Infrastructure Bill [Lords]

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 8:21 pm on 8th December 2014.

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Photo of Christopher Pincher Christopher Pincher Conservative, Tamworth 8:21 pm, 8th December 2014

I commend Kate Green for her brevity and much of the content of her speech, and I congratulate the Minister on his opening speech. Those who heard it will agree that the shade of Disraeli stands permanently at his shoulder. He made an important speech about an important matter. For Governments of all shades and stripes, infrastructure—be it energy or transport infrastructure—has too often been a Cinderella subject, ignore and abused. As a result, today we have to invest a great deal of money—about £120 billion—in less than 10 years in our energy infrastructure: in the pipes, pylons and power stations that keep our lights on and our water warm.

Much of that investment will come—rightly—from the big six, but if the balance of the cost is not to fall on the consumer and taxpayer, much must also come from the small independent players that we must encourage into the marketplace. I know that that is what the Government want to do—it is what the Energy Act 2013 was intended to do—and I say to the Minister here now: do not let the great work of the Act and of the capacity mechanism be unwound by some siren voices in the Department of Energy and Climate Change who would like to see the capacity payments for 15-year contracts discounted to the value of an annual contract, because that will certainly discourage small players from entering the marketplace and entrench the position of the big six.

Whatever we do to invest in our energy infrastructure, in the short to medium term it will largely be in gas. Right now, as we sit in this Chamber, 38% of our generating capacity comes from combined cycle gas, 31% from coal, and just 6.5% from wind. If we are to turn off our coal-fired power stations in the next few years, we must, in the short to medium term, switch to gas to make up the shortfall—that is just the way it is—so we need to invest in those stations. However, that will expose us more to international hydrocarbon price fluctuations, which could hit consumers in this country. Part of the way to deal with that is to invest in gas storage, as my hon. Friend Charles Hendry said, but part of the answer is to allow our shale gas resources and companies to expand to scale, which they say they can do by 2020, so that we can hew our home-grown gas. It is important that we do that, and I commend that particular industry to everyone in the House.

Some have raised the concerns of local communities where fracking might take place, and we must address those concerns soberly and sensibly. I listened carefully to John Mann, who is no longer in his place. He is a real champion for his constituents, but he and we have to be careful not to allow those concerns to snowball into scaremongering. I shall focus on just one thing he said, however, because my right hon. Friend Mr Lilley eloquently demolished most of his concerns: the pollution of the aquifers.

In and of itself, fracking does not pollute the water supply. The shale gas layer is at least 300 metres, and often thousands of metres, beneath the earth’s surface, whereas aquifers are just a couple of hundred feet below it, and separating the water table and the shale layers are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of feet of solid rock. Impurities cannot move through that solid rock into the water table. Only if there is a failure of the integrity of the well can the water table be polluted. If someone drills a pipe half a mile underground, fills that pipe with concrete and then drills through that concrete and puts another pipe down, the chances of the well’s integrity being compromised are minimal—they exist, but they are minimal. That is the tone in which we need to address the shale gas opportunity and challenge, and I hope that everyone concerned about what shale might mean for their communities will make that fact clear.

I turn now to roads. The Secretary of State and I have not always seen eye to eye on transport. Our relations are very cordial—they have to be; he was once my Chief Whip—but he and I have not always agreed on HS2. However, there is not a grain of asphalt between us on the issue of road building which he announced last week and which the Minister made special reference to earlier today. In particular, I welcome the investment in the M42 around junction 6. It is a pity the Minister is not here, because he is a great student of G. K. Chesterton, and will know of Chesterton’s aphorism:

“The traveller sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he has come to see.”

A traveller or tourist on the central section of the M42 will not travel very far very fast, and all a tourist will see are the shimmering silos of the Kingsbury oil terminal. In the past, that road was often a car park. Now, 99,000 vehicles use the M42 each day, and more than 120,000 use the section of road around junction 6, so that investment has been very important.

However, I make a plea to the Minister here now. The opportunity that allows my constituents to commute more easily to Birmingham, where many of them work, and which encourages businesses to set up in Tamworth and people to come and live in Tamworth, also presents us with a challenge. We all accept the importance of localism, and we all accept that there must be devolution and that local authorities and county councils must control county highways. Unless we can also get investment in the road infrastructure in Tamworth, all those homes that there is pressure to build to meet the demands of people who want to live in the town cannot be built in the centre and might need to be built on the green belt and on the greenfield sites around it. Investment in the road infrastructure in Tamworth and similar towns will allow brownfield sites to be better developed for building homes. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will have a care to recognise the importance of linking local authority development with the Bill.

That said, this is an important and welcome Bill. It takes our long-term economic plan and translates it into a long-term infrastructure investment. I say again that it is a pity that the Minister of State is no longer in his place because I know he is a great fan of St. Augustine, who said: “Go forth along your way as it must be on the path of walking”. I hope that with this Bill we will not simply be able to walk, but drive as well.