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John Penrose (Weston-Super-Mare) (Con):
I compliment everyone who made their maiden speech earlier today, including my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), who has now brought the grace and talent that she has been displaying in the European Parliament to help us here in Westminster.
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I also have difficult shoes to fill in trying to live up to the reputations of my predecessors as MPs for Weston-Super-Mare. My immediate predecessor was Brian Cotter, who sat on the Liberal Democrat Benches. He was caring, hard working and determined. He told me that he managed to get through about 10,000 items of constituency correspondence and case work in his two periods as MP for the constituency. His predecessor was Sir Jerry Wiggin, who served in the House for a good deal longer than a quarter of a century, and whose family's proud tradition of parliamentary service continues today: his son, my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), also serves on the Conservative Benches.
Part of my constituency has probably changed little since Sir Jerry first took his seat. A scattering of pretty Somerset villages still reaches inland from the coast through the Mendip area of outstanding natural beauty as far as Blagdon, which, as any angler here will know, also plays host to Blagdon lake, one of the most famous and long-established man-made still-water trout fisheries in the country.
Weston-Super-Mare is a cheerful, buzzing seaside town. It has a beautiful bay, donkeys on the beach, not one pier but two, and a buzzing, thriving night life. It is perhaps most famous as a destination for holidaymakers, and if I can be allowed a little pardonable exaggeration and bias in my maiden speech, if anybody here is thinking of places to take their families for the summer holidays, they should come to Weston-Super-Mareit is wonderful and they will have a great time. The sun always shines, the sea is always clear and blue, and even if the tide goes rather a long way out into the bay, it always comes back in again later.
Members might think that acting as the parliamentary representative for such a wonderful place would be rather cushy. We have our problems, however, like everywhere else. I wish to draw everyone's attention to three or four issues that received cross-party unanimity and support in the recent general election campaign.
The first issue is drugs. We have already heard about the problems of rural drug addiction in the excellent maiden speech of the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright). The town of Weston-Super-Mare has 11 per cent. of the country's drug rehabilitation beds, most of which are excellent organisations, which are inspected under the Care Standards Act 2000 and which cause no problems. The difficulties in the town of Weston are caused by the unregistered, unlicensed drug rehabilitation treatment centres. Those places are inspected by nobody, and no one knows precisely how many there are, where they are, or how many addicts they purport to serve. The problem with them not being inspected is that no one can be sure of the quality of treatment that they provide. I am told by local professionals working in the sector that many of them provide a dubious quality of care. Clearly, that is not fair on the addicts, who are often tremendously vulnerable and deserve the best possible opportunity to break their addiction, get back into society, get jobs and contribute once again. Nor is it fair on the residents of Weston-Super-Mare, who end up having to deal with the effects when addicts are imported from other parts of the country, relapse, drop out of whatever treatment centre they were in, stay, and turn to crime to finance their habit.
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It is essential that the House addresses the problem of the shortage of registered, high quality, licensed drug treatment and rehabilitation centres in this country. Without increasing those numbersin other parts of the country, please, as Weston-Super-Mare already has more than its fair sharedrug addicts will always find that they are at risk of being sent to unlicensed and therefore substandard treatment centres, and places such as Weston-Super-Mare will potentially act as a magnet for drug addicts from the rest of the country.
The second issue that Weston faces, which picks up on various points made by other Members, is associated with the planning laws. Weston has had one of the fastest rates of new housing development in western Europe over the past 20 years. The growth in the population of the town has run ahead of the amenities, facilities and infrastructure needed to turn a dormitory into a community. The effect on the local health service is perhaps most easily visiblethe amount of money received by the local primary care trust is approximately £11 million a year below the Government's targets based on capitation for the area. My predecessor had contact with the Department of Health on that point, and I also intend to raise the matter.
The effect of that is straightforwardwe are chronically short of GPs. Trying to find a surgery that will accept one as a patient in Weston is incredibly difficult and time-consuming. As a result, Weston's hospital, which receives excellent marks for the quality of medical care that it is able to provide, is too small to cope with the demands of the communities on which it is now called to serve. That is reflected in a growing budget problem, which is also reflected in its difficulties in satisfying the Government's waiting times targets.
Those problems are not just confined to the health sectorthey also apply in the local education sector. Many local head teachersI am a governor of a local further education collegewho are trying to cope with the increased population and therefore increased number of pupils feel that they are receiving less money than their compatriots running institutions of equivalent size in other parts of the country.
Perhaps the most immediately visible example of the rapid growth with which local infrastructure is not keeping abreast is in transport. Junction 21 of the M5 is the major hub, or route, between Weston-Super-Mare and Bristol. The road network and local job creation have not kept pace with all the housing development. As a result, many people have to commute into Bristol for their jobs, rather than being able to make a much shorter journey to work to reach local factories and offices. The effect is that queues now reach back into the middle of town every weekday morning as people endeavour to get to work.
Recently, the former head of the Strategic Rail Authority came to visit Bristol, and was asked whether there were any plans to upgrade the local rail service to give people an alternative to going to work in their cars. He said that there were not, and advised Westonians to take a bus. If we are to reform the planning laws of this country, it is crucial that we make sure that infrastructure and community amenities are built in advance of new housing development, rather than behind it. That lag has caused the problems in Weston and, given current plans, is, I am afraid, likely to cause further problems unless the process is reversed.
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The difficulty also knocks on into rural areas. The village of Banwell, in the middle of my constituency, suffers from appalling queues and delays every day during rush hour. It also has, on occasions, some of the worst air pollution in the whole of the south-west. The medium-term solution for the village of Banwell must be to find an alternative route for that traffic, which does not simply transfer queues and problems along the road into the neighbouring villages of Sandford, Churchill, Langford and Congresbury. In the short term, I will consult with both the local council and neighbouring authorities on how we can set up a ban on long-distance heavy goods vehicles, which currently thunder through those villages on their way to Burrington Combe. For those who do not know the area, Burrington Combe is a local beauty spot to rival nearby cheddar gorge, and is completely unsuited to having enormous lorries thundering up and down it. I shall push forward with that.
The final issue, which, significantly, all parties raised during the election campaign in Weston-Super-Mare, is council tax, and its impact on pensioners in particular. Weston-Super-Mare has for a long time been a retirement townwe have a high proportion of pensioners in our local population. They feel that the recent rapid increases in their council tax have not been matched by increases in their pensions. In fact, many of them have made the point to me that having paid into the state pension scheme for their entire lives, and having been told as it was set up and as they were paying into it that they were paying their stamp and that it was a saving scheme to create a pot of money for their retirement, it has been switchedit is no longer a saving scheme and is instead a mean-tested benefit for the poorest pensioners. They feel that they have paid into it, and that it is not a benefit but a right to which they are entitled, which they have earned, and which should not be taken away now that it is too late in their earning lives to do anything about it.
Let me finish on an upbeat note. Many Members may have read recently in the press that the donkeys on the beach at Blackpool are to get an hour off for lunch. Weston has its own donkeys on the beach. I am pleased to report that the Weston donkeys have for many years had an hour off for lunch, so clearly in this case where Weston leads, Blackpool follows. The town's motto is, "Ever forward". Perhaps in this case it is demonstrating that it is a forward-looking place. I hope to be part of contributing to that forward-looking nature here in Parliament over the next four years.
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