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I feel hugely privileged to be standing here as the Member of Parliament for Broadland. It is an exquisite sliver of breathtaking Norfolk, from Wighton in the north, where my parents were married, to the Halvergate Marshes near Breydon Water in the south-east. It is named after the eponymous Norfolk Broads, a magical combining of flooded medieval peat cuttings interconnected by rivers: the Yare, Bure, Ant, Wensum, and Thurne, to name a few. Together they make up the great harbour of the Broads. The harbourmaster is the Broads Authority, whose key duty rightly remains to maintain navigation. The area is also a wonderful haven for nature, created by Norfolk reed-cutting and marsh grazing over centuries, a harmonious form of traditional husbandry serving both nature and man. Long may those traditional occupations be able to continue to do their good work.
However, to the north of the constituency, some 30 miles from the Broads, “Broadland” is a misnomer. Who would describe Fakenham, with its fine racecourse—but currently, shamefully, no post office—or the pilgrimage village of Walsingham as being in the Broads?
The boundaries of my constituency have been much changed in recent times, but my predecessor, the right hon. Keith Simpson, flexed with them to represent this part of Norfolk for the past 22 years. An academic, Keith describes himself as a
“military historian with an interest in defence and security”.
This political modesty belies his long and distinguished service on some of the key Committees of the House, and most notably his valued membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee. He is a charming and witty after-dinner speaker, and I will struggle to meet his standards and expertise.
Keith was a staunch advocate for Norfolk and for the infrastructure that it deserves. On reading his maiden speech, made back in 1997, I noticed his demand for the dualling of the A47, a key east-west artery for East Anglia. What I did not realise was that this is a tradition of the seat. Looking further back, I discovered that his predecessor, Richard Ryder, made an identical request 37 years ago, in 1983. I now join the club. I am still looking forward to the dualling of the A47, but with this Government’s welcome commitment to investing in our infrastructure, including the dualling of the A47, I am delighted that my eventual successor to the seat of Broadland—I hope in 2055 or thereabouts—will have something else to talk about.
My hon. Friend Duncan Baker, in his moving maiden speech, evoked the slower pace of life associated with our part of the world, which is epitomised, in his mind, by the village of Sloely. Well, once he has tired of Sloely, I invite him gently to join me in Little Snoring, or even in Great Snoring. But to talk of modern Norfolk in such terms is to ignore the dynamic businesses that thrive there, particularly in the farming, agri-science and green energy sectors. As a rural-based businessman myself, I know the desperate need for improved mobile phone coverage and broadband connectivity to allow the businesses of Broadland to thrive. That is why I wholeheartedly welcome the shared rural network agreement to provide 95% of geographical coverage by 2025, and I am already working with Mobile UK and Norfolk County Council to ensure that Norfolk is in the first phase of this roll-out. I also eagerly await the Government’s 1 gigabit broadband. Entrepreneurialism is alive and well in Broadland, and business there could have the best of both worlds—unrivalled quality of life, together with great connectivity—but we need the tools to do the job.
I join this Parliament in what I believe to be an era-defining moment. For the last 40 years, the relative importance of this place has slowly diminished as more powers were gradually ceded to the EU in its founding quest for ever greater political union. Is it a coincidence that, over the same period, the reputation of this House suffered commensurate decline? As the power of this place to effect meaningful change in the lives of our constituents has diminished, so too has its reputation fallen. I believe that Brexit provides us with the opportunity to change all that. If the decision over Brexit has taught us anything, it is surely that this country does not like to be governed by bodies that it cannot vote out. The people took the lead away from the political class and taught us all a lesson, and actually, it was a lesson in democracy. That lesson has profoundly changed my political thinking. We have been re-taught that democratic accountability is needed in the decisions of state.
That lesson does not just apply to international bodies. The European years also marked the proliferation of quangos, set up to be independent of politics in their delivery of key areas of national government. But what does independence mean? It means an organisation that is untrammelled by political pressures, and yet political pressure is the evidence of a democratic system at work. As we accelerate our already impressive response to the climate and environmental challenges that we face, we will be requiring huge changes to be made to the lives of all our constituents. Without the reform of quangos to bring them back within the structures of democratic government, I fear that we may be sowing the seeds of the next Brexit-style revolt when we can all least afford it.
To be clear, I do not want to stymie our effective environmental and climate response. I want to do the opposite, but I invite the House to look forward. As our new and necessary policies begin to bite, with the huge changes to everyday life that they will entail, not everyone will be happy. The absence of democratic pressure valves in the implementation of policy will leave us all vulnerable to a demagogic backlash. If we do not bring the people with us through the implementation of our plans, it will be at our peril. Now is the time to learn the true lesson of Brexit, to embrace democracy once more throughout our national conversation and to restore true accountability to the people, in organisations that are trusted. Perhaps then the people will once more believe that they have the politicians they deserve.