What a year for politics.
This time last year we were about to give formal notice of leaving the EU, had over 3 years to go until the next General Election, a just workable majority to manage the Brexit negations, and your Member of Parliament was enjoying the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee to supplement his constituency duties.
Some of you will remember what I said when I sought reselection as your candidate in May last year:
“Securing the foundations of Global Britain, with the best possible exit from the European Union, is an extraordinary historic challenge.
That’s why we are here, getting ready for an election which must give our Prime Minister both the mandate and the strength to either make the necessary compromises to secure a positive partnership with our neighbours, or, if they are not prepared to open the way to that positive partnership, then the strength to walk away from a bad deal for Britain with the support of Parliament and the country.
It is the strength of the mandate we secure on the 8th of June that will measure the national strength of purpose in supporting our Prime Minister in negotiating with European partners.”
“We have all been trained in the democratic school where a majority of one is enough. Well now it isn’t. Just scraping home would be a defeat and the harbinger of a barrow load of difficulties.”
Well, now we have the barrow-load of difficulties! But, enough of bringing Brexit home for now, let me start my report to you on some of the local challenges. First up: our local railway infrastructure.
Redhill is one of the great Victorian railway towns but, in parallel with Parliament itself, it is now facing a massive refurbishment and renewal issue.
The age and decrepitude of the local railway infrastructure, largely unaddressed in half a century of public ownership between 1948 and 1997, has placed severe limitations on the types and frequency of services that can be timetabled, and since 2014, this has been brutally laid bare.
Last year, The Department for Transport confirmed £300m additional funding for improvement works to be delivered by Network Rail, to boost the resilience of the infrastructure on the Southern and Thameslink railway networks. This was set aside specifically to improve reliability for passengers along the Brighton Main Line and associated routes, fund the replacement of old tracks, points and signalling and deal with structural repairs in tunnels. These improvement works will complement the £1 billion five year upgrade programme at London Bridge station.
Furthermore, Network Rail is now working on an additional Brighton Mainline Upgrade (BMU) Programme which is planning longer-term solutions to improve the Brighton line.
The BMU programme has recently overseen the completion of a new platform at Redhill Station (Platform 0). There are also plans currently being developed, to build a third platform at Reigate Station (Platform 3). This project will enable 12-car Thameslink trains to terminate at Reigate, facilitating the timetabling of regular fast services from Reigate to London Bridge via Redhill and East Croydon, currently impossible to schedule due to the absence of an extended platform.
Plans are also being considered to upgrade the points system at Earlswood to enable trains exiting Redhill southwards to join the fast Brighton line. It is because of an existing outdated crossover that we no longer have any direct fast trains from Redhill to Brighton and that southbound trains have to use the slow stopping line. This stuff can be fixed with some energy and focus.
Infrastructure projects take time to plan and deliver. Given the current ownership structure, they remain vulnerable to other demands on the public sector budget. However, for the first time in many years, the outlook is positive for significant improvements to local rail infrastructure that will increase the frequency and reliability of rail services from Reigate and Redhill to London termini and Brighton in the years to come.
Rail Ministers become tediously familiar with the challenge faced by my rail using constituents and in 11 days’ time, with the local Rail Users Group, Jo Johnson will commence his formal education.
Let me turn to another area of long term challenge which is the delivery of services by our County Council.
I hold what seems to be the unfashionable view, even against some of my Parliamentary and Borough colleagues, that we are reasonably well served overall by our County’s services. That is all the more remarkable given the 20 years of financial hardship Surrey County Councillors have had to manage. From 1997 to 2010, central government funding formulae were remorselessly changed against Surrey’s interests and in 2010 the Coalition Government chose not to rectify this, but to manage the catastrophe that had overtaken the public finances. That saw a further reduction in Central Government grant of £200 million since 2010. This has caused a severe funding deficit for the County which can only be met by a combination of savings on service delivery and increase in Council Tax.
However, Surrey MPs have engaged about the settlement for Surrey and we’ve won some flexibilities to avoid Surrey County Council ‘falling off the rails’ financially. Surrey was chosen as a pilot County for the Business Rates Retention Pilot, enabling it to keep 100% of its business rates for local use.
Some money was also rescued for Adult Social Care. Crucially, a ‘Fair Funding Review’ is currently out for consultation, aimed at funding methodology that will draw a clearer link between local circumstances and local resources in determining the settlement. The findings of this review, which, if it is in any way fair, will benefit Surrey, are expected to be implemented in 2020-21.
The Borough has had to grapple with austerity as well, and our business focussed local leadership under Vic Broad is delivering an administration we can be proud of, and others learn from. Simply comparing our recycling rates to Green Brighton shows what Conservatives deliver in office regardless of rhetoric.
On health, I continue to support Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust’s proposals for a dedicated Specialist Acute Care Facility. I fully support the proposed option of siting the new hospital at Sutton, in the middle of the Trust’s catchment area where there is the land to build a modern, fit-for-purpose hospital. This would be co-located with The Royal Marsden at Sutton, a leading specialist cancer treatment hospital. I remain convinced that it is essential to have a new acute care facility at Sutton, to enhance and upgrade the hospital service provided to residents living around Banstead, Chipstead, and to the north of Reigate and Redhill.
However, 3 weeks ago, I was delighted to join our Association President-elect at East Surrey Hospital to hear Jeremy Hunt speak forcefully about his plans to make the NHS an organisation that learns from mistakes, to improve patient safety and not deny or defend the indefensible. For nearly a decade now, East Surrey Hospital has been on this journey under the leadership of Michael Wilson. It’s one of the reasons that this hospital is now a national leader, not a local embarrassment. Not a small part of that leadership has come from our own Dr Ben and huge credit is due to all the hospital staff and their leaders for the quality of care available to local people.
I am pleased to report that our Health Secretary was seriously impressive to a tough and informed medical audience and the event reflected very well on all concerned.
A focus of my Parliamentary work over the past few months has been the setting up of a new All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on The London Green Belt in partnership with the London Green Belt Council (LGBC) and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE). I have been elected Co-Chair of the group, together with the Labour peer and architect Lord (Richard) Rogers. The Group is working to influence the debate on housing and planning policy, with the objective of protecting the capital’s Green Belt, which just happens to include all of this constituency, and achieving sustainable development at this time of unprecedented pressure on London’s Green Belt boroughs around London, including Reigate and Banstead.
Since about 1940 the population of Los Angeles, has grown at about the same rate as the population of London. Los Angeles is now so enormous that if you somehow managed to pick it up and plonk it down on England, it would extend from Brighton to Cambridge. That’s what would happen to Greater London if you didn’t have a Green Belt.
The APPG held its second meeting on 30th January 2018 accompanied by the publication of its launch paper “An Introduction to The All-Party Parliamentary Group for London’s Green Belt.”
On this subject, I share local concerns about proposals to develop Redhill Aerodrome into a ‘garden village’ containing 4 to 13,000 new homes. My objection is founded on in the importance of preserving the integrity of the Green Belt for future generations of Londoners, a balanced national economy.
Developments of the magnitude of Redhill Aerodrome would punch a large whole in London’ Green Belt as well as putting horrendous extra pressure on local infrastructure such as transport, medical services, and schools, all of which are already under strain from recent and current projected population growth.
We need to find new approaches to planning and housing policies if we are to manage the growing demand in a sustainable way; provide affordable housing within and close to major economic centres; spur growth in under-developed economic regions; and protect our green spaces.
There is an abundance of brownfield land which can and should be developed, with estimates of brownfield capacity for 423,000 homes in London over the decade to 2025.
There is a vast amount of important detail in this debate and those who are up for it please follow the work of the APPG and the CPRE to protect our environment and help secure the right development in right places in our country. I shall only be delighted to entertain questions on this fraught but complex issue.
Turning to wider matters, you will have noticed that one of the unintended consequences of the General Election were new elections for Select Committee chairmanships and so, in July, I found I was remaindered by an impressively well organised operation principally from the Labour benches. Such is political life.
Perhaps it was serendipity that that event coincided with the publication and debate on the latest iteration of the government’s drug strategy.
Through my experience of foreign affairs and criminal justice I was already aware of the devastating impact that our current approach to drugs policy has. Not only abroad, where thousands of people fall into crime, slavery, trafficking and abuse every day, but also at home, where children and young adults are dying from, and also being permanently affected by, criminally supplied drugs, with the NHS and the criminal justice system footing the bill.
My experience of foreign affairs and criminal justice equipped me to engage in this vital issue. I now co-chair the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform, working to tackle this complex problem head on.
We are already beginning to see the impact of our efforts. This week has seen important focus on the potential medicinal benefits from cannabis based medicines, not least for a 6 year old boy called Alfie Dingley, but the issue at its widest includes the cause to half of acquisitive crime in the UK, alongside the violent deaths of 25,000 Mexicans a year as drug cartels fight to win and hold a highly lucrative business as well as the horrifying epidemic of 64,000 opioid caused deaths in the USA.
Global policy has produced this catastrophe both abroad and at home I am going to devote my experience and some of my time to try to address it. We made a good start this year with Alfie.
UK politics is of course dominated by Brexit and its management. I trust this will have been done by the end of a transition period out of the EU by the end of 2020. So I hope this soap opera has only 3 years to run but because of the General Election result, the script is far less predictable.
However, the appearance of Conservative disunity on this is grossly exaggerated. Almost all of us understand why it is folly to leave the EU but remain in its single market and its customs union.
The wholly unexceptional outbreak of unity in the Cabinet yesterday as it gets into agreeing the detail of what we will be seeking in a future deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, the so called Canada plus, should have come as no surprise.
The dilemmas are not ours, it is clear what we seek. The dilemmas are Labour’s and the European Union’s. Labour has to decide if they are formally going to endorse a position which keeps us subject to paying money into the single market, subject to free movement but with no say at all over the rules into the future, and on the customs union, of not being able to set our future trade policy or have a say on future agreements that the European Union makes.
This position should not survive any serious analysis. It certainly is not in the long term economic interest of the United Kingdom, even if the most enthusiastic ‘Remainer’ economists try to make a case for it on assumptions that maximise the short term costs of leaving the EU institutions and minimise the long term costs of being subject to a club whose rules will not be made in the interest of the United Kingdom.
The more serious dilemma is for the European Union Commission and its 27 Member States. They benefit much more from a deeper comprehensive trade agreement with the UK than the UK will, because that is where the balance of trade now sits. However politically, this would be the United Kingdom having its cake and eating it. They must decide what degree of economic damage to inflict on themselves, and by extension the United Kingdom, to sustain the political case for European Union membership.
However, our relationship goes beyond economics. It is about values and security. Our interests in democracy and the advancement of human rights is shown by the fact that we will not be leaving the European convention or court of human rights.
On security and foreign policy I have made my own proposals on ways by which the UK can cooperate closely with the EU on foreign policy matters post-Brexit. They have been endorsed by the former Foreign Secretary Lord Hague and more recently in a Foreign Affairs Committee report, even one ‘un-chaired’ by me. I hope they will feed into the negotiations if and when we can turn to the positive future partnership we want to have with our EU neighbours.
We are going to need to hang together as Conservatives. We do have a very difficult negotiation to get home but the fundamentals of the British position are strong. This is reinforced by the strength of our economic performance which now massively exceeds all the pessimistic forecasts of the current editor of the Evening Standard. Even productivity has begun to show a welcome improvement as well as sustained employment levels that continue to mean our economy is still a very strong net draw for citizens of the European Union, quite apart from the rest of the world’s. We can be proud of our country and we can be proud of our Party as we face the challenges of administering our Borough, county and nation.
I am also proud of the selfless contribution of Reigate conservatives to the wider party and national interest. Proud of the leadership of this association and proud to have all of you as my friends.