeezed public bodies and those delivering public services. In 2016, the trade union for senior civil servants, the FDA, said:
“It’s only three months since departmental budgets were set and yet departments are now expected to deliver an additional £3.5bn of savings in 2019/20 through another efficiency review…By announcing a change to the discount rate on public sector pensions—without any consultation—they are effectively removing a further £2 billion from public services and transferring it to the Treasury to give the illusion of a surplus”.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. On the cuts that he refers to, the South Yorkshire fire and rescue authority concluded in its financial plan that combined with the cuts and the 10 years of austerity, the pension contribution hikes will leave it no choice but to reduce fire services, with an increased risk to people and property as a result. Does he agree that the pension changes pose a clear and direct risk to the safety of our constituents?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Emergency services, such as firefighters and the police, are highly regarded and do important work on behalf of all our constituents. Safety will be an issue if the finances are not put in order to ensure that the accounts allow firefighters to continue their important work.
Earlier this year, the trade union Prospect said:
“Public sector employers will have to find additional resources to reflect these changes…However there is a real danger that Treasury will not recycle this money back to public service providers; that this process will, in effect, be a hidden cut to public services.”
As I said earlier, the discount rate change is estimated to cost firefighters £150 million by 2023, based on figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility. That is the equivalent of running 150 fire stations for a year. In 2017-18, employer pension contributions accounted for 7% of the total net expenditure among fire and rescue services in England, and for 7.6% of it in Wales. In England, local government settlement funding for the fire authorities is forecast to decrease by 15% between 2016-17 and 2019-20.
The impact on police is equally stark. By 2020-21, the police will face a financial black hole as their pension liability rises by around £420 million. The chair of the National Police Chiefs Council has warned that it could amount to a loss of a further 10,000 police officers, because the police are legally obliged to set a balanced budget. The recently announced settlement offers no certainty on the issue.
The National Police Chiefs Council is reported to have sent a formal letter to the Treasury saying that it will seek a judicial review of the Government’s proposals, and it is protesting against the fact that forces will have to find an extra £417 million in just two years’ time to pay for an increased minimum contribution to officers’ pension pots. That figure is set to rise from 2% to 3% by 2019 and, as I said, equates to the funding of around 10,000 officers a year. In response to an urgent question on 6 November about liabilities for the police pension schemes, the Minister said that funding arrangements for 2020-21 onwards would be discussed as part of the spending review.
I have covered the national picture, but I will highlight the local impact on my constituency. Two-thirds of my constituency is covered by South Wales police. The gap in that force for 2020-21, and for every year after, is likely to be around £7 million. If that burden is dumped on police forces, it will effectively be another massive cut to police budgets and lead to a further cut in police numbers. Those changes come on top of the additional £20 million that South Wales police have to find for local policing, having lost about a third of the police grant since 2011. In south Wales, the changes would be the equivalent of 130 fewer police officers on the streets, on top of the 444 officers who have already been lost since 2010.
The Home Office appears to have accepted that the police budgets are under severe constraints and, in the absence of central Government money, flexibility is being granted to raise local police precept to help to offset an enormous sustained challenge to police funding from seven years of cuts. Raising ever-increasing amounts from council tax payers, however, is not sustainable. Will the Minister fight to restore police funding to sustainable levels in the planned comprehensive spending review? Will he promise that the gap in funding for police pensions will be paid in full by the Government, having accepted that the police pensions costs increases cannot be funded from existing police budgets for 2019-20? I ask the Minister to note that the Home Affairs Committee said that the police funding formula must be addressed urgently. Can he assure us that that will also be tackled in the comprehensive spending review in 2019?
The other third of my constituency falls within the area of Gwent police. In cash terms, the changes add £2 million of extra costs to its budget in 2019-20—although some of that will be offset by the Home Office—and a further £3 million of extra costs in 2020-21. That totals around £5 million, recurrently. A recurrent pension pressure of £5 million for the Gwent force equates to 100 police officers in Gwent communities. It would be necessary to increase the local precept in Gwent disproportionately, by about 8% by 2021. Such figures are not sustainable and would transfer ever more pressure to local council tax payers.
As I said at the start of my contribution, the changes will impact across the public sector. I have focused on police and fire, but I will highlight briefly the effect of the recent changes to the teachers’ pension scheme on universities throughout the UK. The Treasury appears to have shown little awareness of the significant impact that those changes would have on universities and students, and has failed to commit any additional support for the institutions affected. I accept that the Minister will respond on behalf of the Home Office, but I hope that he will convey our concerns to his colleagues. I understand that the Government themselves estimate that the changes will mean additional pension costs of £142 million, shared across only 70 of the modern, or post-1992, universities. That will clearly place huge strain on budgets that are already under significant pressure.
Today, I hope that the Minister will be able to offer some good news to our overstretched public services. We all acknowledge, I know, that public services—our public servants—and our emergency services in particular, work incredibly hard on our behalf and deserve our thanks and appreciation. However, public services cannot survive on thanks and appreciation.
Does the hon. Gentleman not share my concern about the lack of consultation with the devolved Administrations? He might have seen correspondence about that, because the lack of consultation is actually against the UK Government’s statement of funding policy.
I very much agree with the point made by the hon. Gentleman. We are talking about significant amounts of money, and maximum consultation should be required, at the very least. As I have said throughout my contribution, such figures are too unsustainable to be transferred to local budgets anyway.
As I said, our public services cannot survive on thanks and appreciation. Investment is required to sustain the services that we already have. The Government need to come to the table and outline what support they will offer to address the problem. Our public services—our emergency services—have suffered enough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Christopher.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) for securing this important debate. I am grateful to him because he is shining a light on a very important issue that Parliament has not given enough attention to. The reduction in Government contributions to public sector pensions from 2.8% to 2.4% will have a huge impact and place additional strain on our already overstretched public services, unless the Government take action to ensure that public bodies are compensated for their additional contributions.
By 2021, police services will be expected to find an extra £420 million, which equates to the loss of a further 10,000 police officers if all the authorities set a balanced budget. The change is also estimated to cost our fire services an extra £150 million by 2023, which is equivalent to running 150 fire stations. The problem seems particularly acute when it is placed alongside the cuts to local government, because the poorest local authorities in this country have borne the biggest cuts—my own authority in Durham will have seen a massive 60% cut in its budget between 2010 and 2020. If the Government do not compensate our local authorities properly for the measure, we will see a further negative impact on our public services. In our own local communities, we all know how stretched the police and fire services already are. It is important for them to be funded adequately by the Government.
As we heard from my hon. Friend in his excellent and comprehensive contribution, at the moment the Treasury is giving no guarantee that the additional moneys will be compensated beyond 2019-20. According to Treasury analysis, the measure is expected to increase employer contributions by £1,970 million in 2019-20 and £2,005 million by 2020-21. We are not talking about a small amount of money that those bodies can easily plan for; those are huge sums of money that will really impact on the delivery of our public services. We are asking those public services to plan for the future with no real idea of what their budget will be. To assist with effective planning, if nothing else, the Government need to come forward with information about what they will do about compensating for those additional contributions, because none of us wants to see further damage done to our public services.
My hon. Friend alluded to a further problem, namely what is happening to our universities, which are not being compensated at all for the additional contributions that they have to make. For the teachers’ pension scheme, the Treasury agreed to compensate schools and colleges —again, only for the limited period for which it is compensating everyone else, up to 2019—but not universities, which run such schemes for their lecturing staff. Furthermore, that particular problem exists only for the new universities, so apart from anything else the Government are being extremely unfair. They are singling out the post-1992 universities for particular trouble, and they are simply not looking at the huge impact on university funding.
University funding has already been affected by the freeze in tuition fees with no additional money coming through from Government, and now we have the additional pension contributions. Again, we are not talking about small amounts of money. The increase in the teachers’ pension scheme is one of 7.3% to employers, bringing their total contribution up to 23.68%. That has a massive impact on university budgets. For the civil service—while we are at it, we might as well look at this, too—there is a 6.1% increase for civil servants and a 6.22% increase for the NHS. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, that will have a huge impact on the NHS.
I am always pleased to see the Minister in his place, but given the nature of today’s debate, a Treasury Minister should have come to this Chamber to answer on behalf of the Government why they have produced additional uncertainty for all the public services, including the civil service and the NHS, by not giving them an assurance of compensation for the increased contributions. Furthermore, a number of us have been asking questions for a while about why the new universities are being treated so unfairly, and we need an explanation from the Government. That has not been forthcoming to date.
The Universities and Colleges Employers Association has said:
“The proposed employer contribution increases will without doubt have a detrimental impact on universities, their staff and their students at a time of great uncertainty and we would urge the Treasury to reconsider.”
I endorse that message, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I will keep my speech short since, as is well known, for the last week I have been struggling to make speeches because of my sore throat. You will be pleased to know, Sir Christopher, that the House of Commons nurse recommended whisky—I will take advantage of that this evening.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) on securing this important debate. This issue will have an impact across public services, particularly public sector employers. I consider pensions to be deferred pay, so we should always look carefully at any changes to be made to public service pensions. A lower discount rate would, in the absence of other charges, result in higher contribution rates that public services across the board are expected to absorb.
As hon. Members have said, the employers currently in unfunded public sector pension schemes are the NHS, state schools, and the police and fire services. Any change in the discount rate would have an impact on those contributions. The UK Government announced they would fund most Departments’ additional costs incurred by the September 2018 changes for the 2019-20 year. Beyond that, Government’s position appears to be that meeting costs would form part of the spending review discussions.
The letter I referred to in my intervention on the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney was from the then Welsh Government Finance Minister—now First Minister—in a joint letter with Derek Mackay, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance. It lays out the concerns to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. As I understand, she indicates that it is her intention to meet 100% of all costs related to the valuation of the health pensions scheme in England only. That leaves the devolved Administrations having to meet that cost, at the expense of public services. As I said, that is at variance with the UK’s Government’s statement of funding policy, which states that any measures with an impact on devolved responsibilities should have prior engagement and consultation. The fact that there was no prior engagement and consultation is of great concern to Members in the devolved nations, as it certainly should be.
It is quite clear that the public sector across the board has been hung out to dry, with little time to prepare to meet the additional costs of the revised discount rate. Hon. Members explained rather well the impact that would have on their services locally and the potential money that will have to be found to fund public services. The potential cost to public sector jobs was a point very well made by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods). I agree with her that a Treasury Minister really should have responded in this debate. With all due respect to the Minister—I do not know whether he got the short straw in a raffle—the Treasury should be here because it was a Treasury decision. That we have someone from the Home Office—with all due respect to the Minister, who I like—is somewhat baffling. Members have to hold Government Ministers to account, but we always like to have a debate with the correct Minister answering questions.
I would like public sector pension arrangements to be fully devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I am sure that colleagues in Wales, having seen this disaster, will probably share that view. There is real concern across the public sector that is shared across the board by Opposition members. I look forward to the Government’s response.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) for securing such a vital debate.
The decision to reduce Government contributions to public sector pensions is highly flawed. I will give a short introduction to the damaging reforms, before outlining their flaws and seeking some clarifications from the Minister. The Government’s SCAPE—superannuation contributions adjusted for past experience—discount rate expresses the amount of central Government funding committed to public sector pensions. In the 2016 Budget, the Government announced that they would reduce their contributions from 3% to 2.8%. Then, without further consultation, they announced a further 2.4% reduction to contributions. The Treasury has acknowledged that the reform is a result of the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasting lower long-term economic growth rates—in spite of that, we are told we have a booming economy.
It is vital that the reform is not mistaken as a necessity, much like the wider incorrect assertion that austerity was a necessity. The reform is the Conservatives’ ideological response to lower growth caused by their austerity programme, which incidentally took place alongside tax cuts for the very wealthy. It would seem that the country can afford tax cuts even if it cannot afford to properly fund our public service pensions—something I find really reprehensible. That policy must be understood within the Government’s wider agenda.
The effects of the reduction cannot be understated: it will mean a reliance on employers to increase their contributions to ensure public sector pensions continue to receive sufficient funding. Importantly, the Treasury has made no guarantee that additional funding will be provided beyond 2019-20 to help to compensate employers. Let us see this policy for what it is: a pay cut—yet another pay cut—for our local public services, under the guise of fiscal tinkering. The Treasury even acknowledged that in 2016, when it announced that Departments and devolved Administrations would have to foot the cost.
Although we are reassured—I am sure the Minister will reaffirm once again—that employee contributions will not be impacted, let us be completely honest: staffing costs will increase and public services will keep having to do even more with fewer resources. We hear a lot of praise for our services, especially at Christmas time, but let us remember that no one can spend a pat on the back. To clarify, the Government’s policy aims to force costly changes upon our crippled public services with no future certainty of financial support. It might be expected that after studying the work by the Treasury’s own advisory teams, the Minister would raise various objections with the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary. Estimates forecast that the reduced pension contribution will require employers to increase their contributions by £1,970 in 2019-20. I am extremely concerned that the cost will be met through back-door spending cuts for public sector budget that are already at breaking point.
The Government heard concerns from the FDA in 2016 about budgets being set across the public sector. Now, an additional £3.5 billion may have to be found through another efficiency review. This is a direct transfer of funding from our public services into the Treasury. That may as well have been an additional tax on our public services, which have been starved and deprived of funding for years. One would hope that the money would be reused and invested in areas where our public services desperately need funding; although that still would not be sufficient, the rationale would make sense.
However, the reality will be much different. Like the last eight years of Tory rule, we can expect corporate tax cuts alongside prolonged austerity. We know who suffers the most from those. The effects of this policy on the police service were discussed in the Adjournment debate in November by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden). Although I will not repeat a lot of the powerful points that Members have already raised, it is important that a crucial element is identified: the substantial financial pressure will be too much for the current budget settlements to sustain.
The current chair of the National Police Chiefs Council, Sara Thornton, raised concerns about the incurred cost on the police service. She stated that forces are organising their medium-term forecasts, which means that forces in England and Wales may need to find an extra £417 million from existing budgets by 2020-21. I find it very uncomfortable that while the Government present the narrative that they are addressing the shortage of police officers, this policy may result in the equivalent of 10,000 job losses and severe damage to the sustainability of local police forces.
The fire service will be put under immense pressure if this policy is implemented. The service has suffered swingeing cuts for eight consecutive years now, and in 2017-18 employer contributions equated to 7% of English fire services’ net expenditure. Office for Budget Responsibility figures estimate that fire services across England will suffer from cuts of at least £150 million by 2023, which will be absolutely devastating for the service. I speak to firefighters, the Fire Brigades Union and councillors often; I am sure the Minister does too, so he should know full well the devastation that such cuts may cause. He may well have heard the same concerns that I have been privy to.
That sum of £150 million is the equivalent of running 30 fire stations for five years or paying the annual wage of thousands of firefighters, but alongside that, local government settlement funding for fire authorities in England is forecast to decrease by 15% between 2016-17 and 2019-20. As of March, fire and rescue authorities in England have £61.2 million in unallocated reserves. How can they be expected to pick up the bill without central Government assistance?
The situation of fire services is very worrying. We have heard Matt Wrack, who as general secretary of the FBU really ought to know what he is talking about, assert numerous times that budget cuts are putting our communities’ safety at risk. The Minister is hearing that from true experts in the field, and I do not think it can be doubted. We can see the risks of additional cuts. The Merseyside fire and rescue service has been forced to cut overnight cover at six stations. The Tyne and Wear fire service has been forced to consider new cuts in its integrated risk management plan, having already been forced to save £25 million since 2010. Surely neither would do that if they had any other choice.
I would like the Minister to explain what measures he intends to implement to cushion the blow to the fire service’s budget post 2019-20, and whether he has assessed the consequences of the pension reform on specific fire services across the UK and across different regions. Furthermore, will he undertake to implement a funding review for the fire service alongside the pensions consultation?
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. As a humble foot-soldier in the Government, it is not for me to reason why I drew the straw for this debate. I assume it is because I am the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, and I understood that the primary concern of the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), as was reflected in the debate, was the impact on emergency frontline services. It is a great pleasure to respond to the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing it. It is an important debate, because it throws a spotlight on two important issues.
The first is how we ensure that public pensions are funded in a sustainable way to protect the value of the pensions of those of our constituents who work in the public services; I know the Labour party cares about that and I would not want to give the impression that it does not. It is entirely legitimate to probe and ask questions about the impact, particularly on emergency frontline services, which we recognise on a cross-party basis are stretched and under pressure. This is an entirely legitimate debate and I welcome it.
The hon. Gentleman rightly asserted that our emergency services deserve our thanks and respect—particularly at this time of year but, frankly, every week and every month of every year—but they also deserve a decent pension, and our constituents as taxpayers deserve full debate and reassurance on how those pensions will be funded in a fair, sustainable way that strikes the right balance between the contributions of the central taxpayer and the local employer. That is what underlies the Treasury position, as I will explain. I hope to reassure the hon. Gentleman and others that the Treasury, which is not here to explain itself today, and the rest of the Government are doing everything we can to help our emergency services in particular, but also other Departments, to manage any uncertainties in terms of unexpected costs in 2019-20. I will go into some detail on that.
Quite rightly, the hon. Gentleman and others voiced concerns about what happens after 2020-21, but they will know that the fundamental truth is that at that point we will be into a new comprehensive spending review period. That is an extremely important moment in setting the framework for longer-term funding, not just for our emergency services, but for other Government Departments. I can give the hon. Gentleman my absolute assurance, if I continue to be Minister at that point—we live in uncertain times—that I am determined, as I have said publicly and as my boss the Home Secretary has said publicly, to ensure that the emergency services are properly resourced against demand and risk. That includes a need to ensure that they have the resources necessary to meet their obligations to public pensions.
The hon. Gentleman will understand that at this moment in time, no Government could give absolute reassurances about what the next CSR period will bring, but we have signalled clearly that increased employer contributions to public pensions from 2020-21 will be taken care of in the CSR. In the meantime, the Treasury has set aside £4.7 billion, which I think would seem to all our constituents to be an extremely large number, to help Departments cover unforeseen additional costs in 2019-20. I will go into some detail on the areas of my direct responsibility, police and fire, because concerns have been expressed about people in those services from both sides of the Chamber.
Before I address those concerns, I acknowledge an important point made both by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) about concerns within the community of universities. That is not my area of direct responsibility or expertise, but I undertake to write to the new Universities Minister on their behalf to highlight the concerns expressed in the debate and to ask him to respond to the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney in the light of those concerns.
To give a bit of context, the Government—I am sure with cross-party support—want to make sure that public sector pensions remain among the best pensions available, especially for police officers and firefighters, in recognition of their role. We are determined, as any Government would be, to make sure that the cost of providing pensions is fair to the scheme’s members, the employers and taxpayers. I think any Government would take the same approach. We want to be sure that they remain affordable and sustainable for generations to come. That is the context of the changes announced to the discount rate at the Budgets in 2016 and 2018. As the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karen Lee) said, they were based on the latest independent Office for Budget Responsibility projections of GDP growth.
The changes to the discount rate have resulted in an increase to public sector employers’ contributions to their pension schemes, including the police and firefighters’ schemes. The hon. Lady was quite right that the intention was not to increase the members’ contribution rate. I confirm that that is not being contemplated. It is an increase in employers’ contributions. Critically to the point of this debate, the Government have provided financial support for additional pension costs that could be reasonably expected to be unexpected. The extra funding is £98 million for fire in 2019-20 and £153 million for the police. As I have said before, funding levels for future years will be considered as part of the spending review. That is inevitable, given where we are in the funding cycle for Departments.
A lot of concern was expressed on behalf of both the services. I know the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney is aware of the police funding settlement that I proposed last week, although obviously it has not been passed by Parliament. That recognised the additional pension costs to the police. He mentioned a number of more than £400 million. Actually, in 2019-20, the additional costs to the police system would be approximately £330 million. He will be aware that the overall police funding settlement enables up to £970 million of additional investment in our police, although that depends very much on what individual police and crime commissioners do on the precept.
The hon. Gentleman will also know that this funding settlement sees the first increase in the Home Office grant since 2010. The proposed funding for South Wales police, for example, which faces the pressure of additional pension costs of £6.8 million next year, is an additional £3.3 million in Government grant and £3.1 million in specific pension grant, while the police and crime commissioner, Alun Michael, will have the flexibility to increase the precept up to £12.7 million, making a total of £19.1 million. I hope he will welcome that.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about Gwent police, which I know partly covers his constituency. The funding settlement enables additional public investment of up to £8.5 million in Gwent police, which faces pensions pressures of £2.9 million. He will be aware, because he will have heard me bang on about it, that Gwent police is an outlier, with £56 million in reserves—more than 45.3% of its total funding. Those reserves have increased since 2011.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the provisional police funding settlement, which is yet to be ratified by Parliament—I hope he will support it—goes well beyond meeting the specific additional pension costs and tries to support police forces both with their cost pressures and in their ambitions to increase capacity. That is part of a broader funding settlement that proposes a substantial increase of up to £970 million in the police system, compared with additional pension costs of £330 million.
I should also note that the police funding settlement talks about a word that never comes up in these conversations, but that is important for all our constituents, who ultimately pay for all this through their taxes: efficiency. The shadow Minister views austerity as ideological but, after eight years of austerity, that we can still sit down with our police leaders and agree £120 million of further cost savings through smarter procurement—they are spending our constituents’ money—tells us that we are still not at the end of the journey of making sure that our public services are efficient. Where the police lead, the fire service will undoubtedly follow, not least as they are both under the guidance of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services.
We have had eight years of austerity. I come from a local authority background myself, and identifying efficiencies at first is relatively straightforward, but it gets more difficult over time. The Minister mentions reserves, and I know that some areas have reserves. However, there is a big difference between reserves earmarked for certain projects, which all local authorities, police authorities and others have, and undisclosed reserves, which are much lower for many organisations. The point about reserves is that, once they are spent, they are gone. They are there for a rainy day; they cannot be used as part of a recurring budget. It is unfair for recurring expenditure to fall on council tax payers to an even greater level than it does already.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and I absolutely respect his local authority experience. I am certainly not in denial about the financial pressures, particularly on our police system but also on certain fire services as well. He is right that, in the early years of needing to get back to living within our means and controlling public expenditure, some fruit was easier to pick than others, and it gets harder. However, I was making the point that we are talking about £120 million of savings agreed by the police—this is not a Home Office number—over the next two years through collective procurement. That is just smart buying.
The hon. Gentleman will know very well, and it is the same for the fire service, that a fragmented system of more than 40 different forces each doing their own thing —buying helmets, uniforms and equipment independently—is not necessarily the most efficient route to getting the best value for our constituents. All I am saying is that, even after eight years of tightening and reducing budgets, we can still find £120 million left on the table because of inefficient procurement practices. I hope he welcomes that. That money was effectively being wasted and can be better used for frontline service delivery. I hope he agrees.
I thank the Minister for those comments. I accept his point about efficiencies. However, we are really talking about the overall size of the cake. The police force and the fire authority in Durham have already significantly reduced in size since 2010, to the point that they struggle to run an effective service. We can talk about procurement and efficiencies, but the pressure on our public services is enormous. That has to be the starting point of these discussions.
I have the greatest respect for the hon. Lady and I absolutely understand the point she makes. She will not have followed all my public utterances over the last two years or for however long I have been in this role, but I acknowledged right from the start, after listening to the police and fire services, that the frontlines of our emergency services are stretched. I have said so publicly. The actions I have taken through the police funding settlements last year and this year demonstrate, frankly, a move from cuts to increased investment, in direct response to conversations I have had, not least those with frontline officers expressing their frustration about how stretched they are. I absolutely accept that point.
Of course, £120 million, in the context of the £970 million funding settlement, is still at the margin, but the central point is that we cannot give up pushing those who spend public money to demonstrate that they spend it in the most effective way. It is not Government money; it is our constituents’ money. They pay it in taxes and expect it to be used properly. We will not let up on that, because £1 saved through smarter procurement is £1 that can be used for more effective frontline delivery.
I will talk about the implications for the fire service, because that was the main thrust of the shadow Minister’s points. I reassure her that, as we work towards the next comprehensive spending review, the Home Office will do a similar exercise to that which we have done with the police—I will be leading this—to genuinely try to understand the demand on the system, both in terms of the demand on the core statutory duty and also the financial pressures that the system is under. We will ask tough questions on efficiency, the use of reserves and all the things that we debate, but we only do so because we are ultimately stewards of public money—it is not Government money, it is taxpayers’ money—and that is our job. I am absolutely determined, through the CSR, to make sure that both the police and the fire service have the resources they need. I have shown through my words, and more importantly through my actions, that we have responded to those messages about genuine stretch and pressure on the frontline.
In 2019-20, single-purpose fire and rescue authorities will see an increase in core spending power of 2.3% in cash terms. The additional employer pension costs for the fire service will be an additional £10 million in 2019-20. The Government will cover the rest of the increase by providing an additional pension grant of £98 million. Standalone fire and rescue authorities, excluding Manchester, will be able to raise an additional £38 million in 2019-20 if all fire and rescue authorities increase the precept by 3%. We believe that will allow fire authorities to meet their financial pressures and continue to invest in key capabilities.
In addition, fire and rescue authorities hold significant financial reserves, which have increased—this is the point—by over 80% to £545 million between the end of March 2011 and the end of March 2018, which is equivalent to 42% of their core spending power. I will always refer to that, because there needs to be proper transparency and accountability.
The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), who is no longer in her place, talked about the pressures on South Yorkshire. Again, its core spending power increased by 1.7%. It sits on reserves worth almost 50% of its core spending power, and those reserves have increased by £9.5 million since March 2011. Like most fire authorities, it is starting out on the road to independent inspection and it is, I understand, in tranche 3 and will be inspected in summer 2019. One of the things it will be inspected on is efficiency. It will be interesting to see how it comes out of that inspection.
In relation to the police, I genuinely believe that the combination of the specific pension grant, the increase in the Home Office grant, the efficiency savings that we have agreed to realise, the high level of reserves that still remain in the system and a financial settlement that enables increased investment of up to £970 million in 2019-20, if fully realised—it does depend on the actions of police and crime commissioners—will mean that as a country we will invest over £2 billion more in 2019-20 than we did in 2015-16. While Labour MPs continue to make comparisons to 2010, the reality is that since 2015, the Government have recognised that the demand on the police system has risen and become more complex, and we have responded with additional public investment.
Finally, I hope that I have reassured hon. Members that the Government are working closely with both the policing and fire sectors, to ensure that they have the resources to enable them to do their challenging work efficiently and effectively. Alongside that, we are taking steps to ensure that the future funding of public pensions is affordable, sustainable and well balanced.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the reduction in Government contributions to public service pensions.