A year in local print
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Visiting Primary Designs, Thame
Oxfam Book Shop 10 birthday, Thame
JANUARY 2011 ACCESS TO BROADBAND My article this month was the first in my series for the Thame Gazette branded as a View from Westminster. In this article I did a quick review of the nature of the constituency and the problem it has in accessing broadband.
. I had to think twice about the title of this column. Being an MP is a rare job where you have two principal places of work. You need to be able to have a view both from Westminster and from the constituency. They are also two very different jobs – one making laws for the country; the other dealing with a range of personal cases through to community issues such as increased aircraft noise above our towns and villages.
just for being sociable but for jobs and study. I’m trying to improve that.
I never fail to be amazed at the enormous contribution made by volunteers
This constituency is now some 260 square miles in size – a vast and disparate area. It has two towns and some 100+ parishes. It is fortunate compared to many other constituencies; the number unemployed and on Job Seekers Allowance (JSA), for example, is not great - around 690.
On a positive note, I never fail to be amazed at the enormous contribution made by volunteers as I saw when I helped cut the 10th birthday cake for Thame’s Oxfam bookshop recently; run by some 60-70 volunteers.
But whilst we may not share others’ problems we have our own. This is a constituency with an enormous number of not-spots for broadband and mobile coverage – a facility essential now not
2011 is going to be a tough year as we try to get the economy back on its feet and reduce the deficit. I hope this column will give you the chance to find out what I am doing in all this and for us to stay in touch in the difficult times ahead.
Thame Charity Fair
Henley Volunteers Fair
FEBRUARY 2011 THE BIG SOCIETY The Big Society has been a theme running throughout Government policy. It is not just about volunteering per se but about making volunteering stick by taking away the obstacles which prevent people from being able to get on with it and by giving local people real ownership of what they want to do. The Big Society sits hand in glove with the Government’s agenda for localism as I set out in the Thame Gazette.
It’s been a busy month at Westminster: from revolution across North Africa to welfare reform. In between I got in a few oral questions to Ministers about international business and about pensioners losing out on Pension Credit. But the Big Talk has been about the Big Society.
You can of course take the view that the Big Society is just doing Government’s job – and that that’s what we pay our taxes for! But if you do, is it any wonder we end up disappointed? Government does not know all the answers and is neither always best placed to help nor the best place to start. Local residents can run post offices, pubs and libraries just as well as Government or big organisations. Parents are already creating Free Schools.
A consistent message from parish council and charity meetings I have attended has been “if we could run this or that service, we would do a better job than the council or Government”. I believe them.
As an MP I see this every day. On the one hand are legitimate requests to fight for a Thame resident against the Revenue or the CSA. On the other, though, is the constituent who believes it is my responsibility not theirs to complain that the edges of their new fridge are too sharp.
A close second was the cry that local residents wanted Government off their backs so that they could run their own lives. I’ve always thought you could measure the size of the obstacle Government has been to local action by the growing length of forms you have to fill in! How many times have we in Thame been told that the number of houses we need has been decided in a remote regional plan? In future, you, with the local council, will plan for what’s required, exercising real responsibility for the homeless and those in need.
Thame has a proud tradition of volunteering; it’s an open-hearted sort of place. But too often the impact of that volunteering has not been able to stick and grow. If we want responsible people power we need social action like volunteering and civic participation which Government supports not hinders.
THE CHILTERN CENTRE The constituency has a wealth of charities. One of those which continually draws you in is the Chiltern Centre for Disabled Children in Henley. The following article formed the basis of a contribution from me which appeared in the Henley Standard to support the Centre’s appeal.
Martin Close’s portrait of my predecessor and each year I have attended a lunch to encourage potential new trustees and donors to come on board.
I was delighted when the Chilterns Centre emailed to tell me a few weeks ago of the good news that it had been awarded £286,000 from the Social Enterprise Investment Fund to extend its buildings and provide two additional bedrooms. Despite the number of excellent charities in and around Henley, the Chilterns Centre is a place which just keeps calling you back time after time. So it was particularly distressing to hear that on top of this good news came the unwelcome recognition that Chilterns’ reserves were at their lowest, that pay cuts and redundancies would follow and that £350,000 would need to be raised.
It’s not difficult to see why Chilterns commands such affection or why it is so important. Thanks to the Henley Standard we are now hearing more widely some of the moving stories of the difference Chilterns has made to the lives of whole families where a young person has a disability. These include challenging learning difficulties such as autism, a particular interest of my family; for a number of years my wife was a teacher of young people on the autistic spectrum and only recently I sponsored Research Autism’s briefing for MPs in the House of Commons.
It’s not difficult to see why Chilterns commands such affection
What is so welcome is the way that Chilterns embraces the whole family recognising the way a disability creates pressures on siblings and parents. What hits you when you go through the door is the warmth of the welcome, the care which is given and the sheer unflapability and professionalism of Marian and the staff.
I first went to Chilterns two and a half years ago with the then shadow Chancellor, George Osborne MP. A picture of the staff from that visit sits on my desk in Westminster. I’ve been back several times since and each time the dedication of the staff and the impact they make has never failed to impress. Some of the young people at Chilterns provided the design for my Christmas card in 2009 to enable me to feature the charity and its work more widely. Last year I was able to raise £1,500 for the charity by arranging for the sale of
I thank Phillip Schofield for being the patron of this appeal. I have already said that I will do whatever I can to help Chilterns raise the £350,000 the Centre needs. I am sure that the generosity of all those who live or work in this area will not let us down in reaching that target.
MARCH 2011 THE BUDGET AND ACTION IN LIBYA Debates in Parliament can often seem dry and remote. Not so during March when the budget and the resolution to take action in Libya were debated. The latter debate produced some excellent speeches which were as far away as it is possible to be from the gung-ho journalism found in some national newspapers.
You would have to have the emotional detachment of a Vulcan not to have been affected by two special Parliamentary occasions this week – the budget and the vote to commit British military personnel to enforce the UN resolution on Libya. Whatever your view on whether we should be taking action in Libya or not, the occasion showed Parliament at its best. I heard some of the most moving speeches since I became an MP. Many of these came from MPs who had had personal experience of combat. It was a far cry from the gung-ho, jingoistic comments which characterised the headlines of some of our national newspapers as colleagues relived the often harrowing effects that combat had had on them. It was difficult not to recall the words of the marriage service during the debate that this was a decision not “to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.”
The Budget is always a great Parliamentary occasion but of a somewhat different character. I appreciate that there will be different views on the budget but I thought this was good news for Thame and for the constituency as a whole and three reasons shone out. First, the measures on fuel duty will be welcome to those who have lobbied me intensively on this over the past few weeks. It’s not been a unanimous view that we should help keep petrol prices low. One local opposition councillor argued we should not do so as high petrol prices encouraged everyone to cycle. As a highly rural constituency the car here is not a luxury but a necessity. Secondly, 80% plus of our economy comes from the private sector and Small and Medium Sized businesses make up the bulk of that. They have already welcomed the reduction in corporation tax in the budget and the extension of the small business rate relief.
During the rest of the week I have had the opportunity to question those involved in the operations including senior military figures. At the heart of all our fears was that without our intervention there was near certainty that Gaddafi would have turned his assault on Benghazi into a humanitarian catastrophe on a par with the massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica – a compelling reason to support the commitment of our forces.
Thirdly I really welcome the £250 million shared equity scheme which will help 10,000 first time buyers get on the housing ladder
No to AV campaign, Henley
APRIL 2011 NO TO THE ALTERNATIVE VOTE One of the big events of 2011 was the referendum on whether we should change our voting system from the current First-Past-the-Post system to the Alternative Vote system. The referendum came about as a result of a commitment in the Coalition Agreement. The Conservatives and the Liberal-Democrats took different sides, a fact which prompted the press and media to give one of their periodic warnings that the Coalition was doomed. In the end, the Coalition survived without any problems but fortunately the Alternative Vote did not. 19.1m people voted – a turnout of 41%. The final result put the Yes vote at 32.1% and the No vote at 67.9. I set out my views at the time in my regular column in the Thame Gazette.
On May 5th we are asked to vote in a referendum on how we elect MPs a proposed change from the tried and tested system of First Past The Post (FPTP) to the Alternative Vote (AV) in which candidates are ranked in order of preference. AV is not Proportional Representation. Those who don't like FPTP know that if AV wins they will never be able to have a proportional system. So if you are tempted to vote YES simply for a change; think again. Is this really the right change at the right time? AV is not even a stepping stone to Proportional Representation. If you think we do not need change or that this is not the right change then vote NO. You might also ask whether the middle of an enormous financial crisis is the right time to spend an estimated £250 million to make a change that no one seems really to want.
counted again until the 'right' answer is reached. It’s not fair, either, that a candidate who can only command third place initially can eventually win? That's a recipe for getting worse than second best in selecting your MP. Under AV a paper candidate who is so enthusiastic they do no campaigning and no work could actually win. AV won’t clean up politics. What will is the right to recall your MP for serious wrong-doing which we are introducing. Nor will it end safe seats. What AV will lead to though are endless coalitions where manifestos mean nothing and deals are put together behind closed doors. Finally, in the midst of these great Parliamentary occasions one debate probably slipped by everyone. MPs voted to reject the salary rise they had been awarded by the independent regulator. Worth just noting, perhaps?
AV is not fairer. Under AV, the principle of one person, one vote disappears. Your vote may well count only once while that of extremists like the BNP may be 11
Oxfordshire Town and Parish Clerks at No 10
Rt Hon Greg Clark MP and John Howell at Thame Neighbourhood Plan meeting
MAY 2011 THE LOCALISM BILL This flagship measure passed all its parliamentary stages and received Royal Assent as the Localism Act in November. The Act takes much power away from Whitehall and brings it back to local councils and local residents. Despite the controversy that some organisations tried to create around the Bill, the Bill suffered no defeats either in the Commons or the Lords. These were my comments in the Thame Gazette on how the Bill was likely to improve the situation for SODC and Thame. Thame went on to be a frontrunner in putting a Neighbourhood Plan together.
It has been an ironic month in Westminster. The House of Commons made clear its support for The Localism Bill which brings real change to local government and to planning. After a successful third reading it is now on its way to the House of Lords and the Bill is expected to become law later in the year. The Bill gives local people a greater say in shaping their areas and ends the top down targets which were a hated feature of the previous system. One change that is also made is the end to a Planning Inspector’s right to impose change on a local community against its wishes. It’s a personal pleasure for me to see progress on this Bill. As the Minister, Greg Clark MP, said in debate it was my seminal paper, “Open Source Planning”, which was the source of inspiration for many of the policies in the Bill. The irony though is that the dying system which the Bill replaces has given us all a last kick in the pants with the objections to SODC’s core strategy raised by the planning inspector examining it. It’s quite a technical – but none the less
controversial – argument which revolves around how you calculate the number of new houses you need and where they should go. In this case, SODC has tried to strike a balance between the houses required to satisfy demand and the harm which providing too many houses would do socially and environmentally. SODC’s approach included taking some account of the unplanned applications for new houses which arise each year and which are known as windfalls. By recognising that there is always a stream of windfalls every year SODC’s plan was designed to help take the pressure off the need for big new sites at places like Thame. However, the Planning Inspector has taken a different view and insists that additional new sites should be found to take up the slack and to make sure the promised housing is really delivered. SODC has pushed the boundaries of planning policy as far as they can go; after all, this is not a NIMBY council and it is trying to act responsibly in planning for new houses. If the Inspector has his way,
though, room for additional houses in the district will have to be found. The third leg of what proved to be an ironic trilogy was that, at the same time as all this was going on, I was briefing Thame town councillors on what the new planning system would look like and what the opportunities for Thame would be. It was an up-beat and enthusiastic discussion. The changes we are making to the planning system are some of the boldest since 1947. But they need to be. With over 7 million not in decent homes according to Shelter and with house building at the lowest levels since the 1920s thereâ€™s a real problem even before you take into account the need for economic growth in the country.
economic growth necessarily leads to environmental degradation must be firmly laid to rest by ensuring that development is undertaken responsibly and that it generates benefits which help secure local economic, social and environmental objectives. That fits in well with the new planning systemâ€™s emphasis on the need for planning to be more bottom-up rather than top-down and for it to be based on real engagement with local communities. I welcome the changes we are making to ensure that we can all play a role in planning for our own areas and that planning is not just left in the hands of the professionals.
A report published this month by a group of planning practitioners, including a leading environmentalist, hit the nail on the head. It said that the notion that
A pub for sale to be converted into houses
JUNE 2011 PROTECTING OUR PUBS
June saw the launch by the Henley Standard of its Drink Local campaign. The campaign was a welcome recognition for the role that pubs play at the heart of our villages. The pub and restaurant industry is looking for a special VAT reduction. In the current financial circumstances there is little chance of this being possible as I set out in an article in the Henley Standard, but there is still much that can be done to help.
The Standard’s Drink Local campaign hits the spot. I support our local pubs. II support our local pubs. know what a great community role my own local plays in my village. Unless we use our local pubs we will lose them. That would be a catastrophe because pubs ought to be at the heart of our communities and many are. But pubs are no longer just for drinking in. These days it is difficult to tell where a pub ends and tourism, leisure and entertainment begins. The average landlord now relies on food for over half of his or her turnover. Meals have overtaken drink for the first time to become the most important element of a pub operator’s business. So shouldn’t this be an Eat and Drink Local campaign in recognition of the excellent food many pubs in our area now serve? This level of diversity is hugely welcome and great for the customer. But, it means there is no single, simple solution to tackling the problems many pubs and restaurants face. Some in the industry see the answer in a reduction in VAT from the current 20% to 5% in the hope that this will increase the number of customers and boost profits, jobs and investment. Even the pub and restaurant industry accepts this is a mid-
long term goal and that in the short term there is no chance of a VAT reduction while the deficit and our economic problems remain so big. The risk is that if we reduce VAT here, we drive a coach and horses through our internationallybacked plans to reduce the deficit. We open up calls for a VAT reduction from every sector of the economy which relies on us spending our money on anything other than our basic needs. The Government isn’t being short sighted in resisting singling out pubs and restaurants for special VAT treatment. There is actually little evidence to show that reducing VAT would make a difference.
There is no single, simple solution to the problems facing pubs The example that is often quoted to support a VAT reduction is France. But the situation there was very different and what the French government gave with one hand in reducing VAT on restaurants, it took away with the other by removing reliefs on social security payments. The equivalent in the UK would be swopping VAT for an increase in the rate of National
Insurance – a tax on jobs which would do no one any good. So if a reduction in VAT is not the panacea what can we do? There are two things we can be concentrating on to help our pubs and restaurants: busting the barriers which stifle business imagination and making sure there is fair competition. We’ve already made a good start on these. Take barrier busting. Restrictive covenants on pubs have so often held back competition and we’re already seeing how we can end the practice, for example, by which a new pub is often prevented from using a redundant pub to start up its business. We’re changing the licensing rules so that pubs can attract more customers by for example playing more live music and we’re giving local councils the power to give discounts on business rates to pubs to help keep costs down.
When it comes to competition we’ve banned the sale of alcohol below cost price. This will help protect local pubs from deep discounting by some supermarkets. When a pub is up for sale we’ve provided for a cooling-off period to allow the community the chance to put a bid together to buy it. Local residents can make a good job of running a pub; there’s already a successful example in the north of my constituency in the village of Sydenham. Ultimately, though, the title of this campaign says it all. If we don’t drink local there won’t be a local to drink in. I am more than happy to work with our local pubs and restaurants to see what else can be done to help them continue to play a vibrant role in our towns and villages.
JULY 2011 INTERNATIONAL AID Some constituents have asked why, in the current economic climate, the Government remains committed to spending 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) on overseas aid from 2013. Many more though have contacted me to remind me of the moral basis for continuing to provide aid. In my regular column in the Thame Gazette I tackled this issue head-on.
The revelations of serious wrong-doing within News International and the police may have dominated parliamentary proceedings before the summer Recess, but they have not been the only issues of concern. There is widespread fear that the crisis in the Eurozone threatens to spiral out of control damaging economies which are not in the euro as well as those that are. Further afield, the famine and humanitarian disaster in Somalia has once again focused attention on foreign aid.
Aid will focus on results and be based on evidence not guesswork. A new independent aid watchdog will review the effectiveness of our aid programmes. Aid is not just from Britain it is also for Britain. Some may have no heart for immunising a child against the killer childhood diseases for less than a cup of coffee. But can they also dismiss the need to stop troubled countries failing and unleashing terrorism, crime, mass migration and humanitarian and environmental disasters?
Whilst charity might begin at home it should not end there and I am proud that we are leading the way in the Horn of Africa in dealing with the appalling suffering being experienced by millions of Somali people. Judging from my postbag, there is a strong feeling in Thame that there is a moral need to provide international aid even in tough economic times at home. 0.7% of national income is not too high a price to pay for saving the lives of the poorest people in the poorest countries and for helping stop the rise of the Afghanistans of tomorrow.
In the next four years, British aid will get 11 million children into schools, vaccinate huge numbers against preventable diseases and stop 250,000 newborn babies needlessly dying. If a fraction of our current military spending in Afghanistan had been spent there 20 years ago like this imagine how it could have helped find a positive future for Afghanistan on the world stage. As local e mails and the delegation of constituents which recently came to see me have made clear, this is a chance for the UK to provide high quality, high impact aid.
It is right, though, that our approach to aid should have been given a thorough shake-up and that every pound needs to be scrutinised that it is value for money and is being spent well. By 2016 our aid programmes in 16 countries such as China and Russia will have closed. 17
Visiting RAF Benson to hold a surgery
Visiting RAF Benson school
AUGUST 2011 CONSCRIPTION IS NOT THE ANSWER
The riots shocked us all. There was a lot of instant analysis and even more instant solutions. There was also a belief that it was young people that were solely responsible for the riots. As the subsequent court appearances of those arrested showed, the age range of those involved went well into middle age. One potential solution which always raises its head is a return to military conscription. But until recently there has been little evidence to show whether this works or not. I presented that evidence in the Thame Gazette.
A return to military conscription has been suggested as a solution by many who have written to me after the riots. I understand why. Like the Jesuit claim "give me a child for his first seven years and I'll give you the man", conscription is expected to mould an individual early enough to affect subsequent behaviour based on exposure to obedience and discipline.
So far, only 20% of those who appeared in court have been juveniles It’s also the wrong solution. Recent international research shows clearly that conscription increases the likelihood of developing a criminal record in adult life. It is worse where conscription starts at 18 rather than 21 and the longer the period of conscription. Much of this is due to reduced or delayed job prospects amongst those conscripted. One thing that does, however, seem to work is an additional year of schooling.
The Prime Minister is right that what we need is non-military service that captures the notions of team-work, discipline, duty, and decency. National Citizen Service already provides this to thousands in the UK. Extending it to all 16 year olds is based on experience not instant reaction. So far, of those who have appeared before the courts because of the riots, 20% have been juveniles. 80% have been adults; many, but not all, young adults. That is why the Prime Minister is also right to stress that the solution lies in a range of policy across Government from education to welfare not just youth policy. It lies in mending our broken society. Finally, let us remember that many conscripts were killed in action and about 150 committed suicide. It wasn’t ever a universal answer. Two of conscription’s most famous alumni, after all, went on to terrorise London’s east end. They were the Kray twins.
A FRAMEWORK FOR BALANCE The Governmentâ€™s draft National Planning Policy Framework drew considerable comment. Whilst there was huge support for the Framework some organisations attacked it on grounds which were entirely spurious. In the Guardianâ€™s on-line edition I set the record straight.
The government's approach to planning is straightforward. It is based squarely on giving local people a greater say over future development and putting sustainability at the heart of the planning system. The proposed new rules do not shift power to developers; they shift power to local people. This simple message has been widely understood by developers, some of whom have recognised that the old ways of delivering a project will need to be replaced by collaboration with communities at the plan-making stage. Local people understand this message too, as is shown by their enthusiasm for producing neighbourhood plans to help shape the areas in which they live. In an article in the Financial Times, chancellor George Osborne and communities secretary Eric Pickles said that "sticking with the old failed system puts at risk young people's future prosperity and quality of life", reminding us that the debate over planning is much more than a technical one; it is at the heart of delivering the growth this country needs. Planning is and should be about balance and judgement. That is why the tick-box approach to planning under the previous government was so corrosive and undemocratic. A one-size fits all philosophy based on central direction deprives local councils and communities of the ability to exercise their judgement and achieve balance. Sustainability is no exception.
The framework makes it clear that sustainability means that plans should ensure they promote development to meet the needs of the present, without compromising the needs of future generations. That is not the promotion of growth at all costs. Many will recognise that this description reflects the Brundtland Commission's internationally recognised definition of sustainability. This is achieved by ensuring that plans are based on a solid evidence base and that they consciously reflect an appropriate local balance between environmental, social and economic needs. The ministerial foreword to the framework makes this clear: "This framework sets out clearly what could make a proposed plan or development unsustainable." Each chapter of the framework sets out a different issue which contributes to that assessment of sustainability. However, it is clear that for some environmentalists and countryside organisations the problem is not the framework, but that it has exposed their lack of faith in being able to make the Brundtland definition of sustainability practical. This is an astonishing counsel of despair which surely undermines the very purpose and existence of organisations like the Brundtland Commission itself. The local plan sets out what is, and is not, acceptable and remains at the heart of the planning system. Local planning committees will still be able to reject
applications which are not in accordance with their local plan, and local plans will not be able to sanction development which would cause harm. Councils will still be able to prioritise the use of brownfield sites. Indeed, the framework already encourages local authorities to produce plans by using natural resources prudently, by enabling the re-use of existing resources and by prioritising land of least environmental value.
Reforming a slow, inefficient, costly and confrontational system is good news for us all and it is why the government remains committed to reform.
HIGH SPEED 2 The issue of High Speed 2 has aroused concern across the Chilterns in particular. Only the Labour Party route for the line is likely to pass anywhere near this constituency but it is still a subject which arouses passion. There is a huge amount of mis-information about the project – including the view that this is just about getting to Birmingham more quickly. In the Oxfordshire Guardian I set out my thoughts on the basis of how the project should be judged.
Two constituents originally from the North-West complained to me recently that the Government had not yet abolished the North-South divide. I explained that the whole country needs to generate the growth required to clear up the economic mess left by Labour. Stimulating growth and providing substantial private sector jobs was one way. This is what the Government’s Regional Growth Fund of £1.4 billion is about. The new Enterprise Zones just announced move us away from overreliance on the City and stimulate growth across the country. However, all of this is only going to be successful if it is sustainable. That is why the infrastructure required to support growth should not continue to lock it in to the South East. Governments have always been criticised for never investing in infrastructure. Now, we have a Government with a national infrastructure plan and a desire to see the country operate without an artificial.
divide at Watford Gap. This is of course just what residents of the South-East have always wanted too Many surveys have highlighted local fears that the South East is sinking, metaphorically, under its own weight and that congestion, overcrowding, environmental degradation and hostility to development are the signs of this. A different picture is painted by those in the North East. However, whatever anyone might feel about a project it is sad that protest today exchanges proper debate for raw emotion. The Forests, the NHS, and BSkyB campaigns have all been willing to abandon rational argument. Those attacking HS2 should make sure they avoid this trap. It is wrong to caricature HS2 as being about a quicker ride to Birmingham rather than the broader need to spread growth.
Ending a culture of confrontation
Axing Labourâ€™s housing targets
SEPTEMBER 2011 THE OBJECTIVES OF OUR PLANNING REFORMS In September I returned to the subject of planning to set out clearly what our objectives are in undertaking major reform of the planning system. This is not about statistics such as the low number of houses we are building but about real cases of personal hardship and the way in which the aspirations of young people and their families to own a house of their own are being frustrated. Of course the planning system is not totally responsible for this but it has often played a major role.
The three objectives of the Governmentâ€™s planning reforms are (1) to give greater power to local people (2) to simplify the planning system, and, (3) to make sure local plans are put together in a way which is sustainable. These changes do not promote growth at all costs. National policy provides protection, for example, for heritage, Green Belt and for environmental designations including AONB and SSSIs. Local Plans will also continue to provide strong safeguards for the environment.
Planning applications will continue to be judged against the local plan, where it is up-to-date. Local Plans will need to be put together on the basis of evidence which allows a balance to be struck between the environmental, social and economic requirements of the area.
We are building the fewest number of houses since the 1920s
For the first time local people will help shape their towns and villages by producing Neighbourhood Plans which will become a formal part of the planning system. Thame is one of the frontrunners in this process. These plans will have to be approved by a referendum of the whole neighbourhood.
There is no necessary contradiction between development and the environment as long as development is planned and undertaken responsibly. Local residents now have a share in that.
These reforms will finally sweep away Labourâ€™s top-down approach and the imposition of housing numbers from Whitehall, an approach which has caused so much anger in the town. Housing numbers will become a matter for local councils to determine in their local plan.
We are building the fewest number of houses in peace time since the 1920s. The average age of the first time buyer unaided is now 37. Margaret Thatcher set a vision for the UK as a property owning democracy. That was a popular vision for our generation and we need to make sure it remains both a good and achievable vision for this and subsequent generations.
GREEN BELT PROTECTION REMAINS I was saddened to see that some countryside organisations chose to take issue with the Government over the level of protection for the Green Belt in the National Planning Policy Framework. The fact is that the Framework enshrines that protection in a way which I believe makes it stronger. As someone who has been involved in protecting the Green Belt for many years I found many of the comments unnecessarily alarmist as well as being without foundation.
In the Coalition Agreement the Government stated in its first weeks in office its commitment to maintaining national Green Belt protection. The Green Belt has a valuable role in stopping urban sprawl and providing a green lung around towns and cities. Our policy in the draft National Planning Policy Framework which remains open for consultation until mid October continues the strong protection for our villages. When the Localism Bill finally abolishes Labour’s unpopular Regional Strategies, it will remove top-down pressure on councils to review the extent of their Green Belt. Labour’s South East Plan of course threatened the Green Belt around Oxfordshire with a major development south of the City. In addition our new draft planning policy on traveller sites explicitly increases protection for the Green Belt and open countryside. The Government’s reforms of planning strengthen the purpose of the Green Belt which is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open.
The essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness. The draft National Planning Policy Framework also stresses that Green Belts should have permanence. The draft Framework is clear that Green Belt boundaries, as now, should only be re-considered when a Local Plan is being prepared or reviewed, and with the intention of providing permanence to Green Belt boundaries in the long term. So it is emphatically not the case as some have tried to claim that the status of any villages would change just because the Framework is introduced. The new planning rules are about ensuring Green Belt designation is used for its intended purpose i.e. to protect openness. Villages can still also be protected by using other means such as conservation area designations. In addition, villages can be protected through policies in the Local Plan and through the new Neighbourhood Plans which communities will be able to produce for their own areas.
Green Belt walk
The Oxford Green Belt
The village tour 2011
OCTOBER 2011 THE BIGGEST FACE-TO-FACE ENGAGEMENT EXERCSIE By the beginning of October I had completed a tour of 80 smaller villages in the constituency. The larger villages have schools, churches and a variety of community organisations with which it is possible to build a relationship. Inevitably, I find myself being drawn back to these villages time and again. But what about the others? To get to these villages I decided to put together a tour of them during the summer conference recess which we branded â€˜On Your Doorstepâ€™. All in all we covered almost 350 miles spread over 8 specific routes. The tour was covered widely in the local press. In the Henley Standard, its diarist wrote:
CONGRATULATIONS to our MP John Howell, who has just finished visiting 80 small villages in the constituency in just eight days. He started at Thrupp at 10.30am on Monday September 19 and finished at 3.40pm at Nuffield last Friday. Altogether he clocked up almost 350 miles. John said he was immensely pleased that so many people came out to meet him. Sometimes they stood around under a shady tree to discuss issues and on other occasions he made use of the village pub. John is determined to do it again next year. It is believed this is the first time an MP has undertaken such a journey and ends His tour covered the northern edge of the constituency at Bicester to Playhatch in the south 53 miles away.
John in Parliament
NOVEMBER 2011 THE ROLE OF AN MP Much of the end of 2011 was dominated by one issue – Europe. Whilst the crisis in the Eurozone has the potential seriously to upset our own economy, the calls for an ‘In/Out’ referendum risked taking the focus off the defining issue of our age – getting the economy back into good shape. In this article in the Thame Gazette I tried to set out what the role of an MP is when it comes to representing the constituency and how there were few reliable ways of measuring public opinion to help.
The issue of a referendum on Europe seemed to raise more questions about the role of an MP than it did about Europe. In a representative democracy an MP is there to serve the best interests of the nation and of constituents based on judgement not opinion polls. Opinion polls cannot tell us whether those who answer the question have given the issue any serious thought. Answers are often led by the nature of the questions themselves. Opinion polls also do not provide any context for how strongly an answer is felt or what priority the respondent gives to it. Recent on-line campaigns are no better. Technology makes it too easy to send an e mail at the press of a button with little thought. How seriously for example should I take campaign e mails which begin "Dear [INSERT THE NAME OF YOUR MP]" and end with "Regards [INSERT YOUR OWN NAME]". This does not suggest a lot of thought was given to the e mail before the button was pressed; if indeed an individual rather than the campaign organisation pressed the button at all. It's not just electronic communications. Some constituents recently complained that they had not asked me to write to them in relation to a particular campaign.
I had to point out that the petition they had signed clearly asked for just that in black and white. Constituents' opinions can help me in forming a judgement. However, representing people does not mean simply doing what they say. An MP is not a mere delegate to be mandated to vote in a particular way. The role is not to represent constituents' views since they are always mutually contradictory on any one subject. As was established as long ago as 1774, an MP is there to use his or her own judgement. And who are the 'they' anyway? Are the 0.1% of voters who contacted me about a referendum on Europe really suggesting that I should rely on guidance solely from them? This is difficult since many of that 0.1% were against a referendum, not for it. And, what should I make of the views of the 99.9% who did not feel the urge to write or e mail on this occasion? Above all, one needs to retain some perspective. Constituents here are not shy in contacting me; they do so by the many thousands each year. Yet I had over twice as many e mails about the fate of Anne the Circus Elephant and the conditions in which hens and cows are kept than I did about a European referendum!
THE ECONOMY AND THAME In November I got the chance to write two articles for the Thame Gazette to make up for an absence of my column in October. In this article I looked at the economy and its effect on Thame’s business. At the end of the article I threw out a challenge to Thame’s business community to tell me what regulations they wanted cut. So far, there has not been an answer.
It was good to see the pundits proved wrong this week. GDP increased by 0.5% in the three months to September rather than the 0.3% some economists had been predicting. This is both positive and welcome news that the economy continues to grow. Earlier in the month the independent Office for National Statistics had reported that the last recession knocked a whopping 7.1% off the UK economy. So we now know that the recession was sharper, steeper and deeper than had previously been estimated. In answer to my question at Treasury Questions on Tuesday in Parliament, the Chancellor and his Treasury team pointed out the support that international organisations such as the IMF were giving on the way the Government is handling the economy. There are three things that we need to focus on. First, we need to continue to face up to our debts and our huge deficit. It’s because the UK is sticking to its guns on the economy that despite the size of our debt we have market interest rates that are half those in countries like Spain and Italy. Secondly, we need to make Britain competitive. We can do that by cutting corporation tax and making sure work pays. But, a major factor holding us back is how out-of-date and inadequate much of our infrastructure is. Lastly, we need to unlock trade for British businesses around the world.
So what does all that mean for business in and around Thame?
We now know the recession was sharper and deeper Improving our infrastructure is not just about big projects such as new power stations; it’s also about more local infrastructure projects that make our everyday lives miserable and business less easy to conduct. The ones which were raised the most numbers of times on my recent tour around 80 villages in the constituency were the state of our roads (and the number of potholes) and the poverty of broadband and mobile coverage across much of this constituency. Our local businesses need help to grow and deliver the prosperity on which we all depend. They need red tape to be cut. Regulations costing businesses over £350 million per year have already been targeted. We are on a mission to liberate small business, so why don’t we start at home? Why don’t businesses in and around Thame rise to the Red Tape Challenge by letting me know what regulations they would cut and why.
Henley Business networking event
Learning the ropes at Thame market 31
DECEMEBER 2011 MAINTAING OUR FISCAL CREDIBILITY The end of the year was marked by the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement and the recognition that the last recession was deeper than anyone had first imagined. Despite the financial and economic crisis, the Government has set out measures which help the very poorest and the lowest earners. There has also been a raft of measures to help women. In my Thame Gazette column for December I pointed out how all this could be upset if we do not ensure we maintain low interest rates by keeping our international fiscal credibility high.
One of the best ways of finding out what people think is to ask them. That is why I recently visited 80 local villages to talk to people on their own doorsteps – the largest face-to-face exercise undertaken by an MP in this constituency. Where that level of contact is not possible I also do my own surveys. Two examples: the level of broadband service we receive and the issues facing providers of nursery education.
many women – out of poverty. Taking 1.1 million of the lowest paid workers out of tax will benefit some 650,000 women. Maintaining international confidence is crucial to allowing us to do all this.
Universal credit, part of the government’s welfare reforms, will lift nearly a million people - including 350,000 children and
We should all care that we maintain our fiscal credibility. If we don’t; the impact will be worse in the long-term.
We now know that the last recession wiped out over 7% of GDP and that excessive spending burdened everyone with debt. There is nothing fair about running huge budget deficits and burdening future generations with debts The latter is particularly important. It is we cannot afford to pay. That is why the right at this time that we focus on key first priority for Government is to groups within society such as the very continue the rescue mission of the British poorest and the lowest earners many of economy. An additional 1% increase in whom are women. Adequate childcare is interest rates could leave the average one of the best ways of helping women family with an additional mortgage and I am pleased to see the Government payment of £1,000 per year and it could investing in childcare including free early- lead to an additional £7 billion of years education for many disadvantaged business costs. Some businesses would 2-year olds. fail and jobs would be lost.