Monday, 14 April 2014

DAWLISH

Last weekend saw the reopening of the railway line at Dawlish in time for the Easter holidays and the reconnection of Cornwall to the rest of the country by rail. Credit where credit is due it has been a huge effort by First Great Western and Network Rail and it is a great achievement to have the line up and running two weeks ahead of schedule. Every weekend I travel down from London to Camborne on the sleeper and I will be just one of many in our area who are welcoming this news.

The last few weeks at Dawlish have seen a large team of engineers, known as the 'Orange Army' for their fluorescent vests, work around the clock to get the line restored. It has been a massive job because overall around eighty meters of the track was deemed unusable and the logistics of working so near the sea made it even more difficult. There was also further bad weather to deal with and a landslide had to be forced just south of Dawlish when a large chunk of earth became dangerously exposed at Teignmouth. Overall it is estimated that the initial costs are around £35 million, although the costs to our local economy meant we needed to see the line restored as soon as possible.

We now need to look at what can we can do to further improve our rail link and to make sure that this kind of thing never happens again. There has been a lot of talk around developing an existing line via Okehampton as an additional emergency line in case of further damage, or as an alternative main line in the future. There are also other ideas around further tunnelling on the existing route. Network Rail has commissioned a report to look at these and I think that is a good first step. No one doubts that more should be done but we need to make sure change is sensitive to the places like Dawlish whose economy has grown up around the railway.

We also need to make sure we get a better deal for Cornwall and I have always pushed for fairer funding to allow this to happen. Finally we are making some progress and there are discussions taking place that could see an extensive sleeper upgrade as well as a huge improvement to signalling on the tracks. This in turn could see far more frequent services from Penzance to Plymouth and with more rolling stock becoming available in the next couple of years it would also mean more capacity.

I think this is encouraging news because these targets are achievable in a short timeframe and will make a real difference. As we are on a Peninsula the journey to London is always going to be a long one, but we need to keep prices down and offer more flexibility.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Monday, 7 April 2014

HELPING WITH PERSONAL DEBT

One of the challenges of economic growth is to make sure everyone benefits. It is why the reforms to the benefits system so that work pays are so important and also why we need intensive support to help those who have been out of work for a long time get their confidence back. It's also why we need to maintain momentum when it comes to local regeneration.

We also need to recognise the demoralising affect that personal debt can have on those on the bottom rung and it isn’t just those on benefits. Many people who work hard also have debt problems and shouldn't be overlooked. It can start with a one off bill like a repair to the car or an unexpected tax bill but end up with court costs and thuggish bailiffs at the door adding huge cost and stress. Some people turn to loan sharks or payday loan companies who seem to offer a quick fix but actually end up compounding the problem. There are few things more demoralising to people than having bills and debts that stalk them.

There is good work being done to help. The Citizens Advice Bureau regularly offers debt advice to those at their wits end. In extreme cases they can help people apply to the court for a Debt Relief Order to remove some of the burden. Last week I met the local organiser for Christians Against Poverty to discuss their work locally. CAP was founded by someone who had worked in finance but then suffered his own debt problems. Volunteers with experience visit families at home and help them put together a budget. If there are difficult debts overhanging them, CAP will manage the relations with those companies, sometimes securing a write off of some of the debt and a consistent payment plan which they manage on behalf of the family. Their service is free to those in need.

In 2012 the Government set up the Money Advice Service with the key objective to encourage people to better manage their money and prevent them from getting into unmanageable levels of debt. The MAS offers free and impartial information on money matters and they can be contacted online, by telephone or even face-to-face. There has been a crackdown on loan sharks. The Financial Conduct Authority is strengthening the rules, by making sure payday loan companies research whether their clients can actually pay back the money and is also considering a cap for the loans.

There are better ways for people to manage their money. Two years ago I became a member of the Kernow Credit Union. Unlike other lenders they don't judge people through credit agencies. Those who are in greatest need know that "subject to status" means "not you." With a credit union people earn their credibility. Those who save regularly each month can, after three months, borrow around three times the amount they have saved.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

REFORMS IN THE BUDGET

Last week’s budget brought positive news and a strong sense that the country has well and truly turned the corner. There was good news for Cornwall and some radical ideas to reward those who save for their own retirement. George Osborne announced at the beginning of his speech that the economy was going to grow even more than at first thought, with growth this year set at 2.7%, the biggest revision in the budget forecast for over thirty years. Not only that, it is now predicted our deficit will be down by a halve next year and by 2018 the country will even be running on a surplus.

There is still plenty more to do and no one is saying these forecasts mean we can rest on our laurels. That said, economic growth means the government can now feel more confident in offering further economic incentives and help to those who have been hit hardest by the downturn. Some of the measures the Chancellor announced do just that.

Firstly the personal tax allowance will be raised even further to £10,500, starting next year. This should lift almost thirty thousand people in the South West out of tax altogether and importantly it will make sure low and middle earners are hit by as little tax as possible.

Secondly savers will see some crucial changes to how their savings are taxed and how they can invest their hard-earned money. The 10p starting rate on savings income will now be abolished and replaced with a zero pence rate, helping expand savings of up to £5,000. As well as this, a new pensioner bond, which people can invest in more than before, will also offer better returns than any on the market today and people will be able to invest more in ISA’s. I am often approached by savers who have felt that the economic recovery is passing them by despite their efforts and these new measures are a step in the right direction.

Finally there will be more flexibility in the pension system, which is news that will be welcomed by many. If you pay a certain defined amount into your pension, no longer will you be forced to buy an annuity, unless you have decided you want to. On top of this, if you have pensions savings of £30,000 or less you can now take these pots as a cash lump sum which is double the threshold it is now. There will also be a cut in the amount of income you need to access your pension’s savings flexibly, down from £20,000 to £12,000. All these changes will make it easier and cheaper for people to withdraw money from their pension pots and they represent some pretty fundamental reform.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032

Monday, 24 March 2014

NEW HOUSING

Last weekend I officially opened a new housing development at Carharrack that has been built by Ocean Homes. The housing was exactly the sort that we need more of in our area, with shared ownership and equity on offer as well as social housing and others available on the open market. It is these affordable and mixed developments that are helping first time buyers get on the first rung of the property ladder and it was clear during my visit just how popular the housing is with younger families and couples who want a place of their own.

We need to make sure this aspiration becomes a reality and over the past couple of years the government has been doing a lot to help people get their foot in the door. The ‘Help to Buy’ scheme, which comes in two parts, has already helped thousands. The mortgage guarantee part underwrites some of the lenders exposure to enable mortgage companies to offer 95 percent mortgages and a deposit of just 5 percent. Until the credit crunch, 95 percent mortgages were very common and I actually remember using them to buy my first flat. Even with the economy in recovery first time buyers are being given the impossible task of raising around a 30 percent deposit so this part of the scheme can really help.

The second element of ‘Help to Buy’ provides an equity loan for the deposit of households looking to buy a new build home. As well as helping about 25,000 people already, it also makes sure new houses are being built because it provides the security for housing developers to get building and not sit on land reserves. This week the Chancellor announced that the scheme will be extended until 2020 and I believe this is another step to make sure home ownership in Britain is the norm and not the preserve of the privileged few.

It is clear that we need to be building new and affordable housing in Cornwall to help those who dream of their own home and want to get on in life. The development at Carharrack was also an example of one sensitive to the area, adding just a small extension to the village and not disruptive to the original community. I have always said that there needs to be a balance when it comes to new housing that makes sure the community is involved, and certainly that we should build on brownfield instead of greenfield whenever possible.

I want to make sure that we get these developments right but also that we encourage affordable housing to be built. Young families moving in to an area can really add to the economy and dynamic of a community and I look forward to opening my next development.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032


Monday, 17 March 2014

St Michael’s Free School

Last weekend I was privileged to open the new school building at St Michael’s Catholic Secondary School in Camborne. The building will be providing some brilliant new teaching facilities, with new science laboratories, design and art classrooms as well as drama, music and ICT suites. It was great to officially open such an important resource for the school and take a look round the new facilities.

I first visited St Michael’s about eighteen months ago when it opened with just 45 pupils. Today it has 122 on the roll and it is growing, with aims to reach over 300 pupils in the next few years. It is not easy starting anything new, least of all a school, but this new Free School has made a very strong start.

Parents have been attracted to the school because of its high standards, small classroom size and encouraging environment to students of all backgrounds and interests. I was really interested to learn that at St Michael’s pupils from many different backgrounds were progressing at the same rate, with early data indicating the school has little or no attainment gap for those pupils on free school meals when compared with others.

The government has been keen to support the opening of new schools like St Michaels because the simple truth is that all children are individuals and will respond to different approaches in education. We want young people to find something they are passionate about and then have the support to really excel. For some that might mean a school that has a major focus on science or languages or indeed a focus on numeracy or sport. Some pupils flourish in larger schools but others will best develop their confidence if they have the support and nurturing environment provided by a smaller school.

We should not deny parents the choice if they feel that for their children a smaller school would be better at nurturing their individual talents. In the old days, only wealthy parents could choose where their children were placed but the opening of schools like St Michael’s prove that is now changing. Whilst it is likely that most will attend and be given the opportunity to thrive at our larger secondary schools, giving parents different options can only be a good thing.

I think it is so important to create a culture of excellence in the education system where schools are constantly striving to achieve more for all children, whether by stretching the most academic children so that they can go to university or giving additional support to help inspire those falling behind. The government’s reforms are a really positive step because a good education is the single most important thing to increase social mobility and help the next generation to get on in life.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032

Thursday, 6 March 2014

ST PIRAN’S DAY

Last Saturday I attended the St Piran’s day celebrations in Redruth. Although, due to my weekly surgery, I missed the start of the parade, the event was a fantastic success with the police estimating that around 5000 attended and with over 200 children and young people from our local schools taking part.

Redruth has really led the way in using civic events and celebrations of this sort to bring people into the town and to bring the community together. Together with the pasty festival, the Christmas lights procession and, of course, Murdoch Day, there is something every few months. It is really heartening to see so much support from the local schools and it's a vote of confidence in the future of the town. Children from Trewirgie Junior School were even going around completing questionnaires about the event to see how it could be improved in future years.

It is great to see such a steady and consistent revival of interest in Cornwall's unique culture and events like this are a really important way of celebrating what is distinct and special about Cornwall. Redruth is at the heart of Cornish history with the vast majority of the six million strong international Cornish diaspora tracing their roots back to our town. That is why Redruth was the natural home for the new Cornwall Archive Centre of Kresen Kernow which is currently going through the various stages of planning. It was a major breakthrough for the town to be designated as the chosen location and the project will regenerate the old brewery site and kick start the revival of the town.

Plans for the Kresen Kernow project were on display last Saturday and there are other events planned to get community feedback on the project. Like many others, I took a trip down memory lane watching some fascinating TV news archives about the final years of the old Devenish Brewery between 1986 and 1991. Growing up in the eighties in Cornwall, the familiar Devenish branding and those green Lorries were all around and, when I was older, I remember the famous Newquay Steam Bitter. Devenish was finally finished off by some sharp practice in the City by Whitbread and Boddingtons who were aiming to launch a hostile takeover bid. A management buyout followed by a further extended period under the current owner of the site, Horace Yao, gave the brewery a few more years, but in the end they couldn't continue. The Trevithick Society were there too having rescued some final cans of the beer (now very out of date!) along with beer mats and other branding which they are preserving.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy

This weekend I will be visiting fishermen in Newlyn to discuss the problems they have had over the last six weeks as a result of the stormy weather which has severely restricted the number of days they have been able to spend at sea as well as causing considerable damage to boats and fishing equipment.

While it has undoubtedly been a very difficult start to the year for Cornish fishermen, I think the longer term outlook gives some grounds for optimism because, at the beginning of January, the EU finally put into law a new reform of the Common Fisheries Policy which has the potential to deliver radical change as well as become a potential model for further reform in other areas of European policy.

There are a number of really important aspects to the new CFP deal. Firstly, there is a commitment to ban the discard of good fish. It has always been a disgraceful practice that perfectly healthy fish are thrown dead back into the sea simply because the fisherman who landed them did not happen to have the right quota. That will now end.

Secondly, to help make the discard ban work in practice, fishermen will receive a quota uplift so they can land more. They will also be granted much greater flexibility so that if they unexpectedly land more of one species for which they have no quota, then they will be allowed to count it against quota for another species instead rather than be forced to throw it dead back into the sea. If they happen to do better than expected at the end of the year, then they will also be allowed to borrow some quota from the following year.

The third key aspect of the new policy is that there is now a legally binding commitment to fish sustainably or at what scientists call Maximum Sustainable Yield. This means that we have a policy that focuses on the outcome rather than getting too bogged down in process and all member states in the EU have accepted this approach.

Finally, the new CFP has moved away from a centralised model where the entire EU sets out prescriptive policies. In future small groups of member states who have a shared interest in a particular fishery will decide on the management measures that will deliver sustainable fishing. Because they all have an interest in the future of the fishery, they are more likely to put thought into getting things right.

Taken together, these reforms have the potential to be a radical reform. I really hope both the industry and all EU governments will roll their sleeves up to make this a success.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.