Friday, 27 November 2009

Clearing road barriers

Later today I had another meeting with the team at CPR Regeneration. The regeneration work being carried out by CPR is going to have a crucial impact on our area and, in my view, it is exactly the sort of situation where local politicians should be prepared to roll up their sleeves and try to solve problems - however hard they might be.

To give credit where credit is due, Candy Atherton, the last Labour MP for this area, did actually try her best to support the early work of CPR in the time she was there.

Conservatives pioneered the concept of Urban Regeneration Companies and Enterprise Zones twenty years ago and we need to make the most of opportunities now. Today we discussed issues around the Highways Agency and County Highways and how a future government might be able to make coordination between the two better so that regeneration work is not obstructed.

It is so important to get basic issues like this right.

Supporting families affected by disability

I started the day with a meeting with Janice Jenner and Liz Farmer for a briefing on the work (and some of the frustrations) encountered by 'Contact a Family' – a social enterprise that supports and provides advice to families with disabled children.

When I worked for the Conservative Party as the Head of External Relations, one of the groups that I worked closely with was the Conservative Disability Group which developed thinking to help support disabled people in our community. It was Margaret Thatcher who introduced the first Disability Services Act in 1986 which required local authorities to think more about the responsibility they had to help ensure people with impairments could take their place in society and we can be proud of what has been achieved.

Today, one of the issues that needs to be looked at is how we help those who care for others. There are often issues with child carers who have to look after parents suffering from illness or disability. More often, families with disabled children need emotional and often financial support to help them care for their children and siblings can be affected too.

Many parents in this situation find themselves confronted with a barrage of bureaucratic processes - with seemingly endless, spirit crushing forms to fill out to get anywhere. I have always been quite attracted to some of the ideas practiced in countries like Sweden and actually piloted in some local authorities in Britain, where you simplify the process, have a single assessment of need and then give more power to families to determine how their budget is spent.

The thing about disability is that each and every situation is unique and so the system needs to have plenty of flexibility to respond to differing needs. All too often it fails to do that. There is no shortage of government guidance piled layer on layer from above but the system just doesn’t respond adequately to the unique needs of the individual case.

That is why I think there is a lot of potential for social enterprises in this field – because they can offer support which is more personalised.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Remembrance Sunday

Today I attended the Remembrance Sunday parade and service at Camborne. The attendance was higher this year than for many years previously - almost certainly linked to the fact that the difficulties and the casualties our forces are suffering in the current mission in Afghanistan has had an impact on the whole country.

The parade started at 10.30 from Camborne Community Centre. There had been concerns about the weather. It was breezy to say the least but the rain held off which was what mattered. As well as many local forces veterans, there was a strong turn out from the cadets, the Scout movement and the Brownies. Following behind the veterans were representatives from local politics and business: the chambers of commerce, councillors and the candidates from the three political parties.

The mission in Afghanistan would be the gravest responsibility of any future government and Prime Minster. I travelled with David Cameron to visit British forces in Afghanistan in July 2006 when I was his Press Secretary. I saw first-hand the work that our troops were doing in Kandahar, Camp Bastion and Lashkar Gah. The fighting was intense even in 2006 and then, as now, there were issues around equipment and support – particularly helicopters.

Our armed forces have a “can do” attitude and get the job done without complaining. But I feel very strongly that government has a duty to do its bit to ensure that, if we ask our forces to put their lives at risk, then we must do all we can to ensure they are properly equipped and that their families are supported and that if they should be wounded they are properly looked after. It is because they don’t complain that we should all take extra care to make sure they are not taken for granted.

After that visit to Afghanistan in 2006, David Cameron set up a commission to look again at the “Military Covenant” – the unwritten agreement between society and the forces which says that, in return for taking extraordinary risks on our behalf, we will do our bit to see they are looked after. The Commission took a detailed look at conditions for our forces today and it came up with a raft of proposals to improve the way they and their families are treated. It would be an important step forward.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Let local communities make decisions on housing

You can judge politicians by the consistency of the position they take on contentious issues. One of the things that irritates people about some MPs today is the sense that some of them change their tune on difficult issues depending on who they are talking to and so it is difficult to work out where they stand and whether they can be trusted.

One such issue is housing. In Camborne, Redruth and Hayle, we have a local need for some additional housing. A report by the former Kerrier Council suggested that there was a need for perhaps an additional 2000 homes in the Camborne and Redruth area over the next ten years or so. The problem is real. There are many families where young couples are unable to leave their parents’ home to have a place of their own. “Sofa surfing” is the term used to describe those who have to rough it at the homes of friends and family and it affects many in our community.

But what should have been a straight forward response at the local level to this problem has been turned into chaos by a crazy plan from the Labour government started by John Prescott. Rather than allowing local communities to decide what their local needs were and build what was required, instead they created a national “target” and set up a so called “Regional Assembly” that dictated from the centre that Camborne and Redruth must build 11,000 new homes, irrespective of local need. We only have 18,000 homes in Camborne and Redruth now, and so a two thirds increase of 11,000 homes is clearly barking.

There are three things I believe and I have been consistent from the start. Firstly, decisions should be taken locally and so I am absolutely opposed to the crackpot, centrally imposed government targets that have been forced on us. A future Conservative government would abolish the Regional Planning Bodies and the Regional Spatial Strategies and return decision making to local communities. Secondly, we do have a local need for some new housing in our area but the figure is way, way below what has been set out in the government target. Finally, I believe that we have a number of brown field sites in Camborne and Redruth and that should be where any new developments are built so that we protect our green spaces.

I have been saying the same three things to everyone, whether they are struggling to find a home or whether they are worried about over-development. In Cornwall we are fortunate in having the Trelawney Alliance to coordinate the campaign against mass house building targets and I supported their rally in the spring. The two strengths of the Trelawney Alliance are that they are not party political so are open to people of all political persuasions but they also take a balanced view and accept that there is a need for some new housing for local needs.

I don’t usually use this diary to comment on my opponents, but the twists and turns of the local Lib Dem MP on this issue have been truly bizarre. She says one thing in London and another thing in Cornwall.

First she said in parliament that she “fully supported” plans for mass housing in Camborne and Redruth and that her only worry was whether there was enough capacity in the building industry to lay the concrete fast enough. Then, in the face of local opposition, she claimed she had changed her mind and was going to oppose the central targets after all. Then, just weeks after pledging to support the Conservative policy on abolishing targets, she attacked the same Conservative policy in the Daily Mirror and said that Conservatives were “in denial” by opposing central targets. Now the Lib Dems have put out a leaflet stating precisely the reverse – and falsely claiming that the Conservative policy of sharing the benefits of new housing development would mean mass house building. The Lib Dems are all over the place.

I have always felt that one of the problems with our planning system is that there are too many win-lose scenarios. If a developer gets his plans through, he makes a good profit but the community can often feel that it is worse off and is paying the price with additional pressures on services. That is why the Conservatives have been looking at ways to make the planning system fairer and less confrontational and to share the benefits of small scale new developments. This means giving financial help to those communities who decide that they do need more housing to help cope with the requirement for additional services that comes with new developments.
It is an approach that is based on carrots rather than sticks and it makes a lot of sense. Local communities will have the final say but they will be supported and the financial benefits shared. Anyone who actually believed in liberal values and sustainable communities would support it.