The fire at Grenfell Tower in London was tragic. I am still coming to terms with the loss of life. When I drive past the remains of Grenfell Tower to get to Parliament it is a constant shock and I am conscious of the devastating effect and how frightening this must be to those living in similar blocks.
There is already much work going on. For example, we are urgently conducting fire safety reviews on all buildings similar to Grenfell Tower. Second, we are ensuring that all high rise buildings comply with recent and current fire orders. These orders specify work to be undertaken following an inspection. These are practical steps which will help ensure buildings are safe for the future.
It is essential that we make sure that fire safety in this country is up to the mark. The Department of Communities and Local Government published updated guidance on fighting fires in February 2014. It had written to all social housing providers and included recommendations on retro-fitting sprinklers a year earlier. All this followed an earlier fire in the Lakanal House tower block. The coroner in this case also recommended simplifying the guidance to fire safety regulations.
There may well be a need to improve fire safety laws or to make sure that they are implemented fully and properly. At present, we simply do not know. We should at least wait until we know what caused the fire. This is the thrust of what we promised in the Queen's Speech. If the problems result from bad upgrades to buildings, for example, that is a failure to meet existing standards and rules not a lack of standards and rules.
I want answers now to what has happened. But we also need to establish what really happened rather than rush out with public statements as judge and juror prematurely. I do not believe that speculation is helpful and we need to make sure that the action we take really does help make sure that nothing like this ever happens again.
No mainstream political party denies the result of the referendum on 23 June. Each of them has said that they accept and acknowledge the result. So what it is the argument really about?
Some initially said that they wanted a new referendum either now or at the end of the process which the Archbishop of Canterbury, no Conservative stooge, had said is not "a good way of dealing with the process at the end of negotiation. It will add to our divisions; it will deepen the bitterness. It is not democratic".
So what this election seems to come down to is whether the PM is going for a 'hard brexit' or not.
The term 'hard Brexit' is a self-defining one meaning whatever you want it to. Some choose to bring the subject down to one issue - access to the Single Market. But is a Brexit that involves workers' rights, a common travel area with Ireland, maintaining crime and terrorism co-operation, protecting the rights of both EU nationals in this country and of British nationals living in the rest of Europe and a strong working partnership really a 'hard brexit'? I think not. The Prime Minister said that "we seek the greatest possible access to [the single market] through a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement.....That agreement may take in elements of current single market arrangements."
I am unashamedly an internationalist. I defend the work of the Council of Europe over human rights and believe it is important to hold member countries to account. I am also working to help Europe deal with the problem of populism - a new phenomenon for the continent. Through my work on the Council of Europe I make sure that Britain's voice continues to be heard. On the international stage, I am very involved in the Middle East where I have talked to both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian argument and held high level meetings with the PLO. Africa is a challenging market where my work as the PM's Trade Envoy to Nigeria involves me in advising not on the details of trade agreements but on the macro-economic course set by the Nigerain government. I cannot think of a better time for the Henley constituency to have such an internationalist as its MP and how much this contributes to the role of the UK in the world and to the prestige of the Henley constituency.
There is a lot of talk in the press and media about the idea that Britain is heading for a hard Brexit. This is a total fiction which needs to be looked at closely. It defines the concept of a hard Brexit within its own terms which bear no relationship to the 12 points made in our Brexit White Paper which you can read here http://www.johnhowellmp.com/john's-blog/brexit--continued-no-4/944. The press has selected one issue – access to the single market – as the indicator of a hard Brexit when if you read our 12 points they include protecting workers rights, maintaining the common travel area with Ireland, maintaining crime and terrorism co-operation, and, protecting the rights of both EU nationals in this country and of British nationals living in the rest of Europe. These are hardly examples of a hard Brexit. They also ignore totally what the Government is doing to create a deep and meaningful partnership with the rest of Europe based on free trade.
So let's look at several other issues being raised in the press and media:
Dubs Amendment: sadly, an argument based on parliamentary tittle tattle rather than facts which were that the original amendment was defeated, no promise to bring 3,000 refugee children from Europe was given, and other ways of delivering assistance already exist and are working.
A Second Referendum is required on Brexit: the Archbishop of Canterbury, not a usual Conservative suspect, has said that it is not a good way of dealing with the process at the end of negotiation. "It will add to our divisions; it will deepen the bitterness. It is not democratic; it is unwise."
Give EU residents rights now: a move which sells the 1.2 million Britons in Europe down the river.
This is a question not about re-running the referendum but about who has the strength of leadership to get a good deal for Britain which is not based on a hard Brexit but on the concepts of our values which we hold so dear.
Let me say straight away that I am happy to help in whatever way I can to give Chinnor the power to control the future development of the village. The current situation arises because SODC "lost" its five year land supply figure when the calculation process, agreed when the Local Plan was approved, was changed which renders its local plan out-of-date. The five year land supply identifies a future supply of land which is suitable, available and achievable for housing. It is thus a measure of the deliverability of housing. This situation arose as the result of conflicting opinions from the independent Planning Inspectorate on SODC's then Local Plan and the situation is being addressed through the production of a new Local Plan.
In the meantime, I have already moved to give the village back control over development by helping to change the regulations so that villages with Neighbourhood Plans that meet certain criteria only have to show a three year land supply rather than a five year land supply. The quickest way, therefore, of Chinnor achieving control of planning is for it to complete its Neighbourhood Plan.
The actions of the Government
It is wrong to say that this Government or its predecessor have introduced a law allowing developers to go to appeal or that it has made it impossible for councils to appeal decisions. If you look at the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 you will see there the same right of appeal for the applicant against a decision of a local authority to refuse a planning application which you are seeing in Chinnor (http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1990/8/section/78). The ability to appeal a decision, therefore, goes back to at least 1990.
In addition, Councils are still fully able to appeal decisions and at a recent meeting with Parish Councils I have obtained a promise from the Leader of SODC that he will always appeal decisions where there is a good planning case. SODC has in fact taken cases to appeal and to judicial review to support the village as it tries to meet local housing needs.
The importance of Neighbourhood Plans
Secondly, the Government and I gave Chinnor an important power in the planning system by introducing the rights of the village to create a Neighbourhood Plan. I am afraid it is not possible to ignore this or to sweep it under the carpet. Nor can one walk away from the fact that when asked to produce a Neighbourhood Plan, Chinnor initially refused. Despite both I and Chinnor's District Councillors repeatedly recommending that the Village start work to produce a Neighbourhood Plan it was decided that this course of action would not be taken. That refusal helped create the conditions which we face now and drew developers to the village like a magnet.
I am very glad that a group of local people, including Parish and District Councillors are taking the future of the village under control now by preparing a Neighbourhood Plan at this stage and the quicker this is completed the better the position you will be in. I have already had several meetings with the Parish Council and the Neighbourhood Plan working group and am pleased that the Plan is now with the independent Planning Inspectorate.
Are people involved with the plan? Have people commented on the plan during its consultations? Have poeple made themselves aware of the plan itself? Will people be voting during the referendum?
The importance of a Neighbourhood Plan for Chinnor
Thirdly, when SODC lost its five year land supply a Neighbourhood Plan would still have been of immense value. First, as the judgement in the High Court case of Crane v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government  EWHC 425 (Admin) shows, Neighbourhood Plans still carry very significant amounts of weight in the planning system even where the District Council has lost its five year land supply. This means that a Neighbourhood Plan would have had the strongest of influences in helping to decide on planning applications in Chinnor just as it did in the case of Thames Farm, near Henley. As I have already mentioned, I helped change the regulations to ensure that where a District Council loses or does not have a five year land supply, a community with a Neighbourhood Plan which allocates sites for development will only have to operate under a three year land supply figure. SODC has a three year land supply and a Neighbourhood Plan would therefore now not be considered out-of-date and would carry full weight. This is an important change which works fully in the interests of communities.
A local or a national issue?
The belief that this is no longer a local Government issue, but is an issue for me as your representative at Westminster is misjudged. Planning is a local matter with responsibility shared. The District Council knows better than anyone sat in Whitehall or in Guildford (where the Regional Assembly used to sit) what is needed in any village across the county. My job is to make the planning system fair within the law. This I have been doing as I set out on this web-site at http://www.johnhowellmp.com/john%27s-blog/protecting-and-speeding-up-local-plans/826. The changes I am seeking to introduce would have a profound effect on communities like Chinnor in giving them more security over the future and I am pleased that some are being introduced as part of the Neighbourhood Planning Bill and some others in the Housing White Paper.
What I can do
Let me be clear what I can and cannot do as an MP. First, I have no right to interfere in any planning application. I can comment only as an individual member of the public. Second, I have no ability to overturn cases which have been heard by SODC's planning committee. There is a clear process in place for this in which I have no rights to be involved. Thirdly, what I can do is to ensure that the planning system is fair within the law and this I am actively doing. I am also pleased that in recent cases brought before the High Court and the Court of Appeal, the position of Neighbourhood Plans has been upheld.
However, there are two issues in which I am already involved and on which I would like your help. First, there is a question about the cumulative effect of development on infrastructure. I've long said that the cumulative effect of applications should be looked at. The principle which currently applies of looking at 'each application in its own right' has its limitations when looking at large developments. It leaves no room for seeing the implications on infrastructure of all types. I admit that it can be solved by completing a Neighbourhood Plan which can take that general view in a local context. However, I have also been trying to raise it as an issue with the National Infrastructure Commission particularly in relation to the road network. I issued an invitation to the National Infrastructure Commission to a meeting to discuss this in relation to Oxfordshire. I am still awaiting a response but will continue trying.
Second, is the question of a moratorium on planning until you have a Plan in place. I do not wish to mislead and believe this will be very difficult to achieve. However, I would like to put together a village petition that I can present to Parliament. I cannot say what effect such a Petition will have but I believe it is worth trying. We would need to agree wording. Are you willing to help? This will obviously have to wait until ater the General Election.
On the back of my article in November in the Henley Standard, let me say that people should be justly proud of the Henley and Harpsden neighbourhood plan. I am equally proud that I was able to give Henley such an important power in the planning system.
It is all the more important now that SODC has "lost" its five year land supply figure – a measure of housing deliverability. Without it, there would be no protection for Henley. But as I have said from the very beginning, what I did not do was give Henley the power to decide everything about planning by itself. I gave it the right to share in the process of developing the planning system locally by producing policies to help shape the town.
Judgement in the High Court clearly shows Neighbourhood Plans still carry very significant amounts of weight in the planning system even where the district council has lost its five year land supply. This means that a Neighbourhood Plan would have had the strongest of influences in helping to decide on planning applications as it did in the case of Thames Farm, near Henley.
More recently, I helped change the regulations to ensure that where a District Council loses its five year land supply, a community with a Neighbourhood Plan which allocates sites for development will only have to operate under a three year land supply figure rather than five. SODC has a three year land supply and the Neighbourhood Plan would therefore now carry full weight.
The fact is that if Henley didn't have a Neighbourhood Plan, local people would have precious little ability to have any input into local planning. The idea that Neighbourhood Plans are worthless in these circumstances is incorrect. It is also wrong to say that the Neighbourhood Plan is worthless because of the attitude of SODC to the Plan. Like Woodcote, rather than simply complain about SODC, the Henley team needs to be involved negotiating and discussing applications with SODC. It is about sharing. I understand that that is precisely what the Henley team is doing. In Henley itself recent Care Homes applications were not so far removed from the Neighbourhood Plan to lead to refusal. So there's a need for a pragmatic approach to Neighbourhood Plans.
I was pleased to see Henley represented at a meeting I recently called with SODC and parish councils undertaking these Plans. Much was explained particularly how wrong it was to play politics with such Plans.
A Neighbourhood Plan has legal status based on its policies not on the words which surround them. Good strong policies for the town. It is this Government that is thinking of the "ordinary people" rather than the developer by giving them this power. Just ask yourself, would you really prefer the old system of a man in Whitehall deciding these things for you? I know I would not.
Attention has rightly been drawn to the humanitarian situation in the Yemen. The conflict has resulted in over 21 million people requiring urgent humanitarian assistance The UK Government is at the forefront of providing aid to the country which so far for this year amounts to some £100 million. This is widely regarded as influential and crucial. The head of UNICEF in Yemen has said that the UK had been an essential partner in Yemen: He commented that our support "has been absolutely essential to maintaining a very large nutrition programme in Yemen and other services, WASH and health. Without that, we would not have been able to provide the significant scale of assistance that we are providing today."
However, I take issue with a widespread analysis of the problem. Let me explain. There is a legal basis which comes from the UN for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and a legitimate need to quell the armed uprising of the Houthi rebels. Left unchecked, the expansion of the Houthi rebels in the country would continue abhorrent practices such as the use of children as soldiers and forced marriages. We also need to stop extremist militant groups such as AQAP gaining further space to operate in Yemen. The suggestion that by denying weapons to Saudi Arabia we would end foreign weapons being available is not true. The Houthis are backed by Iran who would continue to supply arms either directly or through terrorist organisations which are allied to them such as Hezbollah. I have yet to see an Amnesty International report condemning the actions of the Houthis in Yemen.
The question that is really being raised is one of has there been serious breaches of international humanitarian law in the region. I am aware that there are allegations of this on both sides of the conflict. There is of course a need to minimise harm to civilians. The Government regularly raises the importance of international law with the Saudi Arabian Government and other members of the military Coalition and successive Ministers have visited Saudi Arabia for this purpose. We are not opposing calls for an international independent investigation, but want to see the Saudi-led Coalition investigate allegations of breaches of international law which are attributed to them; and for their investigations to be thorough and conclusive.
We are not a member of the Saudi Arabian-led Coalition and British military personnel are not directly involved in Coalition operations. We take arms export responsibilities very seriously and operate one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. An export licence will not be granted if to do so would breach any aspect of what is called the mandatory Consolidated Criteria. This includes respect by that country for international humanitarian law.
Peace talks are, and have always been, the top priority. We are clear that a political solution is the best way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and end the conflict. The war in Yemen is tragic for the displaced people. It requires peaceful negotiation of a solution and the absence of interference from Iran who see this as a convenient way of keeping Saudi Arabia tied down.
Unfortunately, I cannot be at the opening today of Townlands Memorial Hospital in Henley by the Lord Lieutenant. I have to be in Parliament to help through the Neighbourhood Planning Bill which I know is important to communities. The first thing I would love to do is to give Townlands and all the people who work there my very best wishes. It has been a pleasure visiting and seeing for myself how the hospital works and talking to the medical staff and the GPs involved with it.
The people of southern Oxfordshire, whom the hospital serves, should be very proud that a major investment has been made in its refurbishment, and that it has become an exemplar across the country of how a community hospital can be made to work well for the wider community. I hope that we can now kill the myth that this is a hospital without beds. It does have beds – located in the care home at the side of the hospital – which are well used. The number of beds owes much to careful and patient negotiation with the Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG). Incidentally, care homes such as this are also helping to tackle the problem of bed blocking within Oxfordshire.
Feedback from patients has shown that the Rapid Access Care Unit is providing just the services people need. The system of ambulatory care being offered whereby patients are treated as far as possible where they live is endorsed by the Royal College of Physicians, by local GPs and by the NHS. It is in the best interests of the patient as is evidenced by medical opinion. Nevertheless, I am in the process of writing to the County Council on behalf of all the MPs in Oxfordshire that the County Council should spend the money given to it by Central Government for adult social care (an additional £16 million) on hiring social care workers. In addition, some 70% of patients for whom this is an issue want to die in their homes yet we still allow 60% to die in hospital.
The issue of Townlands generated considerable activity for me in Parliament from my question to the Health Secretary on rebuilding Townlands in January 2014 to a debate I initiated on Ambulatory Care and other questions to Health ministers throughout. I also visited a hospital deploying ambulatory care in Welwyn Garden City to see for myself how it worked and had extensive meetings with the CCG.
We are very lucky to have got the hospital we best need at this time and for it to be at the forefront of medical practice in the country. I have invited the Secretary of State for health to visit it.
Hospitals such as Townlands Hospital in Henley are held up as excellent examples of new ways of working that are helping to address health concerns such as the integration of social care and the NHS and the provision of social care at home. The hospital has beds available in the adjacent care home for those who really need them but otherwise works on rapid assessment and treatment of people in day care. This is a model which is being promoted widely elsewhere with Townlands as the exemplar.
Bed blocking as it is often referred to occurs where it is difficult to assess and release patients into social care quickly enough. It is not a question of the numbers of beds which are available – medical assessments suggest we have enough beds. It is a question of throughput of patients. Care homes play a vital role in this in providing intermediary places while assessments are conducted and social care found. The good news is that there has been a distinct improvement in the amount of time individuals have to be in hospital while the social care is arranged and the average time is currently about a week.
Across the country, concern over the provision of adult social care has been a key issue in recent weeks and months. It was also an issue at the top of the agenda in the regular meeting of Oxfordshire MPs and Oxfordshire Health Chief Executives today which I chair. It is important that, where it is medically possible, people are cared for in their own home. This is not simply about NHS efficiency but more critically that time in a hospital bed causes accelerated deterioration of health. The best place to be, if at all possible, is at home – a move backed by the Royal College of Physicians and GPs.
Ensuring there is sufficient staff to meet the need can have a knock-on effect on delayed discharges from acute hospitals. That is why key discussions are taking place between the County Council Adult Social Services team, who are responsible for staffing the domiciliary care, and the NHS teams to seek alternative ways to resource this growing need. It is why we, as MPs, are asking for the money which has been given by the Chancellor to local government to cover social care be spent on hiring suitable carers.
The issue of 'bed blocking' has also been raised in relation to the delay of routine operations. Although this is sometimes the case, more often routine operations are postponed due to urgent cases coming in which necessarily have to take priority. I can well appreciate the distress caused when a planned procedure is postponed at last minute. I am sure most people will understand that life threatening cases have to be given priority. I am assured that every effort is made to avoid delays and addressing the domiciliary care concerns will no doubt help.