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Cost of Living: Energy and Housing

Part of Bills Presented — Finance Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:12 pm on 5th June 2014.

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Photo of Jeremy Lefroy Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford 3:12 pm, 5th June 2014

We would. In some cases, our bills have gone down, and in other cases energy companies are freezing them. Furthermore, through the ability to switch, which many people take advantage of, they can also cut their energy costs. All I am saying is that once we introduce a freeze, it is less easy than we might think to take the freeze away, because people will expect prices to remain the same, and we have been finding that with council tax and the fuel duty. It is essential that the Government look at every sustainable way to keep downward pressure on the cost of living for households.

I want to concentrate my remaining remarks on three areas, housing, health, and international affairs, which sadly have not been included as a subject for the Queen’s speech debate, although they were mentioned in the Gracious Speech itself. The Queen’s Speech talks about increasing the supply of housing, and we all agree that that is vital: we need to build more houses. The question is not simply one of numbers; it is also about the type of houses, where they are built and infrastructure.

With changing demographics, we need more housing suitable for older citizens, including extra-care housing, of which I am glad to say that more is being built in my constituency. It also includes building small, energy-efficient, single-storey homes, which many of my constituents say that they would wish to move into, if possible, but there are simply not enough of those homes. I saw an excellent example of such a development, which must have been built 20 to 30 years ago, when for some reason I happened to be passing through Newark recently. Unfortunately, we do not see that sort of development now. Why? Because developers tell us that such homes are not profitable, because they take up too much land. That shows a lack of ambition and imagination. Such developments would encounter much less opposition, because they can be seen as fulfilling a real need and keeping communities together by enabling older people to stay in the communities in which they have lived for so long.

Where houses are built is, of course, a matter of great controversy, but it is exacerbated by the irresponsible submission by developers of planning applications that are quite clearly outside democratically agreed local development plans. That is certainly the case in my area. I urge the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, whom I am glad to see in his place, strongly to resist such speculative developments, which fly in the face of properly agreed local plans.

Infrastructure is also a great concern. I worry that sometimes we look only at the narrow implications of development and perhaps suggest that problems can be addressed by, for instance, a controlled junction onto a new housing estate, rather than considering the wider knock-on effects of traffic across the whole area. In particular, once traffic lights are introduced, they are rarely removed or even modified to take account of subsequent development. We need to consider that. We tend to focus much too narrowly on the requirements of a specific development rather than those of the community as a whole.

I want briefly to speak about health. I have spoken on many occasions about the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust and will continue to do so, both in order to speak up for my constituents and because I believe what has been happening there is of national importance and has national implications. Medium-sized district general hospitals provide services that are prized by local communities. They often provide out-patient services and elective surgery, but they also provide general accident and emergency provision—not the most complex, but everyday provision—and consultant-led maternity services and paediatrics. For that to be provided and, of course, for safety reasons, there is a need for them to come together with the larger hospitals through networking, buddying or mergers, but such provision should be possible. That is why I fully support NHS England’s review of the possibility of continuing consultant-led maternity services at Stafford. I have also urged consideration of the possibility that urgent care could be available at night to supplement the 8 am to 10 pm A and E service that should be provided, although I believe that eventually a return to a 24/7 A and E will be necessary, especially given the housing developments taking place.

We are told that specialisation means that centralisation is inevitable. I disagree and I was very glad, after a conversation last week with Simon Stevens, the new head of NHS England, to find that he views district general hospitals and community hospitals as important in providing not just community services but acute services. I hope that he will succeed. Those of us who live and work in large towns and rural areas need a decent, truly national health service and not one that is increasingly sucked into the major cities.

Of course, there is the unpalatable issue of cost, and I shall not be afraid to address it in this place, as I have before. We will have to spend more on health, probably at least 2% of GDP. I have already suggested both in this place and in writing how we can do that, possibly by converting national insurance into a progressive national health insurance paid according to income and preserving an NHS free at the point of need. In my opinion, we must remove health from an increasingly sterile debate about taxation.

Finally, I want to touch on foreign affairs. I am proud to be a supporter of a coalition Government who have, with cross-party support, achieved spending of 0.7% on overseas development assistance. I am also proud to be a supporter of a Government who have introduced the Modern Slavery Bill, again with cross-party agreement.

Those things are vital, but I see four global challenges that we must confront. The first is to eradicate absolute poverty. The World Bank has set a target to get rid of it by 2030, and we as a country and a people need to do everything we can to support that. The second is to reduce income inequality. We have already spoken today about income inequality is in this country, and the World Bank has that we must concentrate on the 40% with the lowest incomes globally to reduce income inequality. I share that aspiration, as income inequality eventually leads to political instability and many other things.

Thirdly, there is climate change, which we cannot run away from and which any responsible Government must take fully into account in their policies. Fourthly, there is the whole matter of combating—not allowing—extremism. This relates to income and equality, but it is not just about income and equality as some of the most extreme people come from some of the most privileged backgrounds. We have to combat extremism everywhere and promote freedom of speech, thought and religion and the freedom to have no religion. That is the responsibility of this Government and this country. There is no magic solution to any of this, just constant, hard negotiation, peace making and engagement. We cannot do it on our own. We need to work with others to exercise our influence through the Commonwealth, the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF and particularly the European Union.