Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Planning Change

I’ve been chairing an all-party investigation into the Government’s proposals to change the national and local planning policy frameworks. We’ve taken a lot of oral and written evidence and there has been a lot of comment in the media, with organizations ranging from the National Trust (NT) to the Confederation for British Industry (CBI) all determined to make their views known.

We’ve now published our report and recommendations. Because it’s all-party and because our conclusions were unanimously agreed, I hope it’s very powerful and influential.

In particular, we agreed that sustainable development requires consideration of environmental and social issues as well as the economic ones that the government wanted. And we said that the presumption that any planning application should be agreed unless it could be proved that ‘the adverse effects significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits’ was just unacceptable, and ran counter to the very notion of sustainable development.

The committee was convinced that the priority for development must be ‘brownfield  first’ – brownfield basically means sites where there has previously been development.
And we said that shop and office developments need to be concentrated on existing town and district centres, not on new greenfield or out-of-centre sites.

I was particularly pleased that the committee agreed that existing sportsfields needed protection. There are rare occasions when it would be appropriate to develop on a sportsfield, but we said a like-for-like replacement must be provided.

We also agreed that new planning legislation must unambiguously confirm the supremacy of Local Plans. This means local planning decisions have to be consistent with the Local Plan. It is unacceptable that so many councils have yet to develop and adopt a new Local Plan. If they are serious about localism, this will be their chance to prove it.

Of course, you might be tempted to think this has got nothing to do with me. Well, it has. Because, if it means that

  • new development is concentrated on brownfield sites in Darnall and not on greenfield sites around Eckington and Mosborough
  • new shops and offices are concentrated in existing shopping centres and not on out-of-town greenfield sites
  • our existing sportsfields are protected
it will be much better for all of our communities.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Badger threat

As I predicted more than a year ago, this Government is determined to cull badgers.
Bovine TB is a terrible disease, endemic to cattle in the UK.  Around 25,000 cattle were slaughtered for TB control in England in 2010 with a total cost to the taxpayer of £87 million in testing and compensation for farmers. There were 2025 herd breakdowns in England in 2010.
I have consistently opposed a badger cull on 4 grounds: scientific, effectiveness, humaneness and cost. My view is supported by scientists and conservation groups, including Lord Krebs who is the leading expert in the field.
The government has now announced a trial cull in two areas. Their proposals are ineffective and will not tackle the problem of bovine TB. Their preferred option of ‘free shooting’ is not supported by the science, and may increase the problem by spreading TB.
Even on its own estimates, an extensive badger cull will only save £29 million over 10 years, out of an expected cost to the taxpayer of £1 billion.
Why is this important locally? Well, we have a good badger population spread around the area. Although many – perhaps most – local residents have never seen them, a number of local groups and individuals have been quietly ensuring that their habitat is protected. They are very concerned about these proposals and the potential impact on local wildlife.
I agree with them. I have already made my protest to the government and will continue to do so, as I believe the proposals are just wrong-headed and irresponsible. I hope that no landowner in the area will apply for a licence but, if you hear differently, please let me know.
This Conservative-led government is also committed to lift the ban on fox-hunting. What’s it got against our wildlife?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

It makes no sense

The last Conservative government in the 1990s cut police numbers and crime rose across all categories.

Today’s papers report that police numbers have been cut this year, and that burglaries and robberies have increased by 9% and 4.5% respectively. Given their record, I wonder why anyone has ever taken seriously the Conservative claim to be the party of law and order.

It’s worth remembering what happened between the last and the present Conservative governments. Most people will remember Tony Blair’s promise to be ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’. Of course, he didn’t get everything right – none of us do. But, helped by the record number of police officers, crime fell by 43 per cent between 1997 and 2010 and the chance of being a victim of crime was at the lowest since records began.

When Labour left office in 2010, there were record numbers of police on the street, over 16,500 more than in 1997 in addition to over 16,000 new PCSOs. Because of the investment – especially in technology – it was also possible to identify and make significant efficiency savings. The clear plan was to deliver 12% efficiency savings between 2010 and 2015. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary said this could be achieved without impacting on frontline policing. It all made sense - cutting costs and cutting crime at the same time.

However, this Government has decided to ignore all the evidence and to implement early cuts of 20%. It’s too far and too fast.

The Inspectorate has already confirmed that nationally this will mean cuts of more than 16,000 police officers and 1,800 PCSOs. In South Yorkshire, 436 police officers are to be lost – nearly 1 in 6. More than 2000 of the most experienced police officers are being forcibly retired – a government term for ‘compulsory redundancy’.

So, it’s police down, crime up.

It makes no sense.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Keep it local

People are rightly proud of the BBC. When I visit other countries, I’m forever told that the things they most admire about the UK are our NHS and our BBC. It’s no surprise that they say they believe the BBC to be the most fair, balanced, impartial and trusted news service in the world. Of course, that doesn’t mean that it never gets thing wrong; it does, but don’t we all?

We may also grumble about the ludicrous amounts paid to some celebrities and the number of repeated programmes. But I think the (less than) £3 a week I pay for my TV licence – which covers the cost of all BBC TV, Radio and website – as one of my best value buys. It’s about the same as the cost of a pint of bitter, just two days of my national and local newspapers or a woman’s magazine. The average household watches, or listens to, 19 hours of BBC programmes each week.

But the licence has now been fixed for the next 6 years, which means the BBC has to make 20% cuts in its net expenditure. Some services - like BBC One, Radio 4, Children’s Television and BBC News – are to be protected, which means the planned cuts are to fall much heavier on other areas.

Local radio in England – but not N Ireland, Scotland or Wales – is targeted for a 20% cut. The BBC is proposing not only cuts in local news and current affairs journalism, but also increased syndication - some programmes will not be local but be common across the region – and that the commentary of football matches will only come from the home team’s reporters.

So, when Sheffield Wednesday play at Leeds Utd next season, the Radio Sheffield commentary will only be made by the Radio Leeds team. But, it’s precisely because current local radio coverage is provided by reporters who know and understand the local area, community and club that makes it qualitatively different and superior. I’ve been in correspondence with BBC bosses about this and I have to say that they just don’t get it.

So, if you’re a regular listener to Radio Sheffield who values its local news, current affairs, chat, sport and music programmes, I suggest that you write to the BBC Director General immediately and tell him, before it’s too late.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Not Working

Given the precarious state of the global economy, every family has to be concerned about their own economic prospects and their job and earnings’ security. Families with children leaving school, college or university are especially concerned about the prospects for their children.

Youth unemployment has never been higher. It now stands at 1,016,000 (1.02 million) in the three months to September. This is the highest level since comparable records began in 1992. Since January, there has been an 83% rise in young people on the dole for six months or more.

What we do know is that the government scrapped Labour’s Future Jobs Fund which created over 100,000 jobs for young people, and now youth unemployment has shot up by 77% this year alone. Since January, when the Future Jobs Fund ended, the percentage of people moving off benefits and into work has fallen by a fifth.

Further, the latest statistics showed unemployment up by a huge 129,000 to the worst figure since 1994 and a sharp decline in the number of people leaving welfare and going into work. There are now fewer people moving from benefits into work than at any time since 1998. The fall coincides with the government’s decision last year to cancel Labour’s back to work programmes – and replace them with the Work Programme.

And now – and only after rigorous questioning - the Government has been forced to admit that it can only produce figures for one of its 11 schemes aimed at getting people back into jobs, and that is a programme funded by the European Social Fund. The government could not provide a single piece of evidence to show that its other much-publicised schemes were working.

To rub salt into the wounds, the latest government initiative is to be funded by cutting working tax credits. So, hard-working families on low to middle incomes are to be hit hard in their pockets to pay the additional costs of keeping their children unemployed. It doesn’t sit easily with this weekend’s revelations that bankers’ bonuses are up again and that the wealthiest in the UK are avoiding £1 billion each year in stamp duty on house purchases, with the government saying they have no plans to close the loopholes.

It is clear that the government’s welfare to work schemes are simply failing to cope with the scale of the jobs crisis. We need a change of direction, based on a plan for economic and jobs’ growth.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Brassed off!

Not a day goes by now when we don’t hear about the impact of metal thefts in our area. Signaling cable is stolen from railway tracks leading to thousands of train passengers being delayed. Lead is removed from church roofs, allowing rain penetration and causing thousands of pounds of damage. Electric cable is pulled from the ground, putting out street and traffic lights.

The number of cable-theft related crimes has doubled in our area since 2009. Not even our homes or gardens are safe, as constituents report uninvited visitors who will make off with any piece of metal that they can easily remove.

The world prices of metals have risen significantly making scrap a valuable commodity. But the cash that the thieves and vandals are receiving for the stolen materials is minimal compared to the cost of repairing the damage and the loss of production. We all suffer because of the impact on insurance prices.

The vast majority of long-established scrap metal merchants in our area – and we have some of the biggest in the UK – will have nothing to do with this criminality. But there clearly are a number who have absolutely no scruples when it comes to handling stolen property.

I’m backing a campaign to get the government to take urgent action. It’s also supported by the British Transport Police, Neighbourhood Watch and the Association of Chief Police Officers.

The proposals include:
  • Tougher police powers to close rogue traders down.
  • Anyone selling scrap being required to provide proof of identity, recorded at point of sale.
  • Licensing scrap metal dealers, rather than the simple registration scheme which exists now
  • Looking into the possibility and effectiveness of banning cash transactions, especially for large scale/high value scrap metal transactions.

These measures would allow legitimate trade to continue whilst making it harder and more expensive for organised crime and opportunistic thieves to profit from metal theft.

Monday, 14 November 2011

It’s our NHS

Before the last general election, David Cameron made three unequivocal promises on health:

  • above-inflation funding increases for the NHS
  • a moratorium on hospital closures and reconfigurations
  • no top-down re-organisation of the NHS.
All three of those promises have been broken. We can already see the impact of the failure to keep the funding promise, and it’s now clear why the Conservatives wanted to denigrate and devalue ‘targets’ on waiting-times for appointments, diagnosis and treatment.

I’ve just received the latest statistical report from the Department of Health – so these are the Government’s own figures. Since May 2010

  • Nationally, the number of people who have to wait for treatment for more than 4 hours in Accident and Emergency Departments has doubled; in Yorkshire and Humberside, it’s 125% more;
  • There’s been a 40% increase in the numbers of people waiting more than 18 weeks for hospital treatment, a 29% increase in those waiting 6 months, and a 117% increase in those waiting more than 1 year;
  • In Yorkshire and Humberside, there’s been a 300% increase (that is four times as many) in the number of people waiting more than 6 weeks for diagnostic tests.
These increases follow year-on-year decreases in waiting-times which followed the significant investment in new buildings and equipment and increases in doctors and nurses made by the last government.

This week, we also learned from one of David Cameron’s general election campaign team that he only included his promise on NHS funding to overcome the perception that ‘you can’t trust the Tories with the NHS’.  Well, now we know the truth – the perception is the reality.

For the last 12 months, my colleague John Healey MP (Wentworth, Rotherham) has been asking Andrew Lansley, the Secretary of State for Health, to publish a report prepared for the government on the risks it was taking with its top-down NHS reorganisation proposals costing £2bn. Lansley has consistently refused to release the report, but now the Information Commissioner has instructed him to make it public. He must do that now, whilst Parliament is still debating his proposals.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Think again, please

We may have read the name, or seen fictitious representations on TV detective series. But, fortunately, most of us have had no personal involvement with one important public servant – the Coroner.

The local coroner is one of the oldest public positions, having been first established in the 11th century. On our behalf, the coroner is responsible for investigating sudden, unexpected, suspicious and violent deaths, which is limited to determining who the deceased was, and how, when and where they came to their death. .

The present legal framework for coroners was largely created in 1887. Most of us recognise that society and medical knowledge have moved on quite a lot since then, and the limitations of that framework have been regularly questioned over the last fifty years.

However, the need for reform was highlighted by the Shipman Inquiry (in 2000, Harold Shipman, a Yorkshire general practitioner, was found guilty of murdering 15 of his patients, but the inquiry established that he probably committed some 250 murders), inquests into the 2005 London terrorist attacks, and British military service deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The role, responsibilities and accountabilities of the coroner were also challenged during the Hillsborough Inquiry and will undoubtedly be the subject of more debate in the light of the release of all the papers to the Panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool.

Following wide consultation and reviews, there was all-Party support for the 2009 Coroners and Justice Act, with most of its provisions to be implemented by 2012. At the centre of the reforms was the establishment of a Chief Coroner with responsibility for leadership in setting a new national framework and standards, supervision and training, accountability and appeals.

The proposals had and have the backing of a wide range of interested organisations – from the Royal British Legion (representing service personnel) to the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity – as well as from doctors, lawyers and politicians across the spectrum.

However, the government has now decided to abolish many of the proposals, including the position of Chief Coroner. The British Legion has called the decision “a deep betrayal of service families” and “a breach of the Military Covenant”.

So, in the week of Remembrance Day, I simply ask David Cameron to think again.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Testing Testing

The government has announced plans to halve the frequency of MOT tests, meaning they would only be carried out once every two years. The Secretary of State for Transport announced his intentions at the Conservative Party Conference, where he talked about ‘reducing the burden of MOT Tests.’

This was a little surprising, given that, in opposition, the Conservative Shadow Transport Minister had said that any proposal to reduce the frequency of MOT Tests ‘….should never have seen the light of day.  If it had been given the green light we would have faced a situation where there were thousands of dangerous cars on our streets putting people’s lives at risk.’

So, what has changed? Well, it isn’t the facts.

The number of people killed and seriously injured in road accidents has fallen dramatically over the last decade. Road deaths fell by another 16 per cent from 2,222 in 2009 to 1,857 in 2010. This is the lowest figure since national records began in 1926.

All the evidence shows that the Annual MOT Test has made a significant contribution in ensuring that Britain’s roads are now amongst the safest in the world.

Last year, more than four in ten vehicles failed their MOT Test. There were 800,000 vehicles which failed because of really dangerous defects. Research shows that, if annual testing is scrapped, there will be another 250 road deaths and 2,200 more people will suffer serious injuries each and every year.

And, the government’s proposals won’t save money for drivers, as the savings from not having to have an MOT Test will quickly be cancelled out by further increases in insurance premiums, repair costs and the huge additional burden on the police and health services

So, if it isn’t the facts, what is it that has led the Conservatives to completely reverse their position?

Well, it’s about ideology. The clue was given when the MOT Test was described as a ‘burden’. The Conservatives have become obsessed by their own spin, where they describe any rule as ‘unnecessary bureaucracy’, and any protection for citizens – minimum wage, health and safety, employment protection – as ‘red tape’.

In this case, the harsh reality is that one person’s burden is another family’s funeral.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Just Shop Around!

Energy prices are up by 20% this year, and nearly 50% over the last four years.

The average duel fuel bill is now £1345 per household and standard tariffs have risen £175 in the last 6 months. Pensioners and many families are feeling the squeeze – in the latest round of price rises, electricity prices rose by 10%, gas by 17.4%.  Yet, energy companies have seen their profits soar in the last six months – with their margin increasing from £15 per customer per head in June to £125 now.

The National Grid is predicting a winter as cold as 2010, which saw the coldest December on record, so people might expect that the Government would be taking urgent action, especially to stand up to powerful vested interests in the energy industry.

But, instead of showing leadership, the Conservative Prime Minister just lectures people about the need to shop around and the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary says that it’s consumers who are to blame for not bothering to spend enough time hunting for the best deal. Yet, research by consumer group Which? shows that even when people try to shop around for a better deal, energy companies don’t give them accurate information in a third of cases.

Before the last election, when challenged that a Conservative government would cut the winter fuel allowances, David Cameron said “These are quite simply lies.” Yet, now, the government is cutting winter fuel payments by £50 for the over 60s and £100 for the over 80s. Most of those aged 60-79 will get £200 instead of last year's £250. Those who are 80 or older will get £300 instead of £400.

Of course, one of the best ways of cutting fuel bills is to increase insulation to cut consumption. Labour’s Warm Front grants of up to £2,700 helped, on average, 216,340 households every year over the last decade.

You might think that any sensible government would want to continue that initiative. It cuts consumption, cuts bills, keeps households warmer, cuts imports, and provides jobs in installation. But, the government has cut the budget for this year and next by 70% compared to 2009/10, so only 45,000 will be helped next year.


Thursday, 13 October 2011

The Silent Killer

A report published this week by the Gas Safety Trust reveals a dramatic rise in the number of deaths resulting from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning in the UK since 2010.

The Gas Safety Trust, the prime source for data relating to gas safety in the UK, published the Carbon Monoxide Hotspot Report 2011, which contains the reported figures of gas-related CO incidents gained from media report gathering throughout the UK.

In the 12-month period between 1st July 2010 and 30th June 2011 there were 50-recorded incidents involving CO poisoning. Of the 105 people involved in these incidents, there were 25 fatalities and 80 injuries without fatal consequences, over three times as many fatalities as were reported in 2010.

I attended the launch of the report in the House of Commons this week to show support for the report’s recommendations to improve CO safety awareness and to reduce the number of fatalities.

The report shows the potential and real dangers from CO poisoning. Particularly at risk are people living in private rented accommodation, which is obviously a huge concern.

It’s essential that domestic gas users, get their gas appliances serviced regularly, get an audible CO alarm and for those with chimneys, ensure they get them swept regularly.

These things are not optional extras; they don’t have to cost a fortune, but the price of not doing them can be very high.

The Gas Safety Trust is calling for UK householders to be more aware of the dangers of CO, known as the ‘silent killer’ because you cannot smell, taste, hear or see its presence, particularly as the time for turning on central heating approaches.

October through to March is the high-risk period, during which 72% of CO related incidents occur. The number of incidents peaked in December 2010 when the UK experienced widespread snow and the coldest December for 100 years.

Despite the dramatic rise in recorded incidents, the Gas Safety Trust warns the real figures could actually be much higher.

Nigel Dumbrell, Head of Charitable Operations at the Gas Safety Trust is concerned that: ‘While deaths and serious injuries from CO exposure are relatively straightforward to record, the data does not reveal the extent of what might be termed ‘near misses’. The records do not capture information about the number of people who are unwittingly exposed to low levels of CO poisoning; levels that may cause long-term ill health, but go undetected.’

The Gas Safety Trust says further awareness activity is also needed to increase the proportion of households with a CO alarm, given the role of alarms in saving people from serious injury and death. Of all the CO incidents recorded, no incident involving an alarm resulted in a fatality or serious injury.

Planning Change

The new Conservative-led government said it was going to scrap top-down planning and give power back to local communities. In truth, it is proposing to scrap one national planning framework and replace it with another.

The proposals have provoked huge controversy. The CBI, Chambers of Commerce and the Housebuilders’ Federation have weighed in behind the proposals, as they believe they would give priority to economic development over other considerations. The National Trust, the Campaign for the Preservation of Rural England, and some national newspapers have come out strongly against the proposals, as they believe they would result in a huge development shift to green-field sites.

Changes to planning law introduced by the last Labour government ensured that priority was given to redeveloping brown-field sites – that is those sites on which there had previously been development. The result was dramatic as, by 2009, 70% of new housing development was taking place on brown-field sites, compared to less than 30% a decade earlier.

Locally, this meant that some areas close to Eckington and Mosborough, like Bridle Stiles, became protected from new housing development. It also meant that new house-building was taking place in Darnall and Attercliffe, where local people – and shops and businesses – wanted to re-build sustainable communities.

From talking to people throughout my constituency over many years, I know that they’ve strongly supported that re-balancing of development. Older communities have got renewal and given support to sustaining community facilities, like schools, shops and local traders. Meanwhile, local countryside has been saved from development. I sense that local people are very concerned that the government’s current proposals appear to risk changing that balance.

Leave aside the thousands of words, a key test for me will be whether the new planning framework continues to protect areas like Bridle Stiles from development and encourages the renewal of areas like Attercliffe and Darnall. We shall see.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Smoke and Mirrors

Over the past few weeks, there seem to have been a lot of government announcements, where the headline doesn’t match the reality.

Last week, Iain Duncan Smith announced that he had secured another £300m to support changes to his proposals for Universal Benefit which he said would be good news for working families. Sounds great, doesn’t it? However, closer examination of the detail showed that working families who claim the childcare element of working tax credit will lose £884 a year if they claim for one child and £1560 a year for two children. If that is good news, I hate to think what the bad news looks like.

Then, Eric Pickles announced that he would provide funds to councils so that council tax wouldn’t need to increase next year. Let’s just forget for a moment that this intervention runs totally contrary to his Localism policy, it sounds good doesn’t it? Unfortunately, when councils looked at the detail, they discovered that the additional funds were for one year only and, therefore, that would mean an automatic 5% increase in 2013 in addition to any other inflation. Not so good, eh?

And then, George Osborne welcomed the Bank of England’s announcement that it was going to pump another £75bn into the UK economy through quantitative easing – this is basically lending money to the banks so that they can lend it to businesses. This was clear recognition that the government’s policy of cutting spending and raising taxes too far and too fast is just not working, as the latest economic growth – or, rather, non-growth – figures show.

George Osborne’s welcome to this was a little surprising to those who remember his earlier statements where he had described quantitative easing as ‘the last resort of desperate governments’ and ‘carelessly irresponsible’ and ‘quantitative easing is an admission of failure and carries considerable risk”.

Smoke and mirrors?