It is now 18 months since the last General Election. I wanted to take this opportunity to look back at what I promised in my manifesto in 2015 and what I have so far been able to deliver. There were a number of points I said I would pursue which I have listed below followed by a brief assessment of what I have achieved. There are many more things I have done over this period including work on buses, on changes to the planning system, on Heathrow, on prison reform and on international problems such as Ukraine, the Middle East and Nigeria. All of these I have reported on my web-site. This report just addresses the promises made in my manifesto.
Business rate reform
This is an issue that I have worked on for some time meeting with local businesses to listen to their concerns and lobby the Chancellor for help. I was therefore pleased to see a package of business rates reform brought forward in the House of Commons. It is good news that local councils will be able to keep all the business rates they raise by 2020.
The uniform business rate, the national tax rate that central government currently imposes on every council, will be scrapped. This means that any local area will be able to cut business rates as much as they like. This will help them to win new jobs and generate wealth for their area. The 100% retention of business rates by local government is a reform that councils have long campaigned for and to which we are committed. This move towards self-sufficiency and away from dependence on central government is something that will shape the role and purpose of local government for decades to come. It is a huge opportunity for local authorities of all kinds to take control as never before
In my manifesto I said that I would continue to push for help to extend broadband coverage where it remained poor. I was very pleased to join the celebration of the first community broadband cabinet in the village of Cuxham. It was a good illustration of alternative ways to meet the need and how important broadband is to local communities. I recognise that a large number of communities have struggled in this constituency to get connected and are having to do something about this themselves. That is why I raised the issue of the poverty of coverage in the constituency with the Minister in the House of Commons and have kept constituents involved through regular briefings on my web-site.
Working to ensure that appropriate infrastructure is delivered alongside housing
One of the biggest criticisms of new housing developments is when the necessary infrastructure to support it lags behind the house building. I said that I would push for timely infrastructure delivery in line with housing development. The proposed development of Chalgrove Airfield is the largest we have seen with a proposal for 3,500 houses to be built there by 2030. There are many questions being asked about this and a key one to inform the decision makings is about infrastructure. In my letter to the local District Council (http://www.johnhowellmp.com/john's-blog/response-to-sodc-preferred-options-consultation/875), I raised a number of concerns on infrastructure such as medical facilities, schools and public transport. I also asked for details of the road schemes which will accompany the development. I made clear that his information must be part of the planning and if it cannot be provided the proposed development must either be scaled back or abandoned.
It is important to see this as breaking the mould in development. A fresh way forward which plans properly for the future including infrastructure development is essential for looking at the development as other than just houses and seeing the impact it would have all round.
Looking after local healthcare
The NHS is important to all of us and I said that I would work to ensure that we have the best local NHS provision. One of the largest projects I have been involved with is the re-provision of Townlands Hospital in Henley which is a hospital providing for a large part of South Oxfordshire. I have taken a keen interest in new thinking on the best healthcare and have questioned the Secretary of State in the House on it. The Secretary of State confirmed that initiatives such as treating more patients in their homes are important ones brought forward by clinicians and the Royal Colleges. They are not simply cost-cutting exercises. I also pursued with the Health Secretary the concerns of GPs and the changes that were being introduced to help them deliver their workloads. It is good to see that at Townlands we are getting a healthcare provision which embraces the latest professional thinking for our well-being. We need to keep people out of hospital as much as possible but I am glad I was able to help negotiate the additional beds in the care home at the side of the hospital. As research has shown for someone over the age of 80, 10 days in hospital equates to 10 years of muscle wasting and leads to other health problems such as incontinence. None the less it is good to see that there are beds for when they are needed situated in the adjacent Care Home where there can be the appropriate level of care. This sort of approach is helping to reduce bed-blocking at the John Radcliffe hospital as I have found out at my regular meetings with health chiefs.
Keeping up pressure on traffic enforcement
Traffic concerns have been a problem in the constituency for many years especially with HGVs on the road network where they ignore designated routes and usage often disregarding weight limits. That is why after much lobbying, I have been able to help get some progress on the call for better signage to deter HGVs using the B4009 from the M40 through Watlington after delays in getting weight limit signage put up around Junction 6 of the M40.
Additional traffic and road issues often arise. The questions of an additional bridge across the River Thames at Reading is nothing new but has come to the fore again. I have continued to co-chair the 3rd Bridge meetings and to make the point that the road network in South Oxfordshire simply cannot cope with the additional traffic released by building a new bridge. We have successfully demanded additional survey work to test the impact of a new bridge on the road network in the constituency. The outcome is awaited.
I have joined with neighbouring MPs to campaign for improvements to the A34 to see safety improvements and possibly upgrading the road to give motorway status. With the Minister we agreed a safety audit for the road as the start of further action.
Standing up for the Green Belt and AONB
The Green Belt is a planning designation and serves a specific purpose in maintaining the setting of our cities and preventing urban sprawl. I have long supported constituents in their campaigns to protect this in key areas. Similarly the AONB (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) are important parts of our landscape and I have continued to work to protect them in my involvement in the reform of the planning system.
Working to ensure delivery of adequate flood prevention and drainage.
In some parts of the constituency flooding can cause problems. The responsibility for ensuring adequate protection rests with the County Council which in turn relies on the expert work of the Environment Agency. I continue to act as an intermediary where there are specific concerns to help ensure that we do not see a repeat of past problems.
Supporting communities with Neighbourhood Planning
As the Government's Neighbourhood Planning Champion, I have supported communities in the sharing of planning responsibilities with the District Council known as Neighbourhood Planning. It is always better for communities to have a plan. As the Prime Minister said to me in the House of Commons "Neighbourhood plans are a crucial part of the planning system. That is how local people can have a real say over what is happening in their local area." It is good news that we have several adopted Neighbourhood Plans in the constituency and several more in preparation. They are not invalid because SODC does not have a five year land supply. I have worked with many communities as they set out on the process of developing their own plan and have stepped in to uphold plans where challenges have been made through specific applications.
Supporting work to keep unemployment low
At times, we have been the best performing constituency in the UK for having the lowest unemployment. Much of this is of course down to the hard work of the many local businesses. I am also delighted to see so many businesses running apprenticeship training for young people to help with this. There are several schemes run across the constituency. Recently I was pleased to visit a new apprenticeship training unit at Culham for AEA and associated companies and also to meet with apprentices at Lucy Electric in Thame. It was a delight to support an RAF apprentice in competing in the World Skills Championship in Sao Paulo where he won a silver medal and also the AEA apprentices for winning in the Brathay Championship.