I am grateful for this opportunity to deliver my maiden speech as the new Member of Parliament for Croydon Central. I congratulate Hywel Williams on his contribution and, in particular, my hon. Friend Charlotte Leslie, who has just left the Chamber, on her maiden speech. I know how hard she has worked to get to this place.
It is traditional to start a maiden speech by paying tribute to one's predecessor, and despite the fact that he was an opponent in the recent election, I have absolutely no hesitation in doing so. Andrew Pelling was elected to the House in 2005 as a Conservative, but for the last two and a half years sat as an independent Member. During his time here, he experienced a number of difficulties in his personal life, but despite them he was regarded in the constituency as an excellent local MP. In addition to his service in the House, he served the people of Croydon and the Conservative party as a local councillor for more than 20 years, and as a member of the Greater London assembly for eight years. He was one of the people who encouraged me to get involved in local politics, and I wish him well in whatever he chooses to do in the future. I hope that his contribution to public life is not at an end.
It is a great honour to represent Croydon. It has been my home since I was a few months old, and it is where my wife and I have chosen to bring up our children. There is no getting away from the fact that Croydon has an image problem-a reputation for rather unwelcoming 1960s architecture, and for crime and antisocial behaviour. The town centre is certainly in need of regeneration, which our Conservative council and its excellent chief executive, Jon Rouse-a former chief executive of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment-have ambitious plans to deliver as the economy emerges from recession. It is also true that crime is my constituents' No. 1 concern, although it is lower than in many other London boroughs, and the town centre, in particular, is safer than it was a few years ago thanks to the efforts of our local police, led by Borough Commander Adrian Roberts.
Those two problems aside, Croydon has much going for it. Historically, it was a market town in Surrey, situated in a valley between the Crystal Palace escarpment and the north downs, just north of a gap in the downs and therefore on the natural route from London to the south coast. The Archbishop of Canterbury had his summer residence in the town, and some of the original buildings survive and today form part of Old Palace school. The arrival of the railways-first the Surrey iron railway between Croydon and Wandsworth in 1803, then connections to London in 1839 and Brighton in 1841-led to a 23-fold increase in Croydon's population between 1801 and 1901, and as Croydon grew north, London grew south, and by the outbreak of the great war it had become part of the London metropolitan area.
Further change came after the second world war. The Croydon Corporation Act 1956, coupled with Government incentives for office relocation out of central London, led to almost 500,000 square metres of office space being built or given permission in just seven years-much of it in multi-storey blocks-plus an underpass and a flyover, which transformed the town from a market town into a mini Manhattan. Today, Croydon is a city in all but name, a major commercial and retail centre, and the largest metropolitan area in western Europe without city status. However, it is also part of London, the world's greatest city. It has excellent transport links, including a 24-hour rail service to central London, Gatwick airport and the south coast. Croydon tramlink is London's only tramline, and the East London line extension to West Croydon, which opened just over a week ago, has finally put Croydon on the tube map. As a result, Croydon residents can be in central London in just over 15 minutes, while living on the edge of the beautiful countryside of the north downs and not having to pay through the nose for housing.
Croydon's greatest asset is undoubtedly its people, many of whom have come from all over the world to make it their home. They set up new businesses, work in our public services, contribute to the town's thriving voluntary sector and enrich its culture, making it a vibrant, cosmopolitan place to live. The real Croydon is a mix of ancient and modern, city and countryside, long established and newly arrived. Like many suburbs, Croydon is not without its problems, but it is a great place to live.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this debate for three reasons. First, as a parent of three young boys, who I expect are watching at the moment, and as the chairman of governors at a local secondary school, education is an issue in which I have a personal interest. Secondly, it is also a key issue in my constituency, particularly in relation to secondary school standards, which I shall come to in a moment. Most importantly, if we want to lift people out of poverty and to increase social mobility in our country, then education, and not the ever more complicated tax and benefit system favoured by the previous Government, is surely the key to doing so, as Gavin Shuker recognised. Of course it is important that young people leave school, college or university with the qualifications they need to get a job, but education is about much more than exam results. It is about inspiring children, raising their aspirations and giving them the confidence that if they work hard, they can fulfil their dreams.
Given the time available, there is just one more issue that I wish to raise-standards in secondary schools. My constituency is lucky to have some excellent state faith schools-Coloma Convent, a Roman Catholic school for girls, and Archbishop Tenison's, a co-educational Church of England school, both of which deliver excellent results on limited budgets thanks to outstanding leadership by Maureen Martin and Richard Parrish respectively. We also have some excellent independent secondary schools-the Islamic Al-Khair school, as well as the Trinity and Old Palace schools, which are part of the foundation established more than 400 years ago by Archbishop Whitgift, about which I should declare an interest as a governor.
Until recently, parents who were not practising Christians and who did not wish or were not able to go independent had either to accept places at schools where standards were not high enough or send their children miles away to Bromley, Surrey or Sutton. Thankfully, a couple of years ago, our Conservative council took action to address the problem, replacing low-performing schools with new academies and putting in place plans to expand popular schools. Some of those plans are dependent on Building Schools for the Future funding, and I was therefore grateful to hear the Secretary of State's positive comments in that regard earlier in the debate.
Unfortunately, not all councils are as progressive as mine. Too many turn a blind eye to low performance, rather than taking the tough decisions needed to turn things around. That is why it is so welcome that the coalition proposes to remove the monopoly of local councils and to allow parents, teachers, charities and local communities to set up new schools. Each year, thousands of parents are told that the inn is full. They are told that there are no places at any of the schools where they want to send their children and that they have either to send them to a school they did not choose or educate them at home. The policy that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has championed with such passion will provide another option to those parents, and the knowledge that a new school could open if enough local parents are dissatisfied will put pressure on low-performing schools across the country to raise their game.
Ed Balls is concerned that the proposals in the Queen's Speech will create a two-tier system, but the reality is surely that the current system of catchment areas coupled with the local authority monopoly of supply allows well-off parents to move into the catchment areas of good schools and leaves the less well-off with little or no choice. It demonstrably does not ensure that everybody gets an equal education. The previous Government believed that a top-down approach was the best way to drive up standards. I believe that a bottom-up approach, based on parent and pupil choice, is far more likely to be successful. That is what my constituents want, and I look forward to supporting the measures when they come before the House.