Thursday, 27 January 2022

Visit to Redruth Job Centre

 Last week I visited Redruth Job Centre to meet with the team there and get an update about their progress in helping Redruth to recover from the Covid-19 Pandemic.  It was great to hear about their recent work expanding their operations to take on the rest of the building in Redruth. This expansion will allow the team to now run digital support for people across the country, not just in Cornwall and it ensures that the office space will be fully occupied again.

The local jobcentre has also been doing some excellent work locally through the Kickstart programme to help young people get back into work. Kickstart is a government-backed, £2 billion scheme that aims to help young people by supporting those at risk of long-term unemployment into paid, six-month work placements. We know that for young people a lack of actual work experience can be a barrier to getting a foot on the jobs ladder and there is no substitute to trialling work to help them gain confidence. Work helps young people gain experience, build skills, and boost their career prospects. The scheme has already helped over 100,000 young people nationally to get back into work.

The Kickstart Scheme has been open to employers of all sizes to create new roles for young people. Representative organisations, local charities and other groups can also act as intermediaries to help smaller employers apply for the Kickstart Scheme. Employers need to show that the Kickstart role is an additional job that will provide the experience and support a young person needs to improve their chances of permanent employment. Although it was a temporary intervention as part of a package of Covid measures and will shortly draw to a close, it has been a success locally.

Throughout the Pandemic, young people, in particular, have been affected by the lockdown restrictions since the start of the pandemic. The decision to close schools earlier this year did not just have the obvious effects around disruption to exams and teaching, it was much more profound than that. Many young people, including those 16-18 suffered from the isolation and loneliness of the lockdowns. In many cases, this has often left them struggling to find work, with countless feelings left behind.

While visiting the Redruth Job Centre, the staff told me about several of the many Kickstart Scheme success stories they have had recently. One that struck me, in particular, was the 19-year-old young man who was disabled and had been out of work for several months, however, the team had managed to get him a job placement as a teaching assistant in a local school.

Thursday, 20 January 2022

Second Homes in Cornwall

Last week the Government announced a new policy to deal with the problem of second homeowners classifying their property as a holiday let in order to qualify for Business Rates and the associated reliefs.  Under the new rules, a holiday let must be marketed for at least 140 days per year and occupied as a holiday let for at least 70 days per year in order to not be considered a second home.  It is an important step forward to dealing with a longstanding challenge that some villages in Cornwall have faced.

Of the many problems that people bring me each week, difficulty getting access to housing is one of the most persistent and always has been.  Sometimes families that need access to a larger property find it difficult to move up if they are in social housing; local people can find it hard to buy their first property and get on the housing ladder; for those needing a bedsit or small flat, the quality of the accommodation and the overall living environment is often very poor.  The Covid pandemic has meant that people have not been able to holiday abroad and there has been a huge demand for temporary accommodation. As such, a number of private landlords withdrew their property from the residential market and used sites like Airbnb to get a larger income for temporary lets.  That has exacerbated an already difficult problem over the last twelve months or so. 

The causes of the shortage of housing are complex.  It is partly because we have more people moving to Cornwall to retire which increases demand for bungalows in particular.  Family breakdown means that more people live alone or families become split between two properties.  There are too many properties that are left unoccupied when they could be brought back into use and we need to build more housing but in the right places.  I have always argued that we should build new housing but focus on brownfield sites first.  It is worth the extra effort to try to deal with derelict sites at the same time as creating new homes.  Cornwall is a narrow peninsula with a beautiful landscape but it is a landscape that is vulnerable to insensitive development so getting the planning system right really matters.

While addressing housing supply is one thing, affordability remains the biggest barrier to homeownership. To address this, the Government is investing over £12 billion in affordable housing over five years, the largest investment in affordable housing in a decade. This includes the new £11.5 billion Affordable Homes Programme, which will provide up to 180,000 new homes across the country, should economic conditions allow. It will also deliver more than double the number of homes for social rent than the current programme, with around 32,000 social rent homes due to be delivered.

To help those who want to buy their first home, we are introducing a new mortgage scheme to provide a guarantee to lenders offering mortgages for those with a 5 per cent deposit for properties up to £600,000 in value. This was introduced on 19th April 2021 and will help people to secure loans with a smaller required deposit from the outset.

However, in many villages across Cornwall, especially in coastal areas, we have seen much of the housing stock being bought up by 2nd homeowners or turned into holiday homes. This takes much of the community out of these areas leaving few options for local people to live in the areas they often grew up in.  The policy announced this week is a step in the right direction.

Thursday, 13 January 2022

Future Agricultural Policy

This week, I have set out more detail of our future agriculture policy. The system of subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy inflated land rents, denied new entrants access to the land and dumped a whole host of absurd and burdensome rules on our farmers.

We are now embarking on a period of change. We have been able to directly involve farmers in designing our policies so we have the best chance of getting it right.
Successful and profitable agricultural production is crucial to the continued success of our food manufacturing industry. The food industry is bigger than the automotive and aerospace industries combined, and we have some brilliant examples right here in Camborne, Redruth and Hayle – from Rodda’s clotted cream to Philps pasties and Furniss biscuits. None of our food manufacturers could succeed without the farmers who supply them with high-quality produce.
Since the 2016 referendum result, farm incomes have generally recovered. We have seen the price of beef and sheep running at very strong levels. We’ve seen gross margins in some of the cereal sectors increase by around 30%. Now, the shape of our future policy is emerging and we are already rolling out elements of it.
We’ve already launched our new Animal Health and Welfare Pathway. This means that any livestock farmer who’s currently a claimant of BPS will be entitled to a funded visit from a vet once a year to put in place an animal health strategy.
We’ve also set out plans for the Sustainable Farming Incentive. This is all about trying to incentivise a more sustainable approach to farming right across the farm landscape. Initially, we’re focusing on promoting soil health, but there will be future modules on things like sensitive hedgerow management. Here in Cornwall, we have always looked after our hedgerows and small fields and it is right that our farmers are rewarded accordingly.
We are increasing the payment rates for Countryside Stewardship by, on average, 30%.  For those who have not yet engaged with Countryside Stewardship, I would urge them all to look again at it as it will provide a stepping stone to Local Nature Recovery. Most holdings have a part of the farm that is perhaps not really suitable for crop production, less productive, or difficult to work. There is an opportunity to make those parts of the holding a special space for nature – which we will reward under that scheme.
The final component of our future policy is Landscape Recovery. This is going to be about much more fundamental land-use change. To begin with, we are looking for 15 projects ranging in size from around 500 hectares to 5,000 hectares.
I’ve always said that this should be an evolution, not a revolution, and at the heart of our policies is ensuring that we support farmers to make the choices that they want to make for their own holdings.

Thursday, 6 January 2022

Overcoming Omicron

Over the past few weeks and over the Christmas period we have seen a rapid spread of Covid-19 across the country caused by the Omicron variant.  Although it was always predicted that the new variant would spread more quickly it is also now apparent that the symptoms are considerably weaker and that those with a booster jab usually suffer only very mild symptoms.  As a result, although the number of people in hospital is rising, it is far lower than last year at present and infections also appear to be slowing down.  

For the last year, the overall strategy has been to roll out a vaccination programme as the route out of the pandemic and to see a return to life as normal and the government has been rightly cautious about imposing further restrictions in recent weeks.  At some point, we have to learn to live with the virus and the protection that the vaccines are giving now allows that to happen.  The evidence is clear that those that have had no vaccines are at much higher risk of severe illness, while those who have had a booster have the greatest protection.  That is why so much work was done over the Christmas period to increase the number of people with their booster jabs.  Although it is a busy time of year at the best of times, NHS staff and volunteers did some fantastic work to accelerate the deployment of boosters.

However, we also want to help the rest of the world emerge from the pandemic.  The UK developed one of the first vaccines to be used.  We have now distributed 2.5 billion doses of the UK-developed AstraZeneca vaccine, just 1 year after the first dose was administered here in the UK. This has undoubtedly saved countless lives and will have made a substantial difference to end the pandemic but there is further to go in other countries and we are supporting programmes like Covax which is operated by the World Health Organisation.

It is too early to say that this pandemic is over, but it does feel like we may be turning a corner.  I would urge anyone who has not yet had their booster jab to book an appointment as soon as they can and for those who have been reluctant to have any vaccine at all, to reconsider that given the evidence.

Death of a Cornish Comedy Icon:
This week we also saw the funeral of a Cornish comedy icon, Jethro. He was of the same generation as my parents and was well known from a young age for his ability to make people laugh.  During his over 50-year career, Jethro sold more than four million DVDs and regularly shifted 250,000 seats a year on his theatre tours, which included a performance at the Royal Variety. His death is a sad loss for Cornwall, but it was great to see so many people turning out to celebrate his life.

The Food Strategy

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister was at a farm outside Hayle to announce the government’s first-ever food strategy.  SEF is one of a nu...