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Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): I have a great deal of sympathy with what my hon. Friend is saying. Does he agree that the Stewart report advocated the so-called precautionary principlein other words, playing safeand that PPG8 does not allow local authorities to embrace it?
Tomorrow and on Wednesday, many of my constituents will be at the Chelmsford Civic Centre giving their views to the inspector on two inquiries. Sadly, once those inquiries are completed, there are more than a dozen applications pending. They have been submitted to Chelmsford borough council in the last few months, and all are in residential areas. It is a matter of urgency that the Government act to empower people, as we sought to do in our manifesto at the last general election, so that there is a bottom-up, rather than a top-down, approach to a significant problem for many of our constituents.
The second issue, which is also pressing, concerns housebuilding in the Chelmsford local authority area. On Wednesday night, Chelmsford borough council, which is a hung council but is controlled by the Liberal Democrats, will take its final decision on its draft structure plan. As I have mentioned before in the House, we have a problem
It may surprise the Government and the Deputy Prime Minister, but my constituents do not want to see the greenfield sites of West Chelmsford concreted over and becoming one massive sprawl. As I have said on one other occasion in the House, the Liberal Democrat-controlled council will force one of my villages, Boreham, to be totally destroyed, because the council intends to impose 2,000 houses on that village, which currently has only 1,800 houses.
Hon. Members on the Labour Benches, and certainly my hon. Friends, will know better than most people the way in which Liberal Democrats behave. We know from the general election, as we do from other elections, that the Liberal Democrats can walk down a street, meet 30 individuals in 30 different houses and tell them different viewpoints if they think that it will win them a vote. That is their hallmark. We can laugh about it, because we are used to the Liberal Democrats' two-faced approach to politics. It is not such a funny matter to the people of Boreham.
Two years ago this month, a by-election was held in Boreham. It was caused by the retirement of one of the Liberal Democrat councillors who ironically had been the chairman of planning some years before, but who had become so disenchanted with the Liberal Democrats in Chelmsford that he resigned his seat, forcing the by-election. The Liberal Democrats presented their candidate, their leader was wheeled out, photographs were taken for their focus groups, and promises were made to the people of Boreham that the houses would not be dumped on Borehamit was too important a local community, and a vibrant village that would be destroyed if the houses were dumped on it.
Funnily enough, the Liberal Democrats lost the by-election on a 31 per cent. swing to the Conservatives. A mere five months later, the Liberal Democrat council announced that 2,000 houses were to be built in the village of Boreham. They had promised that they would not do that to the village, but being Liberals, they can do anything. That is what we are faced with: a village destroyed by the swamping of the area with extra housing that the village does not want.
On Wednesday night, the council, with all the Liberal councillors turning up and the promises long forgotten, will vote through the structure plan which they hope will force the houses on to the village. I look forward to the public inquiry next year, when we will seek to get common sense to prevail and the decision overturned.
Given the Deputy Prime Minister's statement last Thursday; given that Chelmsford borders the Stansted corridor which has been identified as a significant area for development; and given that in the south of the county we have the Thames gateway, where the Deputy Prime Minister also identified significant development and housing, what will be the impact on mid-Essex? Two thousand of the houses that it seems we must have in Chelmsford have nothing to do with the anticipated housing needs of Chelmsford. The development is intended to relieve pressures in the south of the county, but if the Thames gateway is to be developed, with substantial housing to sustain that development, could not
Finally, in the light of the Deputy Prime Minister's statement, will there be any impact on the timetable for a public inquiry on the structure plan next year? If things are to change because of new developments, especially in the Stansted corridor, what relevance might that have in the Chelmsford and Mid-Essex area and in terms of holding a public inquiry next year, when the proposed approach might be completely thrown out or altered because of changes that the Deputy Prime Minister has announced in the past week?
Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): I am pleased to report that Stafford is in good shape. The town is currently ablaze with riotous colour, as flowers abound in baskets and beds because it is going all out to win this year's Britain in Bloom award. It has also just completed another very successful annual festival, whose highlights included open-air Shakespeare at the castle, where Matthew Kelly and Julie-Kate Olivier in "The Taming of the Shrew" played every night to crowded, sell-out audiences. My favourite was the folk dancing in the market square by dancers in traditional folk costume from our Spanish twin town of Tarragona on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, with the sun shining out of a perfect blue sky, which must have made them feel very much at home and delighted the audience of Stafford people. At the same time, Staffordshire organised another successful young musician of the year contest, which delighted the audience, including me, who saw some glimpses of the talented artistes of the future. They performed with such skill and poise that I went home that night with great confidence and optimism for the future of a society in which we are bringing up such talented young people.
I should like to mention some concerns about two issues affecting my constituency: education and transport. On education, like several other hon. Members who have spoken, I am angry about a system of allocating central Government money to education that leaves Staffordshire at the bottom of the pile year after year. For several years, I have joined delegations seeking to persuade Ministers to change the system, and I have often been accompanied by my constituent Eunice Finney, a tireless campaigner on the subject, who likes to show the Ministers two school photographs. One of them is of her children, Richard and Amy, and the other is of a friend's children who attend schools in Hertfordshire. She asks Ministers to explain the difference between those smiling pictures of happy and healthy children. To all intents and purposes, they look the same, but she points out the difference in the value that the system places on the children in the schools that they attend. Richard, who attends a primary school in Stafford, is valued at £300 less a year than the child attending the primary school in Hertfordshire. Amy, who attends the secondary school in Stafford, is valued at £360 less a year than the child attending the secondary school in Hertfordshire. In a secondary school of, say, 600 pupils, that adds up to more than £200,000 a year by which a Staffordshire high school is losing out.
That issue is so significant that, when Ofsted recently inspected Staffordshire local education authority, it made a point of mentioning the underfunding of schools in Staffordshire. While many local education authorities have received a pasting from Ofsted about the abysmal state of their education service, Staffordshire received a glowing report, with the exception, I admit, of its special educational needs provision, which needs some attention. The Ofsted inspectors drew attention to the above average academic achievements that are made in Staffordshire while it is underfunded because of the way in which the Government distribute money for education. I know that the Leader of the House has allocated a full day in October for a debate about the Government's proposals to change that system of funding from next April, so I will wait until then to join in that debate.
I want to mention a scheme, which I followed from start from finish, that attempts to tackle bullying in schools in Stafford. It involved four schools and was sponsored by Barclays new futures, and focused on teaching children the skills of co-counselling. That enabled pupils themselves to confront bullying and to bring it out into the open, thereby overcoming it. It has been so successful that the talented teacher who led it, Netta Cartwright, is to promote the practice of co-counselling throughout the schools of Stafford, and hopefully beyond.
When we go off on our recess in two days' time, the busiest time of year begins for the parliamentary education unit as it starts to welcome more senior students from schools around the country for its summer educational programme, which involves Members of Parliament, peers and staff contributing their time to the education of those young students. The staff cope with some 8,000 students every September, while we are away, and they do a tremendous job. If we return to sit in future Septembers, we must give careful thought to how that successful education programme can continue at the same time. During the times at which we are sitting, the parliamentary education unit engages in teacher seminars, pupil parliaments, Wednesday visits for 12 to 14-year-olds and citizenship visits. On that last point, the Government have ordained that from this September all our secondary schools will teach citizenship as a curriculum subjecta move that I applaud. I hope that when hon. Members return from their summer holidays, I will be in a position to deliver to each of them a pack to help them to cope with the inquiries that they will receive from teachers in their constituencies asking for their help in teaching that new subject. I hope that that will be of assistance.
Turning to transport, the big story in Stafford at the moment is the way in which passengers are being treated by the national bus company, Arriva, which has a monopoly of services in the town. For the second time in two years, at short notice, it has made major changes to services, almost completely depriving elderly residents in Gravel lane of a service; depriving the elderly residents of Trent close of all services; upsetting all the Highfields residents who have to walk further to catch a bus and can no longer use it to go to their doctors' surgery; and upsetting all the Coton fields residents by rebadging their bus and sending it down streets about which nobody knows, so they cannot catch it. I recently received a petition carrying 139 signatures about the disappearance of the bus stop at the back of Marks and Spencer. I wish that the company would pay more attention
The subject of transport brings me to the west coast main line, which is a very important transport link for Stafford and beyond. Today's news that £100 million has been paid to Virgin Trains out of public money is a stark exposure of what was wrong with Railtrack, the company that was supposed to be running our railway network. It promised in a binding agreement to upgrade the west coast main line for Virgin Trains so that it could take trains running at 140 mph. On the basis of that agreement, the company spent more than £1 billion on the new Pendolino trains. Now we learn that Railtrack was unable to complete the upgrade, and I cannot foresee when trains will be able to run at 140 mph on that line.
On the subject of railway companies that do not keep their promises, Stafford railway station was promised an upgrade for years. The two councilsborough and countycarried out their side of the bargain by improving the environment outside the station and moving bus stops next to it to provide integrated transport, but Railtrack has not completed the passenger lifts that it promised and Virgin Trains has not completed the foyer refurbishment or building of the car park that it promised. I have now arranged for representatives of the Strategic Rail Authority to come to Stafford and face local passengers, and to explain how the rail companies can expect to increase passenger numbers on trains when they cannot deliver the services that they promise to the public.
Looking to the future, I want to say a few sentences about renewable energy sources, and about Stafford's contribution to them. With a history in the power industry going back more than 100 years, Stafford is well placed to play its part in promoting renewable energy. Some hope came to manufacturing industry and farms in Stafford at the county show this year, when I was privileged to launch a new scheme for energy crops that would involve 20 farmers growing miscanthus, or elephant grass, for burning and conversion into electricity to sell to the national grid. That is very much a way forward for manufacturing and farming in many areas such as Stafford, and I hope that many hon. Members will consider it for their areas, too.