I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate. The first sadness I have is that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary has to be detained on the Front Bench throughout the debate. My second sadness is that tonight I will break a rule and a standard that I set myself when I entered the House nearly eight years ago, which was never to use parliamentary privilege. Sadly, despite extensive correspondence between myself and the editor of the island's only newspaper, the Isle of Wight County Press, and between my solicitor and the editor of the newspaper, we have been unable to reach a satisfactory agreement as to the publication of the facts surrounding Shalfleet bridge.
The saga commenced in January of last year when, very unusually, I was asked while travelling to Parliament one dark and stormy night on to the bridge of the Red Jet catamaran which runs from Cowes to Southampton. Captain Jones, the master, who invited me on to the bridge, was a resident of Shalfleet. Sadly, his home had been flooded, and he was very angry.
He told me some home truths about the Shalfleet bridge saga which surprised and startled me. But while I was sympathetic to the plight of him and his family and other flooded home owners, I did not at that time see what I as a Member of Parliament could do to help, especially as the Shalfleet councillor, Steve Cowley, was also deputy leader of the county council. The county council was carrying out the repairs to Shalfleet bridge which caused the problem. Councillor Cowley is also the chairman of Shalfleet parish council.
While I was on the train, something that the captain had said to me kept nagging at the back of my mind, but I just could not put my finger on it. As fate would have it, the same captain was in charge of my return journey. By then, he had taken up some of my suggestions and had sought some independent advice. On Friday 7 January, a story appeared in the Isle of Wight County Press by its reporter George Chestney about the flooding. It was then that the penny finally dropped.
That article, while germane to the sorry tale, was one of the most powerful and descriptive pieces of journalism I have ever read. One could sense the water bursting through the front doors of those poor people. Their homes alongside the bridge had been flooded because props had been placed under the bridge which caused it to act like a dam.
Sadly, the article included two highly suspect pieces of information, which had apparently been taken at face value. One was about a trailer, while the other was a statement from Councillor Cowley about the National Rivers Authority's permission for props under the bridge. The impression given was that a trailer had blocked the bridge and had contributed to the flood. Although I never saw it myself, I was assured that, far from being a large farmyard trailer, it was a small camping trailer of the type towed behind a car. The consensus view in the village was that the trailer was entirely incidental to the flooding, and was a red herring.
Councillor Cowley was quoted in the article as saying:
It is the NRA which is responsible for this stream. The County Council only strengthened the bridge with props after getting the approval of the NRA".
It was then that the penny dropped again. Councillor Cowley is a dairy farmer, and the NRA has a reputation for prosecuting farmers for polluting streams. Councillor Cowley has a real thing about the NRA.
He is a Liberal Democrat. He is the deputy leader of what was the Isle of Wight county council and is now the Isle of Wight unitary authority.
As I make it a rule to doubt practically everything I read in the Isle of Wight County Press, I immediately contacted the NRA. I was staggered by its immediate response. I received a copy of a letter dated 8 December that was sent to the county council, in which the NRA said:
The props are without question a potential flood hazard as any rubbish, branches washed down the watercourse, particularly in a flood, could get caught in these, thus effectively forming a dam within the watercourse. A number of dwellings could be at greater risk of flooding.
The letter goes on to say that the responsibility to ensure no blockages take place rests with the county council.
In a letter dated 18 February, the NRA points out to the council that it still has not had a reply to its letter of 8 December. Councillor Cowley told affected home owners a downright lie. He hoodwinked the Isle of Wight County Press and—it appears—the parish council to protect the administration of which he is the deputy leader. It was in fact his responsibility, not that of the NRA.
We were then told by the council that the bridge replacement work could not go ahead, because it had just been listed. As my hon. Friend the Minister will know, the Isle of Wight planning unit was informed at the beginning of July 1993 by English Heritage that the bridge was in a draft re-survey list to be listed—ten months before any of the work even commenced. That did not stop Councillor Cowley misleading yet again the parish council and the poor people whose homes were flooded. He again hoodwinked the ever-gullible County Press.
On 18 February, it reported:
Mr. Steve Cowley told fellow parish councillors how the county council was finally thwarted in its plans to rebuild the listed stone bridge by an English Heritage official, apparently recommending that the Department of the Environment should not allow demolition.
The article goes on:
Mr. Cowley, also a county councillor, said it could be several months before the Department of the Environment made its decision on demolition.
The plans had not been finally thwarted; the bridge had been listed nearly a month before.
The clerk to Shalfleet parish council, Mrs. Heather Freeman, wrote to me asking me to attend a public meeting of Shalfleet parish council to meet the angry residents of the village. Her letters of 10 February, 10 March, 21 April and 12 May all asked me to attend a meeting to discuss the bridge. Councillor Cowley is the chairman of Shalfleet parish council. Mrs. Freeman insisted in her correspondence that the council requested that I attend the meeting organised by the parish council, because, at that time, local opinion, with the help of Councillor Cowley, still favoured the view that the blame for the problems with the bridge somehow lay with the Government.
On 20 May, Heather Freeman wrote:
I have now received a letter from Mr. Richardson, the County Surveyor, which seems to indicate that a Public Meeting about Shalfleet Bridge might be rather pointless at the moment.
The letter goes on, inter alia, to say that the council considered that it might be wasting everyone's time to hold a public meeting at that time.
There then appeared a couple of articles in the Isle of Wight County Press, the last of which appeared on 28 October and stated:
Work to strengthen Shalfleet Bridge and the subsequent inconvenience caused when its supporting props were washed away could all have been avoided, it has emerged".
On 11 November, a sad letter from one of the affected residents, Mr. Telford-Bailie, was published in the County Press, pointing out that the press articles were completely untrue, and casting doubt on the council's "consulting engineers", who had to that date remained anonymous. That letter alone should have alerted the editor of the County Press to the cover-up that was taking place over that appalling scandal of lies, deceit and utter incompetence. But nothing was seen or heard by the island's only newspaper.
There are two more pieces of the jigsaw. I spent more than two hours on the telephone to the County Press reporter, George Chastney, during which I unfortunately lost my temper so badly that my secretaries came into my office to see whether I was all right. I had deliberately phoned him on the day that he was due to attend the Shalfleet parish council meeting.
I asked him to put those questions to Councillor Cowley, as he is also a parish councillor. I asked why the paper was refusing to investigate the serious allegations by the National Rivers Authority against the council. I demanded to know why the paper was not championing the cause of the householders whose homes had been wrecked. I asked him why the newspaper was letting the councillors and the council off the hook.
His reply was:
I haven't been asked to write that story.
At that point, I exploded in a fit of rage. I am sure that the House would like to know that George Chastney was subsequently employed by the Isle of Wight county council as its public relations officer, a post which he still holds.
What about the people who had had more than 5 ft of water through their homes, some of whom were not adequately insured? Everyone—the island's newspaper; the county council; the parish council; and Councillor Cowley—wanted it all hushed up and swept under the carpet. They were happy to blame the NRA, the Government and the Department of National Heritage. It is nothing short of scandalous.
There is one other salient part of the jigsaw. The county council is the largest single client of the Isle of Wight County Press for advertising and circulars, apart from housing advertisements. When the newspaper built its new offices in Pyle street, it was left with its old premises because of the property slump. Who should come along to rent the old premises? Yes, Minister, you have guessed it: the county council. The newspaper's financial accounts at that time were beginning to look a little rocky until the council, with the people's cheque book, bailed it out by agreeing to rent its old property.
If, when my constituents read this debate, they still doubt my allegations about the County Press and its inability to defend the interests of its island readers and the duplicity of Councillor Cowley, who forgot the fundamental rule which every elected representative should never forget—to defend the people, not the system; he put politics before the people—they should compare for a moment the zeal with which the newspaper reported an anonymous letter from St Mary's Hospital, freemasonry, and Southern Water's lack of action in Ventnor.
With the exception of the sad death of a good friend as a result of the space given to that anonymous letter and the reporting that followed it, none of those issues could be compared to 5 ft of water pouring through people's homes because of the incompetence of the council, which Councillor Cowley perjured himself, not once but twice, to protect.
To those who will no doubt try to say that this debate is just a political exercise on my part, may I say that Councillor Barton, the Liberal leader of the council, would never have allowed the people of his ward or division to suffer in that way. He would have had the officers' guts for garters. This debate is not about my desire to see officers of the council hanging by their braces from a lamp post in Newport square with placards round their necks saying "guilty". It is about the four pillars of a free and democratic community: first, the Member of Parliament; secondly, the local council; thirdly, the parish council; and fourthly, the press.
Taking them each in turn, I am ashamed to say that my initial reaction was that I could not see how the matter involved Parliament. Secondly, the council's incompetence was compounded by ineptitude, and excused and obscured by Councillor Cowley's downright lies. To be charitable, the first lie might have been told in the heat of the moment but, by the second, he must have known the true position.
Thirdly, the parish council was full of vim and vigour while it thought that it was the Government's fault, but boy was the matter dropped like a hot potato once it knew that it was the island's fault. Fourthly, the editor of the newspaper has accused me up hill and down dale. If he put as much enthusiasm into guarding the interests of his readers as he has into avoiding publishing the facts and trying to denigrate me personally, the function of the public administration on the Isle of Wight would be much better.
One can choose any criterion to compare how the island's newspaper discharges its function of being a fearless exposer of the truth. Not a single fact has come to light about masonic influence on the decision-making process of the island's local authority. Nevertheless, acres of space in the newspaper have been devoted to freemasonry.
Numerous column inches have been given over to the prosecution of offences between homosexuals and the slightest problem with one of the privatised utilities, the health service or social security agencies. The list is endless. All those matters have been pursued with a zeal that has sometimes bordered on religious fervour, with the notable exception of the island's local government.
I have alluded to the extraordinarily cosy relationship between the council and the Isle of Wight County Press, which is unhealthy and does not serve the interests of the whole island. The excuse is often given that those problems are political. The editor even said as much in this case. What, I ask the House, can possibly be political about 5 ft of water pouring through people's homes and wrecking them? It has to be pure, unalloyed bunkum.
In a debate on the Adjournment of the House, I congratulated Councillor Maureen Stalworthy on becoming the first chairman of the new unitary island council. She is a lady of principles, and has a firm sense of proprietary behaviour. She will shape the island's council, but I reiterate the opinion that the lack of a chief executive is unhelpful in a small community such as the Isle of Wight.
I have been surprised by the number of Liberals—councillors and others—who have expressed their private anxieties to me about the conduct of local government, and that rather paranoid approach to an alternative point of view, and the total cop-out, "Oh, it's political." The clerk of Shalfleet parish council, Mrs. Heather Freeman, encapsulated the anxieties nicely when she said, in her fragrant way, that she thought that the local community would be taken aback by what had happened:
It is all a little surprising, but it is good news in a way because the scheme will be more straightforward, less expensive and will maintain the integrity of what is now a listed building.
Mrs. Freeman is the wife of the managing director of the Isle of Wight County Press, as well as clerk of the Shalfleet parish council.
I said at the beginning of the debate that I had three sadnesses. They were, first, that I was detaining my hon. Friend, when obviously his officials in the Department of National Heritage, the National Rivers Authority and the Department of the Environment have discharged their duties fairly and correctly in the sad saga of Shalfleet bridge. The second sadness was the fact that I had been placed in a position in which I have had to use parliamentary privilege rather than set those matters aright in our own community on the island. My final sadness is that we have a saying on the Isle of Wight, "If you kick one islander, they all limp." The real loser in this sorry saga has been the island itself.
In every company of which I have been a director, all the shareholders have always had an excellent deal. As a director of a building society, the depositors expected from me a high standard of financial probity. As long as I am the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight, it will be my aim to ensure that the highest standards of administration pertain throughout the island. In the saga of events that led to the flooding of those people's homes beside the Shalfleet bridge, they have not. That reflects badly on us all—on myself, the councils, the councillors and the press.
It is my earnest hope that the debate will be—no pun intended—a watershed, and that we shall never forget that we all have a duty of responsibility to the people who elect us, not to one party or another, and certainly a duty not to defend the indefensible when an administrative cock-up occurs. That must surely include and involve the island's only newspaper.
I chose, of all the aspects that I might have chosen to highlight in the debate tonight, the listing of the Shalfleet bridge, because the Department of National Heritage is responsible for that matter and for the media. Although I vehemently oppose any control of freedom of the press, it is obvious that the Isle of Wight County Press must pull its socks up considerably and defend the interests of all its readers much more rigorously.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) has made an important and powerful speech this evening, and I congratulate him on the courage and dignity that he has shown in bringing that matter before Parliament. As he rightly said, my Department is concerned with but a small part of the sorry saga that he related tonight, although it is indeed responsible for the press.
I propose to set out in some detail what my Department did about the bridge and its listing, so that my hon. Friend may know exactly what the facts are, as I believe them to be from the point of view of my Department, and so that he has on the record exactly what happened, with accuracy and with truth, at least in the part of the tale that he has unfolded this evening. It may be helpful if, first, I explain, from the point of view of my Department, the circumstances leading to the listing of the bridge.
Following a review of buildings on the Isle of Wight, English Heritage had submitted to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage a draft revised list of buildings of special architectural or historic interest for the island, which it recommended for listing. The Shalfleet bridge was one of the structures included in the list for the first time.
That list was under consideration in my Department when, in view of an application for planning permission before the local planning authority for the demolition and rebuilding of the bridge, we were asked by the Isle of Wight joint planning technical unit on 20 January 1994 for an immediate decision on whether it was to be listed. Accordingly, the bridge was listed on that day, my right hon. Friend having carefully considered the advice from English Heritage that it met the listing criteria.
In considering whether to add a building to the statutory list, the only factor that the law allows my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to take into account is whether it possesses special architectural or historic interest. The law does not allow him to consider other factors, such as the building's state of repair—unless it has harmed its architectural interest—its maintenance costs or its unsuitability for modern needs.
Such matters are not relevant to a listing decision. However, they can properly be taken into account in the context of any subsequent application for listed building consent for works connected with the demolition, alteration or extension of a building.
If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is satisfied that a building meets the listing criteria, the law does not allow him any option other than to list it. Once a building is listed, works to it are subject to control under the "listed building consent" procedures, which are operated, in the first instance, by the local planning authority.
Listed building consent is required for the demolition of a listed building, or any other alteration or extension that affects its character as a listed building. There is a right of appeal to the Secretary of State for the Environment where consent is refused. Where the local authority itself wishes to carry out works to a listed building, as was the case with Shalfleet bridge, it must obtain consent from the Secretary of State for the Environment.
Although listing creates a presumption in favour of preservation, it does not necessarily mean that the building or structure concerned must remain intact for all time. Indeed, we fully acknowledge that, in many cases, some change may be essential to ensure that a listed building remains in active use. The main purpose of listing is to register the special interest of a building, in order that that can be weighed against arguments in favour of its demolition, alteration or extension, if and when an application for listed building consent is made.
It is entirely logical that the listing process should confine itself to the consideration of the merits of a building, while the listed building control, which can take into account wider issues, comes into play only when there are proposals that will affect the special character of a listed building.
I appreciate that the requirement to obtain listed building consent can cause delay in the implementation of some important proposals. Indeed, I fully acknowledge that the listing of Shalfleet bridge delayed implementation of the solution to the problem of the bridge strengthening. However, it is entirely justifiable that there should be an opportunity to take stock and consider, with considerable care, whether there are ways of achieving the required objectives which are compatible with preserving the special interest of our historic buildings and structures.
Broadly speaking, we believe that time has shown that the present system provides the right framework for identifying buildings that are worthy of preservation, within which proposals to alter or demolish them can be fully assessed and all relevant factors taken into account. After all, as I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree, without the listings, many of our finest buildings might not have survived to this day.
It is indeed unfortunate that the repair work to Shalfleet bridge was delayed, but it appears that a permanent solution has now been implemented, which meets the concerns of all interested parties.
My hon. Friend shares the surprise that those poor villagers had—and that I had when I inquired into the matter—that it now appears that the demolition of the bridge was never necessary in the first place. The props that were put under it, which caused it to dam up, were drawn to the attention of the council by the National Rivers Authority as being extremely dangerous. It is a saga that never needed to happen. The bridge has been adequately reinforced and strengthened for the traffic it takes, and will be a memorial there for ever, as a very pretty piece of architecture on the Isle of Wight.
My hon. Friend is certainly right—the bridge need not be demolished. It was decided not to demolish it; it was decided to strengthen it. I understand that the strengthening of the bridge, which has now taken place, is cheaper than the estimate for the rebuilding of the bridge.
With those few words about one small aspect of my hon. Friend's important speech, I leave him to take the matter forward with all the dedication to justice that he has shown.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Eight o'clock.