Thursday, 23 February 2012

Develop brownfield sites first

The last government ended up in a right pickle over planning policy. Rather than engage local communities, they dictated house building targets from Whitehall, saying that 11,000 new homes would be built in Camborne and Redruth alone. Power was taken away from local councils and transferred to unelected regional quangos which led to a huge public backlash.

The new government has done much to return powers to local people. Regional Spatial Strategies were abolished within days and Councils were invited to develop their own plans. One thousand pages of centralised policy guidance is being streamlined with more control given to local councils. To ensure that councils listen to their communities there are new powers to enable parish councils or other groups to design their own “neighbourhood plans” which, if supported in a referendum, will have legal status in planning law.

At the beginning of this year, Cornwall Council published a consultation document for its “core strategy” on planning between now and 2030. The number of new houses planned in Camborne and Redruth has almost been cut in half to around 300 houses per year and most of the focus is now on building on derelict brownfield sites. The plan is a major improvement on what went before but I still think there is room for further improvement and this was the topic of discussion at a recent meeting of the Trelawny Alliance in Camborne.

There is no doubt that we have a shortage of housing and every week I have people struggling to find a suitable home approach me for help. However, the government is pursuing a number of other policies that may ease the pressure on our existing housing stock and these should also be factored in. First, there is a new £100 million fund to bring empty homes back in to use. Secondly, changes to the way housing benefit is paid will encourage people who have a house bigger than their needs to downsize and make way for a young family. Finally, banks and building societies will now be forced to pay council tax on homes they repossess so they have a strong incentive to get homes occupied again.

One of the problems about the future is that it is difficult to predict. That is why I have argued for two key amendments to the plan for Camborne and Redruth. First, there should be a principle of building on brownfield before greenfield sites. Secondly, there should be a delay in developing any greenfield sites until a mid-term review has been completed in ten years time. That would be a chance to take stock and reassess housing need and it would ensure that developers don’t cherry pick easy to develop greenfield sites while leaving the old derelict sites in a mess.

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.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Religion and Politics

“Never discuss religion or politics” is the timeless advice to those who want to avoid causing offence or controversy but occasionally something happens which means you have to discuss both at the same time. Last week, in an extraordinary judgement, Justice Ouseley ruled that Bideford Council had no legal right to hold prayers before council meetings.

The government immediately made clear that the decision was flawed and that provisions contained in the New Localism Act, which comes into force within weeks, will overrule the judgement because they give councils what is called a general power of competence. Rather than having to be given permission in law before being allowed to do something, as the judge in this case insisted they must, in future councils will be free to do anything they like provided it is not forbidden in law. That includes saying prayers if they want to.

Every day, both the House of Commons and House of Lords hold prayers before debates commence. It is a practice rightly repeated in council chambers up and down the country. Regardless of how religious individual MPs or councillors might be, prayers before parliament sits are a crucial recognition that we have our own independent Church of England established as part of the state with the Queen at its head. One of the crucial things about the British constitution is that it has evolved in a way that guarantees our absolute independence as a nation and an established church is part of that.

Britain has an admirable history of religious tolerance. Having an established Church of England does not mean that we oppose other faiths. A few years ago I worked with a project that aimed to improve links between the Conservative Party and the Muslim community. That year, I received more Christmas cards from Muslims than I did from Christians. Nor does it mean that religion is used in politics. The US does not have an established church like Britain but presidential candidates will frequently play the card of religion during elections to try to garner support in religious areas. That does not happen in Britain where we maintain a dignified separation of religion and party politics even though, or perhaps because, both parliament and the church swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen.

I sometimes receive letters from practicing Christians who feel that their beliefs and rights are being undermined. Parliament frequently has to wrestle with difficult issues where there is a clash of rights. But we are a Christian country and, while I am not devout myself and, like many others, don’t go to church as often as I should, I do think we should take a stand for the right to say prayers.

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.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

"Go to town"

The West Briton and Cornishman are to be commended on their new “Go to town” campaign which aims to get people shopping in our towns again. There has been much debate about what can be done to save our town centres, but there is one simple truism, “use them or lose them” so we all have a role to play.
Two years ago I organised a local conference to discuss some of the issues. Conscious that such events are often attended primarily by councillors and local government officials, I walked through Camborne, Redruth and Hayle going in to shops to discuss their concerns.
Three key issues repeatedly came up. The first was that the term “town centre regeneration” had negative connotations for a large number of small retailers. This surprised me but the reason is that, all too often in the past, insufficient thought was given to the disruptive impact of one way systems, pedestrianisation schemes and the like. In Redruth, for example, the old County Council decided to resurface the car park gradually, in between other jobs. As a result, it took six months to sort out the main car park in the town, which had a hugely detrimental effect on trade. So we must apply the principle, “First, do no harm.”
The second major issue to come up was car parking. Most small retailers recognise that the single biggest reason they cannot compete with supermarkets is that supermarkets can offer free car parking. I always remember the managing director of one of our large retailers saying that if a survey is conducted of the public, they will say that they want a picture postcard high street with a fishmonger and a butcher, but when it comes to how they vote with their wallets, 97% do their grocery shopping at a supermarket because they want to open the boot, load everything in and go home. We need to consider the issue of parking and I want to see Cornwall Council using the new retained business rates the government is giving them to offer more free car parking.
The third issue was business rates. I think it is a crying shame to see small retailers and new business who take huge pride in their shops snuffed out because the rigidities of the business rate system means they go backwards, losing money month after month. I think we need to look at ways of making our business rate system much more flexible so that we can give more breaks to new businesses that are doing a good job and that, given the time, could achieve so much more and really bring new life to our towns.

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, 2 February 2012

Welfare Reform

This week the government’s welfare reform proposals came back to the House of Commons after a bumpy debate in the House of Lords. I think that dealing with the problem of welfare dependency is one of the most important priorities for the government because it’s one of the ways that you improve the life chances of the next generation. The evidence is clear that having a working role model in the family is one of the key determinants of a child’s life chances.

It is why I simply cannot understand why certain members of the House of Lords have objected to the idea of capping benefits at the average amount of money earned by working families. The proposal is to cap the total benefits that any one household can earn at £26,000 per year. That is still a lot of money, amounting £500 a week. It would be the equivalent income after tax of someone in a job being paid a salary of £35,000 per year. What sort of message does it send to people working hard to support their family, sometimes on the minimum wage, that there are other families who don’t work at all but who are taking home more money and living in a home that many working people could not afford? It may be controversial, but we need to start taking concrete steps to get the right incentives in the welfare system.

Another dispiriting problem I sometimes come across is where people tell me that they can only work, say, 16 hours a week because, if they do more than that they lose their various benefits and tax credits and end up worse off. It is not their fault, but something is wrong with the system. We need to make work pay. The government is planning to radically simplify our benefits system, merging many different types of benefit into one single Universal Credit where the support paid is tapered so that it will always pay to take a job, work longer hours and take a full time rather than part time job.

There are also moves to reform Housing Benefit which has been spiralling up in cost in recent years and in many instances has actually driven up rent levels in the private market making it even harder for people working to afford their own home. The reform aims to reduce rents at the lower end of the market by allowing councils to pay Housing Benefit directly to private landlords if those landlords agree to cut their rents. That means the landlords are given some security in return for accepting less money.

It is not easy delivering welfare reform against a backdrop of a difficult job market but it is important that we make a start, and alongside benefit changes give people the right support to get a job.

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.