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I would like to raise three issues that relate to my constituency. First and foremost, I am hugely excited by the prospect of a new arena in the Brabazon hangar on the former Filton airfield. Bristol is one of the most creative cultural cities in the country. Indeed, there can scarcely be anywhere in the country more famed for its contributions to sport, music, art, theatre and wider culture. That our area does not have a large arena of its own has long been a conspicuous absence in our local offering. I want to pay tribute to YTL Developments, the developer of the 400-acre airfield site. Its proposals will lead to the building of a new arena on the border between Bristol and South Gloucestershire, which will be funded without a penny of taxpayers’ money. YTL’s forecasts predict that the project will create 500 jobs, attract 1.4 million visitors per year and add around £1.5 billion to our local economy.
In reusing the existing Brabazon hangar, instead of building a brand-new arena from scratch, the proposals will save 18,600 tonnes of carbon emissions—the equivalent of 11,200 return flights to New York, so I am told. The innovative designs will mean that the Brabazon arena will be able to host touring bands, concerts and sport events in a single venue. Importantly, the arena will boast excellent transport links, including a brand-new railway station at North Filton, a regular MetroBus service and convenient walking and cycling routes. This project is a fantastic opportunity, and I urge Bristol City councillors to get on with granting the planning permission, because delays will only cause costs to increase. The Labour council’s plans to spend £150 million of taxpayers’ money on an arena at Temple Meads in the middle of Bristol were ill-fated, but there is now a great opportunity at the Brabazon hangar site to have a better facility with better transport links at zero cost to the taxpayer. I suggest that the councillors seize that opportunity with both hands.
The next issue that I would like to raise is transport infrastructure. The Prime Minister highlighted in his statement on Tuesday the upgrade to Bristol East junction, which is progressing well as part of our wider MetroWest suburban railway project. That project will deliver great things for our local area, with phase 1 reopening the Portishead branch rail line. The Severn Beach line will be extended to allow for direct journeys to Westbury and Bath, and that extension is on time to be delivered by 2021. Furthermore, we will see a reopened Henbury line, offering an hourly service to new stations in North Filton, Henbury and Ashley Down, and a new, more frequent half-hourly service between Bristol Parkway and Yate.
Our area is already becoming better connected, and I eagerly anticipate seeing the benefits of £350 million of investment in transport infrastructure over the next 20 years, but there are some issues that need addressing. First, a regular service must be restored to Pilning railway station. We are lucky enough in my constituency to have the Wave, the first inland surfing lake of its kind in England, on the edge of Pilning and Easter Compton. That amazing facility opened recently and will attract thousands of tourists. If we do not want people to drive there, which would put pressure on rural road networks with limited capacity, it would be sensible to ensure that they have a reliable rail service, especially because there is a railway station already on the door step.
Secondly, and linked to the sustainability of the area, a park-and-ride facility at Severn Beach railway station would be greatly beneficial. It would capture a lot of traffic heading towards Bristol and avoid a large number of car journeys being taken. There is suitable land adjacent to the station, and I have made the case for it to be used for a park and ride. That would benefit those travelling towards Bristol from Gloucestershire and Wales, as the station is conveniently located near the A403 and M4, and those commuting towards work in Avonmouth and Severnside, which is a huge growth area for jobs and industry, as it is a 10-minute journey by train from Severn Beach to Avonmouth.
Finally, I would like to focus on the issue of education. Our local schools have faced challenges, but many of them are beginning to improve, thanks to the commitment of parents, hard-working teachers and school staff. In particular, I would like to pay tribute to South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, which was recognised last week for strong performance. Students studying A-levels at SGS College made more progress from their GCSE grades than other learners studying similar subjects across South Gloucestershire and England. I would also like to highlight the excellent work done by Bradley Stoke Community School, which continues to be the best school in South Gloucestershire.
I really enjoy visiting my local schools, and I am always inspired when I see young people eager to learn, teachers and staff striving to provide the best education, and governors and parents who are committed to providing the right supporting environment for that to happen. As someone who did not benefit from a fantastic education and left school at 16 with very few qualifications, I am passionate about social mobility and opportunities.
South Gloucestershire is the lowest-funded education authority in the country. There is no good reason for that, besides the arbitrary whims of a mathematical formula, and the impact of that is clear when we compare our results with those of our geographic and demographic neighbours. While the direction of travel is good, and many schools are improving, it cannot be argued that the lack of funding is not a factor in the underperformance of some schools. I have made a submission to the Chancellor ahead of the Budget arguing for more funding for our schools to assist with some of their capital needs, as many are unable to invest in heating, windows and other necessary maintenance to ensure children are studying in the kind of environment we would expect.
I have been working closely with many schools in south Gloucestershire and pay tribute to the members of staff working diligently to deliver a good education to our children, despite the limitations, in some cases, of the buildings they are operating in. In particular, I would highlight the situation at Patchway Community School, which is a school I have great affection for, as three of my children went there and received a great education before moving on to have great careers. Over a year ago, on a catch-up visit, I was shocked at the state of the buildings and infrastructure: ceilings coming down, holes in the flooring, the whole place giving the impression of decay.
The staff are making an amazing effort to educate the pupils, but the limitations put on them by the shoddy state of the school buildings are extreme. I was really surprised. It still has the original resistant materials workbenches from the ’50s. Children are working with equipment older than I am, not one mile from Rolls-Royce and Airbus, two of the leading technology and engineering companies in the world, and having to skirt around collapsed flooring that has been coned off because there is not the budget to repair it. Windows go unreplaced and staff have been forced to decide whether to replace their ageing heating system or undertake other routine maintenance. It is a choice they should not have to make. Parts of the school flood during periods of heavy rain and the changing rooms for sports are not fit for purpose.
I want every child in south Gloucestershire to feel valued at school, not to dread their daily attendance in a dilapidated, dismal and decaying place where the day-to-day experience must be disheartening at times. I have engaged with Ministers on this issue, and the Schools Minister came to visit the school. To date, we have not had much success, whether through increased funding or other help to address these important issues, but rest assured I will continue to campaign until schools in my area get the funding they need and deserve. In addition, I will continue to meet local companies, particularly in the STEM field, to explore whether there is scope for some support in this regard. The nation is desperately short of engineers and scientists. I represent an area that is the hub of south-west England’s aerospace, technology and defence industries, yet I see children learning metalwork and woodwork on equipment that is older than I am, as I said earlier.
Schools should be places of inspiration and hope that highlight the great possibilities and opportunities of life—going back to the point about social mobility, aspiration and looking beyond one’s circumstances. The staff at Patchway Community School are heroically doing their very best to provide this environment, but it must be very difficult and demoralising when the buildings are falling down around them. I would like to invite the Secretary of State for Education, whoever that will be by the end of the day, to visit the school with me to see what can be done.