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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 14 May 2014

[Philip Davies in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Harriett Baldwin.)

9.30 am

Mr Keith Simpson (Broadland) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies—I have not come under your gavel before now. It is also nice to see the Minister in his place after his kippers in the Tea Room this morning; I am sure that his little grey cells are all fired up.

I welcome all my colleagues who are here this morning. Between us, our constituencies span just about the whole A47. We have apologies from my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), who has an outside engagement and so cannot attend, but fully supports us, and from my hon. Friends the Members for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who may yet appear in a silent role later on. We have pretty well a full team.

Apart from anything else, my reason for calling for the debate is that parts of the A47 run through my present constituency, although boundary changes robbed me of the western part, which is now in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman). The stretch from the east of Norwich almost up to Great Yarmouth is important, but I have learned from harsh experience that we must address the upgrading of the A47 along its whole length. Given our hope of gaining money in the autumn statement—and we are in competition with five other worthy schemes—we should approach the issue from a strategic point of view, although we should of course recognise that we all have constituency-specific issues.

The A47 runs for some 115 miles, from Peterborough through Norfolk to Great Yarmouth. The extra consideration is now the A12 to Lowestoft; my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) is here to represent those interests. Over my 17 years as a Member of Parliament, I have seen many schemes relating to the A47 drop off the list of priorities, either because other schemes have come further up the list or because Governments have run out of money. Usually, there has then been a patchwork approach to mending the A47, addressing narrow local problems. Worthy as that is, it is not the solution for the year 2014-15.

I welcome the Government’s investment in the UK’s national roads network and the decision to complete the dualling of the A11. That early decision by the coalition is one we applauded at the time and was at least helped along by the fact that Norfolk and Suffolk MPs hunted as a pack. We knew we had the chance of getting one big delivery, and the Government have delivered it. We hope that the last section will be opened and will make a considerable difference. If, as occasionally happens, there is ever a major accident on the east-west A47 in Norfolk and on the A11, Norfolk literally grinds to a halt. We need to bear that in mind.

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The A47 Alliance has been crucial in putting forward a credible case for dualling the A47. The alliance is grateful for all positive announcements already made regarding the A47, including that it will be one of just six routes to benefit from the Highways Agency feasibility study programme. We are in the last six. In this debate, I will merely set the big picture, and colleagues will come in with specific points; I hope the debate as a whole will help move things forward and push the A47 further up the priorities list.

Typical of the work undertaken by the A47 Alliance is its study “A47 Strategic Route: Gateway to Growth”, which has contributions from all councils along the route and, most significantly, from the New Anglia local enterprise partnership. The study is not just the usual wish list that we frequently get from these kinds of organisations; as far as we can tell, it is a well argued business case and has been recognised as such by the Department for Transport. Indeed, the Minister’s predecessor, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), said that he would suggest to other people making bids for routes that they should study how the A47 case has been produced. This is not simply a matter of sentiment, then—there is a strong business case.

As part of the campaign, we have held a number of debates in Parliament—I have had debates on the A47 in the past, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk. Collectively, we have met my hon. Friend the Roads Minister and his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon, to present our case. My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon came to Norfolk last year, and I drove him along part of the A47 so that he could get a feel for the traffic and the problems we face in my area. He then progressed westwards towards Peterborough to see the situation further along the road. The present Minister has also agreed to visit the area to see the challenges for himself, which I think may be happening next month.

I realise that the A47 is competing with other schemes for part of the Government’s long-term capital funding. Along with colleagues, I will again put forward positive arguments for the A47 being considered for top funding in this year’s autumn statement. That is the timeline and the opportunity that we have over the next few months.

The A47 is a national trunk road of strategic importance to Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and should also be of importance to the east midlands and the whole UK. Colleagues will agree that lack of capacity has had a real drag on current business opportunities, with delays and missed opportunities, especially for new investment in the area.

Without a commitment to investment in the A47, other Government priorities for our part of East Anglia will not be met. The Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft enterprise zone will depend largely on the proper development of the A47. The planned growth of greater Norwich and projected housing growth will mean that what is already a difficult situation in the road structure around Norwich will become even worse, and the situation is similar for King’s Lynn, Wisbech and Peterborough. Poor, unreliable east-west transport links will deter investment. At a time when we are also trying to cope with unemployment by attracting new businesses, we have a very strong case indeed to make for the strategic importance of the A47.

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Although perhaps not part of a strategic picture, we also have to take into account the problems that local communities along the route face in gaining access to and crossing the A47. I will give one example. East of Norwich, at Lingwood in my constituency, there is a nasty crossing. In the summer, the problems are exacerbated by tourists and in the sugar beet season, dozens of lorries attempt to come across—indeed, the lady in the white house on the corner used to store a full stretcher kit so that it could be put to immediate use before ambulances arrived. I am sure colleagues have other examples.

Such situations increase the chance of accidents. Since Christmas, sadly, there have been a number of serious accidents in Norfolk—I am sure the same is true in other areas—that literally blocked the A47. I have never claimed that the only problem is the lack of dualling. As the police will say, drivers frequently make errors or take chances, but that is partly due to the fact that the A47 is a stop-start road that is single then dualled, so people take risks at the last moment.

Investment will help stimulate economic growth, meet the transport access needs of new homes and possibly reduce accidents. A strategic link between the east midlands, Yarmouth and Lowestoft will also provide greater access to Europe. We in East Anglia look out towards Europe, and Europe has influenced our development. We have very close links indeed. I fear that if we are unable to develop the A47 in the next few years, some European countries that want economic links with our region will look elsewhere.

I assure the Minister that we intend to continue to lobby his Department and, most importantly, the Treasury as we develop our fact-based case. We will continue to feed any new information into the A47 feasibility study. I know that my colleagues will want to take up specific issues to support my case for the strategic importance of the A47.

I conclude by asking the Minister to outline the timetable for the key milestones put forward for the study. I remind him that they are as follows. Completion of stage 1 of the study—evidence gathering and problem prioritisation—was due at the end of March 2014 and I trust that that was met. Completion of stage 2—identifying the range of infrastructure proposals that could address the problems along the corridor—is due at the end of July 2014. Is that on track? Completion of stage 3—work to assess affordability, value for money and deliverability of prioritised infrastructure proposals—is due in autumn 2014. Will the study conclude in time for the autumn statement? Does the Minister have any idea of when we will know the six schemes that are up for the money and when we might have some indication of whether he has reached a conclusion, recognising the fact that the Chancellor will make the announcement in the autumn statement?

The Minister and his predecessor have listened carefully to what we have said and have taken our case seriously. I hope that the Minister will see, from the range of support from colleagues throughout the eastern counties, that we believe the strategic importance of the A47 merits putting us at the top and that we should receive the money in the autumn statement.

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9.42 am

Simon Wright (Norwich South) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing this debate. I fully and wholeheartedly endorse his comments. I want to spend a few minutes outlining why Government support for the A47 would not only complement but enhance the coalition’s range of strategies for supporting growth, particularly in and around Norwich, and, crucially, why a whole-route approach should be taken.

Norwich is a key driver of economic growth and has the highest economic output in the region, but further growth has been held back by poor transport infrastructure across the eastern region. The A47, with the A11 and the great eastern mainline, has been subject to underinvestment for decades. The coalition’s investment in the A11 is extremely welcome, but unfortunately we in Norfolk are playing catch-up.

The section of the A47 immediately around Norwich is already fully dualled, and following today’s debate I hope we will all commit to exploring further the case for dualling the whole of the road. To release further growth in Norwich, we need improvements to a number of junctions, including the Thickthorn and Longwater junctions. I assure the Minister and the Treasury that improvements to the A47 will make an important contribution to unleashing the full economic growth potential of other coalition Government initiatives in and around Norwich.

Full dualling of the A11 will be complete by the end of this year. It will bring great benefits to businesses and the local economy, and improve reliability of journey times for all motorists. Securing funding for the dualling of the A11 was a key infrastructure objective agreed by the Norfolk nine MPs at the beginning of the coalition in 2010. We are grateful to the Government for granting our wishes after 30 years of campaigning in the county.

The A11 meets the A47 at the Thickthorn roundabout, which is also the gateway to Norwich from the A11. This is one of the county’s busiest junctions. It needs an overhaul to improve capacity and that will become increasingly apparent to drivers following the completion of the A11 dualling. Significant housing growth is planned for the area around Thickthorn, including at Hethersett and Cringleford, and a little further south-west at Wymondham, adding further pressure to this key junction, which is a rather unattractive welcome to Norwich.

Plans have been published for a possible solution that would provide the option for traffic on the A11 to bypass the Thickthorn roundabout through a new tunnel under the A11 and a new bridge over the A47. Norfolk county council has commissioned further work on this proposal, and I hope that the Highways Agency will prove supportive in establishing a long-term solution. Due to the housing growth planned in the area, that is needed sooner rather than later.

Norwich research park, which is located just south of Norwich, is accessed through two of the A47’s junctions —Thickthorn and the B1108 Earlham road. Some 11,000 people are employed at the park and it provides world-class research in health, life and environmental sciences through the expertise at the Norfolk and Norwich university hospital, the university of East Anglia and four independent research institutions. There is a need

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for improved road links and junction capacity to serve proposed growth at the park. The coalition’s 2011 Budget announced £26 million for the park to fund infrastructure and premises to pave the way for developing the campus. The 11,000 staff currently working there could be joined by a further 5,000 over the next 10 years, partly as a result of the coalition’s investment. Improving the A47, including the Thickthorn junction, will help to accelerate growth.

The Norwich research park is also a key element of the Greater Norwich city deal. I was pleased to welcome the Deputy Prime Minister to Norwich at the end of last year, when he signed the deal. I congratulate the local authorities and the New Anglia local enterprise partnership on securing it. The city deal may lead to 19,000 new jobs in key economic sectors, and its approval strengthens the case for improving the A47. Norwich has a great deal to gain from A47 improvements, and eventual full dualling of the A47 will promote new economic opportunities along the whole route, both to the midlands and across to continental Europe.

However, the case for change is not purely economic. Despite being a route of major importance to the region, away from the dualled sections, particularly of the A47, the road can be treacherous. Single carriageway stretches, including the Acle straight to the east of Norwich, are still the scene of far too many casualties. That must change.

As a young boy, I grew up not much more than a stone’s throw from the roadside of the A47 at North Tuddenham. I remember the difference in 1992 with the opening of the Dereham-North Tuddenham A47 improvements and with the Norwich southern bypass. It is hard to imagine how the A47 functioned without those improvements, yet more than 20 years later other key sections are left woefully inadequate.

We need to move away from a piecemeal approach to the A47 every few years, and instead work towards a whole-route plan by establishing the case for full dualling from Peterborough to Lowestoft. Many of us understand that the funding will not be made available in one go, but a whole-route strategy will at least avoid one-off patching work without a sense of how it fits into the big picture.

I hope the Minister has noted that, as with the A11, the A47 is a route that has the full support of all nine Norfolk MPs, plus a few honourable additions from over the border. The Norfolk nine, working with the A47 Alliance, are confident that significant economic and social benefits will be delivered through investment in the route. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Philip Davies(in the Chair): I intend to call the shadow Minister no later than 10.40. Six hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, which gives just over eight minutes each. I do not intend to set a time limit, but I hope that they will be mindful of that to give everyone a fair crack of the whip.

9.49 am

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing this important debate. Its

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timing is opportune, as the A47 corridor feasibility study being carried out by the Department for Transport is now at the stage of identifying the range of infrastructure proposals that are required to address the problems that occur along the corridor.

Although the A47 currently runs from Peterborough to Great Yarmouth, the study also includes the part of the A12 that runs from Great Yarmouth to the south side of Lake Lothing in Lowestoft in my constituency. I very much welcome that, as it presents the opportunity to provide a high-quality road to Lowestoft and the Waveney area, which can play a vital role in attracting business and jobs. In due course, I hope that the A47 will run right into the heart of Lowestoft, so as to put the town well and truly on the national road map.

At present, the poor quality and unreliability of the A47 means that it is not the gateway to growth that it should be. Its reliability is adversely affected by collisions and disruptions, often on the single carriageway sections. There are a number of pinch points that cause congestion, deterring business and costing it dear. Those include the Bascule bridge in Lowestoft, the Gapton Hall roundabout in Great Yarmouth and the Hardwick roundabout in King’s Lynn.

One of the most significant challenges that the nation faces today is rebalancing the economy. Investment in infrastructure such as roads has a key role to play in that task. Around the world, an increasing amount of trade and wealth is concentrated in a small number of major cities. In the United Kingdom, we have London, and although it is very good news that we do, that, in itself, presents a challenge—the need to ensure that economic activity is not concentrated in one small part of the country for the benefit of the few. A properly functioning strategic road network has an important role to play to ensure that the regions of the UK perform to their full economic potential. The A47 can do that for the economies of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.

As a region, East Anglia is the second largest contributor to the Treasury after London and the south-east. However, this is no time for resting on our laurels, as with the right investment, the region can contribute even more in such key industries as food, tourism and energy. East Anglia is set to play the leading role in supplying the country’s energy needs, not only keeping the lights on, but providing new and exciting jobs. The working life of Sizewell B has been extended, and there are new-build proposals at Sizewell C. The southern North sea gas basin is still in full production with 150 working platforms, and the world’s largest offshore wind farms will be built off the East Anglian coast. To make the most of those opportunities, we need not only good infrastructure, but a strategic approach towards its provision.

I turn to what is being done by national and local government. Last year, the Government published “Investing in Britain’s future”, and they have now followed that up with “Action for Roads”, which sets out a national investment strategy. As part of that strategy, six feasibility studies of major roads, including the A47, are now being carried out. Once those studies have been completed, the Government will publish their road investment strategy later this year.

That strategic approach is very much to be welcomed, as it is important that investment is pinpointed and targeted, and not scattergun. To be effective, individual

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improvements to the road network must take place in a strategic framework and not in a vacuum. That national work provides the framework in which Suffolk county council, Waveney district council and the New Anglia local enterprise partnership are working up their road improvement plans in the Lowestoft transport and infrastructure prospectus and the options appraisal for a new crossing of Lake Lothing, which is currently being carried out. Those much needed local projects are vital component parts of a regional and national strategy that will ensure that investment in our roads yields the best possible return, in terms of added value to the economy and the creation of new jobs.

Now that the upgrading of the A11 from Norwich to the M11 is almost complete, it is appropriate to turn attention to improving the A47; the road that links Waveney, Norfolk and northern Cambridgeshire to the midlands and the north. The upgrading of the A47 can bring similar economic benefits to the northern part of East Anglia to those that the A14 has brought to the south. It can provide a boost to ports on its route—Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn—in much the same way as the haven ports of Felixstowe, Harwich and Ipswich have benefited over the past 35 years from the upgrading of the A14.

The A47 can be a strategic route, linking Europe through East Anglia to the midlands and the north. It is already part of the trans-European network and if it is upgraded, it will provide better connections both to Europe and around the world, not only through those three ports, but through Norwich international airport. It will help attract business from outside the UK, providing vital inward investment.

An improved road is vital if those ports are to flourish. It should be remembered that the poor quality of the A47 was one reason why Norfolkline and Maersk relocated from Great Yarmouth to Felixstowe two decades ago. As I mentioned, industries that will benefit from an upgraded A47 are energy, food and tourism, and it could also lead to an expansion of the distribution and logistics industry in the same way as the A14 has generated such activity along its corridor from Felixstowe to Kettering.

Why invest in the A47? There are three good reasons: the compelling business case; the absence of significant environmental obstacles; and a united front of business and political leaders in the three counties supporting the campaign, backed by the Eastern Daily Press newspaper.

That upgrading should include improving important links. There is the link between the ports of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, which is vital as so much of the business in the two towns is interconnected. There is the link to Norwich and its airport; the latter can perform the same role for our region as the airport at Aberdeen plays for north-east Scotland. There is the link to the recently upgraded A11, providing improved access to London and the south-east. There is also the link to the north and the midlands via the A1, providing better connections for East Anglia’s energy businesses to companies in their supply chains in those regions.

Good roads are vital if Lowestoft is to realise its full economic potential. The town needs not only good connections to the rest of the country, but a road network around the town that operates properly. The current congestion is an obstacle to growth.

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If Lowestoft is to attract significant inward investment, it is vital that it is on the strategic national road network. Good roads to the town will complement the important initiatives that have been put in place in the past two to three years. Those include the enterprise zone, centre for offshore renewable engineering status for the ports of Lowestoft and Yarmouth, and most recently, the inclusion of parts of the two towns on the assisted areas map for 2014 to 2020. Without good road links, Lowestoft and Yarmouth risk being marooned at the end of the line, and those initiatives will not realise their full potential.

The poor transport infrastructure to the port of Lowestoft and Lake Lothing are holding back considerable potential for creating new jobs. Research recently carried out by Mott MacDonald concludes that a new crossing of Lake Lothing and the upgrading of Denmark road will result in sites being developed more quickly, the creation of a significant number of additional jobs and the generation of £103 million of gross value added per annum. Those assessments take no account of the significant spin-off benefits that will accrue to supply chain businesses.

It is vital that a clear commitment is provided at the outset to dual the A47 across its entire length from Lowestoft to Peterborough. Full dualling will improve the road’s safety and reliability, reduce travel times and bring significant economic benefits to the area. A patchwork of improvements tackling specific bottlenecks, though welcome, may well bring its own problems, creating new congestion and safety blackspots. Those may well be where sections of dualling come to a seemingly abrupt end. Although I accept that the work will need to be done in phases, the announcement this autumn of a commitment to fully dual the A47 will bring a major boost to investment and regeneration.

I started my working life in Norwich in 1983. At that time, there was one small section of dual carriageway in Norfolk, at Cringleford on the A11 on the outskirts of the city. Just over 30 years later, the full dualling of the A11 from Norwich to the A14 is finally almost complete. I urge the Minister and the Government to do all they can to ensure that the A47 is dualled in a far shorter period.

The Government’s approach to rebalancing the economy and revitalising the regions is the right one. I am referring to the creation of LEPs, initiatives such as enterprise zones and investment in infrastructure: broadband, rail and roads. The Government are right to pursue a strategic approach towards upgrading the national road network. The case for the A47 is compelling. Now is the time to be bold and to set out an ambitious vision that will produce a huge dividend in terms of inward investment, increased prosperity and jobs for East Anglia.

10 am

Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing this vital debate. I will be brief; I will try to stick to the eight minutes.

The A47, as my hon. Friend pointed out, is of key strategic importance. It is the second most important road that links Norfolk to the rest of the region and the rest of the country. Now that, as colleagues have pointed

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out, the A11 is almost complete, it is essential that we turn our attention to the A47. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland pointed out, it is very patchy in terms of dualling. I think that less than one quarter is dualled. That makes it an inherently dangerous road. I shall touch on the overall situation on the A47 first and then consider a number of specific cases in my constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) was right to flag up safety first of all, because we are talking about people’s lives. When we have sporadic sections of dual carriageway, all the safety experts agree that when people come off those dual carriageway sections, traffic is moving that much faster and there will be more accidents; drivers will take more risks. The situation can be exacerbated by slow-moving agricultural vehicles or bad weather. I will come on to a number of unfortunate incidents in my own constituency recently, but there cannot be a single junction along the entire length of the A47 from Lowestoft through to Leicester that has not seen an appalling crash or a fatality in the past 25 or 30 years.

Then we have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland pointed out, blighted communities. We have villages that are cut in half by the A47. When my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South was a schoolboy, there was less traffic on the roads in the villages that he knew very well, and in the villages that my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) referred to, there was less traffic, but we now have a very busy trunk road and villages on which there has been a serious impact. I will come on to that in a moment.

One of the very important themes of the debate is the underlying benefit of this road to the local economy. If it is improved, that will have a huge impact on the economy not just of Norfolk, but of the wider region. Norfolk is growing. In fact, unemployment in all our constituencies has come down very sharply. The average now is under 3%. In my constituency, 500 new jobs have been created in the past year. Those jobs have gone to real people who now have a brighter future.

Let us consider some of the key sectors. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney talked about the energy sector. I would add to that other sectors. Obviously, tourism has been mentioned. There is also advanced engineering, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) will talk about the IT, biotech and life sciences revolution that is benefiting Norwich. There can be a cascade impact from that revolution on other, smaller towns such as King’s Lynn, Wisbech and Dereham if we get the infrastructure that can support existing businesses and attract new businesses into the area.

I have looked at various forecasts of the additional economic benefit to Norfolk from a dualled A47. The figure goes up to more than £1 billion a year if we have an entirely dualled A47, because that will enhance existing businesses, bring in new investment, create new jobs and bring all the other benefits that come from infrastructure that can underpin what is already a fast-growing economy.

I want to talk about two specific villages in my constituency, but before doing so, I point out to the Minister that people’s hopes have been raised in the past. My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney talked about the time when there was only one small stretch of

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dual carriageway in Norfolk. I think that he mentioned 1984, but in 1978 the South Lynn bypass was built and it was dual carriageway. That raised people’s hopes that we would see a significant amount of dualling along the A47. Then in 1989 we had “Roads for Prosperity”, the Paul Channon White Paper, which promised that the entire length of the A47 would be dualled over the next 10 years but in any event by the turn of the century—by the year 2000. We know that that has not happened. We have had some small improvements; we have had some significant investments—don’t get me wrong. In the intervening time, we have had the Thorney bypass. We have had the section of dualling on the A47 between King’s Lynn and Wisbech, which is highly welcome and has benefited my constituency enormously. However, there has not been a whole-route strategy or any real determination by successive Governments to get a grip of the A47 and give it the priority that it needs.

As I said, I want to talk about two villages in my constituency. On 26 March, there was a tragic triple fatality in the village of East Winch, which is east of King’s Lynn. Obviously, a police investigation is ongoing and an inquest will take place, but what happened was that a car was in a head-on collision with a lorry in the middle of the section of road going through East Winch. I do not want to speculate on what caused the accident on a day when conditions were quite good, but I know that the speed limit as people go through the village is 50 mph. It should be reduced to 40 mph. I have written to the Minister about that. A reduction in the speed limit to 40 mph would make very little difference to the flow of traffic going through the village, but it could make it that much safer for local residents, because there are a number of junctions on that stretch of road. The villagers in East Winch, day in, day out, are witnessing near misses, and we had that tragedy on 26 March. I know that we are looking at the strategy of the route, but I urge the Minister to look very urgently at that section of the road.

Unfortunately, that crash was followed a few days later by a very serious collision in Middleton, which is slightly to the west of East Winch. Mercifully, no one was killed, but it was a very serious accident on a stretch of road going through Middleton. The village is absolutely cut in half. There is the school and the village hall on one side of the road and most of the houses on the other. I am very grateful to the Department for Transport for installing a pelican crossing near Station road a couple of years ago. That has been of huge benefit to the village, but we do need to have the 40 mph limit reduced to 30 mph.

However, what we need above all else, as colleagues have said, is an overall, whole-route strategy. We want the Minister today to give us some more information about exactly where his feasibility study is going. I am certainly concerned about what we heard the other day, which was that the study is not currently planning to assess all sections of the road, so, for example, the section between Dereham and Swaffham has been omitted. We want from the Minister a firm commitment that he agrees with us that the entire length of the A47 must be dualled. We do not expect that to happen tomorrow, but we need a commitment from the Government that they will dual this road and, furthermore, that they will announce very soon a number of specific dualling schemes

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along the route and, in the meantime, a number of smaller schemes to enhance safety and to make the lives of our constituents that much more bearable.

I think that the case is overwhelming. The Minister will see that there is huge support, not just among MPs but among all the local authorities and other organisations. We have an incredibly strong case, and I hope that the Minister will accept it.

10.8 am

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to follow my hon. Friends. It is a pleasure to be here today with colleagues from across the whole route—from Suffolk on the coast right across to Peterborough. The A47 is a key economic route of strategic national priority, spanning three counties—an economy artery into the heart of the eastern region. I hope that the strength of that case comes across this morning.

I want to acknowledge that this is the culmination of a very long campaign. I am something of a young whippersnapper joining it. It has been going on for many years. Senior colleagues have been on the case for a very long time. On behalf of colleagues, I want to express our thanks to the Minister and to his predecessor. We have had strong support in the past three years. Successive Roads Ministers have come to visit the area. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have come and expressed support, and we want to support the work that the Department is doing on the strategic, whole-route basis of looking at roads and their strategic economic priority. It is something of a scandal that this route was never even highlighted by the old regional development agency as a key economic route. I hope that that case is clearly heard.

I want to highlight three key arguments. The region is an economic powerhouse in driving the rebalanced economy, but the A47 is a blocked artery to the region. I want to make a special case for the Cambridge-Norwich corridor and the A47-A11 junction, which my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) has talked about and which is a potential congestion hotspot that will hold back our region. I also want to touch on the safety aspects, not least in the Dereham to Swaffham section in my constituency.

The Government have rightly placed a lot of emphasis on rebalancing our economy to get us out of the appalling debt legacy that we have faced. As colleagues have mentioned, East Anglia is second only to the City of London as a net contributor to the Treasury. The truth is that we have been woefully ignored over successive decades when it comes to investment in infrastructure. We have been treated as a rural backwater for commuters, pensioners and farmers rather than as an economic powerhouse. In fact, however, if we look at offshore energy, biomedical, clean tech, engineering, food and agriculture, and tourism, we see that the region has so much more to give, but it is being held back.

The Government’s planned investment in rail, road and broadband has the potential to unlock something really significant: a rural renaissance and a new model of growth. No longer will millions of people be condemned to stand like cattle in over-filled trains, or to sit behind the steering wheels of cars on congested roads; they will

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be able to be productive closer to home in converted farm buildings, in villages to which life has returned and in thriving towns. Not only will the economy grow but people will enjoy a better quality of life. That is why I have talked about the region as a new California. With such investment and with the Minister’s support for the key route of the A47, I believe that we can do more than simply deliver growth; we can deliver sustainable growth for the good of future generations. The housing demand in the region is testament to that quality of life. In my constituency, Wymondham and Attleborough are both getting thousands of new homes, as is Norwich. There are tens of thousands of new homes coming into the area, which will increase pressure on the A47.

I want to touch on the unique case of our science and innovation economy. The Government have rightly put a new emphasis on the new economy and on laying the foundations for long-term economic growth. Norwich and Norfolk are seen as rural economies, but we have the Formula 1 cluster, which includes the Lotus research and development headquarters in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and the Hethel engineering centre, the home of Caterham Cars. As we have heard, 2,500 research scientists are based at the Norwich research park, which is Europe’s biggest integrated life science cluster. It is only 40 miles down the road from Cambridge, and the Cambridge-Norwich innovation corridor is becoming increasingly nationally recognised. Last year with Lord Sainsbury, the chancellor of Cambridge university and a major investor in science innovation in Norwich and Cambridge, I launched the Norwich-Cambridge research partnership. The Government last year launched an agritech strategy for 21st century agricultural technology, and investment is flowing into the NRP and down the Norwich-Cambridge corridor as a result.

We have plans for an international food hub on the A47 just outside Norwich, which will link our agricultural college, the city college and our agricultural community to science on the research park and to our food and tourism industries. Yesterday, I met the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, which has major investments going into an enterprise hub and a new food and medicine institute. One of the most exciting things happening in the life sciences is the merger of food and medicine to create a new generation of functional foods known as nutraceuticals. Norwich and the Norwich research park leads Cambridge in that field; in fact, it is a global centre of excellence. If we can plug it into the regional economy and to Cambridge, and if we can plug that innovation corridor into our wider economy, in the next 20 or 30 years we will be able to do for that sector what Cambridge has done for medicine. That is a national—nay, international—priority, and the A47 is holding it back. If we are not careful, the junction of the A11 and the A47 will become not a gateway to that nirvana of growth but a congestion blackspot that holds it back.

I know that time is short, and I want to conclude by talking about safety. As colleagues have mentioned, for many of our constituents, for whom tomorrow’s economy might seem a long way off, the real issue is those who are condemned to sit in traffic jams and witness near misses every day caused by intermittent dualling. In my rural constituency, there are people on horseback, on bicycles, in three-wheeled cars and on motorbikes. People

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cross the road to go from village to village. To get to a post office, a pub or a business meeting, they have to cross a national route. Intermittent dualling results in people driving fast to overtake in sections where they can do so, and then slowing down. The A47 is a very dangerous route. Last year, when we had our first Adjournment debate on the matter, there were nine fatal accidents in only a few months. There is a long history of high rates of accidents and fatalities on the road.

I particularly want to highlight the Dereham to Swaffham section, which, for reasons that I cannot understand, does not seem to have been properly recognised in the feasibility study. Will the Minister look specifically at that matter? I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) stands with me on that, even though she could not be here this morning. We are concerned about the omission of that section from the feasibility study.

We seek a national strategic commitment from the Government to full dualling of the A47, as one of the top six routes nationally. We are realistic, and we know that the bulldozers will not start tomorrow and the whole thing will not be done in one go. Such a commitment would, however, unlock the planning and investment blight that is holding back our area. There is serious doubt in the minds of potential investors that the work will be done, and if we can remove that doubt we will deliver growth.

We do not ask what the Government can do for us; we ask the Minister to give us the tools to enable us to demonstrate what we can do for our country. We do not want a handout. We want to get away from handouts. We want a way in and a way out to unlock the sustainable growth that will allow our region to do so much more for our country. I hope that the power of that message comes across not only from Norfolk but from the whole of our region. The A47 is a key economic national route and we urge the Government to recognise it as such.

10.16 am

Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con): I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), on securing the debate, and I congratulate hon. Members who have contributed so wittily to it. I want to add a couple of points about Norwich to reassure the Minister that we are making not only a three-counties argument or a rural argument, but an urban argument. The improvements we seek are crucial to every point in those counties.

I begin with a reminder that the A47 is intended to connect to the proposed Norwich northern distributor road, a key project that stands to provide a serious economic opportunity for my constituency in two ways. First, it will open up further economic opportunities; indeed, several businesses to the east of my constituency are already opening new sites in a business park that is set to be near the start of the NDR. The other major piece of infrastructure that will be served by a better route linking to a fully dualled A47 is Norwich International airport, and I will come on to that in a moment. We are competing both nationally and internationally in some important areas, and the airport is crucial to those.

Secondly, the proposed NDR will be vital to my constituents for reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) has touched on.

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Today’s problem—this morning’s problem, from about 7.30 am until 9.30 am—is people trying to get out of their driveways in areas of my constituency where there is simply not enough road capacity, and where they cannot drive at more than 10 miles an hour once they have done so. That is a problem in places such as Barkers lane in Sprowston and plenty of others. What we do not have in Norwich at the moment is a northern ring road. The NDR would function as such and, crucially, would link to the A47 to relieve congestion. In addition to the economic opportunities that it would present, it would bring jobs and result in a better quality of life for my constituents.

I want to place a fully dualled A47, and the projects to which it would connect, in the context of the improvements in infrastructure that our whole region needs. Colleagues have amply covered the importance of the fully dualled A11, and today we are, of course, dwelling on the need to dual the A47 fully. I want to describe two further improvements that we need, although I am not setting out a menu of choices from which the Minister can pick; I emphasise that we want all these things. The two points that go alongside road projects are improvements to rail and improvements to broadband. Together, those infrastructure improvements will mean that Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire are open for business.

Let me return to the point touched on by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk. The issue is primarily one of meeting a capacity need. East Anglia has one of the highest rail passenger growth rates—that alone would almost be reason enough for me to be leading the Norwich in 90 project, which I am and of which the Minister is aware. That is but one component of the full-scale upgrade required to bring our railway up to scratch. The same point stands regarding our road network capacity. East Anglia is one of the few parts of the country that is a net contributor to the Treasury. Passengers and drivers therefore deserve better than infrastructure that is creaking to an early grave.

If road, rail and broadband are improved, that could be said to put Norfolk in the fast lane. We could argue that we want Norfolk to be in the fast lane; indeed, we do make that argument. But before that, we need to be pulled out of the slow lane. We have to make both arguments at once. We need the Minister to recognise a two-step argument—we need to be rescued from disrepair and disinvestment, and then we need to rev up to compete nationally and internationally.

Let me turn to the ways in which we must compete and the exciting opportunities we have to do so and to have jobs come to Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. I could make the point that my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) would make: we need to compete with Belgium by having the ports and surrounding infrastructure required to supply the full chain that sits behind our offshore and energy industries. That supply chain often comes to Norwich. Some of the digital and creative industries we have in Norwich can compete in Hollywood. I can name one business that supplies companies in Hollywood with high-quality creative work, but its employees occasionally have to decamp to their own houses to use better and faster broadband than is available in their offices. That is another example of why we need an infrastructure package to come together.

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To return to the example of Norwich international airport, we are competing with Australia and the middle east to provide high-quality, excellent aviation training. We can argue in so many ways that we can be the silicon valley of Britain, not only in life sciences and the digital and creative industries but in aviation training, which is a specific strength of Norwich international airport in my constituency. Inside Britain, we can compete every day for both private and public investment. The rail and road opportunities we are discussing today, packaged together with broadband, are what will make Norwich, Norfolk and the adjoining counties open for business and bring more jobs to our constituencies.

At a time when it appears loud and clear that Labour would like to take Britain back to the 1970s, I will finish by urging the Minister to listen to the people of Norwich and Norfolk, who in fact prefer the 21st century.

10.23 am

Mr Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate and to follow many esteemed colleagues, including those from Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, who are most welcome. I hope that the Minister has heard enough to convince him that Norfolk is not a sleepy backwater, but a major centre of world-class innovation in a variety of different disciplines relating to agriculture, science and engineering.

Some years ago I was in the United States on a State Department exchange. I was shadowing a Congressman in Iowa and tried to explain where I was from. It rapidly became clear that they knew exactly where I was from—“Oh, you’re from where the Norwich research park and the John Innes centre are.” I do not know how well known those places are domestically compared with internationally —they should be better known domestically—but it is important for people to understand that we have the greatest concentration of plant and food scientists in Europe, and that it is world-renowned.

The John Innes centre is not alone: we have the Institute of Food Research, which is a world leader in harnessing food for health and preventing food-related diseases; the Genome Analysis Centre, a world-class centre for the study of genomics; and the Sainsbury Laboratory, which is independently ranked as first in the world, along with the John Innes centre and the impact of its research on plant and animal sciences.

There is so much more. In addition to plant science and biotechnology, we have pharmaceuticals and health care, and food, nutrition and health, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) mentioned. We have not just things such as agritech and crop breeding, but medical technologies and diagnostics, clean tech, low-carbon energy and information and computing technologies. We could do even more.

I was delighted when some years ago the Chancellor announced a £26 million investment in the Centrum building, and I had the pleasure of performing the topping-out ceremony last November—I poured a bottle of locally-brewed beer over the completed superstructure. We are looking forward to the completion and opening of that building in July.

There is still more, and more that would benefit from a proper road infrastructure. I also have the Hethel engineering centre in my constituency. A few weeks ago,

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I attended the opening of the second extension to the building, having attended the opening of the first a few years ago. It is a business centre dedicated to supporting the growth of high-performance engineering and manufacturing businesses in the region—something that the Government very much need.

I hesitate to mention any of the names of the tenants at Hethel, because it feels invidious—there are so many high-quality businesses—but I will give some examples: Syrinix is a signal processing, software and electronics integration company; Ansible Motion designs and manufactures motion platforms for high-end motorsport and road car driving simulators; Proeon Systems provides engineering design consultancy and software development for complex gas turbine control applications; NexxtDrive creates hybrid-capable transmission systems; and PhaD engages in research and development for innovation across a whole range of engineering and applied sciences, providing engineering, mathematical and technical expertise. There are many others.

The potential for what could happen at the Hethel engineering centre is considerably greater than what we currently have, because although it has made tremendous progress, the real prize is the 75 acres of land that sits behind it. Group Lotus is a major local car manufacturer and global engineering consultancy. I am pleased to say that it has recently been making big improvements after some difficult times. Only half of its business is car manufacture; the other half is global consultancy to a range of motor manufacturers around the world. The land between the Hethel engineering centre and Group Lotus has the potential to become a science and engineering park, based on the principles we have seen at the Norwich research park, that could rival Harwell in Oxford.

I have a photograph that I will show to the Minister afterwards, because I do not think that Hansard will be able to pick it up. If he looks at this aerial photograph of Harwell, he will see what is possible. Harwell has a whole range of different disciplines, focusing on medical devices, space-detector systems, computing, green enterprise and so on. We want more of that. By the way, the A34 near Harwell is already being improved because of what is going on there.

We will not get the investment required to turn around the 75 acres, and ensure that we get the high-end, high-value-added jobs that we need, unless we can persuade investors to come. We will not succeed in that unless we can show them that the Government are committed to the area’s infrastructure. I strongly sympathise with what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk said about East Anglia having been in some ways left behind in the race for infrastructure, despite the fact that we contribute so much to the Exchequer and that our population contributes so much to other parts of the country through paying rail fares into the rail premiums.

We have been left behind. I know that the Government understand that and have started to do something about it. We are very grateful for the dualling of the A11—it is long overdue—but that is only the start; the job is not finished. The A47 is supposed to be part of a trans-European network. It is supposed to be one of the strategic routes for not just the east of England or the UK, but the whole of Europe. It is extraordinary that the old regional development agency did not even focus on it.

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Nevertheless, we could do so much more. We have been held back by poor infrastructure, and it is time for that to change. The Minister will have noticed how colleagues from across Norfolk have collaborated to ensure that the message is hammered home. We have missed out for too long, and as Members of Parliament in Norfolk, we are determined to ensure that that changes.

10.29 am

Stephen Barclay (North East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am not sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) has often been likened to Cinderella during his 17 distinguished years in the House, but I hope that in the autumn statement he will finally get to go to the ball, because he has campaigned on this issue throughout those 17 years. He is absolutely right to say that the matter has been dealt with on a piecemeal, patch-and-mend basis. As a result, issues have been stored up—nowhere more so than in Fenland, which I have the privilege to represent.

I am sure it will surprise the House to learn that in the whole of Fenland fewer than two miles are dualled, yet Fenland is one of the country’s leading areas for the haulage business, which is linked to the food production of the fens. Haulage is a significant player within the Fenland economy, and yet the transport infrastructure does not reflect that.

Adjacent to Fenland, Peterborough is one of our fastest growing cities. If one looks at the core strategy for Fenland, one sees that significant housing is planned for the area. At a time when some other parts of the country are resistant to delivering on the Government’s housing intentions, this is an area that can unlock the housing required, if the Government meet us halfway in delivering the necessary transport infrastructure.

On the holistic view across Government, another area where potential benefits can be leveraged from the A47—benefits often not captured in the Treasury rules currently measuring the scheme—is around the College of West Anglia, which has seen significant investment: a £5 million new teaching facility and a £7.5 million engineering faculty have recently been built. If we are to attract businesses to the area, we should take into account that they do not look only on a linear east-west or west-east route; they look on a north-south axis as well. Frustration is felt in areas such as north Cambridgeshire, although the Government have made real progress with the Cambridge city deal and new transport improvements. For example, Cambridge airport has this week launched two new services to Dublin and Amsterdam.

Such services are attractive to businesses considering north Cambridgeshire as an area, but they will be restricted if other parts of the transport network do not connect. That aspect is not always captured in the feasibility and benefits assessments under Treasury rules. For international businesses in the global race that are considering the Cambridgeshire fens as an attractive place to do business, the east-west transport nexus combines with the north-south improvements to deliver a much greater bang for the buck. As the Minister will know, the A47 scheme also connects with Wisbech rail, which I am sure he has had an opportunity to look at in recent weeks in relation to the discussions with the local enterprise partnership in terms of leveraging that.

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My second point concerns the lack of alternatives to the A47. Last year, the four-mile stretch between Wisbech and Guyhirn was subject to routine road maintenance, and the highways authority diversion was 52 miles. That was the Highways Agency’s official diversion. There was a considerable cost to business and motorists and also a safety issue; it took the heavy haulage traffic off the route, which is a route of European significance, and on to minor roads where motorists are not familiar with such traffic.

So the road has strategic significance to the region. The economic benefits that we can leverage are not only from the route itself; they combine with the city deal in Cambridge and the innovation in the south of the county, and with the significant growth potential of areas such as Peterborough. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) fully supports my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland. He would be here, but he has an important constituency engagement.

I will not delay the House with the specific issues within Fenland where action is particularly required. Those points have been made to the Minister through the A47 Alliance. He will be familiar with the Broad End junction, the demand forecasts of around 34%, the significant congestion from Wisbech to Guyhirn, and some of the localised challenges.

I want to close with an issue that has not been raised and is unusual for a road scheme. I am talking about the significant benefits that an upgrade to the A47 would offer bus users. The X1 runs along the route of the A47; it is unusual because it runs for more than four hours along the whole route. I have spoken to the bus company, and one of the things that has to be factored in is the significant delays in the timetable, because of the unpredictability of the transport on that route. If someone is setting a timetable, they need to build in capacity for delays on the route.

The scheme does not benefit only the life sciences businesses to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) alluded. It does not connect only with airports such as Norwich, which the hon. Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) mentioned and which I highlighted in relation to Cambridge international airport. It also has a benefit to bus users in an area where public transport is particularly poor.

Mr Bacon: I am very interested to hear my hon. Friend make that point, because David Lawrence, the principal of Easton and Otley college—an agricultural training college in the west of my constituency—has told me that he has to arrange transport for his students, and pay for it from his college budget, to get people from as far west as the Norfolk-Cambridgeshire border. People not familiar with the area may not understand the distances that people have routinely to travel to engage in activity of any kind.

Stephen Barclay: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has highlighted one final point that I want to make. He and I have sat through many Public Accounts Committee hearings in which transport schemes have been put forward that overestimated the benefits and underestimated the costs. We have a paradox here. We have a region that will deliver greater benefits than have traditionally been forecast, and the potential of the scheme has been undervalued throughout the 17 years

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that my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Broadland has been in this place. In today’s debate we have heard about the significant economic opportunities that the scheme offers and about the wider benefits: it links to airports and there are benefits for bus users and for road safety—an issue that has touched far too many families across our region and on which action is timely.

10.37 am

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Davies. I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing the debate. I understand that when he launched this phase of the A47 campaign—hon. Members have referred to a phase of the campaign; it was not started recently—he did so by driving a Union Jack Mini Cooper along the road from King’s Lynn to Great Yarmouth. It is a lovely car. It was an Oxford-built Mini, and, from a strictly parochial point of view, I remind him that it was the original Longbridge-built Mini that Autocar readers voted the best ever British car the other week. Both are great British cars. If he had been driving the old Mini, it would have said something about how long the campaign for the A47 had been going on.

Many hon. Members have spoken and they have made a powerful case. They have explained why upgrading the A47 is a regional priority not only to improve connectivity with the midlands and the north, but to boost economic growth and improve safety on the road, —an important issue. The case has also been highlighted, as hon. Members have said, by the EasternDailyPress. I will not add to those points.

The case has been made powerfully by the A47 Alliance —an additional 9,600 jobs; an estimated £400 million gross value added a year; and enabling the area’s knowledge and research industries to grow, which hon. Members have also stressed today. This is a cross-party issue. The Labour-led Norfolk county council has also championed infrastructure improvements. Indeed, my office was talking just the other day to Labour’s Jessica Asato in Norwich.

I should like to focus on how this scheme could fit with the Government’s overall approach to infrastructure. Ministers will be trumpeting the proposed tripling of investment in the strategic road network, which is expected to be £3 billion by 2020-21, and perhaps the Minister will do so today. He has to recognise, of course, that when the Government entered office they pulled nearly £4 billion from the planned investment in our strategic roads and the Highways Agency budget for capital investment was cut from £1.6 billion in 2010-11 to just £877 million in 2013-14. Those are not my figures, but those of the National Audit Office.

Those cuts meant that a number of shovel-ready schemes were pulled, including major upgrades to the A1, A14, A19, A21 and, yes, a section of the A47 as well —not the whole scheme, admittedly, but the £26 million Blofield to Burlingham scheme, one of seven scrapped by this Government in the 2010 spending round, despite its having a cost-benefit ratio of 7:1.

Ministers now seem to have woken up to the importance of investing in infrastructure for the long term. I welcome that, but unfortunately it follows years of indecision and delay. As it stands, the Government’s national

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infrastructure plan is a long wish list of schemes. We may have heard about major progress being delivered in the autumn statement, but the truth is that a lot of those schemes were actually okayed by the previous Labour Government. Perhaps the Minister will tell us why just a third of the 646 projects in the most recent version of the plan will have been started by 2015—just 10% of the promised investment.

Hon. Members have talked not just about the A47 scheme’s being about unlocking the strategic road network, but about its importance in the local road network. Again, I ask the Minister to think about the fact that Norfolk county council’s integrated transport grant, which covers schemes for buses and cycling as well, has been cut by 80% since 2010-11.

Delivery of the A47 scheme is important, but I am not convinced that we are getting it. Other hon. Members made that point.

I should like to ask the Minister about the feasibility studies to tackle six of the worst road spots in the country. In April 2014, the six scope documents for these feasibility studies were finally published. Let us be clear and understand that, although these documents set out the aims and objectives for the feasibility studies and proposals regarding problems that need to be solved, they do not include plans of action. The scope documents prepare for studies that will then, presumably, be subject to further review and public consultation. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown) put it so eloquently last week in respect of the A1, which is in a similar position,

“What accounts for the delay between the tentative announcement of yet another study and the setting up of the study? What is left to be studied of this much-studied question?”—[Official Report, 8 May 2014; Vol. 580, c. 267.]

Perhaps the Minister will explain why it has taken 10 months to draw up these initial scope documents. Will he answer the point made by the hon. Member for Broadland about whether we can be confident about what will happen by the autumn?

The total cost for undertaking the feasibility studies is projected to be £2.5 million. Can the Minister tell us what is actually being studied as being feasible or not? Are costed and timetabled plans being assessed or is something else being assessed? If it is something else, what is it?

This matter is important, because the Government also recently announced that they wish to set up a wholly owned Government company to replace the Highways Agency. That has attracted a lot of attention. The Transport Committee published a report recently saying that it was unconvinced by a number of the Government’s arguments on that. I am interested in what the Government say in response to the Committee’s criticisms and should like to ask the Minister how that relates to the issue we are discussing.

How is the Minister’s feasibility study on the A47 meant to fit in with the proposed new arm’s-length highways agency? If the feasibility studies following the scope studies, which are then going to be studied themselves, do come out in the autumn, does the Minister then expect a decision to be made on the basis of the feasibility studies before or after the proposed creation of the new wholly owned Government company, whatever it will be called? Its working title is the new GoCo.

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Will a decision on the issue then bind that new arm’s-length highways agency or does the Minister expect the matter to go to that agency to be considered, perhaps even—who knows?—for it to do its own feasibility study on this project? I should like the Minister to be just a little bit clearer on how the feasibility study fits in with the timetable and decision-making terms and with the creation of his new arm’s-length highways agency.

The whole story shows the importance of long-term thinking on infrastructure. All Governments have failed to do that in different ways over the years and that must be tackled. That is precisely why Labour has asked Sir John Armitt, chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, to consider what is needed and why it is producing plans for a national infrastructure commission to get over this and get the long-term thinking that we so desperately need into the system. Will the Minister back that proposal for a national infrastructure commission?

10.46 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr Robert Goodwill): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) on securing this important debate on the strategic importance of the A47. I know the subject is of great importance to him and a number of other hon. Friends, and I am aware that he has long campaigned for improvements to the route.

The A47 is an important trunk road that connects Norfolk with the midlands, and improving it has been considered by successive Governments. I recognise the strategic importance of the corridor and therefore of finding solutions to its problems. I plan to visit that stretch of road next month, although I am no stranger to it, having returned from my visit to the Norwich North by-election not so long ago, where my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) had such a glorious victory. Indeed, I know the area well, having spent a season driving a combine harvester during my student days.

In terms of this Government’s commitment to infrastructure investment, we have already announced increased levels of Government funding to deliver improvements all around the strategic road network, targeted at supporting economic growth. Our commitment to deliver a step change in future investment in transport infrastructure was made clear by the Chancellor in his statement of 26 June last year, in which he announced the conclusions of the Government’s 2013 spending review. The Treasury’s Command Paper “Investing in Britain’s Future” set out that the Government would invest more than £28 billion in enhancements to and maintenance of both national and local roads. That includes £10.7 billion for major national road projects and £4.9 billion for local major projects. More than £12 billion has been allocated for maintenance, with nearly £6 billion for repairs to local roads and £6 billion for the maintenance of strategic roads, including resurfacing 80% of that network.

I will now comment on points that have been made during the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland talked about a competition. I should like to make it clear that this is not a competition in which there can only be one winner. I hazard to suggest that there will be a degree of success in all six areas that we have identified. His campaign—he talks about hunting

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as a pack with his colleagues from that part of the world—has certainly highlighted the importance to the whole region of improving the A47. I pay tribute to the A47 Alliance for its work in that regard.

My hon. Friend asked about the timetable for announcements and mentioned the autumn statement. I suggest that he makes sure he gets a place for the autumn statement, to hear what the Chancellor says. As my hon. Friend said, we will complete stage 2 by the end of July, and we will be ready to make announcements by the time of the autumn statement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South (Simon Wright) brought a coalition aspect to the debate, and he mentioned the importance of the A11 junction at the Thickthorn roundabout, the B1108 traffic signals and how the potential of the Norwich research park may be unlocked. He, like all Members, stressed the importance of looking at the whole route. It is good to see that hon. Members are not only campaigning for their bit of the route but understand the holistic approach that is needed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) talked about the A12 south from Great Yarmouth. He talked about how roads can rebalance the economy and how that could unlock the potential of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) talked about safety issues. He drew my attention to the tragic accident in East Winch and how, in many places, the road cuts villages in half, which can make it difficult for people to access village halls or schools on the other side of the road.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) described himself as a young whippersnapper, and I suggest that we all feel like young whippersnappers in the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk talked about the importance of science and innovation to the economy of East Anglia and how investment could fan the white heat of technology, to use Harold Wilson’s words. He also mentioned the importance of food, biotech and engineering to the area. We are considering the Dereham to Swaffham section, which I make clear is not omitted from the study.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North talked about the NDR and the importance of Norwich airport. As the Minister with responsibility for aviation, I understand the importance of our regional international airports. I know her constituency well for that reason. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) mentioned that Norfolk is now a serious high-tech county in many sectors, and he name-checked several successful businesses in his area.

My hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay) mentioned the importance of the road haulage industry. One of the problems on the single carriageway sections of the A47 is that there is a 20 mph difference between the 40 mph national speed limit for trucks and the 60 mph national speed limit for cars, which in some cases can lead to reckless overtaking manoeuvres by car drivers due to the frustration of following slow trucks.

Stephen Barclay: I endorse the Minister’s point, which is that the difference in speed limits often causes accidents and road safety issues, as well as having a significant

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economic cost. For transparency, I draw the attention of Members to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as there was a donation to my association in 2010. Due to both road safety and economic impact concerns, there is considerable desire in my constituency, and I am sure in others, to consider increasing the speed limit for heavy goods vehicles to ease the discrepancy.

Mr Goodwill: The Government are considering that measure. The Scottish Government are considering a trial on the A9 north of Perth, where there are particular problems, with a view to increasing the speed limit for trucks to improve safety on the road.

I know my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) would have liked to contribute to the debate, but his ministerial duties precluded him from doing so. I am sure he would have mentioned the importance of the Acle straight and Great Yarmouth to the energy industry.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) talked about the stop-start investment in roads. I am proud that we are tripling investment in roads, and we must not forget that when the Blair Government came into power they announced a moratorium on new road building, even though they had the money to build roads. Later in that disastrous period of government, they had to cut road building because they ran out of money. When we took over, we had to make some tough decisions because of the dire financial position that we inherited. Fortunately, things are looking a lot better, which is why we are able to invest in infrastructure generally, not only in roads but in the conventional rail network and our new high-speed rail network.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the GoCo through which we will deliver many of the infrastructure projects. That is part of our long-term plan to deliver better value for money for the taxpayer. I am sure we will have opportunities to discuss that across the Dispatch Box.

Richard Burden: On the timetable, assuming that this idea is approved in the autumn statement, will the GoCo have a further look at the proposal, or will it have been approved at that stage? What is the timetable?

Mr Goodwill: The whole point of the GoCo is to get on with these jobs, not to delay them. I can allay the hon. Gentleman’s fears in that regard. Network Rail works in that way, and it does not tend to delay rail projects; it tends to deliver them efficiently.

I met a number of hon. Friends in February to discuss the updated proposals put together by the A47 Alliance in its “Gateway to Growth” prospectus. The updated prospectus is an excellent example of how a range of local and regional interests can work closely together to set out the case for future Government investment. The prospectus sets out a targeted programme of improvements to both the strategic and local road networks. It details some 19 specific schemes, with indicative costs and timings.

I will now set out how my Department will consider options for future investment. My hon. Friend the Member for Broadland highlighted the issues on the A47 and the potential for those problems to be exacerbated

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by planned developments and growth in the region. He will know that the Government recognise those issues and the importance of transport infrastructure to supporting the economy. He will also know that we are committed to identifying and funding early solutions to the long-standing problems on the A47 corridor, initially by undertaking a feasibility study. The A47 corridor feasibility study was announced by the Secretary of State for Transport on 20 August 2013 following the spending review, and it is one of six studies on the strategic road network. On 14 January 2014 I also announced that the section of the A12 between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft would be included within the study’s geographic scope.

It may be useful if I say a little more about the approach we are taking, as the feasibility study is the mechanism by which we will identify early solutions to the problems on the A47 corridor. The study’s aim is to identify opportunities and understand the case for future investment solutions on the A47 corridor that are deliverable, affordable and offer value for money. Although much of the work has been done previously, agreement has not been reached on the solutions. It is therefore important for us to carry out the study to ensure that we understand the priorities for the corridor and that proposals for investment demonstrate a strong and robust economic case for investment, demonstrate value for money and are deliverable. As part of the study, we have committed to engage with stakeholders to develop and agree the detailed scope of the work. My officials discussed the proposed scope of the work with stakeholders at a meeting in Norwich in late January, and they considered the views expressed before finalising and publishing the scope on 23 April. A number of my hon. Friends have also provided views on the study work’s scope and the range of possible solutions and priorities.

The study work will be conducted in stages, with the initial stage aiming to identify the current and future challenges along the corridor, taking account of local growth plans and priorities. We have built on existing evidence bases and previous study work, including the evidence collected as part of the Highways Agency’s route strategy process and evidence presented in the A47 Alliance’s “Gateway to Growth” prospectus. We are now concluding that stage of the work. We will continue to engage with stakeholders throughout the life of the study.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland on securing this debate. I have made it clear that the Government are committed to, and have set out plans for, large-scale improvements to our national strategic road network in the relative short term. The Government have also committed to developing a longer-term programme of investments through the route strategy process.

Through the A47 corridor feasibility study, we will work closely with local stakeholders to ensure that we consider current and future transport problems and the range of possible solutions that could address those problems. As I said, it is important that proposals for future investment are clearly supported by local stakeholders—which the presence of so many Members underlines—and that there is a clear consensus on what is required. Ultimately, any proposals for future investment need to demonstrate a strong business case and the delivery of both transport and wider economic benefits.

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Stroud Valleys and Vale (Planning)

11 am

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I particularly welcome you as Chair, Mr Davies. It is the first time I have served under your chairmanship. I did not realise that you were on the Panel of Chairs, so I congratulate you on that. I am also pleased to note that my hon. Friend the Minister is here. He has already been to my constituency and we had a successful public meeting, which had the particular characteristic of attracting almost national attention. At that meeting, we raised several issues and I thought it would be helpful, in such a debate, to ensure that all those issues and all the answers to various relevant questions were put on record.

The Stroud valleys and vale is a particularly beautiful part of England. I guess that most Members of Parliament could say that about their constituency, but I can say it without fear of contradiction. The five valleys and the vale amount to a spectacular area of incredible beauty. It is a place where a lot of people want to live. Furthermore, it is a place that many developers want to develop. It is therefore all the more important that we have a local plan. The pressure on development, both because it is a nice place to live and because of its particular characteristics, is intense. For that reason, I am particularly disappointed that the Labour-led Stroud district council has so far failed to produce a plan that is in force. The last plan effectively terminated in 2011, and we desperately need a plan now. I know that there is a plan with the Department for Communities and Local Government that is going through the appropriate checks—I hope that it will be given the green light—but in the meantime, we have a huge problem with developers literally circling parts of Stroud and the valleys, identifying possible sites for development. The pressure is huge, for the reasons I have outlined.

The other problem is that with 51 parish and town councils, we have a huge number of different communities, and they feel that they are effectively under siege. Those that are being encircled by developers do not know where to turn next for support, advice or encouragement. I want to speak for all those communities in this debate. I am very much on their side in protecting the characteristics, their livelihoods and the ways in which those villages and communities have developed.

It is with that in mind that I want to talk about certain planning applications. I will mention six to illustrate the point, but I could talk about a lot more. There are various applications on Baxter’s fields, below Summer street in Stroud. The wide range of communities in that location are very much aware of the impact that that development would have on them. There is an application on Rodborough fields, which is famous for historical reasons. Although the application might be appealed, previous to a decision by Stroud district council, it is still a concern. Mankley field is perhaps the most prominent application. The Minister might recall it, because it was the focus of the debate at the public meeting. The development would effectively join two villages together, which would cause some difficulties for both communities—not because they do not like each other, but because they want each other to thrive as separate identifiable communities.

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There are applications on Woodside lane in King’s Stanley, which is another issue related to Mankley field, and on land off Shakespeare road in Dursley, which is a particularly beautiful place, because of the topography. It is part of my constituency, and there are views that people like to have. As they say, a view cannot be bought, but we can protect the characteristics of towns and villages. That is a case in point with that application in Dursley. The Horsley development elongates a beautiful village, but threatens its natural beauty and offends a large number of existing residents. All those planning applications and others raise a number of issues. Where Stroud district council, led by the Labour party, has gone wrong is in putting too much focus on dispersal, and those applications illustrate that point. They are dispersed all over the place, which is a significant difficulty for our residents.

There is also a problem with housing numbers, which I will go into in some detail. The Localism Act 2011 and the various other documents that have been circulating have always emphasised that projections for housing numbers and land supply have got to be evidence-based. It is no use just plucking figures out of some national statistics arena. The developer needs to demonstrate to the local community that it has thought about the evidence. Stroud has a large number of manufacturing and engineering firms—they account for 24% of existing employment—and my view is that that kind of economic fact needs to be factored into any projections on housing numbers.

Travelling to work is also important, because planning is not only about building houses, but ensuring that people can get out and about. That is why I have focused not only on housing, but on infrastructure. It is why I think it might be worth while to move the Stonehouse railway station slightly north, so that it can access two railway lines, one of which would enable people from Stonehouse and neighbouring villages to get to Bristol without going via Gloucester or Swindon. I throw that into the mix because it is important that the overall local plan and how we think about plans take into account employment, infrastructure links, travelling to work and everything else that would necessarily be connected with planning. I am not satisfied that the Labour-led Stroud district council has done all those things. We want the local plan to be in place, because any plan is better than no plan, and that will be the mantra until a plan arrives.

I have four specific questions for the Minister. First, how much reliance can we place on the prematurity issue in connection with local plans that are in the process of being agreed and implemented? That is the key issue for many residents of my constituency. They know that a plan is being considered, but while it is being considered, it is not in force. We have all these developers wanting to develop in areas where that plan would not want to see development taking place. We need to know in clear reassuring terms what the prematurity issues are and how we ensure that we can give comfort to residents in the valleys and vale. We raised that issue at the public meeting and we got an answer, but I would like that to be on record today through this debate.

Secondly, what latent powers do previous plans have? Stroud district council had a plan until 2011. That is relevant, because any hope for residents in that respect would be good, and it is another strand that is well worth exploring.

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An interesting issue, which to my surprise was raised at the public meeting, is that of housing numbers and how they relate to existing planning permissions that may not have been fulfilled. One would logically assume that any existing planning permission that has not yet been implemented would be considered in the total housing numbers as suggested by the council. We need evidence that Stroud district council has been told that that is indeed the case—a confirmation that guidance is clear about this matter—because there was certainly a lack of clarity at the public meeting, with at least one councillor expressing doubt about the matter and a number of residents also expressing doubt about it at that meeting and subsequently. The total number of houses to be built ought to include planning permissions that have already been given, and we need clarification on that.

My last point is one that I have been talking about for three years: neighbourhood plans, because they are a powerful instrument for local communities to use. As I have already said, we have 51 town and parish councils in my area, so potentially we could have 51 neighbourhood plans. We will not get 51; we have about a dozen in formulation, at one stage or another, and that is absolutely excellent news. However, we would have more if more people simply understood what a neighbourhood plan is. It is a statutory document; it effectively gives planning capacity to town and parish councils; and, of course, it is something that any planning inspector would have to consult if there was an appeal about an issue in a locality.

I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed the value of having a neighbourhood plan to the communities that want to have some control over their emerging environment, their planning system and their areas as a whole. That should be control exercised in the right way, which is democratically, in terms of all the issues that I have mentioned, and in the sense of meeting obligations to neighbouring councils, and so forth. Nevertheless, local communities should have control, so neighbourhood plans should be saluted and we need to understand their value.

I also want to make it clearer to my constituents that going through the process of getting a neighbourhood plan is much easier than first meets the eye and that it will, of course, be supported by the Department as appropriate, in terms of providing not only guidance, but possibly funding. I say that because I know that the Department has already created a fund to provide finance to support neighbourhood plans. However, I would like some increased clarity about that issue.

Those are my four key questions, but I have one more. One of the issues about new developments is that, of course, they need infrastructure. Infrastructure comes in the form of roads and, of course, in the form of a load of other issues to do with water. However, one element of infrastructure that is really important, and increasingly so, is broadband. It would be good to have a discussion about how, in future, we might ensure that new developments are properly provided with this absolutely critical infrastructure, which is not easy to see, because most of it is underground, but is necessary for people to use. We already have one or two areas in my constituency where broadband is proving to be a testing issue, because

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the infrastructure is not necessarily in place. BT is working extraordinarily hard, but some developers have not always paved the way for broadband’s ultimate success and I need to put that on the record.

In summary, the Stroud valleys and vale comprises five valleys and one vale. All of it is absolutely beautiful, with thriving communities who want to look after themselves. They are alert to the need for new housing, but want to ensure that they have more control over that housing, through both a local plan developed by Stroud district council and—hopefully—neighbourhood plans. That package would be ideal for Stroud. I just want to ensure that we can get from the point where we are now—with no local plan—to the point where we have a local plan, and I also want to ensure that damage can be limited during that time.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Nick Boles): Another day and another debate on planning. Such debates are a constant pleasure for me—if not for you, Mr Davies—and I am only sorry that this day will not conclude with a further debate on planning in your own constituency.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) on securing the debate, and I take this opportunity to thank him for having invited me to come to his constituency recently. I can confirm what he said about his area. Stroud, which I had never previously visited, is a stunningly beautiful place, with some of the most beautiful landscapes in England, and he has a huge privilege to represent a very special corner of our countryside.

I recognise that there are difficult issues in my hon. Friend’s constituency, as in so many, regarding the process of putting in place a local plan. He is, of course, right that the public meeting that he organised and invited me to attend was quite lively and saw a vigorous debate. Unfortunately, the national media were inclined to focus on what was perhaps one of the less edifying parts of that debate, because what was so interesting about it for me was the intensity with which people wanted to understand how the planning system worked, what considerations could be taken into account and what they could do—with the support of their MP—to take full advantage of the opportunities for neighbourhood planning and the like. I found it to be an immensely constructive meeting and I hope that his constituents also did, in the main.

I know that my hon. Friend will understand that because the local plan for his area is now in examination I cannot talk about any particular aspect of it, but I hope that I can give general answers to his questions and that those general answers will be of relevance to the local plan for his area and indeed to his questions about neighbourhood planning.

First, my hon. Friend asked about the issue of prematurity, and he is right to recall that someone also asked about it at the public meeting. The question really is this: when can a plan that has not yet been found sound and formally adopted have substantial weight in a decision? I am glad to say that we have recently published the new planning guidance on a website,

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which is easy for everybody to access and is hopefully written in relatively plain English—by planners’ standards, at least. That guidance makes it clear that a local plan gathers weight through the process. There is not a black and white picture, whereby the plan has absolutely no value in decisions until it has reached its conclusion and been adopted. The plan can gain weight.

The key moment is when a local plan that does not have any substantial unresolved objections to it is submitted to the planning inspector for examination. At that point, the plan’s weight can start to be substantial in decisions on particularly large applications. I know that my hon. Friend will be quick to work out whether that provision might apply to his local plan, and if so how. Nevertheless, that is what the guidance says: it is at the point of submission to the planning inspector for examination that a plan can start having significant weight, if there are no substantial unresolved objections to it.

It is probably worth mentioning that prematurity also applies to neighbourhood plans. I was very pleased to hear from my hon. Friend that there are a number of communities in his constituency that are undertaking neighbourhood planning. The provision on neighbourhood plans is similar to that on local plans. When a neighbourhood plan has been submitted to a local authority for it to conduct what is called the local authority publicity period, which is a period of formal consultation that it undertakes before an examination, that is the point at which a neighbourhood plan— even in draft—can start to have significant weight in decisions.

My hon. Friend’s second question was about previous plans. Although I cannot comment on the particulars of Stroud’s previous plans, until they are replaced by another plan, previous plans and their policies are generally a material consideration in any decision. It is common sense, however, that the older those plans become the more likely it is that the policies and provisions within them become out of date and therefore are likely to have less impact and weight in decisions. Plans do, in a sense, have a half-life, and it is important eventually to update them, review them or replace them with an entirely new plan if local policies and plans are to have a leading role in decisions on applications in local areas.

My hon. Friend’s third question related to an important point about the status in the local plan, in particular the five-year land supply, of sites that already have planning permission, but which have not yet been implemented and where buildings have not yet been constructed. In order that the policy position is crystal clear, I will read what the national planning policy framework states:

“Sites with planning permission should be considered deliverable until permission expires, unless there is clear evidence that schemes will not be implemented within five years, for example they will not be viable, there is no longer a demand for the type of units or sites have long term phasing plans.”

I hope that that makes it clear that unless there is good reason to believe that a site is no longer viable, or there is no longer demand for the type of unit that it would provide, or its plan for construction stretches beyond the five-year period, a site that already has planning permission but where nothing has happened counts towards the five-year land supply. I hope that that position is clear and that everyone in my hon. Friend’s constituency understands that the requirement is to provide new sites to make up the total and not to find

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sites to replace those that already have planning permission and are still viable and likely to be delivered within five years.

Finally, my hon. Friend asked about neighbourhood planning, and it is welcome that so many communities in his area are considering it. I am pleased to say that, around the country, it is a brush fire that is beginning to gather some steam—I am not sure whether brush fires do gather steam, but I think my point is understood. More than 1,000 communities in England are working on neighbourhood plans. There have been 14 referendums on neighbourhood plans, all of which have received a yes vote, usually with substantial majorities in favour. They have probably been the single most successful extension of democratic participation in governing processes of the past few years, and they have succeeded because people feel strongly about the future of the places in which they live. If people are offered the chance to have an influence on that, even if they are not necessarily able to stop everything that they might want to stop, they will nevertheless seize the chance to ensure that development is the best that it possibly can be, is in the right places, is of the right character and improves the community for everyone, rather than just for those involved in development.

It is welcome that communities are getting involved. Although they may face some immediate, short-term battles over particular proposals, I encourage them to look beyond those battles—even if they sometimes lose, whether because a plan is not in place or for other reasons—and to focus on not only the next five years, but the next 15 years, which is the normal life of a neighbourhood plan. They will be able to shape those 15 years directly if they work on putting a neighbourhood plan in place, getting it through a referendum and getting it adopted. For the first time ever in the planning system, a neighbourhood document has equal statutory force alongside a local plan.

I am happy to confirm that the Department for Communities and Local Government provides quite substantial support, both financial and through expert officials, not only for a community undertaking a neighbourhood plan, which will have a support contract led by Locality and grants of up to £7,000, but also for local authorities, because they have to work closely with neighbourhood plan areas and organise examinations and referendums. To be clear, there is no reason why a local authority should not actively promote, engage and welcome as many communities that want to produce neighbourhood plans as possible. There is also no reason why any parish council or neighbourhood forum should not embrace the scheme and avail itself of the support offered by the Government. Over the next 10 years, we are keen that literally thousands of communities undertake neighbourhood plans and really take control of the planning process.

I hope that I have answered my hon. Friend’s main questions and that the story of planning and plan-making in Stroud and its beautiful valleys and vale will involve people feeling that they are controlling the future of their community. All communities need to accept some growth and need more housing. As my hon. Friend said, all communities need to expand, develop and embrace the future. However, decisions on such matters should be made by local people. From listening to my hon. Friend, it is clear that no one is more expert in the

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economic and social geography of Stroud, its valleys and its vale. I hope that the local authority will listen to him when making its plans and that the people of Stroud feel that they could not have a better champion of their future interests.

11.27 am

Sitting suspended.

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Council Tax Support

[Mr David Crausby in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): At the outset, I draw attention to my interests as declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise an important subject that affects the lives of millions of people throughout our country, namely the consequence of the Government’s decision to localise council tax support in England. Council tax benefit—and before that, rate rebates—had been an integral part of our national system for helping low-income households to meet their living expenditure. Indeed, unlike housing benefit, it was available to people irrespective of their tenure—so home owners, tenants in social housing and tenants in privately rented homes were all eligible—and for that reason council tax benefit was the most widely claimed of all income-related benefits, reaching almost 6 million households.

The decision to localise council tax benefit, which was announced as part of the 2010 spending review early in the life of the current Government, was in some respects surprising, as it ran counter to the Government’s commitment to bring together a range of separate benefits into a universal credit. Arguably, if one is trying to simplify and streamline benefits, it makes no sense to separate out council tax support, which had previously been fully integrated with housing benefit, as the consequence will inevitably be to create variations in entitlement between people living in different areas, which may have perverse outcomes and will certainly add administrative complexity.

Now, I am not one of those who take a strong ideological view that this benefit must be either national or local. There is a case to debate, but unfortunately we had no opportunity to do so. With the Government proposing on the one hand to introduce universal credit and on the other to localise council tax benefit, one might have expected an opportunity for consultation and reflection, to allow people to look at the merits of localisation and diversity as against unification and simplification, which was the stated objective of universal credit.

No such opportunity was allowed, however. Instead, the Government ploughed ahead with their plan to localise council tax support, and it became increasingly clear that the overriding motive for that was to save upwards of £400 million in central Government expenditure by imposing a 10% cut as part of the process. Local authorities were given the unappetising choice either of protecting the benefit entitlement of their local residents but having to meet 10% of the cost themselves or of passing on the cut to benefit recipients.

Grahame M. Morris (Easington) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. Does he agree that the Government’s decision to protect pensioners has had perverse—and I hope unintended—consequences, particularly for working-age disabled people? As a consequence of that decision, a heavier and more disproportionate burden has fallen on those disabled people, who have to make up the shortfall.

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Mr Raynsford: My hon. Friend is prescient—I was about to come on to that very point. I hope he will bear with me, so that I do not repeat myself by first answering his question then coming back to the text in my speech where I refer to the issue.

To add to the challenge, the Government added two further obligations. The first was to protect all recipients over pension age—the point to which my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) referred. The second was to avoid creating work disincentives. The first might well be justified, even though, as my hon. Friend indicated, it will create anomalies, with people in virtually identical circumstances but divided by perhaps a couple of years in age receiving different benefit entitlements because of those few years. People over retirement age generally live on fixed incomes and cannot easily adjust to unexpected reductions in benefit entitlement, so a degree of protection for pensioner households is understandable. However, protecting around 40% of recipients will inevitably mean heavier cuts for those who are not protected. It is the remainder of households—a majority, including those in work—that have borne the brunt of the change.

Imposing what was estimated to be an average cut of 16% in entitlement for working-age recipients is bad enough, but of course it runs completely counter to the stated objective of avoiding work disincentives. Furthermore, the centrally imposed requirement to safeguard those over pension age does not sit comfortably with the Government’s other stated objective. I will quote from the Government’s objectives for the scheme, which give a stated aim as being to

“reinforce local control over council tax. Enabling decisions to be taken locally about the provision of support with council tax is consistent with a drive for greater local financial accountability and decision-making”.

One of the more bizarre characteristics of the current Government is that they keep on talking the language of localism while dictating, often in minute detail, exactly how local authorities should behave.

Thirteen months on from the introduction of localised council tax support, how have local authorities responded and what has been the impact on the households that depend on financial support to meet all or part of their council tax liabilities? There have been several studies, including detailed analyses by the New Policy Institute and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Those studies show that a minority of councils have sought to maintain the same level of support as under the former council tax benefit scheme, but the large majority of councils—more than four out of five—have reduced benefit entitlement for working-age applicants. Almost three quarters have introduced a minimum payment, which varies considerably from area to area: currently, 69 out of 326 authorities expect recipients to pay 8.5% or less, but at the other extreme, 47 councils expect contributions of 20% or more. The majority of councils are somewhere between those extremes, expecting a minimum contribution of around 15%—my own local authority of Greenwich is in that category.

In addition to a minimum contribution requirement, several other changes to the former council tax benefit scheme have been made by individual councils. They include: removal of the second adult rebate; a band cap restricting entitlement in higher value properties; reductions in the limit on savings that can be held before entitlement

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is withdrawn—many have reduced that savings limit from £16,000 to just £6,000; increased non-dependant deductions; and changes to the income taper, which determines the rate of benefit withdrawal as income levels rise.

In the first year of the new arrangements the Government provided transitional support, conditional on local authorities limiting any minimum payment requirement to 8.5% of the total liability. With the ending of that transitional support, almost half the councils that had kept to the minimum payment requirement then increased the amount; there have been other changes to the details of schemes in specific areas as well.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): For the record, I draw the House’s attention to my indirect interest in my right hon. Friend’s interests. Does he agree that the net outcome of all these changes, with their piecemeal effects, is that the south-west has been hit hardest? The average cut in support across the south-west is now £177 and last year, it was even worse, at £185. Cornwall, which was an objective 1 area, is historically very poor, yet people there are being badly hit by the changes.

Mr Raynsford: My hon. Friend has identified one of the interesting characteristics of the consequences of this change to localisation—the significant and often surprising variations between individual areas. One of the curious characteristics of the change is that, based on figures I have seen, the largest adverse impact appears to be on council tax benefit recipients in the south-west, who are now facing a greater average obligation to pay than those in any other region in England.

Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) for pointing out that anomaly. Is it not the case that when local authorities or regions have substantial and disproportionately high numbers of older people and pensioners, the effect will inevitably be felt more adversely in those areas? I guess that is as likely to be an explanation in the south-west as it is in my local authority of Trafford.

Mr Raynsford: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for identifying precisely the factor likely to be behind the slightly surprising figure from the south-west. In the north-west one might expect it because there is probably more substantial poverty than in the south-west so there might be a bigger problem with the greater proportion of council tax that individual households must meet, but the number of households with people over pension age who are protected has a significant impact and I suspect that that is the main reason why the south-west features in this way. That highlights the arbitrary and curious consequences of the rules that the Government have put in place.

In the first year of the new arrangements, there was protection with the 8.5% limit provided by the Government’s transitional support, but when that support ended, many authorities increased the amount they expect individuals to pay without support and as a result the overall level of council tax support in 2014-15 will be lower than in the previous year and substantially lower than under the former council tax benefit scheme. Research

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by the New Policy Institute for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that 2,340,000 low-income families will be paying an average of £149 a year more in council tax this year than under the old council tax benefit scheme. For a Government who continually boast about their efforts to keep council tax demands down, and threaten action against councils that seek to increase council tax, this figure should be a source of deep shame. More than 2.25 million households are being required to pay an average of almost £3 a week extra in council tax purely because of the Government’s actions, and £3 a week is a significant amount to those living on the edge of poverty.

As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report points out, there is ongoing uncertainty for households who may face further cuts in future years as the system that the Government have put in place not only gives local authorities the option to change the scheme, but provides an incentive to cut council tax support further in future years. If they cannot increase council tax because the Government have blocked that option, a further cut in council tax support is the only available option to increase their council tax revenue. Such perverse incentives to cut help to the poor is a shameful outcome, for which the Government are wholly responsible.

Not surprisingly, the impact of the cuts on entitlement to low-income families has led to increased debt, arrears and bailiff action to recover debt. The New Policy Institute research suggests that the growth in arrears has been most marked in areas where a minimum payment obligation has been introduced. As yet, the detailed evidence available from different parts of the country is patchy, but Citizens Advice believes that council tax debt now accounts for around 10% of all its debt inquiry work and the debt charity, StepChange, reports 45,000 people seeking its help with council tax arrears in 2013—a staggering 78% increase on the previous year.

As we know only too well, the cuts to council tax support are only one of a series of benefit cuts by the Government, and problems become even more acute when there is a cumulative impact of two or more benefit cuts hitting individual households.

Grahame M. Morris: My right hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. Does he share my concern about the increase in the amount of bailiff action? I have seen figures indicating that almost 100,000 cases have been pursued by bailiffs as a consequence of the Government’s pressure on council tax increases. Does he agree that, in particular, people who are disabled and housebound are vulnerable and should be protected and that the Minister should take steps to protect those groups from intimidation by excessive action?

Mr Raynsford: As my hon. Friend rightly highlights, there is concern about substantial increases in bailiff action to recover debt. We do not know the full extent because, frankly, the available figures are patchy, but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence suggesting increased demands, and that in some cases and in some areas that is affecting many people, including precisely the ones my hon. Friend highlighted—the vulnerable and disabled—who are being threatened with bailiff action.

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I referred to the fact that council tax can be cumulative with people suffering cuts in other benefits. Two new reports that are due to be published later this week, from Ipsos MORI and Cambridge university, were commissioned by the National Housing Federation and cast further light on this. One involved a series of interviews with housing association managers, and the other involved interviews with tenants affected by benefit cuts.

The housing associations reported that although they viewed the housing benefit cuts as having the largest impact on their tenants, the changes to council tax benefit were also significant. Housing associations are concerned about the cumulative impact on some of their tenants with changes to council tax benefit, housing benefit cuts and rising utility costs placing an ever-increasing burden on their tenants.

Two case studies in the Ipsos MORI report illustrate that. The first states:

“In addition to being affected by the size criteria, Bob has also been required to start paying a proportion of his Council Tax, whereas this was previously covered in its entirety by his Council Tax Benefit. Prior to the reforms, Bob and his wife had been putting aside about £5 per week, in case they needed to pay for something unexpectedly, but they have stopped doing this now, as well as reducing their food shopping expenditure, in order to make ends meet. Bob notes that energy costs have increased, so he and his wife are being extra careful with the heating, which he explains as follows: ‘Once, say, about half past six comes, we just come upstairs then, put the radio on or the computer on upstairs where it’s warmer, so we’re not using electricity downstairs...so we’re sort of... managing, but it’s difficult’.”

The second case states:

“A further impact of the welfare reforms on Gareth has been that his household is now required to pay £8 per month on council tax. Although Gareth said he was expecting this, when we interviewed him prior to the introduction of the reforms, he says that this places an additional strain on his finances. He explains this in the following way: ‘we pay £8 a month Council Tax...but when you’re on limited funds and you’re stretched anyway and then, you know, you’ve got to cut back to do other stuff, it’s hard to find’.”

Such cases are repeated time and again throughout the country, and I suspect that every hon. Member in the Chamber will have had many cases of constituents with experiences like the two quoted in the report for the National Housing Federation.

Against that background, it is hardly surprising that there have been several parliamentary inquiries into the operation of the new council tax support arrangements. The Public Accounts Committee conducted an inquiry into the localisation of council tax support and its report was published in March 2014. The Committee was highly critical of the degree to which authorities’ schemes had met the objectives of the Department for Communities and Local Government and of the Department’s knowledge of the impact of local schemes on vulnerable groups. The Chair of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) said:

“When the Government transferred responsibility for Council Tax support to 326 local authorities in April 2013 it intended that the reform supported the work incentives it seeks from its wider welfare reform. But we found in 19 local authority areas, up to 225,000 people could lose more of their earnings—as a result of Income Tax and National Insurance contributions combined with the withdrawal of Council Tax Benefit and Housing Benefit—than under the previous national scheme. This just goes to show, for some, work simply doesn’t pay under the new scheme. For them, work incentives have actually weakened rather than strengthened

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—the opposite of what the Government intended. Some of those 225,000 people stand to lose 97p for every extra £1 earned—a fundamentally perverse result.”

The PAC report also highlighted the extent to which the schemes introduced since April 2013 have failed to protect many vulnerable people. It flagged up the fact that in 133 local authority areas where all claimants under pension age are required to make minimum payments, no protection is provided to other vulnerable groups. The PAC concluded by calling for an independent review.

Of course, the independent review is already a statutory requirement; it was included in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 as the result of a House of Lords amendment. The Act requires the Government to conduct a review of all local council tax support schemes within three years of the Act taking effect. The Act was effective from October 2012, so the review must be completed by October next year—just 16 months away.

I put it to the Minister that the Government’s silence on the issue is a real cause of concern. Any serious review of the 326 separate local council tax support schemes and their impact on millions of households will take a significant period of time to conduct. If a report is to be presented by October next year, the arrangements need to be put in place without delay. When will the Government be setting out their proposals for conducting the review, and incidentally, when will they be responding to the trenchant criticisms in the PAC report?

The Select Committee on Work and Pensions has also conducted an inquiry, raising similar concerns to those highlighted by the PAC. It recommended that the Government commission research into the impact that local variations in council tax support arrangements are having on levels of poverty in different parts of the country. As yet, the Government have not responded.

Of course, the differential impact is only an issue in England, as in both Scotland and Wales, the devolved Governments have decided to provide financial support to their local authorities to enable them to maintain existing levels of support. In Wales, that has been accompanied by arrangements that allow a degree of discretion to Welsh local authorities on how they structure their council tax support schemes, but without any pressure to impose benefit cuts, as in England.

The Local Government Association, representing English councils, is advocating a similar approach. In its briefing paper for today’s debate, it states:

“Consideration should be given to returning to a 100% funded system for council tax support on the grounds of equity. This does not imply a return to the old council tax benefit arrangements; it simply means that councils should be funded to run the scheme without being forced to impose reductions”.

Both the LGA and London Councils also highlight the extent to which the arrangements put in place by Government for meeting parts of local authority costs incurred in providing council tax support are opaque. London Councils states that

“the Government’s decision to roll funding for local council tax support into wider funding for local government has made it almost impossible for individual local authorities to determine how much they are receiving for this policy. As such, a local authority will, each year, have to balance the spending pressure on its local council tax support scheme with the need to allocate resources to its wider services, particularly as local government funding continues on its current downwards trajectory”.

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The LGA recommends:

“Central Government should adopt a more transparent way of funding the changes. Funding for the support should be identified through a non ring-fenced grant within the Settlement Funding Assessment”.

The LGA also adds its voice to all the others calling for further research, saying:

“The Government should publish its analysis of the cumulative impact of all funding reforms at an individual council level”.

To conclude, we have a scheme for supporting millions of low-income households, helping them meet their council tax obligations, which was introduced without proper analysis and evaluation. It has brought financial hardship, debt and worry to huge numbers of families, and it has created perverse disincentives to work and arbitrary variations in treatment between people in similar circumstances. It has manifestly failed to meet its objectives, and it has been condemned as harsh and unfair across the political spectrum.

At the very least, the Government should, as a matter of urgency, set in motion the review that they are, by law, required to commission, and in the short term, they should look carefully at ways in which the scheme’s harsh impact can be mitigated. I would like to believe that at the conclusion of this debate, the Minister will give us a commitment to do just that.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr David Crausby (in the Chair): I am just counting how many Members are standing and thinking about the time limit. About six Members are standing, so in those circumstances, I shall not put a fixed time limit on speeches, but if everybody keeps to around five minutes—or not much above that—everybody will get in.

2.54 pm

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby—I was under the impression that I would have quite a bit longer to speak. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) on securing the debate. He has demonstrated his long experience in the world of local government and as a Government Minister, and he even offered solutions to the Government to deal with the problem that they have created for the people of our country.

As other Members have attested, the scheme of localisation for council tax support is hitting the most vulnerable in our society. Some 2.2 million people are seeing their council tax increase as a direct result of the changes. Diabolically, that includes almost 400,000 disabled people, while 117,000 people in receipt of severe or enhanced disability premiums will also pick up larger bills.

The Government could do something positive to help, and my right hon. Friend has pointed out some of those things. The legislation introducing the changes already includes the Labour amendment that requires an independent review within three years. However, such has been the severity of the changes’ impact that I would like to see that review brought forward now, so that the full consequences can be assessed and the policy re-examined and changed.

We have already heard how, following the debacle of the poll tax, a national council tax benefit scheme was introduced in 1992, with the aim of helping councils keep council taxes down for the poorest citizens. I will

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not go into that in any great detail, but suffice it to say that that allowed some 800,000 working people nationally to receive lower council tax bills because their income was low, while others on passported benefits, such as jobseeker’s allowance and income support, paid no council tax.

As part of the coalition’s dogmatic devotion to overhauling the welfare system, hefty changes to the council tax benefit were made. Most notably—others have talked about this—the responsibility for administering the scheme was devolved to local authorities. Was that not just a great idea? Dump the responsibility on the local authorities and when people get angry and upset, it will be the councils who get it in the neck, and the Tory-led Government can join in blaming them for not having adequate enough systems to protect the vulnerable. That is exactly what is happening. I have cases in my surgery where people believe that the council is doing them in. I put them right.

That said, our local authorities have a detailed understanding of local circumstances and a knowledge of what is happening on the ground. They are therefore well positioned to assess the needs of local people, and they are often able to do so more accurately than central Government.

However, the Local Government Finance Act 2012 has done more than simply localise the programme of council tax support. Instead, the Act abolished council tax benefit as we knew it and required the local authorities to design and implement their own localised reduction schemes from scratch. Again, that is not necessarily problematic—not, that is, until we consider that at the same time as introducing these changes, the budget from central Government to help pay for such crucial support was cut by 10%.

Further adding to the complexity, the Government simultaneously insisted on certain conditions being met, removing the free hand that might have allowed local authorities to design workable solutions. The prime example, of course, is the stipulation that pensioners must be protected from the Government’s cuts; that point was made by my colleague in the north-east, my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris). That is hardly objectionable either. Older people reliant on pensions are on a fixed income and would stand to be hard hit by any statutory increases, but what it means in practice is that the funding available is intertwined with an area’s demographic make-up. In short, the more pensioners within any given boundary, the steeper the reductions will be elsewhere and for everyone else.

Ultimately, those reductions are shouldered by other vulnerable people. To put it into context, the average reduction across all local authorities has been about 19%, according to the Local Government Association, as a result of higher numbers of pensioners in a given area, but it can be as high as 27%. That has meant that, as of April last year, 6,600 working-age people on low incomes across the Stockton borough who previously did not pay council tax have had to start contributing for the first time. Because of the reductions in support, a further 6,100 are paying more than last year.

Clearly, that runs completely counter to the original aim of the council tax benefit scheme, which—in case anyone needed reminding—was to protect precisely those

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vulnerable people who are now feeling the sharp end of the coalition’s cutbacks. Instead, we have a situation whereby councils doing their very best to protect vulnerable groups, such as the disabled and carers, are having to perform intricate balancing acts to ensure that working families are not disproportionately burdened by severe cuts to the support that they receive. They all have to do that while ensuring that their own financial situation remains robust enough to continue to provide services and support. Let us not forget that this increased liability came at precisely the same time as 2,800 families across the Stockton borough were being subjected to the bedroom tax, placing further strain on household incomes and exacerbating the cost of living crisis in their households.

While the Government profess to support the most vulnerable, and the Deputy Prime Minister boasts of his party’s success in lifting thousands out of taxation, the coalition’s actions in pulling support from underneath the most vulnerable contradicts those claims in plain sight. With only nine months between the statement of intent and localisation, local authorities were left with considerable logistical headaches, having to meet the Government’s criteria while continuing to offer as much support as possible to vulnerable persons and safe- guarding financial arrangements. That is not to mention communicating the changes to residents.

In my local authority area, Stockton borough council stands to lose about £3 million a year as a result of the funding changes. That highlights not only the severity of the reductions for local people, but the inadequacy of the Government’s transitional funding pot, which was hastily cobbled together when political pressure began to mount. In this context, the £100 million pot is a very small drop in a very large ocean, amounting to less than 25% of projected savings. That is particularly true when funds are time-limited to 12 months and any award comes with restrictive conditions that might mean the scheme costs even more to implement, as the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will know.

One year in, there has been a tangible impact on council tax collection in Stockton. By the end of 2012-13, Stockton borough council had collected 98.2% of the council tax it billed for the year, which is the same level of success it has enjoyed in many recent years—a very good performance. Collection for 2013-14 was down to 96.9%, and only 76% was collected from those paying for the first time. Although Stockton’s overall collection rate is marginally better than the LGA’s projected national average, approximately £1.2 million remained unpaid by first-time payers at the year end—a figure that has not been compensated for by central Government and which will inevitably result in service reductions elsewhere.

Such higher levels of non-payment have resulted in sharp increases in enforcement action across the country. Some 600,000 court summonses were issued last year for non-payment—a pattern reflected in Stockton-on-Tees, where the number of summonses issued last year more than doubled on the previous year. With 4,700 issued to claimants paying for the first time, the default rate is more than 70%.

Stockton borough council has thought outside the box in introducing new initiatives to increase payment rates—for example, text messaging and home visits—while supporting those struggling to pay, but difficult decisions will be needed in future about further action against

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residents who are themselves making delicate decisions about priorities and how to balance finances. It is worth stating explicitly that, although these measures have generated some success, all the extra recovery action has increased the overall cost of collecting council tax.

The non-payment situation is liable to worsen as we enter the second year, because new bills remain unpaid from last year, and claimants with sums unpaid from the very beginning continue to pay off their arrears. I hope Members will agree that the independent review should be brought forward, as my right hon. Friend suggested, so that we can pull together the evidence of the scheme’s impacts now and do something fair for some of the most vulnerable and financially poor in our country.

3.3 pm

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr Raynsford) on securing this important debate. He gave a powerful speech, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) said, he brings a particular expertise to these debates.

Like me, many of my right hon. and hon. Friends will have sat in their surgeries and heard from constituents who are suffering as a result of the changes we are discussing. Since 2010, families in Nottingham have been hit by Government policies in general and Department for Communities and Local Government decisions in particular. In Nottingham, we saw the cancellation of the £200 million regeneration project for The Meadows, which would have rejuvenated one of the most deprived wards in the country. The Housing Minister at the time, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), pledged to visit the area, but he never made good on that promise. From the Government’s perspective, he may have moved on to bigger and better things—we certainly know just how much value they place on housing, given that they relegated the post to a junior Minister. My constituents in The Meadows have been left to live with the consequences of the right hon. Gentleman’s damaging decisions.

The lives of many people have also been blighted by the bedroom tax, which affects 5,000 households in Nottingham and has left thousands of my constituents with a debt they have no realistic prospect of paying off. No doubt the Minister will say that the policy sends a strong political message, but the message it sends to people in areas of my constituency such as Clifton is clear: “This Tory-led Government is prepared to single out you and your family and to drive you out of your own home, just to make a political point.” People in Nottingham, and the country as a whole, deserve better.

Nottingham city council has also been left to make impossible decisions, partly as a result of how council tax support has been devolved. As right hon. and hon. Members have said, the funding available has been salami-sliced, with a 10% cut, and that is only the headline figure. Those above pension credit age are exempt—a welcome protection for older residents—but that means that the impact on everyone else is even harsher. As Nottingham city council warned when the policy was announced, there will be a significant impact on working-age claimants who are not pensioners. Like

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the bedroom tax, this cruel policy hits disabled people and their carers, families with children, and people on low wages.

In 2012, more than 26,000 people in Nottingham were in receipt of council tax support—almost 10% of the city’s population. The point is that almost everyone in Nottingham will be affected directly, or will know someone who is affected directly, by these changes. The policy affects people in work and those who are out of it; those who own their own homes or those who are tenants; and those in council homes and those in the private sector.

Let me give the Minister a sense of the impact this policy will have. In 2012, 19,000 people in Nottingham received full council tax support. A substantial number of them were pensioners, of course, but many were working-age adults. Under the terms of the revised schemes, only a maximum of 80% support will be available, even for those on very low incomes. There is no doubt what the consequences will be. When the revised scheme went out to consultation, 75% of respondents stated that

“as a result of the changes they would have to reduce household spending on essential items such as food and heating.”

A third even said they will have to resort to borrowing money to make up the shortfall. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) has warned, this new poll tax

“has caused misery for hundreds of thousands of people across the country, driving them into the courts and into debt”.

As the shadow local government team has established through freedom of information requests, up to 70,000 people have been issued with eviction notices across the country as a result of these changes.

The Minister might be tempted—if he is listening to the debate—to reply that it is for individual councils to design adequate schemes, but we must recognise that councillors and officers in Nottingham have been left to make impossible choices, as have their counterparts in neighbouring cities such as Leicester and Derby, who have implemented similar schemes. Given the constraints that have been imposed on it, Nottingham city council has delivered the best scheme it could. It has also decided to ensure that there is no sharp reduction in support for those entering work, who might lose their eligibility as a result, and I am sure hon. Members will welcome that move.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich said, the localisation of council tax support runs entirely counter to the arguments made in support of the Welfare Reform Act. The Government claimed they wanted to bring all social security benefits together in universal credit to reduce complexity and end any disincentives to work, but by localising council tax support they have ensured there is additional complexity, with every local authority across the country operating its own support scheme.