I congratulate my hon. Friend Amanda Milling on securing this important debate. In her speech she alluded to the fact that just over a week ago my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State accompanied her on an inspection of this major site, and I warmly endorse his determination to ensure that the planning system operates quickly and effectively to assist the local authority in reaching prompt decisions on any planning proposals that may come forward for the site.
I am conscious of my hon. Friend’s discussions with other Ministers and with the owners of the Rugeley B power station. She has also met members of the taskforce of local government and local enterprise partnerships, and trade union representatives, to discuss the future of the site should the power station close.
My hon. Friend has underlined the national and strategic importance of the site and the implications of its closure. She is doing what I would call a very good sales job in promoting the site as the asset that it is, given its size, location and connectivity, which make it an attractive location for redevelopment for a range of uses. Both she and my hon. Friend Michael Fabricant mentioned the site of Rugeley A power station and I am sure that lessons can be learnt from the redevelopment of that site, where there are now homes, business parks and logistics centres, which have created thousands of jobs for the local economy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase said, under this Conservative Government many more people in her constituency are in work and many fewer people are unemployed than was the case in 2010.
I will cover three specific areas mentioned by my hon. Friend. Before I do so, on planning issues, because of our formal role in the planning system, Ministers are not able to comment or advise on any particular planning applications, nor would we wish to fetter judgments to be made by decision makers in the future. However, I may say the following.
My hon Friend mentioned enterprise zones. We have no current plans for new enterprise zones, but we would be happy to work with her local enterprise partnerships to look at what options might exist for Rugeley. I note that Cannock Chase is covered by both the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire and the Greater Birmingham and Solihull local enterprise partnerships. As part of the growth deal round three negotiations it will be for her local area to put forward a bid in relation to its priorities to secure investment for future growth. She might want to consider discussing that with her local councils and local enterprise partnerships. My Department is certainly willing to have a conversation with her and those organisations in that regard.
Consideration will also be given to local development orders, which can be used to relax planning controls for particular areas or categories of development where the impacts would be acceptable and where that would promote economic, social or environmental gains such as boosting enterprise. Bearing in mind that I am short on time, I will write to my hon. Friend to say more about how those orders can be used.
My hon. Friend also mentioned transitional relief to help with a local council’s short-term funding pressures. Before 2013, local councils could not benefit from growth in business rates because money raised from rates was returned to central Government to be redistributed, but that is no longer the case. At the moment, councils may keep up to 50% of any growth in their business rates. Before talk began of the closure of Rugeley B, the council estimated that it would retain just over £4 million of its business rates under the retention scheme in 2016-17—a 46% growth since that scheme started. Although it would lose more than £1 million in business rates income following the power station’s closure, the ability to retain income from business rates will put the local authority pretty much back where it was in terms of baseline funding.
There is a safety net: in circumstances where losses are so significant that they exceed 7.5% of the local authority’s baseline funding, the Government top the local authority back up to its baseline funding, although that is not the situation currently in my hon. Friend’s constituency. There are, though, a number of other financial support mechanisms that she may want to consider. I would like to set those out—they include the support that we are offering for brownfield development and the remediation of brownfield sites, particularly for new housing development—but I am extremely short on time, so again, I will write to her about that important issue.
My hon. Friend also raised nationally significant infrastructure planning. I recognise what she said about gas-fired power stations and conversion and that the planning regime must be robust, but it must also be flexible. As she knows, we reviewed the Planning Act 2008 in 2014 to ensure that it was still delivering a streamlined, fair and faster nationally significant infrastructure planning system. Respondents to that review felt that the system was working reasonably well but suggested some practical improvements, many of which we have implemented, including the publication of a prospectus by the Planning Inspectorate setting out help and advice to applicants before submitting an application for development consent. I also welcome the Planning Inspectorate’s intention to hold a workshop in June to ensure effective pre-application discussions, and my hon. Friend talked about how that could be beneficial to her area.
I apologise that I have been too short on time to cover in more depth some of the questions asked by my hon. Friend and others, but I assure her that I will write to her about the items that I have not been able to respond to. If the coal-fired power station she referred to closes, she can certainly come back to my Department to discuss further the challenges of that site and the development that the local area may aspire to.