NEWS AND COMMENT FROM CHRIS LESLIE – Friday 12th January 2018
(for more news also see my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/chrislesliemp)
This morning’s serious fire at Nottingham train station has caused serious disruption and damage, but thankfully no injuries have been reported, thanks to a careful evacuation and thorough response from the fire and emergency services. Ten crews and around 60 firefighters were called to the blaze after 6:30am this morning in what now appears could have been a fire started deliberately in one of the toilets at the station.
With around 4,600 passengers normally arriving at Nottingham on a weekday morning, an incident such as this could have had grave consequences. As it stands, there will undoubtedly be significant disruption to passengers and journeys for some time. I would like to pay tribute to the fire and rescue services and other emergency workers for responding so professionally and also to the staff at the station itself at what is clearly a distressing event for the whole city. I hope that if this does turn out to have been an arson attack that those responsible will be caught and prosecuted. As yet there is no clear assessment of the cost or scale of structural damage but I am sure that every agency in the city will do what is needed to get this vital transport hub up and running as soon as possible.
- In happier news, I was pleased to have a chance to catch up with the team at Nottingham City Transport, the largest bus operator in Nottingham, 82% of which is owned by the City Council. They invited me to see one of their new gas-powered bus fleet which have been purchased recently to meet the very latest ‘Euro 6’ clean air standards; they’ve got 30 in service already with another 23 on the way (pictured below, feeling quite lucky to have a chance to sit in the driver’s seat!). You’ll recall how a few weeks ago I highlighted some of the pollution hotspot issues around the city – some of which is caused by emissions of Nitrous Oxides and particulates. Government are requiring Nottingham to introduce a ‘Clean Air Zone’ in 2020 and this means some big changes especially in transport provision. We already have one of the highest levels of bus usage per head of population outside London, and despite the introduction of the tram, it is actually the bus network delivered by NCT that accounts for 67% of public transport journeys locally (50 million passenger journeys a year!). I pressed the company to keep making rapid progress particularly on credit card ‘touch’ ticket payments technology, because making it simple to hop on and pay without rooting around for exact change will remove one the barriers for non-regular bus users.
- Nottingham Castle is set to close until 2020 so that transformation work can take place as part of Nottingham City Council’s plans to redevelop the City Centre. The proposals for the redeveloped Castle involve the creation of a Robin Hood Gallery and a Rebellion Gallery. There are also plans for a new visitor centre including a café.
- On Wednesday over 500 properties and businesses in Nottingham city centre were left without power. A large part of Clumber Street and the lights at the Council House, in Old Market Square, were also affected. Western Power Distribution, which is responsible for maintaining electricity supplies, said the area affected was the NG1 postcode.
- The forthcoming months are going to be crucial in trying to prevent a regressive hard Brexit, and the resulting austerity that will affect Nottingham and the rest of the country. That’s why I’m glad there will be a ‘Rally for the Single Market’ happening in Nottingham – a chance to listen to the arguments, ask questions and learn how you can help. The event will take place on Saturday 3rd February from 3pm to 5pm at Queens Walk Community Centre, Queens Walk, NG2 2DF. You can get tickets for the event here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/rally-for-the-single-market-tickets-42093266092
- Three cheers for Dales ward’s very own Cllr David Mellen who has taken up the challenge of reading a storybook to 2,018 children in the city! The challenge, which will involve Cllr Mellen visiting each of Nottingham’s 20 local neighbourhoods, will help to raise money for the Imagination Library – a scheme which gives a free book every month to children under five years old. Further information and the option to donate can be found here: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/2018children
NATIONAL & INTERNATIONAL NEWS
- It’s been Parliament’s first week back in the new year, and MPs were plunged straight back into the key Brexit debates, with a ‘Trade Bill’ discussing how we can maintain existing agreements worldwide, and a ‘Customs Bill’ putting in place powers for Ministers to institute tariffs on imported and exported products. One issue I wanted to highlight was the change about to hit 130,000 businesses who currently don’t need to pay upfront VAT charges when they import or export goods at the border – but can ‘net off’ and recharge in their normal regular VAT returns. This may not be possible after Brexit, when firms will have to change their cashflow planning and stump up for VAT at the port of entry. I wrote about this in the New Statesman this week (article at the link here – and further coverage on the front page of last Sunday’s Observer newspaper). It may seem technical, but at present we see 55 million products which go through the ‘non-EU’ customs and VAT bureaucracy, a figure that rises to 255 million products when Britain becomes a third country outside the EU. All of that paperwork, administration and inspection activity will come at a cost, largely to those trying to continue doing business – and in the end a price that will fall on the shoulders of customers. I spoke in the second reading debates on both these Bills this week, urging Ministers to think again about leaving this EU VAT Area, to remain in the Customs Union and to make sure that Parliament has a meaningful say in decisions on tariffs and trade agreements in the future. A great deal is at stake and unless we stand up now there could be a decade of austerity ahead.
- This week began with Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle. Billed as an opportunity for the Prime Minister to stamp her authority on the Government, it turned out to be a bit of a farcical demonstration of her weakness. Chris Grayling was appointed Conservative Party Chairman for 27 seconds; two other Cabinet Ministers refused to be shuffled at all, and in what apparently passes for a major policy change, two Whitehall departments were given slightly longer titles (and nothing more). Some of the Prime Minister’s decisions (such as keeping Boris Johnson but getting rid of Justine Greening) left many perplexed. In the end, as Theresa May infamously said on a different occasion: “nothing has changed”.
- On Tuesday, MPs debated the Government’s Trade Bill. This is a deceptively short piece of legislation which could have dramatic consequences, as once again the Government are seeking to hand Ministers sweeping executive power and cut Parliament out of the picture as they seek to implement trade agreements post-Brexit. Liam Fox and his colleagues certainly have their work cut out in attempting to piece together from scratch the trade agreements, painstakingly negotiated over decades, from which we currently benefit via our EU membership. But as I argued on LabourList, it’s vital that we’re able to hold them to account. That’s why on Wednesday I had the chance to press the former Trade Minister Lord Price on whether, as he tweeted in October, the dozens of countries with whom the EU has bilateral trade agreements have ‘agreed to rollover’ every single one. This sounded almost too good to be true, so I wanted to get something more specific: are there actual deals in place, ready to sign on exit day? With the livelihoods of British households and businesses on the line, we need more than vague verbal assurances, offered behind closed doors – but after listening to his answer, I worry that that’s all we have – watch it here and see what you think.
- A major report this week, which you can read about here, confirmed that international students bring positive economic benefits to the towns and cities where they come to study. We all know how much the 5,000+ international students in Nottingham contribute to the local economy and life in the city more generally, and the report bears it out, finding a net impact of +£310 per resident – ten times more than these students ‘cost’ in public spending terms. It will now, I hope, add to pressure on the Prime Minister to finally remove student numbers from net migration statistics and alleviate the recruitment crisis this ridiculous policy has helped create.
- The debate about failings in the privatised industries – rail, water, energy – is now well rehearsed. Excessive dividends and profit-taking and in too many instances, management oriented around share price rather than the public service first. There’s little doubt that the public in general are deeply sceptical and want change. But as economist and Observer columnist Will Hutton points out in his article this week (take a look; it’s a good read at the link here), it is generally accepted that renationalisation would cost an estimated £170bn, a massive sum of money for which there are other priorities including infrastructure, health facilities and so on. So Will Hutton has come up with a way to square this circle – the ‘public interest company’ – a variant on the constitution of a private company, where public benefit has to be the primary motive with the Government taking a foundation share as a condition of the licence to operate, giving it rights to appoint directors and regulate company behaviour more closely. But by remaining with wider shareholders it wouldn’t be counted against our (already high) national debt and have freedoms to borrow. It might not be the model for every case, but we need smarter solutions that shift the balance towards the public interest without causing severe disadvantages, and I welcome Will Hutton’s fresh thinking on this.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Hospitals are reporting a sharp rise in flu cases in the past week, with admissions up by 50% and GPs also reporting an increase in cases coming through their doors. Although the levels are significant, health officials say this represents only a ‘medium’ amount of flu circulating in the community – back to the levels seen in 2010. Flu jabs for the vulnerable, young and old are available on the NHS and always worth getting. In general, this and other winter ailments tend to make this a very busy time of year for our health service.
We had an Opposition debate in the Commons on the pressures facing the NHS this week, the decision affecting many hospitals across the country to postpone elective operations in order to redirect frontline resources and staff to emergencies, and the need to ensure adequate resources are available for hospitals and social care especially during the winter months.
If you’ve needed to use the health service over the Christmas or New Year period I’d be interested to know your experiences. Are you finding it easy to see a GP? Nottingham’s NHS staff and managers are doing their best to keep services available but sometimes the pressures can be great. It would be helpful to hear whether there are particular issues you would like me to take up in Parliament or with the local NHS.
Very best wishes
Labour & Co-operative Party MP for Nottingham East