15 AUG 2017

The railways

It is a great shame that those calling for the renationalisation of the railways after today's no real-terms increase in rail prices cannot in the main remember what a nationalised railway was like. How sad that few now remember what a synonym for filth, old and tardy trains and the worst ever catering services was a nationalised railway. Poor service standards have improved, as has punctuality, the newness of the rolling stock and above all safety. A huge number of accidents took place while British Rail was in charge which, since privatization, has fallen rapidly. Britain's railways are safer than ever.

Since privatisation, the number of passenger journeys has increased from 735 million in 1994-95 to 1.7 billion in 2015-16, according to the Office of Rail and Road. None of this is due to the increase in population but to the far better service being provided and the newness of the trains. Journeys are simply better. Provision for new trains was only possible under private ownership.

Another fact is that, even if all profits made on the railways were reinvested in the railways, it would still require subsidy from the taxpayer. Britain's railways have never covered their costs since 1947 when they were nationalised although they are near to this now and the taxpayer subsidy is now lower than at any time since privatisation. And that is not to look at the problem of subsidising rail travel at all

What is more, some stations and lines which were closed back in the 1960s under the 'Beeching Cuts' have been re-opened. These include the Stirling-Alloa line in eastern Scotland, the Vale of Glamorgan line in south Wales and the Eastleigh to Romsey line in Hampshire.

The case for renationalising the railways simply does not add up. Nobody can estimate precisely how much it would cost to renationalise the railways, but it is expected that the cost would be in the tens of billions – money we do not have. Even if this was done as franchises expired it would still cost a lot and the result would still be chaos. Anyway, why should the taxation earned by working class people help subsidise the cost of travel for middle-class people which is what would happen when any new subsidy has to be introduced. And customer satisfaction is still over 80%.


26 JUL 2017

Investment in schools

The end of the school year is not a time to forget our schools. It is a time to set them up for the future and the start of a new school year in September.

For some time now I have added my voice to those calling for better and fairer funding for our schools. I am delighted that an additional £1.3 billion investment in schools on top of the commitment we made at the 2015 Spending Review has been made. What that means is that the Core Funding of schools currently stands at nearly £41 billion this year and will rise to £43.5 billion by 2019-20. This represents an increase of £2.6 billion between this year and 2019-20, and funding per pupil will now be maintained in real terms for the remaining two years of the Spending Review.

Life is all about the choices we make so this investment is funded by reallocating existing expenditure within the Department of Education rather than putting up taxes or borrowing more which will land the next generation with the debt.

The additional funding means that, through the new national funding formula, we can increase the basic amount that every pupil attracts in 2018-19 and 2019-20, while we continue to protect funding for pupils who have additional needs. We will also ensure that every secondary school attracts at least £4,800 per pupil during this period. The distribution of funds is through a national formula. As I said at the hustings in Thame during the General Election, no school will lose any funding as a result of the new formula and all schools will get some increase.

So let us be clear that there will be gains for each local authority and every local authority will see some increase over the amount they plan to spend on schools and high needs in the current year. What we are about is an education system that unlocks potential for every child.

29 JUN 2017

The pay cut amendment to the Queen's Speech

The pay cap of 1% on public sector workers may need to be revised as some of my colleagues are suggesting. However, this needs to be planned and properly costed; not done on the hoof. This was what was wrong with yesterday's amendment put forward by the Labour Party in the debate on the Queen's Speech. This failed attempt to try to attack austerity is all the more shocking given that it is Labour who are the ones who left the record deficit we have been clearing up over the last 7 years.

Of course, I understand the sacrifice that has been made to deal with Labour's debts, including by public sector workers. But we need the proposed end to the pay cut to be well costed and we must also ensure that we continue to protect jobs and deal with our debts.

Independent public sector pay review bodies are already making recommendations to the Government and I await these and the response we will make in the Budget.

On the question of tax avoidance, I am pleased that the Government has introduced a new tax on diverted profits. This will prevent companies from creating tax advantages by using transactions or entities that lack economic substance. I am also pleased that the 2016 Budget included measures to stop the complex structures that allow some multinationals to avoid paying any tax anywhere or to deduct the same expenses in more than one country. .Since 2010, HMRC has secured around £140 billion in additional tax revenue through tackling avoidance, evasion and non-compliance. In the UK, the tax gap - the difference between the amount of tax due and the amount collected - remains one of the lowest in the world.

21 JUN 2017

Grenfell Tower fire

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.

28 APR 2017

Internationalism and the Henley constituency

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.

19 APR 2017

A Hard Brexit - really??

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.

19 APR 2017

Development in Chinnor

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 [2015] 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.

19 APR 2017

Neighbourhood Plans in Henley

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.

07 APR 2017

The Yemen

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.

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