Business and Planning Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:18 pm on 29th June 2020.

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Photo of Paul Howell Paul Howell Conservative, Sedgefield 6:18 pm, 29th June 2020

They tell us all that it is a challenge to make a maiden speech—I knew that I should not follow my hon. Friend Katherine Fletcher. I am one of the last of my intake to deliver my maiden speech, but I am probably one of the last who was expected to be here anyway, so that fits.

This Bill is a critical step in the recovery, but before contributing to this debate, I would like to talk a little bit about Sedgefield and give you a context for my comments. Sedgefield as a constituency has a significant rurality, with many farms, including the outstanding Archer’s ice cream, and around 40 different settlements. We have the William Beveridge-designed Newton Aycliffe as the biggest town. We have businesses ranging from the well-known, like Hitachi and 3M, through to the iconic Cleveland Bridge, to Crafter’s Companion, founded by our local Dragon, and some of the most innovative companies in the UK, like Kromek and the Centre for Process Innovation, and so many SMEs.

I was born in one of the mining villages, Ferryhill, before going to school in Newton Aycliffe and spending close to 40 years as an accountant in the manufacturing industry. I have also had the opportunity to sit as a councillor in both my local authorities, Durham and Darlington. I have an insight into the rural communities because I have been married to a farmer’s daughter for around 35 years. We have Charlie, born in 1993, whom we are both immensely proud of, being the first in our family to go to university—somewhere called Cambridge.

My dad was originally a miner but mainly a fireman, who, along with my mother, provided my brother and I with an upbringing that was loving, stable and showed us the value of hard work as he rose to be a divisional officer. I have to thank my agent, Charles Johnson, and his sadly recently departed wife, Carol—Carol did not know where a fence was to sit on it; she had views—who were particularly instrumental in me becoming involved in local politics in the first place. I, of course, thank my campaign team—this is all of them: Keith, Catherine, Oliver, Giles and, of course, my wife Lillian. There was a little bit of a target around me—some target seats. Their support in the campaign was invaluable, and I certainly would not be here without them.

Some notable politicians have held Sedgefield over the years. [Laughter.] I, of course, think first of Roland Jennings, who held the seat from 1931 to 1935 and served in the Durham Light Infantry in the first world war. He was the last Conservative Member of Parliament for Sedgefield. He had an entry in Hansard with him asking the Minister of Transport for help—nothing is changing there.

My immediate predecessor is Phil Wilson. I thank Phil for his magnanimous speech at the count. He was Labour, not Corbyn, and with that conflict, he found it a very difficult campaign. I have heard good comments from Members on both sides of the House about Phil—in particular, the work he did on the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces—and I wish him all the best.

I said in my campaign that I would listen to the people of Sedgefield, and that is what I will do. So far, I have been lobbied on everything, from the price of pipe tobacco to HS2. One of the early pleasures in my role has been to meet the young ambassadors from Ferryhill and Chilton, whose latest campaign is “#dontthrowitallaway”, and it is about the rubbish that comes out of McDonald’s and places like that. I will give them all the support I possibly can.

I have started in this place with two primary areas of focus for Sedgefield: to work for the communities left behind as our economy became too London and financial services dependent, and to support local business. To that end, I am now joint chair of an APPG for left-behind communities, and I have been elected to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.

It is, hopefully, from this informed base that I would like to contribute a little to the debate. I would first like to say that I support the measures in the Bill as necessary first steps that will undoubtedly help pubs and restaurants, and I encourage as many of you as possible to join them—of course, in a socially distant way. While I am strongly in favour of developing pavement café space and so on to help with the recovery, we must remember to be as inclusive as possible and not forget that some of our visually challenged people might find these changes difficult.

In deciding what our next actions should be, we need to ensure that we do not look to recover to where we were—we need to go to where we want to be. Remember that before coronavirus, we had committed to the communities that had been left behind that we would level up this United Kingdom. With Sedgefield being equidistant from the north coast of Scotland and the south coast of England, we are a great place to start.

We must be aware that, even with these measures, some great businesses will need to reposition themselves for a new future that requires fewer people. One example would be the outstanding Rockliffe Hall hotel, whose staff have been writing to me, praising the way they have been treated during the lockdown, but the hotel is still having to make redundancies because of forecast lower occupancy rates. We need to take every opportunity to find ways to support job retention and creation and to minimise as far as possible the impact on our people and their economic opportunities. There are businesses, particularly many new start-ups and the self-employed, that have fallen through the gaps of the incredible efforts delivered by the Chancellor, and I would ask, if at all possible, for the Government to take another look at how we can help them to survive and grow.

There are many options we can take to move forward. As is typical of the north-east, we have some suggestions about what and how. A local business fellowship forum that I have listened to has written to the Chancellor providing some suggestions. It says that infrastructure needs accelerating and should not be frustrated by overly protracted planning processes. Tax breaks are needed to support construction and in particular green construction. The forum also argues for some 100% capital allowances, bonds for local authorities to support local investment and supply chains that maximise local content for integrity and the socioeconomic benefits that come. We need to consider mass contingent equity investments to drive investment.

The forum also asks us to lift some of the restrictions on the enterprise investment scheme and venture capital trust funding to improve access. In the end, cash is king, so it also asks the Government to push the importance of prompt payment and to broaden the Government-backed insurance scheme. Those suggestions show that businesses are looking at how to deliver growth, and I encourage the Chancellor to listen and to be as expansive as possible in his consideration of such suggestions.

I suggest that we can combine economic delivery with our levelling up agenda, for example, by delivering promises on infrastructure. In Sedgefield, several of our villages are named after railway stations. We have Ferryhill Station, Trimdon Station and Station Town. They have one thing in common: none of them has a railway station anymore. Ferryhill is an obvious place to rectify that. It is something that had been campaigned for since it was closed in the Beeching era, and not even Tony Blair, who was Labour Prime Minister for 10 of his 24 years as the Sedgefield MP, managed to deliver that. Maybe its time has come.

Broadband is key infrastructure and it needs to be for all. In Sedgefield, we have a number of rural blackspots, such as Killerby, which has close to zero broadband, never mind gigabyte broadband, and that needs to change. The delivery of local management for local need could be further developed. I would like to see people such as the Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, given the opportunity to drive more agendas and for devolution gaps such as Durham, which fall between combined authorities, to have their situation sorted and for them all to have the latitude to crack on and deliver.

I would like to see a mechanism for getting some funding support direct to community groups, such as Deaf Hill Regeneration Group and Ferryhill Ladder, which are so embedded in their communities and can ensure that all the money hits the target for maximum benefit.

The opportunity to relocate some Government Departments, such as possibly the Treasury and others to the north-east—and preferably to Sedgefield—could both improve local economies and Government understanding, but also reduce pressure on the housing and travel densities in London.

It has been noticeable during the crisis how much people have stood up and helped their neighbours, and that is something we need to encourage. I will therefore look to my immediate neighbour, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to pop over the bridges on the Tees and give me a hand.

Those are the key strands that should be part of our approach to starting the process of levelling up, while at the same time invigorating our economy. People will no doubt question whether it can be done. Well, we got Brexit done, and this is a Government who can get things done. I remind the House of a poem by Edgar Albert Guest, which starts:

“Somebody said that it couldn’t be done

But he with a chuckle replied

That ‘maybe it couldn’t,’
but he would be one

Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.

So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin

On his face. If he worried he hid it.

He started to sing as he tackled the thing

That couldn’t be done, and he did it!”

For us, it is now all about getting it done.

My message to the Government is that we have the ideas and talent to deliver the economy and welfare of the UK from these challenges, and my message to the people of Sedgefield is that we can get it done. I will do everything in my power to listen to you, represent you and shout for investment in our amazing constituency to deliver the connections and visions that create the aspiration and opportunity for you to get it done, too.