Thank you for contacting me on the issue of shale gas extraction and the government's announcement in the Queen's Speech.
We face three critical challenges, which we have to reconcile: ensuring a safe and secure energy supply; protecting our local environment against the risks of damaging exploitation and protecting our global environment against the threat of climate change.
Let me start with the first and last points before explaining what I think our safeguards should be.
Gas is a fuel which remains vital to the operation of our homes, services and businesses in the UK. 80% of our homes rely on gas for heating, while around 30% of our electricity comes from gas fired power stations. While low carbon power generation will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels over time, we will still need flexible power to help manage peaks in demand. Projections from National Grid expect gas continuing to play a vital role in our energy system for many years to come.
While demand for gas continues to be high, our ability to source this fuel from within our own borders has been steadily declining. In 2004, the UK became a net importer of gas for the first time since North Sea extraction began. For those reasons, the possibility to source gas from the UK should not be ruled out without careful consideration.
Importantly, ensuring a domestic gas supply does not conflict with the critical task of de-carbonising the power sector. I am wholly committed to the development of renewable power generation. The Labour Party has pledged to continue with the implementation of the ‘Contracts for Difference' mechanism to stimulate investment in renewables and low carbon generation, and has committed to a 2030 target for the effective decarbonisation of our power sector. The Committee on Climate Change has also said that shale gas could be developed in the UK within our legally binding carbon budgets. Within that framework, fracking is unlikely to lead to an increase in the total amount of fossil fuel burnt for electricity generation- it is more an issue of where that supply comes from.
So if we need to maintain a gas supply from secure sources, and should not rule out shale gas extraction from the mix, but what safeguards need to be in place?
I am clear that shale gas extraction should only go ahead in the context of robust regulation, comprehensive monitoring and strict enforcement, and in a way which is consistent with decarbonising our electricity supply by 2030.
The Government's Infrastructure Bill proposes changes to the regulations on fracking for shale gas.
Conventional oil and gas exploration and production mostly involves vertical or near-vertical drilling from one spot at the surface. A well for shale gas, however, will usually run vertically down and then extend horizontally for some distance - this could be as much as 2 miles, or even more. This would mean that companies would have to seek permission from a large number of landowners. As it stands, existing legislation allows coalmining, water, sewage and gas transportation pipelines to have underground access without needing the permission of the landowner, but it does not allow shale gas or deep geothermal development. In reality without bringing shale gas extraction legislation into line with that covering coalmining would provide an effective block on fracking activity and deep geothermal in the UK.
At the end of May the government published consultation on its proposed changes to trespass regulations and confirmed their intention to legislate in the forthcoming Infrastructure Bill. These changes will mean that while shale gas companies will still need the permission of landowners for surface access and still require local planning consent, underpinned by environmental impact assessments, they will not need permission for underground access at depths of 300m or more. I therefore do not oppose these reforms. However, the issue of underground access rights is separate from the environmental and safety framework. Only by fully addressing legitimate environmental and safety concerns about fracking with robust regulation, comprehensive monitoring and strict enforcement will people have confidence that the exploration and possible extraction of shale gas is a safe and reliable source that can contribute to the UK's energy mix.
I am therefore determined that we should push for the environmental framework to be strengthened. In 2012 Labour set out six tough environmental conditions which should be in place prior to any shale gas extraction taking place in the UK.
• Evidence of seismic activity led to the suspension of operations in Lancashire in 2011. As Labour set out in an article for Business Green on 7 March 2012, baseline conditions should be assessed prior to any exploratory work with micro-seismic monitoring, in order to discriminate natural from artificially induced seismic events once the drilling begins. An early warning detection system should also be implemented, similar to that used in the Netherlands and Germany, which would allow measures to be taken before seismic activity has a noticeable impact.
• There has been a lack of transparency and control in the USA on exactly what is being used to fracture shale rocks and extract the resulting gas. In the UK, the chemicals used must be restricted to those that are proven to be non-hazardous. Further, there should be mandated disclosure of all the chemicals to be used in fracking, including their toxicity levels.
• The integrity of each shale gas well must be assured to prevent water contamination. An independent assessment of the well design, the cement bond between the casing and well bore, in addition to the composition of the casing to determine its ability to resist corrosion, is essential.
• The level of methane in groundwater should also be assessed prior to any drilling. Methane can occur naturally in groundwater, but there is concern from the experience in the USA that it may also occur as a result of fracking. In each case, that needs to be assessed prior to any activity, so that there is robust baseline information to monitor against.
• All potential shale exploration sites should be subject to screening for an environmental impact assessment - at present, those below one hectare do not need to undertake such an assessment. This assessment should include the amount of water used, how much can then be recycled and the general availability of water in each case.
• All of the monitoring activity referred to above should take place over a twelve month period, to allow sufficient time to gather all of the evidence required to make an informed decision on whether to proceed with exploration
While the government accepted four of the six conditions in December 2012, we still believe that the regulatory framework is not sufficiently robust. It is not currently agreed clear that the level of methane in groundwater should be assessed prior to any drilling. Methane can occur naturally in groundwater, so it is important that robust baseline information exists to monitors activity against. Neither has it been agreed that all monitoring activity should take place over at least a twelve month period, to allow sufficient time to gather all of the evidence required to make an informed decision on whether to proceed with exploration. I will continue to push for the environmental framework to be strengthened in these areas and for assurances that the responsibility for clean-up costs and liability for any untoward consequences rests fairly and squarely with the industry and not with the public purse or with homeowners. Many other concerns remain, particularly regarding the effectiveness of the monitoring process and the capacity of the relevant bodies to undertake that monitoring and enforce the regulations, and these must also be addressed.
I hope this is helpful and thank you for taking the time to write to me on this important issue.
Karen Buck MP
Dear Constituent Thank you for contacting me on the issue of shale gas extraction and the government's announcement in the Queen's Speech. We face three critical challenges, which we have...
Plans to re-develop the Warwick need improving,especially to offer more hope for local people in housing need
It is now only a very few short weeks before you will be asked to vote on Westminster Council's plans for the Warwick estate. After this one vote, there will be a major development of the area, which will have both good points and disadvantages. However, you will not be voting again on the individual parts of the scheme, so I think it is very important to get the best possible deal now.
Having been out speaking to even more residents recently, I remain concerned that many people are still not clear about the plans and what they will mean, nor that the Council is offering the best deal on affordable housing.
• On the one hand, there will be real improvements to the look of the area, with some new low-cost homes, and job opportunities and community benefits
• On the other hand, out of the 290 or so additional homes to be built primarily around the Harrow Road end of the Warwick, the vast majority will be for high-cost private sale, greatly increasing density, and involving around 5-6 years of building work in the area.
I estimate that only about 6 in every 100 households currently living in the Warwick Masterplan area would benefit from new affordable housing opportunities.
I have met with Westminster Council officers again to press the vital importance of making more homes truly affordable to rent and to buy, to help the many people on the Warwick who are in housing need. I have now written to them with a list of key points that have to be dealt with before the vote.
These should include a promise to at least re-house all those Warwick households currently registered as over-crowded. In addition, all the planned ‘intermediate' housing (that costs less than the full ‘market' cost but is dearer than council housing) should have rent levels that are within reach of local people who would benefit from it. At present only half will be available for households with incomes of between
£30-37,000 a year, with the rest aimed at a range of higher earners. With house prices increasing very fast, I am confident that the private home sales should make more profit to put back into increasing the amount of affordable housing, and have asked for further assessments of this.
I have also pressed Westminster on the guaranteed minimum money that will come back into the community for improved local services, and I want to see complete frankness about what the Council can guarantee (such as affordable housing) and what they can ASK for from private companies, without any guarantee (such as a supermarket).
Developments like this can greatly improve an area- but the offer to local people must be a good one.
I continue to welcome your views.
Karen Buck MP
Dear Resident May 2014Plans to re-develop the Warwick need improving,especially to offer more hope for local people in housing needIt is now only a very few short weeks before you...
Rough sleepers to lose their beds as West End hostels are closed due to cuts
More than 50 rough sleepers will lose their beds in central London when two hostels shut after their grants were cut by Westminster City Council. Despite figures showing homelessness in London is rising, Conservative-run Westminster said not enough people were using the hostels and the buildings were in poor condition. A Westminster City Council spokesperson said: "We have reviewed our hostels to ensure we provide services that are needed and help people move towards independent accommodation."
Green light for Westminster luxury flats
An office block within walking distance of Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament is set to be turned into a series of luxury flats after the scheme was granted planning by Westminster City Council. The former European Council for Foreign Relations building at 29-35 Old Queen Street is set to undergo a £100m renovation to turn it into 22 super-luxury apartments complete with rooftop gardens.
Rough sleepers to lose their beds as West End hostels are closed due to cuts More than 50 rough sleepers will lose their beds in central London when two hostels...
Kris Hopkins MP
the Department of Communities and Local Government
03 April 2014
Dear Mr Hopkins
RE: Review of Property Conditions in the Private Rented Sector, Question 22
I have been contacted by the Westminster Amenity Societies Forum, a group representing all the officially recognised residents' associations in the City of Westminster, about your forthcoming Review of Property Conditions in the Private Rented Sector.
In particular, the WASF have drawn my attention to Question 22, which raises the possibility of relaxing the London specific rules on letting residential property on a short term basis. As we are at the heart of London's tourist economy, unauthorised short term lets are a growing problem in Westminster.
Long term residents report feelings of loss of privacy and amenity of their own homes, anti-social behaviour and noise and other unneighbourly behaviour such as dumped rubbish. In several cases, local councillors have felt that the issue has become so much of a problem in their wards that they have allocated funds from their localised ward budgets to support Planning Enforcement Teams.
You will of course be aware that London, and Westminster in particular, also faces a serious housing shortage. Clearing the way for property owners to rent their flats out to tourists or business travellers, rather than long term tenants, will do nothing to alleviate this shortage and could well make it even harder for my constituents to find local accommodation in the private rented sector.
I would reiterate my constituents concern that the relevant provisions of the Greater London Powers Act 1973 not be updated, as least in so far as they apply to Inner London. I would appreciate your comments on this and on the contents of the attached letter.
Please respond in a way that I can copy to my constituent. Thank you for your assistance.
Karen Buck MP
Kris Hopkins MPthe Department of Communities and Local GovernmentEland HouseBressenden PlaceLondonSW1E 5DU 03 April 2014 Dear Mr Hopkins RE: Review of Property Conditions in the Private Rented Sector, Question 22...
Sir David Higgins
High Speed Two Ltd.,
2nd floor, Elland House,
SW1E 5 DU
30 April 2014
Dear Sir David
High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill (HS2 Hybrid Bill)
Following on from the successful passage of the second reading of HS2 Hybrid Bill , I write to ask that High Speed Two Ltd. ( HS2 Ltd. ) now answer the questions and suggestions made by Westminster and Brent Borough Councils and by a number of my well informed constituents as to the route and development of the new rail line as it impacts upon Westminster North .
A number of organisations and individuals have complained to me that HS2 Ltd. appear to have adopted a tactic of simply not answering questions raised by parties who believe themselves to be affected by the plans to construct the new railway. Such a tactic I believe to be counter productive (in that it creates unwarranted concerns and suspicions) and is profoundly undemocratic.
The major concerns that I share with the Councils and my constituents include :
1/ Why has there been no response to the proposal that the tunnel route as it passes through my Constituency be moved underneath the existing West Coast Main Line (WCML ) so that it avoids passing under the residential Queens Park Estate ? To date this proposal has just been ignored even though a similar section of tunnel between the Euston tunnel portal and the Adelaide Road Vent has since the publication of the draft ES been moved beneath the WCML "to reduce the effect on properties and structures which may be affected by settlement".
2/ The Councils and a number of my constituents believe that there are better locations to cite the proposed Salusbury Road Ventilation shaft and auto-transformer station which have grown to unacceptable size and prominence as the scheme has progressed. Again there appears to have been no response at all to a number of alternative and less intrusive sites. If there are substantive reasons as to why the shaft has to be located at this particular location and to this scale then it is now appropriate that the reasons be detailed.
3/ Westminster City Council is concerned that HS2 ventilation shafts need to be treated as
‘Scheduled Works' and therefore any subsequent changes to design and location be subject to further environmental impact assessments. This is of particular concern to Westminster because of their experience with Crossrail when changes to ventilation shafts were treated merely as ‘Ancillary Works' and therefore less amenable to local authority influence.
4/ I share the view that full use needs to be made of the proposed Old Oak Common interchange as the major southern terminus of the new line which will lessen the role of Euston and so avoid the wholesale demolition of Camden. I would like to see verification of the claim that Old Oak Common will actually be more accessible by public transport by the vast majority of Londoners and from most areas of London than Euston.
5/It is important to act quickly to specify the exact details of the route, the depth of tunnels and, construction methods so as to avoid ‘planning blight' in Westminster. I am pleased that the number of tunnels under my constituency has been reduced from three to two and it is my understanding that these tunnels will be at a depth of between 35 and 40 meters and bored through London clay. Therefore the Ministry and the HS2 Company are entirely confident that such construction will have no impact on properties above ground level and for this reason there are no proposals to offer any compensation to any of my constituents. It would therefore be appropriate for the DoT and for HS2 Ltd. to explicitly assure my constituents on these matters.
In responding to these points can the Ministry and HS2 Ltd. now set out a clear timetable as to when the questions that have already been submitted to them (especially Westminster City Council's submission of 27 February 2014) will actually be answered?
Please note that I am also writing today with the same concerns to the Department for Transport. Please respond in such a way as I can share your response with my constituents.
Karen Buck MP
Sir David Higgins High Speed Two Ltd., 2nd floor, Elland House, Bressenden Place London SW1E 5 DU 30 April 2014 Dear Sir David High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill (HS2...
I'm backing Westminster Amenity Societies Forum in opposing any Government moves to relax the rules to allow more short-term lets. Here's my letter to the Minister.
Minister for Housing,
I have been contacted by the association of the 18 amenity societies in Westminster to ask me to express their concern to you of the growing problem posed by short-term lets in the borough. As you may be aware, Westminster has the largest proportion of its housing stock in the private rented sector of any local authority in the country, so any changes impact disproportionately on us.
The amenity societies (and many individual residents) are strongly of the view that existing legislation should NOT be amended or relaxed in such a way as to encourage the further growth of the short-term rental sector. They are seeking assurances that the current consultation contained within your document "Review of Property Conditions in the Private Rented Sector" (Q22, Page 9) does not lead to any such relaxation in the legislation.
As they point out:
"Short-term letting is causing a major problem for some permanent residents in a number of amenity society areas, particularly in cases where short-term lets are regularly made. There can be real problems of anti-social behavior (and even intimidation), noise, refuse collection problems and similar. Furthermore, short-term lettings remove accommodation for long term lets".
I strongly support this view and trust that the government would not take these proposals further, to the detriment of longer-standing residents in all tenures, who overwhelmingly want both the peaceful enjoyment of their homes, and to live in neighbourhoods with some stability.
Thank you very much and I look forward to receiving your response.
Karen Buck MP
I'm backing Westminster Amenity Societies Forum in opposing any Government moves to relax the rules to allow more short-term lets. Here's my letter to the Minister. Kris HopkinsMinister for Housing,DCLGEland...
I am concerned by a number of reports in the local area of a recent increase in both commercial and residential burglary, including a number of thefts of buggies and other items from the communal areas within blocks of flats.
The local police teams have been increasing patrols but I am very aware of the fact that this is probably not enough to increase their visibility sufficiently to provide reassurance- and this may have been true even before the reduction in size of our ward-based Safer Neighbourhood Teams.
I have, therefore, asked Westminster police to consider bringing in the mobile police station, to demonstrate an increased local police presence. I very much hope that this will be agreed soon.
Police are, additionally, advising people not to leave items, especially valuable items, in communal areas.
Here are some of the key points from my recent correspondence with police about these problems:
• " we are conducting targeted crime prevention patrols to the most burgled streets across the North Wards and this includes actively looking for open and vulnerable premises and highlighting them to the respective owners and landlords. For persistently vulnerable premises we also have to refer them to environmental health to take enforcement action around their communal security.
• We recently started Super Cocooning Non Residential Burglaries. Super Cocooning is an enhanced form of crime prevention combined with witness enquiries carried out after a premises has been the victim of a burglary. Door to door enquiries are carried out not only to establish if witnesses can be traced but also to alert other residents/business owners that a burglary has taken place.
• targeted patrols have been carried out around affected Wards over the last two weeks in addition to increased crime prevention visits including target hardening visits in conjunction with the local crime reduction officers."
The Maida Vale Safer Neighbourhood Police Team Number is: 07920233950.
Always dial 999 in an emergency, but use 101 to report crimes and other concerns that do not require an emergency response.
I hope that this is helpful.
Dear resident,I am concerned by a number of reports in the local area of a recent increase in both commercial and residential burglary, including a number of thefts of buggies...
We now know that the ‘tax gap'-that is, the difference between how much tax should be collected and how much is collected-rose from £31 billion in 2009-10 to £33 billion in 2011-12 and further to £34 billion in 2012-13, (which is the latest year for which the information is available).
There are two implications arising from this huge and worsening ‘tax gap. Firstly, the shortfall means that there is less money to support our public services and the public finances. Secondly, it undermines trust and confidence in the system itself. Ordinary citizens and small businesses paying their taxes deserve to know that the same rules apply to the very wealthiest individuals and the global corporations as to them. Disabled people and job-seekers facing sanctions and enforcement action for breached of benefit rules deserve to know that they are treated no worse than tax evaders. Yet in the case of files relating to the HSBC bank, for example, following the revelations of malpractice which were first given to the Government in May 2010, just one out of 1,100 people who have avoided or evaded tax have been prosecuted.
A sense that there is ‘one set of rules for the richest and most powerful, and another for everyone else' is a dangerous one. All businesses and all individual taxpayers need to know that the tax system is based on a level playing field, that nobody is getting away with gaming the system, and that when the system is being gamed we have robust measures to deal with it. That is profoundly pro-business and it is also in the interests of individual taxpayers, UK plc and our economy as a whole.
And whilst a ‘tax gap' existed long before this Government was elected, and some people have sought to avoid or evade taxes for as long as taxes have existed, the context has changed for the worse. The aftermath of the global economic crisis, austerity and a series of media disclosures about the low tax bills and complex avoidance schemes of multinationals and high net worth individuals have led members of the public to question the system like never before.
The controversy engulfing HSBC is but the latest of many examples, but it is deeply alarming. My colleagues in the Labour Treasury team have called upon former Treasury Minister and HSBC Chief Executive Lord Green and the Prime Minister to make a full statement about Lord Green's role at HSBC and his appointment as a Minister. It is why we regret the failure of the Government's deal on tax disclosure with Switzerland, which has raised less than a third of the amount promised. It is why we welcome the proposals of charities and campaigning organisations for an anti-tax dodging Bill; and call on the Government to clamp down on tax avoidance by introducing a penalty regime for the general anti-abuse rule, which is currently too weak to be effective. This would include closing the Quoted Eurobonds exemption loophole, thus ensuring that hedge funds trading shares pay the same amount of tax as other investors, introducing deeming criteria to restrict false self-employment in the construction industry, and scrapping the ‘shares for rights scheme', which the Office for Budget Responsibility has warned could open a new tax avoidance loophole costing £1 billion.
Last week's Financial Times report on tax avoidance and tax collection compared the Government's anti-avoidance measures for companies with the measures Labour put in place to tackle corporate tax avoidance during its time in office. It found that the tax collected by the Government's measures was going to be 90% lower than under measures introduced by the previous Labour Government, saying:
"Measures put in place by Labour during its 13 years in power to counter corporate tax avoidance are projected to raise ten times as much over the next four years as those introduced by the current coalition government."
Writing in the Financial Times, Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that, "just as concern over tax avoidance is at its highest in living memory, just as government ministers are falling over themselves to condemn such behaviour, that same government is trumpeting a new tax policy that looks like it will foster a whole new avoidance industry. Its own fiscal watchdog seems to suggest that the policy could cost a staggering £1 billion a year, and that a large portion of that could arise from ‘tax planning'."
We also need a public form of country-by-country reporting on corporate profits. In government, we would seek an international agreement on public forms of such reporting. At present, the agreement arising from the base erosion and profit-shifting process is to make country-by-country reporting available to tax authorities, but we believe that there is a strong case for the information to be made public. We will seek a multilateral agreement, but if that is not possible, we will discuss with business in this country the best way to introduce a public country-by-country reporting format on a unilateral basis.
• take further action to stop employment agencies from exploiting tax relief through the use of umbrella companies,( raising £400 million a year ).
•force the United Kingdom's overseas territories and Crown dependencies to produce publicly available registers of beneficial ownership. The current Prime Minister has been writing to the Crown dependencies and overseas territories, saying that they need to move forward with a publicly available register of beneficial ownership, but nothing has happened. Ed Miliband announced at the weekend that we would seek a blacklisting of overseas territories and Crown dependencies if there was no movement on a public register of beneficial ownership within six months of the election of the next Labour Government.
• tackle the use of dormant companies to avoid tax by requiring them to report more frequently.
• introduce penalties for those who are caught by the general anti-abuse rule, giving the plan teeth by introducing a tough penalty regime, with fines of up to 100% of the value of the tax that was avoided.
• close loopholes on stamp duty that allow the hedge funds to avoid paying hundreds of millions of pounds in tax through intermediary relief.
• close loopholes that allow some large companies to move profits out of the UK and avoid corporation tax. (According to HMRC, the tax loss from that loophole is around £200 million each year, and it has been reported elsewhere as £500 million).
• make tax havens which have links to the UK put company ownership information in the public domain.
• scrap the failed shares for rights scheme, which the Office for Budget Responsibility warned could enable avoidance and cost £1 billion.
• ensure stronger independent scrutiny of the tax system, giving new powers to the National Audit Office and placing new responsibilities on the Chancellor and chief executive of HMRC to report annually on their efforts to tackle tax avoidance and to reduce the tax gap.
I hope this gives you a clear sense that tackling tax avoidance and evasion will be a very high priority for Labour- as tough action is needed now more than ever before.
Karen Buck MP
We now know that the ‘tax gap'-that is, the difference between how much tax should be collected and how much is collected-rose from £31 billion in 2009-10 to £33 billion...
Further to our email exchange below, I have liaised with colleagues and will now address each of your questions in turn:
£500,000 will be saved from the Children's Centres (outside the play service):
It is my understanding that you are currently liaising with Jayne Vertkin regarding the above. It is anticipated that Jayne will provide a response within the next five working days.
£125,000 from Youth Services:
The council has undertaken engagement with service users and partners to explore different models of youth service delivery that, within a reduced budget, continues to enable access to services for children and young people across Westminster but more effectively targets and engages those who would have additional support needs. The models explored have included better integration with services such as schools, arts and sports provision and national initiatives to ensure children and young people benefit from the broad offer of provision across the borough and to also ensure that commissioned services are geographically located to most effectively engage those with additional needs.
Have individual schools been asked if they will take on the play service and if so, how many of them have indicated yes or no?
The council is considering a variety of options for the future provision of school-age childcare and play. We are consulting with service users, third sector partners, and schools to determine the likely impact of different models service delivery. There is already a mixed economy of providers in Westminster providing school-age childcare for local families. There are four schools managing childcare on site, four third sector providers (including two that are commissioned by schools), and the Westminster Play Service operating at eight locations, including six school sites.
The objective is to secure a comprehensive, accessible and good quality service, whilst meeting the savings targets. This will require a more cost effective set of services whichever delivery model is implemented. There are no plans to close any childcare services as part of this work and some services may increase provision if there is demand from service users and it is a viable proposition. The final recommendations will follow the consultation process.
Host schools have been consulted about the possibility of taking on childcare services at their sites. At present, only one out of the six schools that currently host a play centre has indicated that it would prefer to take on responsibility for childcare.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any further questions.
Further to our email exchange below, I have liaised with colleagues and will now address each of your questions in turn: £500,000 will be saved from the Children's Centres (outside...