Thursday, 20 October 2011

Breathing new life into our town centres

Last year, I organised a conference to explore how we can revitalise and give a new sense of purpose to our towns and, this week, I attended a meeting in parliament of a group of like minded MPs who are all aiming to deliver the same results in their own areas.

There is a lot of exciting new work going on in this area. Hayle has had a long wait but might, at long last, be about to see a major restoration of the harbour area complete with new restaurants and a cinema. Camborne has been boosted by the arrival of Wetherspoons in the centre of town and a few weeks ago I met the Chinese owner of the Redruth Brewery site to see how we can kick start some activity there because it must be Redruth’s turn next. I would like to see the Cornish Records Office moved from Truro to Redruth where it belongs because it could be the catalyst for a new retail offering based on Cornwall’s heritage and culture.

The inexorable growth of out-of-town supermarkets has taken people away from our towns so, in future, let’s put them in the centre where they bring life in rather than outside where they drain life away. Secondly, high business rates have driven some small retailers out of business so let’s make it easier for new shops to open by giving them soft rates for the first year to get on their feet and let’s help struggling retailers by giving them discounts from their existing business rates.

Thirdly, we should not duck the fact that free car parking is a factor that can encourage people back into town. If you are going to Camborne to buy a pasty or get some photos developed, the high cost of car parking is enough to put you off. So I think we need to look at ways of funding free car parking for the first hour. It has worked well in other towns elsewhere in the country and where there is a will, there is a way. Finally, we need to do more to attract destination retailers to our towns which would raise the tide for all the other shops too. There is often a lack of suitable retail space but you only need one or two brand names to create some momentum.

The government has made a lot of these ideas possible because it is allowing Councils to keep all the rates on new commercial premises so the income retained from new industrial units at Pool and Treleigh could be ploughed back into schemes to kick start our town centres. But we need a plan to make it happen.

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, 13 October 2011

Getting alcohol laws right

Last weekend I did a stint working behind the bar at the Tyacks Hotel in Camborne. It was part of a project organised by the Beer and Pubs Association and it aimed to raise awareness of the issues affecting our pubs. I had a bit of a head start in that I used to occasionally do shifts behind the bar at Trevaskis Farm some years ago, although admittedly that was before the days of the sophisticated new tills that most establishments now use.

The local pub is an important part of many communities but many of them are facing difficult times with several thousand closing in recent years. We all have a role to play supporting them and there is truth in the adage that we should “use them or lose them” but we also need to get policy in this area right. There is no doubt that the smoking ban introduced by the last government did damage to many traditional pubs which sell drink rather than food. They have also been undermined by the advent of cheap alcohol sold by supermarkets.

Binge drinking and alcohol abuse is a problem but, if we are serious about tackling it then we have to start by picking the right target and it is wrong to target pubs. It is better by far to have people drinking socially and responsibly within a pub atmosphere than getting hammered on cider out on the streets. The evidence is also very clear that pubs are refusing to serve people who they believe to be underage or drunk in far greater numbers today than at any time before so they are taking their responsibilities seriously. And despite concerns about underage drinking, there is some evidence that more teenagers under 18 abstain from drinking now than was the case in the 1980’s. The problem is that some of those who do drink do so far more heavily than previous generations. It is a difficult balance to get right because introducing young people to a small glass of wine within the home over a meal on special occasions can help make them more responsible when they turn eighteen.

The truth is that serious alcohol abuse is often linked to other social problems such as social breakdown and chaotic lifestyles, so we need to start by dealing with those issues. A lot of problem drinking, including underage drinking, occurs outdoors on the streets and in the parks, so why don’t we take a tougher line on that? There have also been many studies which show that cheap alcohol sold in supermarkets has been a factor so perhaps it is time to increase duties on supermarket sales but reduce it for pubs so people can be encouraged to drink responsibly.

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 October 2011

The importance of education

On Monday during our conference in Manchester, I took part in an event which discussed, among other things, education policy. I have always believed that one of the lasting legacies of the current government could be a transformation in our schools and I am a strong advocate of the policies being put forward by Michael Gove.

This part of Cornwall has had its share of hard knocks in recent decades and as a result there are thousands of local people who are trapped in welfare dependency and have lost the confidence to get a job. In some cases the culture of dependency and low aspiration spans generations with children leaving school when neither their father nor grandfather worked. Turning this culture around will take time but we have to start now and good schooling is the central ingredient to raising aspiration for the next generation.

Many schools in Cornwall have now become academies, becoming independent schools within the state sector. They have all the benefits of private schools but they are free to all. Last Friday I visited Bodriggy Academy in Hayle. This is a school that has come a long way in the last ten years and is now rated as outstanding by the schools regulator. One of the governors told me that at every meeting they ask themselves the question, “how can we make it even better next year?” So far they have used their new freedoms to create a new reception area and to employ a full time speech therapist to give intense support to children starting at school but who have difficulties with communication. I think that is absolutely crucial because unless children can communicate and use language, they will never learn other skills, will slip further and further behind the rest of their class and become resentful and disruptive by the time they are teenagers. Bodriggy had also bought new uniforms for all the children and it was touching to see the pride that they took in their newly formed Academy.

Many of our other schools are getting better and better each year. There is really healthy competition between the schools in Camborne, Pool and Redruth. Both Pool Academy and Redruth School have launched a new uniform this term following Camborne’s successful change a couple of years ago. The motto of Redruth, “Expect the best” sums up what we need our schools to do. They should all unashamedly champion excellence and achievement.

It is funny how things go full circle. During the 60’s and 70’s, the teaching profession went through a phase of thinking it was trendy and progressive to throw out old fashioned values and standards but the tide has turned and standards are on the way back.

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

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The party train to party conference

I am now on the 18.04 from Camborne to Paddington which will get me in to Paddington by midnight so that I can then drive to Manchester tomorrow morning for the start of our party conference.

The 6.04 is the very last train to London on a Saturday night and I am a frequent traveller on it. I call it the "party train" because through the course of the journey, you see a fascinating profile of a saturday night out. There are always pretty girls dressed for a night out waiting on the platform at Camborne, probably on their way to the L2 nightclub in Truro (it was called The Loft back in my day). At Par, all those who have had a day out in Newquay get in board, surf boards and all. By Liskeard, there are people heading for a night out in Plymouth. By the time you get to Bristol, people who have had a few too many drinks but are on their way home start to get aboard and it gets progressively more rowdy until people start falling asleep towards the end. I suspect that it is not the favourite shift for the wonderfully patient First Great Western staff but probably beats the sometimes overcrowded Sunday trains.

Tomorrow morning I will be driving up to Manchester for our Party conference. In my former role managing the press, conference was one of the most demanding and stressful weeks of the year but, as a backbench MP, you actually get the chance to enjoy the fringe events and various debates in a way that was never previously possible. I am speaking at two - one on education for Policy Exchange and another on the future of the EU for the Centre for European Reform.

And, lest I sound pious talking about people drinking too much on a Saturday night out, I suspect I will also have a drink or two in Manchester.