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On Wednesday (17th July), I spoke in a Westminster Hall debate and once again raised my concerns about the Government’s planning policies. These concerns were echoed by Members from all sides of the House who spoke strongly and powerfully on behalf of their communities.

During the debate I called upon the Planning Minister, Nick Boles MP, to explain why the Government has gone back on their promise to instill localism in the planning system.

A future Labour Government would ensure that local people and councils have greater powers in shaping their high streets. Our approach is a strongly localist one, and we want to work with local communities to deliver growth and development.

My full speech is below and the full debate can be read here:
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm130717/halltext/130717h0001.htm#130717h0001.htm_spnew32

“The National Planning Policy Framework and Growth and Infrastructure Act have totally undermined the Government’s promise to instil localism in the planning system.

I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). He serves a beautiful constituency and he spoke passionately and in an informed way on behalf of his constituents. I agree with much of what he said, and I do not know whether that is a greater worry for him or for me—we shall see. I almost feel guilty for intruding on the Minister’s misery, because his own side appears to be doing a very effective job in opposing his policies. Nevertheless, I want to share with him my concerns about the move away from localism and echo some of the points made eloquently by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Everyone spoke strongly and powerfully on behalf of their communities.

As we heard from hon. Members, localism was a key Conservative pledge during the 2010 election, and that was apparent in the early months of the coalition Government. When the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government introduced the Localism Bill in 2010, he claimed to be

“getting out of the way and letting councils and communities run their own affairs”

in order to

“restore civic pride, democratic accountability and economic growth—and build a stronger, fairer Britain.”

Nowhere was the commitment to localism more fervent than in planning policy. The Conservative pre-election green paper, “Open Source Planning”, exemplified the localist approach, but three years, on a gigantic U-turn has taken place. The NPPF and the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, along with reams of secondary legislation and vicious local authority cuts, have completely torn apart the Government’s promise to instil localism in the planning system. Almost a year and a half on from the introduction of the NPPF, the full consequences of the Government’s approach are starting to become clear.

In March, a Local Government Information Unit research paper concluded that, far from putting people at the centre of planning, the NPPF is at

“risk of undermining localism in planning”.

The latest planning application statistics, released by the Department for Communities and Local Government, show barely any change in the number of approvals or the speed of decision making since the implementation of the NPPF.

Popular planning policies, such as brownfield-first, have been undermined by the NPPF—a point we heard hon. Members make today. Six months on from the introduction of the NPPF, any remaining claim the Secretary of State had to being a localist Secretary of State was exposed by the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, in which he mentions himself no fewer than 158 times. The 2013 Act, which the Campaign to Protect Rural England states

“marks a dramatic shift away from the Government’s commitment to localism”,

includes powers that allow the Secretary of State, from October, to designate a local planning authority as failing and to strip it of its planning powers, bypassing the local community in deciding planning applications. The Conservative-led Local Government Association said that that

“represents a blow to local democracy, by taking authority away from democratically accountable and locally elected councillors and placing it instead with the Planning Inspectorate”—

a body that has been the object of ridicule for hon. Members today. The LGA goes on to say that the legislation could prove

“counterproductive in terms of stimulating growth, since the removal of local decision making risks seriously denting trust at the local level. This could mean some communities are likely to be increasingly reluctant to accept new development in their areas.”

The Planning Minister however was not done. In case anyone, anywhere, still thought that the Government’s localist promise held any meaning, he turned his attention to stripping local people of their right to have a say on the high streets at the heart of their communities.

The Government’s most recent move—brought in by the back door without any parliamentary debate whatsoever—temporarily allows shops to be converted into payday lenders, bookmakers or fast food shops, without any say for the local community. That is the exact opposite of what the vast majority of the public want. Polling shows that 76% of people would support the Government giving new powers to local councils to help them shape the high street in line with the wishes of the community. Can the Minister explain how his policy, which is the opposite of that, does not remove powers from local people?

We [Labour] are arguing very strongly that local people now have little say in what happens to their high streets. Is the Minister still arguing that local authorities should use article 4 directions to get round his new policy?

In May this year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) pledged that a future Labour Government would ensure that local people and councils have greater powers to stop the proliferation of certain types of unwanted shops or premises on their high streets, thereby showing that Labour is the party of true localism. That is the opposite of what we are now seeing under this Government, who are taking powers away from local communities, and the same is happening with neighbourhood planning. We want to build on neighbourhood planning, integrating it more clearly into the planning system and building on the success of places such as Thame in Oxfordshire, where 775 new homes have been planned for. We would like to see such success mirrored elsewhere. If we are to deliver the number of houses that we so desperately need, it is important that we work strongly with communities to gain their consent.

Our approach is a strongly localist one. We want to work with local communities to deliver growth and development, and the Minister could do worse than listen to his colleagues this morning.”

Lindisfarne Gospels Debate

On Wedesnday, I led a debate in Parliament on the future of the Lindisfarne Gospels. The Gospels are a source of great pride for the North East and I was very pleased to be able to underline their historic importance.

With the Lindisfarne Gospels Durham exhibition opening on Monday in Durham University’s Palace Green Library this was the perfect time for MPs to speak about their cultural significance. I took this opportunity to press the Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey MP, on whether he would support the regular return of the Gospels to the North East and raised the issue of the price of the exhibition.

I have been campaigning to bring the Gospels back to Durham for many years along with other regional parliamentarians, Durham Cathedral, Durham University and other local organisation. I am delighted that they are returning for a major 3 month exhibition and I hope that we will be able to welcome the Lindisfarne Gospels back to their regional home again in the future.

My full speech is below and the full debate can be read here:

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm130626/debtext/130626-0004.htm#130626-0004.htm_spnew36

“I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate, which is particularly time-sensitive. It is good to be able to have the debate in advance of the Lindisfarne Gospels’ return to Durham.

Let me start by explaining why there is so much excitement in the north-east and Durham, where the Gospels are to be exhibited, about the temporary return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to our region. The book is simply a stunning masterpiece of early mediaeval European book painting and the beautifully illustrated manuscript represents the pinnacle of achievement of Anglo-Saxon Northumbrian art at the end of the seventh century.

The Gospels book was made on the holy island of Lindisfarne and was probably written between St Cuthbert’s death in 687 AD and the death of Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who was identified as the artist and scribe of the book by Aldred, the provost of the monastic community of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street. A recent study suggested a date for the Gospels of between 710 and 720 AD.

The making of the book required time, dedication and the invention of new tools and materials. With no modern technology at his disposal, Eadfrith is credited with inventing some of his own gadgets to help. Professor Michelle Brown, an expert in mediaeval manuscript studies at the University of London’s schools of advanced study, stated that Eadfrith“ was a technical innovator who invented the pencil and the light box in order to achieve his complex artistic and social vision”.

The book is the oldest surviving translation of the gospels into the English language, but it is worth recognising that the Lindisfarne Gospels’ intricate and symbolic artwork helped convey its message to those who could not read. The Gospels were created at a time of great change when Britain was a land of many cultures that were coming together into an emerging national identity. The manuscript is inspired by all the different peoples who lived in these islands at the time: Britons, Picts, Celts and Anglo-Saxons, along with those of Mediterranean and middle-eastern cultures.

Another extraordinary aspect of the Gospels is that unlike most early mediaeval books this one has come to us in almost perfect condition. That is, frankly, remarkable, considering that it was written about 1,300 years ago and the eventful journey it has been on ever since.

The first Viking raid on Britain struck Lindisfarne in 793 AD. After nearly 100 years of continuing raids, the monastic community abandoned Lindisfarne in 875, taking with them the body of St Cuthbert, the Gospels and other important relics. The Lindisfarne community is believed to have travelled around for seven years before eventually settling at the priory at Chester-le-Street, where they stayed until 995. They then moved to Durham priory with the relics of St Cuthbert, after the dead saint revealed to one of the monks where he wanted his new resting place to be.

In 1069, the Lindisfarne Gospels spent a short time back at Lindisfarne to escape the devastating raid on the north by William the Conqueror.

The book was then returned to Durham. In 1104, St Cuthbert’s body and other monastic treasures from Lindisfarne were moved to the splendid new cathedral at Durham. However, in 1536 the dissolution of the monasteries was ordered by Henry VIII. The priories of Lindisfarne and Durham were broken up and the Gospels were believed to have been seized by the King’s commissioners.

By the early 17th century, the Lindisfarne Gospels were owned by Sir Robert Cotton. Cotton’s heirs presented the book to the nation and it became part of the founding collections of the British Museum in 1753. In 1973, the Lindisfarne Gospels became part of the British Library, their current permanent resting place.

This is only the fifth time the Gospels have been loaned since coming into the hands of the British Museum and later the British Library. Except for a museum evacuation during world war two, all the loans were for major library and museum tours undertaken within the past 50 years: at the Royal Academy in 1961, in Durham cathedral in 1987, and at the Laing art gallery in Newcastle in 1996 and 2000. It took nearly two years of negotiations, planning, organisation and effort to bring the Gospels to the region on the last two visits. On the first day of the exhibition, almost 3,000 people came along to see the Gospels, which demonstrates huge interest from the region.

What has happened since the last visit? A condition survey by the British Library in 2004 suggested that it might be difficult to move the Gospels again, but the findings of the survey were far from conclusive. There followed a fervent campaign, led first by the Northumbrian Association—I take the opportunity to thank the late John Danby for his work; he is much missed—and by my hon. Friends the former Member for Houghton and Washington East, Fraser Kemp, Baroness Quin, the former Member for Stockton South, Dari Taylor, my hon. Friends the current Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) and for North Durham (Mr Jones), and me.

I first raised the question of what was to happen to the Gospels when I was elected in 2005 and put down an early-day motion on the subject. I then wrote to key agencies, including the British Library, Durham cathedral and museum services. We constantly badgered the British Library to consider a permanent move for the Gospels to the north-east, and if that was not possible we called for a temporary move. We also lobbied our Government on the matter, and the then culture Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), intervened on our behalf. It was difficult, but that lobbying persuaded the British Library to commission an independent expert review into the future of the Gospels in 2006. In 2009, the panel reported back, recommending that, with great care, the books could be loaned for three months every seven years.

The review set out the conditions and criteria that would need to be met for the Gospels to be loaned out, to preserve the quality and condition of the book. It was agreed in 2009 by the British Library and the Association of North East Councils that Durham would be the first place the Gospels visited under the new arrangements. It took some time and forbearance, but we are all pleased that all the partners exhibiting the Gospels in the north-east for three months from this weekend, especially Durham university and Durham cathedral, managed to persuade the British Library that suitable conditions in the north-east could be created to house the Gospels adequately.

The exhibition has been made possible by the close partnership working between the British Library, Durham cathedral, Durham county council and Durham university, as well as the long-standing and continued support from parliamentarians. Together with the Lindisfarne Gospels, the British Library is lending five other precious manuscripts for the exhibition, including the 7th century St Cuthbert Gospel. These manuscripts and artefacts have not been seen together since the Reformation, and they will be exhibited in the newly refurbished Wolfson gallery in the Palace Green library of the University of Durham. The university is to be commended for the simply amazing space it has created to show the Gospels.

The British Library has worked closely with the university and the cathedral to ensure that the Palace Green library meets the requirements for lending the Lindisfarne Gospels for exhibition display, and that that complies with the report by the panel of independent experts. The exhibition is the centrepiece of the festival around the Lindisfarne Gospels, and we hope that it will attract many people to the history and heritage of the region, as well as the Gospels themselves. To that end, I am grateful to the Heritage Lottery Fund for providing a grant of £487,000 to Durham university.

I thank the Heritage Lottery Fund for its grant, which has helped the university to run an outreach project alongside the exhibition. The manuscript is one of the most important books in the British Library’s collection, but it is also a treasure of world culture, and it is a symbol of our region’s proud past and the cultural legacy that it has created for the nation. That was recognised by the Prime Minister, who when visiting Northern Ireland in 2011 described the Lindisfarne Gospels as “a British national treasure”.

Bearing in mind the Prime Minister’s comments, I should be grateful if the Minister said whether his Department will continue to support the loan of the Gospels to the north-east region on a regular basis, and whether the Government will encourage the Heritage Lottery Fund to give access funding to the Gospels exhibition so that not only schools but everyone attending the exhibition can view the Gospels free of charge, just as tourists and others can do in the British Library. I believe that that is particularly important, given that the north-east is the country’s poorest region. Having to pay a charge to see the Gospels does not seem to be entirely fair. It is fantastic, however, that the British Library has agreed to lend the Lindisfarne Gospels to Durham this summer so that they can be displayed in the north-east and many people in the region and elsewhere will have an opportunity to see them.”

East Coast 2

The East Coast Mainline, which the Government announced will be re-privatised by 2015, is vital for the connectivity of Durham, with many of my constituents being regular users of the service. I am also a frequent passenger on the line, travelling between Westminster and my constituency, and I have generally been pleased by the speed, punctuality and comfort of East Coast and the high standard of service and professionalism of its staff since it took over from National Express in 2009.

And I am not alone in thinking this. The most recent survey by the independent consumer group Passenger Focus found that 92% of passengers were satisfied with their experience on East Coast. To put this into perspective: this is the highest level of customer satisfaction recorded on the line since these surveys began in 1999, as well as being three percentage points higher than the national average for long-distance operators.

Improved passenger satisfaction only tells half of the story; East Coast has also managed to improve punctuality and safety, and has seen increased employee engagement. What’s more, it is returning more money to the Government than any previous operator – over £600 million since the start of the franchise and £800 million projected by the end of the financial year.  In comparison, Virgin Trains on the West Coast Mainline returned just £391.7 million to the Government in the same period. Moreover, with no shareholders to appease, all of East Coast’s profits are pumped straight back into improving the service.

It is clear that the line is well-run, profitable and popular with passengers. Why, then, is the Government insisting on selling off the franchise, while at the same time extending the contracts for other, less successful operators?

Tory MPs have said that East Coast is simply ‘treading water’, which is rather an amazing claim to make considering that the franchise has consistently made improvements year on year. The Minister of State for Transport, Simon Burns MP, recently stated that East Coast has provided the foundations for a private company to come in with ‘certainty of ownership [and] longer planning horizons’ in order to improve the service. In my view, this begs the question of how successful East Coast would have been with the same level of franchise security.

It is also a fallacy to think that re-privatising the line will see an increase in investment. Given the nature of Britain’s railway system, it is Network Rail, not the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) who provide almost all of the investment into rail infrastructure. As Network Rail is publicly-owned, this means that in reality that it is the Government, and by extension the taxpayer, who foots the bill. On the East Coast Mainline, Network Rail will undertake infrastructure improvements between 2014 and 2019 irrespective of the operator of the line.

The Lib Dem/Tory Government is quick to say that when Labour set up Directly Operated Railways (East Coast’s parent company) in 2009, after privately-owned National Express walked away from the franchise, it was purely as a stop-gap. This was certainly true at the time. However, since then, Labour has seen that the franchise is working for both passengers and Government. It seems illogical to change something that is performing so well, particularly when it provides a useful comparator to measure the performance of private operators against.

At the very least, the Government should amend the Railways Act 1993 and allow Directly Operated Railways to submit a bid for the new franchise. It seems almost perverse that state-owned companies from France, Germany and the Netherlands currently operate ten out of the 17 privately-run UK rail franchises, thus subsidising rail fares on the continent, yet public companies from Britain are not even allowed to bid.

It is irresponsible to play politics with vital public services such as the railways. By timetabling the refranchising for three months before the next election, thus ensuring the next Government will be left with a contract that is too costly to cancel, and extending the contracts of other operators – some for up to 50 months – this Government is doing just that. It is clear to me that the Tories and Lib Dems have got their plans for rail on completely the wrong track.

Earlier today I spoke in a debate on this issue, along with a number of my North-East colleagues, and voiced my concerns about the significant impact that this decision will have on our region.

Tomorrow, I will be at Durham Railway Station along with other Durham MPs, members of the local Labour Party and rail union members campaigning against the Government’s ideologically-driven decision to re-privatise the East Coast Mainline. Other protests will take place at stations up and down the line. I hope many of you will be able to come along and show your displeasure at this ill-considered policy.

14th May 2013

On Monday, I spoke in the Queen’s Speech debate on Health and Social care to question the Government’s Care Bill. What is clear following the debate is that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, doesn’t recognise the detrimental effects his government’s cuts are having upon our National Health Service and the quality of care people are receiving.

The Bill fails to address the growing funding gap in our social care provision and the additional pressure this is putting on local services. The Government’s proposals will do nothing to close the funding gap or to help the thousands of people who are already suffering with spiralling living costs and increases to home care costs.

I also raised my concerns about the lack of support in the Bill for indentifying and supporting young carers. This is just one of the many areas that need to be addressed as the Bill makes its way through the House, and I hope the Government will work with Labour on these issues.

My full speech is below and the full debate can be read here:

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm130513/debtext/130513-0002.htm#130513-0002.htm_spnew57

“My hon. Friend Paul Blomfield  made a powerful case against the influence of the tobacco companies and their lobbying of this Government, and the utter ineffectiveness of the Prime Minister in standing up to them. I am also pleased to follow Mr Ward, who made an impassioned plea on behalf of his constituents and others. He demonstrated the need for proper local authority funding to support care services, and I will address that later in my speech.

I think it is true to say that all independent commentators are noting that the Gracious Speech was very thin and did not rise to the many challenges facing this country, particularly the need for economic growth. I was therefore concerned to hear speech after speech in which Conservative Members talked only about Europe in a very obsessive way, without any recognition of the fact that constituencies such as mine that are desperately in need of economic growth rely on our relationship with Europe. Our region exports the most from this country, and a huge proportion of our exports are to European countries. We need

those exports to grow, not to be damaged by the rhetoric on Europe that we hear day after day from the Government and Conservative Members.

I was also concerned when I listened to the Secretary of State for Health and heard how complacent he is about the state of the NHS. He showed no recognition at all of the anxiety of many of my constituents about what sort of health service we are going to end up with in a couple of months’ time and whether it will be able to meet their most basic needs. He showed no awareness at all of the challenges facing A and E departments right across the country, including my own in Durham. I am not criticising the staff, who struggle against the odds to provide the best care. This is happening because the Government are not looking at how to use the resources effectively and how to channel them towards under pressure A and E departments.

It would be extraordinary if we did not have a Bill on care in this Queen’s Speech given the clamour for it from carers, carers’ organisations, other agencies, cross-party commissions, and cross-party groups, and some of the work that Labour did when in government. The question remains, however: is the Bill up to the job of dealing with the problems facing our care system, which need to be addressed urgently because, as we all know, it is in danger of falling into crisis. The House of Commons Library has produced research showing that 10 million people in the UK are over 65 and that by 2030 the number is projected to rise to 15.5 million. Many of these additional older people will have care needs, putting increasing pressure on our care system. At the same time, more funds are being stripped from social care. The £500 million funding gap in our social care provision is still growing and, as Age UK has made clear, this is having a hugely detrimental impact on the care received by our elderly people. Age UK states that

“the widening funding gap has led to a reduction in service provision, increasing charges levied by councils for their services and less older people receiving the support they need.”

It further says:

“Every older person using local authority care services is now being charged £150 per year more in real terms in 2010-11 than in 2009-10, and £360 more than 2008-09”.

The situation is expected to get worse still. Due to the massive cuts faced by local government, by 2013-14 local authorities will have reduced their expenditure on adult social care by £2.7 billion—a massive 18% reduction when demand is increasing all the time. Clearly, this is not sustainable.

The Bill will do nothing to close the growing funding gap or to help the thousands of people who are already suffering with spiralling living costs and increases to home care costs. These people find themselves passed between care providers, often without any continuity of service. We will all have heard about such experiences in our constituency surgeries. Many people are ending up in hospital unnecessarily because they are not getting the care they need at home. Similarly, the Government’s earlier decision to ignore Dilnot and the experts who recommended a maximum cap of £35,000 and set it at £72,000 plus accommodation costs will not help many of my constituents, particularly those on lower or middle incomes.

Where the Bill might make some meaningful progress is with regard to improved rights and support for carers, but, as several hon. Members have said, there are huge

gaps, particularly in identification of and support for young carers. That will need to be addressed as the Bill makes its way through the House. More needs to be done to support the various organisations that help carers. I work with a number of voluntary sector bodies in my local communities, and they are very worried that they will go out of business because they are not able to get enough resources to keep going.

Carers UK has set out some tests of this Bill. It says that it needs to be underpinned by appropriate funding, that it must promote the well-being and dignity of all our elderly residents, that it must ensure that independent advice is available to people and that there are appropriate advocacy services, that it should make sure that the criteria for people to get support are clear and transparent —it is no good just having assessments; they have to produce something in the form of appropriate levels of care—and that it must guarantee continuity of service and portability in whatever care support is given. I hope that as the Bill goes through the House it will be tested on those criteria.”

Image

Yesterday I addressed the conference of the National Infrastructure Planning Association. It was an excellent conference, including many of the industry’s leading experts. You can read my speech on the importance of infrastructure below. 

 

The current infrastructure pipeline is currently valued at £310 billion. (As you no doubt heard from the Minister earlier) These projects could provide an enormous boost the flat lining economy –  but in reality the vast majority of these sites are stalled.

 

No one in this room can be in any doubt about the importance of bringing forward these projects quickly, smoothly and effectively.

 

Indeed there are very few people in Westminster who need convincing either. The important role that infrastructure will play in our economic recovery and must continue to play for a sustainable and competitive economy is almost universally recognised in Parliament and Whitehall.

 

There is a strong political case for improved infrastructure delivery too. Not only would it create jobs, but without government finance it is consumers that will bear the brunt with higher fares, slower commutes and rocketing bills.

 

As a result the Government is under increasing pressure to do something about the huge number of major infrastructure projects currently languishing on the backburner.

 

This has been reflected in the raft of legislative measures brought forward  which tinker with the major infrastructure planning regime as most recently seen in the Growth and Infrastructure Act. The need for a boost to infrastructure has also been acknowledged by the Treasury which promised £3billion a year more capital spending in this year’s budget.

 

However, these claims are worthless unless they are backed up with a long-term strategic plan of what we are going to deliver, when, where and how.

 

George Osborne’s plan to attract £20 billion of infrastructure investment from sovereign wealth funds has attracted just £1 billion.

 

Only 14% of the Government 576 national infrastructure projects are underway and fewer than one in four – including road rail and energy schemes – are expected to be completed during this parliament.

 

This record forced the cross-party House of Commons Public Accounts Committee to last week brand the Government’s approach to infrastructure “simply a long list of projects requiring huge amounts of money, not a real plan with a strategic vision and clear priorities”.

 

And far from a streamlining of planning we have seen a huge increase in the amount of planning legislation – in fact the research from the centre for policy studies released this week shows that far from the promised ‘bonfire of planning regulation’ 278 new planning laws in were made in the first 6 months of 2011. The result of which, the think tank concluded, ‘is an unnecessarily lengthy and costly planning procedure which enables vested interests to prosper, creates commercial uncertainty and restricts new development.’

 

This not only slows down the delivery vital infrastructure projects and the potential boost which they could give to our ailing economy but also holds up the construction of much needed homes and the creation of jobs.

 

For example, the improvement works to the A14 were described by the former transport secretary as essential for to ensure “a crucial strategic route” and “a lifeline to international markets” but were scrapped in the corporate spending review only to be re-introduced a few years later. This lead to a substantial delay in not only the road and the benefits it would bring to the region but the thousands of new homes to be constructed at Northstowe. Work on the improved road is now not due to start until 2018.

 

This atrocious decision is just one example of many of how the haste with which the coalition tried to do away with so much done by the last government has often led to unnecessary delay that the economy can ill afford.

 

 

 

We need a system which gives investors confidence, allows for major infrastructure to be delivered far more easily and which ensures that these nationally or regionally significant projects fit in with other developments and strategies.

 

The Armitt Review is one stream of work we are doing to look at how we can ensure that future infrastructure planning is not plagued by the problems seen under the current Government.

 

Sir John Armitt and his commission have been given the task of looking at;

 

–         whether a new institutional structure can be established that better enables the long term decision making necessary for strategic infrastructure planning; and

–          and how political consensus can be forged around these decisions.

Whilst much of the review is concentrating on Treasury related matters it is also considering ways in which planning can support the delivery process but there is still a lot more which needs to be taken into account.

 

We are also looking at how national policy statements are drawn up and revised; time limits for determination; and how we can improve the consultation stage with streamlined processes, better information availability and genuine, structured consultation of key parties.

 

But we also need to look at how infrastructure will fit in with the others areas of planning particularly at the above the local level.

 

Neighbourhood Plans and Local Plans are to be welcomed, and with some improvement could start to form the basis of a truly localist approach to development.

 

However, very little has been said about what will happen at the ‘above local level’. It has become very clear that there is currently a vacuum of responsibility for driving forward and attracting projects which will benefit not only the immediate areas but the wider ‘travel to work area’ or even the country as a whole.  

 

This is particularly important in addressing two of the key weaknesses in the Government’s approach identified by the public accounts committee; how to plan for infrastructure investment over the longer economic term and how to take account of investment trade-offs particularly when investment in focused in one region at the expense of others. (Particular bone of contention now with only 0.3% of capital spending going to north east).

 

 

There is also a need to look at the myriad of planning obligations, funding schemes and bonuses which overlap, work inefficiently and fail to work to the benefits of developers, local authorities and most importantly local people.

 

We want to look at these various funds, particularly CIL and S106, to see how we can ensure that charges on developers deliver the infrastructure and community benefits.

 

At the same time the numerous, piecemeal funding schemes need to be looked at holistically to ensure that public money is being used in the most efficient way to support infrastructure and housing delivery.

 

Many of us now suspect that there are a huge number of projects with which just a small amount of capital investment could reap huge returns, but these projects are losing out on essential support due to subsidies for developments that would have gone ahead regardless.

 

This is yet another example of the complete lack of strategy which is costing British industry, developers and ultimately tax payers dearly.

 

 

Finally, it seems clear that all of the current efforts to speed up the planning process have been focused on what happens after an application has been submitted.

 

In actual fact, a lot of time is taken up in the pre-application process. It is at this stage that we think significant improvement to both town and country planning and major infrastructure planning could be made.

 

During the passage of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill we tried to get the Government to make improvements to the way that the consultation process works but the Government refused these.

 

In particular we want to look at whether it would be worthwhile putting in place a time limit on the consultation period, during which the relevant planning authority and developer will have to undergo structured consultation, adequately facilitated and supported by the authority.

 

There would be scope for this time limit to be flexible – most likely along similar lines of planning performance agreements currently.

 

We feel that improving this stage could not only speed up the system, but allow for better stakeholder and community engagement and give investors certainty over timescales, what is expected of them and what they can expect in return at this stage.

 

We would be keen to hear your thoughts on whether this, like our other proposals, is something that would be welcome and how it would be best implemented.

 

All in all, Labour is committed to an infrastructure system which actually delivers. We believe that increased certainty and a clearly defined strategy will be key to ensuring that infrastructure projects are brought forward as quickly and effectively as possible giving infrastructure and the economy the boost it needs.

This week I have been door-knocking across the constituency with Labour’s excellent candidates for today’s county and parish council elections. It has been great to see so many party members and volunteers giving up their time to support their candidates.

Not surprisingly, many people I’ve spoken to are deeply concerned about the impact of the Government’s policies on them and their families, especially the bedroom tax. Last month I was joined by hundreds of people in our area to protest against this misguided policy. These protests took place across the country and called on the Government to scrap this tax.

Another issue that a lot of people are worried about is the Government’s decision to privatise the NHS and the effects this may have on the quality of care people receive. Since the General Election over 4,500 nursing posts have been cut and Labour analysis suggests 6,000 could be lost by 2015.

Locally, Labour will act as the last line of defence to protect the NHS from Government cuts. Labour Councillors will be champions for patients and defenders of NHS values, and we are pledging to fight the worst effects of David Cameron’s damaging Health and Social Care Act.

We need to send a strong message to the Lib Dem/Tory Government that their policies are failing the North East and are hitting the most vulnerable in our communities the hardest. That is why it is so important that people get out and vote in today’s elections.

I’ve seen firsthand how hard our Labour candidates have been working in the run-up to these elections and I know what an outstanding job they will do if elected. I would like to wish everybody the best of luck today and hope that as many of you as possible will vote in these elections.

On Wednesday afternoon I spoke in Labour’s Opposition day debate which called upon the Government to reinstate the Agricultural Wage Board (AWB). In the debate I expressed my concerns about the Government’s decision to abolish the AWB, and I highlighted the catastrophic effect this could have on agricultural workers across England and Wales. The Government should be raising standards for farm workers, not engaging in a race to the bottom about pay and fair treatment. My full speech is below and the full debate can be read here

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm130424/debtext/130424-0003.htm#130424-0003.htm_spnew34

“I am pleased to take part in the debate. I have a constituency interest, and I led for the Opposition in the Committee on the Public Bodies Bill, so it is a matter of some disappointment to me that in the intervening two years the Government have not refined their arguments, nor have they produced further evidence to suggest why the board should be abolished. Given the catastrophic effect abolition could have on the pay, terms and conditions of the country’s 152,000 agricultural workers, not least in my constituency, where well over 100 workers will be affected, it is important to ask serious questions of the Government about why they consider it necessary and, in particular, whose interests they are serving.

As we have heard, the Agricultural Wages Board was formed in 1948, but its lineage goes back to 1924. The fact that it has survived so long is testament to its continuing relevance. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) is right: it has modernised over the years and could modernise further. The board has demonstrated its importance for protecting the rights of workers in the sector. Those rights are now very much at risk.

The Government’s response when asked why they want to abolish the AWB is that agricultural workers, like others, are now covered by minimum wage legislation. Excellent though the minimum wage legislation is, it does not cover the same range of wage levels and categories as the AWB. The agricultural industry needs to attract people with the right skills and aptitude, which is becoming more important as farming methods continue to develop technologically. The AWB has a grading system for the terms and conditions of employment for agricultural workers that reflects the diversity of skills needed and the responsibilities attached. As many others have said, minimum wage legislation does not cover the many other areas overseen by the AWB, such as the standard of tied accommodation, overtime rates, sick pay and holiday entitlement. Why are the Government abolishing the board, and in whose interests will it be?

When the Public Bodies Bill was being considered in Committee, far from Labour Members being out of line, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) suggested, it was Government Members who were out of line, because the only people supporting abolition were some parts of the National Farmers Union. Indeed, it was only some in the union. We received many representations from farmers and farm workers who thought that getting rid of the AWB was an extremely bad idea because they liked the structure that it gave to negotiations.

We know that the abolition is not in the interests of not only hard-pressed agricultural workers, who stand to lose significantly from the change, but those wishing to enter the sector. I have a very good agricultural and horticultural training college in my constituency. From talking to several of the young people studying at Houghall, I know that they are worried about what will happen to terms and conditions in the sector following the abolition of the AWB. They are also concerned that they will no longer have a clear career ladder after leaving college, yet no Government Member has addressed that problem. We know from Lantra, the skills body overseeing the sector, that another 60,000 people will soon be needed in the industry because 25% of agricultural workers are over 55. Ministers cannot seriously be suggesting that the abolition of the board will make the industry more attractive to young people, because they have told me directly that it will not.

The abolition is not in the interests of the rural economy as a whole, especially in the north-east, given that millions of pounds will be taken out of an economy that is already suffering from high unemployment. The Government’s policies have hit my constituency hard. The latest unemployment figures show that City of Durham’s claimant rate has almost doubled in the past 12 months, which is one of the biggest rises in the country. It will be difficult for people in the agricultural sector to argue for a better standard of living when unemployment is so high, because they will be told, “If you don’t like it, lump it, because there are lots of people in the county who will be able to take your job.” The Government simply are not addressing that problem, yet because the abolition of the board will remove workers’ protections, it will be more difficult for them to argue for a better standard of living.

I will conclude, because I want to give others time to speak, but it is difficult to understand what the abolition of the board will achieve. It does not cost much to operate, but it protects workers in the sector, and sets a clear framework for negotiations and a career structure. It could be modernised in line with the new skills needed for farming, but one can only assume that the Government, as they have shown with other policies, are hellbent on driving down the wages of the low-paid in this country while at the same time giving tax cuts to millionaires.”