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Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): It is an immense honour for me to give my maiden speech today. I pay tribute to all the thoughtful and constructive contributions that we have heard so far, including that of the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Horwood). I am particularly pleased to follow the maiden speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill). It was appropriate that he chose a debate on the environment, because he has a distinguished record on environmental matters. He served his constituency and his country very well in the European Parliament for five years.
It gives me great pleasure to follow the long-standing convention for maiden speeches and ask the House to reflect for a few minutes on the work of Sir Sydney Chapman, my predecessor. For over a quarter of a century, he represented the constituency with charm, compassion and kindness. Throughout his 26 years as the local MP, he worked assiduously for his constituents, whatever their problem and whatever their political affiliation. He had endless wells of patience. No problem was ever too small for his attention. Every constituent met with courtesy and concern when asking Sydney Chapman for help. He was also a staunch defender of the green belt and our natural environment, the subject of today's debate.
Sydney too gave his maiden speech on the environment. He was an environmentalist not only before it became fashionable, but almost before anyone had even heard of the concept. As instigator of national tree-planting year, he urged people to
setting in train events that led to the creation of the Tree Council and many other environmental projects that continue to make a hugely valuable contribution to conservation work in Britain today. Throughout his career, Sydney planted trees at every opportunity. There can be few parliamentarians who will leave such a visible and lasting green legacy for future generations.
Sydney graced the Chamber with a warm and witty speaking style. Just one example is the occasion on which, during a debate on the work of the Church Commissioners, he famously asked whether the Church insured its property against acts of God. If it had such insurance, asked Sydney, did that not suggest a certain
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lack of faith? If it did not, did that not suggest a certain lack of acumen? The House will not be surprised to hear that the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs was stumped by the question.
Let me say something about my constituency. Chipping Barnet is not, as some seem to assume, a rural retreat in the Cotswoldsit is on the northern edge of Greater London. Barnet is where the metropolis meets the countryside. Nor is it an indeterminate suburban sprawl: it is made up of a number of distinct and different villages and communities, including Totteridge, Arkley, Old Fold, Hadley, Hadley Green, Hadley Common, High Barnet, Chipping Barnet, New Barnet, East Barnet, Friern Barnet, Brunswick Park, Oakleigh Park, Woodside Park, Lyonsdown, Underhill, Southgate, New Southgate, Cockfosters, Whetstone and a narrow slice of North Finchley. My apologies to any that I have missed out.
I want to take this unique opportunity to look at the history of Chipping Barnet. The House might be worried to hear that I intend to cover about 1,000 years, but relieved to learn that I intend to do so in about four minutes. The source of the name is Anglo-Saxon: "chipping" means "market" and "barnet" means "clearing by burning", hinting at the area's woodland origins. The first real growth of the community occurred when the main road north out of London to York was routed through the area in about 1100, and the Great North road still runs through the constituency today.
Chipping Barnet took off as a settlement in 1199, when an enterprising bishop set up a market at the top of Barnet hill to provide refreshment for passing travellers. Barnet's early commercial success was not without its disadvantages, however. In 1413, for example, Barnet high street was reported to be so blocked with
A little known fact about Barnet is that it is a spa town. No less a person than Samuel Pepys came to take the waters there in 1664, overindulging by drinking five glasses and making himself ill in the process. And demonstrating that today's youth crime and antisocial behaviour are by no means new problems in the constituency, Barnet was the place where Dickens chose to set Oliver Twist's first meeting the Artful Dodger.
Boom time came to Barnet when it became the first coach stop from London on the journey north. At one point there were between 30 and 40 inns and nearly 1,000 horses stabled around Barnet high street. Equestrian sports remain an important leisure activity in the area although, despite the Government's new laws on 24-hour drinking, there are probably rather fewer bars and pubs in the area today than in more raucous past centuries. Back in the heyday of the coaching era, however, customers were certainly in need of rest and refreshment by the time they arrived, because Barnet hill was the highest point on the old Great North road, at
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400 ft above mean sea level. The keyhole in the door of Barnet parish church is said to be on the same level as the top of St Paul's cathedral.
As the coaching trade was killed off by the railways, Barnet began a transition to its modern role of a pleasant residential suburb. The various villages that make up today's constituency expanded gradually when the mainline rail service was built through Oakleigh Park and New Barnet in 1872, and the Northern line reached its furthest extension point when High Barnet station was connected to the underground network for the first time in 1940. That marked the end of London's outward expansion, along with the creation of the green belt by the Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act 1938. It is difficult to overstate the role of transport in Barnet's development, and the chronic need for improvements to the Northern line and local rail services remains one of the most important issues for the area.
For many years, much of my constituency was in Hertfordshire, but the whole of Barnet became part of Greater London in 1965, a fact that many people still regret today. However, a significant proportion of the constituency retains its Hertfordshire postal addresses and a strong residual Hertfordshire identity. Other parts of the constituency retain their historic links to the county of Middlesex to which they once belonged.
Despite its nominal inclusion as part of our capital city, Chipping Barnet has a vast number of green spaces: parks, commons, open land, even farms and ancient woodlands, some of which may date back to the end of last ice age. Well over a third of the constituency is green belt land or metropolitan open space, and one of my top priorities as its MP will always be the preservation of the green belt and green spaces. I will fight to protect the green belt, both for the sake of our environment and to preserve the quality of life of my constituents. That is why, like my predecessor, I have chosen to make my maiden speech in a debate on the natural environment.
There can be few tasks more important for our community than the wild life, countryside and conservation that are entrusted to English Nature and which we are debating today. The new natural England body proposed in the Bill will, as the Minister explained, have a much wider remit than the conservation focus of English Nature. I believe that it is vital to ensure that the creation of natural England, with its multiple responsibilities, does not undermine or detract from that vital conservation work.
As we have heard, natural England is to be responsible both for conserving our environment and for facilitating access to it by people who wish to use our open spaces for recreation and enjoyment. Vesting these two responsibilities in one body will give rise to an immensely difficult balancing act, and to the even more difficult conflicts of interest that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) mentioned earlier. Most importantly of all, the new bodies set up by the Bill must retain their independence from the Government, as many previous speakers have said. They must be unafraid to stand up to Ministers when the need arises, as I am sure it will on a regular basis.
I should also like the Government, and the new institutions proposed by the Bill, to give much more power to local communities on conservation matters,
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and to work much more closely with local people. If we are to face today's hugely important environmental challenges successfully, we need to harness the support of those in our local communities, including the members of the clubs and societies I met yesterday in my constituency who had gathered together to mark world environment day.
For many of Chipping Barnet's residents, care for the natural environment is at the heart of what it means to live there. For many, that is the main reason that they chose to make their home there. The constituency is almost entirely residential, and it is best known simply as a great place to live. The cluster of houses between Hadley Green and Hadley Common were described by Pevsner as:
Sadly, Barnet's suburban character is under threat from overdevelopment to a worrying extent. As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), family homes are too often being demolished and replaced by blocks of flats. I shall not make the mistake of straying too far into political subjects, but it is almost impossible to talk about Barnet without expressing concern about Whitehall's housing targets. The Government's targets and plans are placing immense pressure on our suburbs and our environment, and I believe that they seriously threaten the conservation goals that the Bill is designed to serve. For about 150 years, the suburbs have been the bedrock of social stability in this country and we jeopardise them at our peril. They are too often overlooked and undervalued.
Many people in Barnet are plagued by antisocial behaviour, yet, time and again, Barnet has been short-changed by the Government, both on police numbers and in the grant given to the local authority. The Bill covers rural communities and it is right and proper that their interests should be protected, but I call on the Minister to ensure that the Government also focus much more strongly on suburban communities and on the distinctive problems and challenges that they face.
In conclusion, one of my major political aims is to ensure that Barnet, and suburbs like it, are given the status and priority that they deserve, that they are valued as they should be, that they get the additional police officers and resources that they desperately need, and that Government housing targets do not end up destroying communities, damaging the environment and creating the sink estates of the future.
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