Monthly Archives: May 2012

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Static caravan VAT reduction success welcomed by Rory

Rory welcomes the news this week (beginning May 28) that the Government’s  plans to increase the VAT on static caravans will not go ahead after all.

“I am delighted that I and my colleagues’ efforts have paid off, and that the Chancellor has confirmed that the proposed increase in VAT on static caravans will not, thanks to our vigorous lobbying, go ahead as planned. I have met with various constituents and constituent businesses who would, potentially, have been very negatively affected by this, and expressed to the Chancellor my strong fears for the Cumbrian economy as a result of any such rise.

“With so many of our businesses in Cumbria dependent on the tourism sector, which in our county attracts in the region of 40m visitors each year and is worth over £2bn, this rise would have been disastrous. Cumbria’s 7,250 self-catering units – operated by an estimated 3,897 businesses – would have been affected, as well as the estimated 4,000 static caravans that can be found on 160+ sites, accounting for around a tenth of all self-catering bed spaces. These are a hugely important part of Cumbria’s accommodation mix – the range and choice of this type of accommodation is important, and serves a wide range of demand, particularly important in school holidays for family accommodation. Occupancy rates for this type of accommodation far outstrip those for other forms of self-catering.

“This is a real victory for a significant sector of our economy, and I am very, very pleased with this outcome and applaud those constituents who contacted me and maintained real pressure on this important issue.”

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Rory supports Cumbria Bridleways Society’s spring social

 

Rory Stewart supported the Cumbria Bridleways Society last week by speaking at their

Annual Spring Social event, which was held this year at Hackthorpe near
Penrith. He  gave an illustrated talk on his travel in
Central Asia, with some horse-based themes, which members agreed was
“riveting, enlightening and informative”, before taking questions from
the audience.

“Cumbria’s network of bridleways is one of the

largest in the UK, and the Society fulfils an important function in
ensuring that the routes are closely monitored, and information fed
back to the relevant local authorities.,” Rory said.  “It is a fantastic example of a
volunteer-driven operation that monitors and communicates effectively
from the grass-roots, and I’m honoured to be able to be here at the
annual Spring Social to show my support.”

Speaking on behalf of the Society, its Chairman Mrs Tina Galloway
said: “We were delighted to have our indefatigable MP spend this time
with us. It was an evening to remember. Cumbria Bridleways Society and
a walk in Afghanistan may not have an obvious connection, but Mr
Stewart’s obvious enthusiasm for getting close to communities by
walking struck a definite chord amongst many of those present.”

Cumbria Bridleways Society, founded in 1979, works tirelessly to
promote the county’s historic system of rights of way for the benefit
of all users: horse-riders, cyclists and walkers alike. Cumbria boasts
the greatest number of bridleways in the country, and through its
Field Officer network the Society acts as a conduit for reporting
bridleways issues to the relevant departments and organisations, from
Cumbria County Council to the Lake District National Park Authority,
as well as attending public enquiries and sitting on Local Access
Forums. Clearing parties have been arranged with the full co-operation
of the authorities, and together with the local British Horse Society
committee the Society has also recently promoted an 80-mile network of
horse and bike-friendly routes known as the Eden Valley Loops.

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Rory hosts homeless veterans in Parliament

Rory  hosted an event in Parliament on 9th May to focus on the work of re-housing ex-service personnel in vacant housing stock by national organisation Riverside, which also operates in Penrith and the Border. The event was an opportunity to highlight the valuable work of the organisation across the country, which has been referenced in the Ministry of Defence’s recent paper The Armed Forces Covenant: Today and Tomorrow as an example of cross-department working that benefits veterans.

Rory said: “It’s great to be able to highlight this important initiative. Anecdotal evidence and research shows that these schemes have been very effective in supporting our ex-service personnel and helping them to find homes and long term employment. Clearly, much more needs to be done, but Riverside’s Beacon, at Catterick Garrison, and their Mike Jackson Home are great exemplars that prove that our veterans can quickly and effectively return to independent living. Demand is growing nationally, so I am hopeful that this scheme can be rolled out and adopted by other housing organisations across the country.”

Riverside has secured three years of funding for the Beacon running until 2014 and the project has already achieved dramatic results. The majority of the funding is ‘Supporting People’ funding and is topped up by North Yorkshire Council. The Ministry of Defence contribute 25% towards these costs.

A Riverside spokesperson said: “For this to continue we need MPs to help to secure long term funding for this innovative and very effective scheme by highlighting the importance of these schemes.”

Riverside ECHG is a quality national provider of services for ex servicemen and women providing homes and support to encourage independent living. Riverside ECHG has the combined expertise to off a complete package for vulnerable ex service men and women who need help to find accommodation, deal with mental health issues and gain new skills.

For more information please visit http://www.riverside.org.uk/corporate/our_services/care_and_support/the_beacon.aspx

Rory hails Penrith as first Cumbrian market gown gets super-fast Broadband



Rory Stewart has welcomed the 9th May news from BT that more than 7,800 residents and firms in Penrith are poised to join the high-speed broadband revolution as engineers complete the local upgrades in the coming weeks. Further major investment is also under way in other parts of Cumbria, with BT announcing plans for its super-fast fibre network to pass nearly 65,600 more premises in Barrow-in-Furness, Carlisle, Dalton, Kendal and Workington in the coming months.

 

Rory, who is MP for Penrith, said: “The arrival of super-fast broadband in Penrith marks a major milestone for Cumbria. It helps put Cumbria at the cutting edge. Superfast broadband technology is vital if our communities are to thrive and grow, especially during these economically challenging times. And we must now put the infrastructure to work to bring the benefits to businesses, to schools, and all our services. But Penrith is just the beginning for Cumbria. I am now pushing hard to ensure that the more remote parts of our county will also benefit from super-fast broadband in the near future.”

Mike Blackburn, BT’s North West regional director, said: “The arrival of super-fast broadband in Penrith is a huge boost for local businesses and households, and can transform their experience of the internet. They’re joining the more than seven million UK premises now passed by one of the world’s fastest growing fibre networks. Fast and reliable internet connections are an essential part of our national infrastructure, whether we want them for boosting our businesses, delivering essential public services , education online or entertainment at home. Nobody is doing more than BT to roll-out faster broadband across the region and we want to go further.”

The communications company’s local network business, Openreach, expects to make super-fast fibre broadband available to around two-thirds of UK homes and businesses by the end of 2014. It will use a mix of fibre to the cabinet (FTTC) and fibre to the premises (FTTP) technologies.  Both offer speeds much faster than those currently available to many UK homes and businesses. FTTC, where fibre is delivered to the street cabinet, offers download speeds of up to 40Mbps and upload speeds of up to 10Mbps. Openreach recently announced it will roughly double these speeds this Spring. FTTP, where fibre runs all the way to homes and businesses, currently offers download speeds of up to 100Mbps and these too, are expected to be soon boosted to up to 300Mbps this Spring. By Spring 2013 BT aims to make speeds of up to 300Mbps commercially available in any area where super-fast fibre broadband has been deployed, potentially transforming the competitiveness of businesses.

 

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Rory presents Olympic legacy funding to KSGS Community Sports Hall


Rory spent the morning of Saturday 5th May at Kirkby Stephen Grammar School, where he spent time with staff and students, and even played a round of badminton, before presenting the school with its cheque for £120,000 of Olympic legacy funding that has been obtained from Sport England’s Inspired Facilities Fund.

The Inspired Facilities fund is part of the £135 million Places People Play legacy programme that is bringing the magic of a home Olympic and Paralympic Games into communities across the country. Every sports facility that receives funding will carry the London 2012Inspire mark – celebrating the link to the Games. The funding will allow the completion of the second phase of the community sports hall project. The main sports hall was completed in July 2011. However, pupils and local users were unable to access any toilets, showers or changing rooms, and the first floor community function rooms were not completed due to insufficient funding at the time. The Inspired Facilities funding has allowed Phase 2 to be completed, making the sports hall a fully functioning facility which will increase participation by pupils and community groups.

 

Rory said: “It has been an honour to be here today, and it’s absolutely fantastic news – and I couldn’t be more pleased, knowing how much hard work has gone into obtaining funding – that the sports hall will be completed so soon, allowing the facilities to grow and benefit not only the pupils and staff at KSGS, but the surrounding community as well. This is the year to celebrate sport and its ability to bring communities together, and I am delighted that KSGS’s commitment to sport and the community – and indeed its hard work in getting the sports hall to this stage – has been recognised in this way.”

 

Sport England’s Chair, Richard Lewis, said: “This investment will create will be a fantastic sporting legacy for Kirkby Stephen. This fund has really hit the mark with sports clubs in Cumbria. It shows we’re offering the legacy that people want for their local community. For hundreds of clubs and tens of thousands of people, 2012 will be the year their local sports facilities got better.”

David Keetley, KSGS Headteacher, said: “We are delighted to secure the Inspired Facilities grant, which has finally enabled us to upgrade our sports hall. It is only right that Kirkby Stephen, with its long tradition of sport clubs and sporting success, should have a first-class facility, part-funded by the Olympic legacy. As a school, we have now raised some £720,000 to build this fantastic facility.”

One particular beneficiary of the new facility is the Eden Valley Sports Partnership which is based at the school and will move into a new office in the Sports Hall. One day a week will be given over to Partnership activities which mainly include local primary school pupils across the Eden Valley, as well as secondary sports leaders.

 

The project is one of 350 local community sports groups who have been offered a total of £17.4 million in Olympic legacy funding through the Inspired Facilities Fund. The investments will breathe new life into tired facilities that can be unattractive to sports participants, difficult to maintain and run. Grants have also been offered to convert existing buildings into venues that are suitable for grassroots sport and to allow local clubs to buy the facilities they use.

 

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Photo : Local MP Rory Stewart at the presentation of the Sport England cheque to Kirkby Stephen Grammar School, seen here with Head Teacher David Keetley, members of the Board of Governors and some of the school’s pupils

 

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Inaugural flood ‘surgery’ for flood-affected communities

Rory in collaboration with the Environment Agency held a first-of-its-kind flood ‘surgery’ on Friday 4th May at the agency’s Penrith base, attended by residents of flood-affected communities in Penrith and the Border. Representatives from various flood action groups came to discuss ongoing flooding and gravel management work at Eamont Bridge, Pooley Bridge and Appleby, all locations at which the Environment Agency has recently undertaken gravel removal and river maintenance works.

The surgery, chaired by MP Rory, provided an opportunity for the flood action groups to ask questions about ongoing surveying and modelling work in connection with gravel management, and follows a series of individual meetings that Rory has held with the Eamont Bridge and Pooley Bridge Action Groups. Rory  has, in addition, strongly lobbied Defra Minister Richard Benyon on the need for equitable insurance terms for flood-affected communities and home owners, presenting the Minister earlier this year with a proposal drafted by the Pooley Bridge Flood Action Group.

Rory said: “Today’s meeting has gone a long way to cementing relations between our flood-affected communities and the Environment Agency, who have taken a strong proactive approach to their work with communities like Eamont Bridge and Pooley Bridge. It is important that we keep regular communications open and clear, and that the Agency has the chance to explain the surveying and modelling process, illustrating with concrete examples the work they are doing within the context of the Cumbrian gravel management programme, and to give community representatives the chance to ask questions.”

“It’s been a pleasure to be able to host and chair today’s session, and I am grateful for the Environment Agency for their help in arranging this, and to the communities themselves for their continued hard work on behalf of affected residents. This is a worrying issue for Cumbrians, and one that I will keep firmly on the agenda, not only in terms of the physical work going on across Penrith and the Border, but via events such as the Northern Flood Action Conference that I will be attending later this year.”

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Rory opens Kirkby Stephen’s new community-run Tourist Information Centre

Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, was guest of honour at the opening of the new community-run Upper Eden Visitor Centre in Kirkby Stephen on Friday 4th May.

The local MP was delighted to help celebrate the occasion of the Upper Eden Community Interest Company taking over the provision of information services from Eden District Council; the community interest company will also be offering retail opportunities in the centre to local businesses and organisations. The centre will be managed by a full-time tourism officer, but will be staffed chiefly by volunteers. Funding came from Eden District Council, the Rural Development Programme for England, Cumbria Community Foundation, Awards for All, North Pennines AONB and Village SOS, with support from local parishes and individuals.

“It’s wonderful to be celebrating this historic occasion in Kirkby Stephen today,” Rory said. “This is a fantastic example of the energy I’ve found throughout Upper Eden, twinned with the flexibility of Eden District Council and their attitude to making new plans and ideas happen. This kind of partnership between community and government is crucial – and it’s how we’re going to continue to make the Big Society work right here in Penrith and the Border.”

Joan Johnstone, Chair of Kirkby Stephen Town Council, said: “We’re thrilled that our local MP was able to show his support here today. This has been a real community effort and we’re very grateful to all who have supported us with funding and worked hard to get the new centre up and running – and to the army of volunteers who’ll keep the momentum going. Tourism is vital to our local economy and we want the centre to be a real asset to Upper Eden.”

The centre will be a one-stop-shop where locals and visitors can find information about everything going on in the Upper Eden area : walks, attractions, events and activities, local history and wildlife, places to stay and eat. Also on offer are a wide range of maps, guides and attractive gifts, including locally-produced jams and jellies, ceramics, cards, and soft toys.

One organisation to see the benefit of this ‘high street presence’ is Cumbria Wildlife Trust, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The Trust manages Smardale Gill Nature Reserve – one of Upper Eden’s best-loved attractions and recently named one of Britain’s favourite wild places.

“This is a fantastic opportunity” said the Trust’s Charlotte Rowley. “We wish the centre every success and hope local people as well as visitors to the town will pop in and find out more about our fabulous nature reserves and everything else we do. Our local support group has a busy programme of walks, talks, and work parties and everyone’s welcome to join in and help us to help wildlife.”

For more information and to find out more about retail, leaflet hosting or volunteering opportunities at the new centre, contact the visitors centre on 017683 71199 or [email protected].

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Picture : Rory Stewart MP formally opens the community-run Kirkby Stephen Tourist Information Centre

 

Note to editors

This community take-over is a joint project between the Upper Eden Community Plan (UECP), Kirkby Stephen Town Forum, Kirkby Stephen Town Council, Kirkby Stephen Walkers are Welcome and Upper Eden Future.

 

The Great Game: A personal view

This Monday and Wednesday, at 9pm, BBC 2 is showing a documentary I made about the Victorian and Soviet invasions of Afghanistan.  I’m not sure I’m ever going to make a documentary again.  I began it before I was elected to parliament.  The editing was finished last year. And it was cancelled just before it was due to be shown in March.  Apparently the BBC were worried that it might interfere with the London Mayoral election.  Exactly how my reflections on the retreat from Kabul in 1842 would affect the Boris-Ken race is unclear.  But I was able to interview some extraordinary people while making it and I learned a great deal.

First, I learnt from Politburo papers how reluctant the Soviet Union had been to invade Afghanistan in 1979, how they had intended to topple the regime, train up the Afghan army, and leave within a year.   Eight years later, after almost a million Afghans had been killed, they left with nothing.  But it wasn’t for lack of effort. In a snow-bound village, fifty miles outside Moscow, I interviewed a Soviet official who had spent nearly twenty years on the ground in Afghanistan, and while serving vodka, talked to me in the northern Afghan language, with a flawless Kabuli accent.  I heard from a Soviet development worker about the employment projects he’d run, about a rural cinema he’d built, and about the progress they’d made in female education in Afghanistan.  They were deeply proud of what they’d achieved, personally, but did not believe foreigners could ever build a state in Afghanistan. General Aushev, one of the great Soviet war heroes, said “Do I have a message for the American troops?  Yes.  Go home. Now.”

I also learnt that our 19th century policy was in some ways more rational than our 21stcentury policy.  That is not to say that the Victorians didn’t make catastrophic mistakes.  After all, Britain decided to invade Afghanistan in 1839, and 1879, and were humiliated twice.  In 1842, General Elphinstone led 15,000 people out of Kabul with the British army of the Indus.  Eight days later, only one of them, Doctor Brydon, rode alive into Jalalabad.  The Victorians were as prone as we are to produce elaborate and surreal justifications for these unnecessary wars.  Like us, they exaggerated the threat posed by Afghanistan.  Like us, they were reluctant to acknowledge failure.  But, despite all the cries to remain, the Victorians were not trapped, as we have been, for more than a decade on the ground: instead, on both occasions, they got out within three years.  Despite all the national security arguments, the Victorians concluded, in the words of General Roberts of Kandahar “we have nothing to fear from Afghanistan, and offensive though it may be to our amour proper, the less they see us, the less they will dislike us.”

It struck me making the documentary that governments have become ever worse at acknowledging failure.  Partly it is the absence anyone to challenge policy. In the nineteenth century we had many deeply knowledgeable officers, who’d spent their whole careers on the ground in British India, and on the Northwest Frontier, working with local communities, in local languages, who had learnt through long experience what could and could not be done, and were not afraid to disagree with government policy.  Today, by contrast, our officials live much more isolated lives, know much less about the countries in which they serve, are much more memorized by abstract jargon, and find it more difficult to challenge policies, even when they sense that they are wrong. And although Parliamentary debates in 1842 included a great deal of bluster, scaremongering and boasting, (particularly from the Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston, who kept insisting that nothing had gone wrong in Afghanistan, and that any withdrawal would ‘bring a blush to the cheek of every Englishman’), nobody talked about troops having “died in vain”.  Instead our predecessors believed that a soldier’s life and sacrifice was not diminished by the mistakes of politicians.  Today, many people are afraid to admit that a war is not working, because they are afraid someone will accuse them of disrespecting soldiers, and of implying that the soldiers have died in vain.  Thus guilt traps us, and deaths lead to more deaths.

But in retrospect, I focus so much on these things in the documentary, that I wonder whether I have not been in some way scarred by my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It is perhaps because, over a decade, I witnessed nations ultimately spending a hundred billion dollars a year keeping nearly a hundred and fifty thousand troops on the ground. I heard them talk confidently about creating a “gender sensitive, multi ethnic, centralized state, based on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law”. They refused every year, to acknowledge that their mission was not succeeding. And when there was doubt, rather than reducing their investment, they increased it.

This experience still stays with me when I’m arguing about Town centre planning in Penrith, or about environmental schemes that crush farmers, or discussing House of Lords reform. When I hear the great slogans of ‘sustainability’, ‘participation’, ‘transparency’, ‘democracy’, look at the feasibility studies and strategic plans, I worry that like the thousands of schemes I saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of our projects at home are also incoherent, unwanted and impracticable.  It has left me with a deep suspicion of jargon and of theories.  And worse, a sense of the potential for madness – I do not think that is too strong a word – in all governments.

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Update on Bovine TB

Handling my father’s cows reminded me of what political choice is
really like. We were trying to get an enraged and terrified young
Highland bull into a cattle crush. Its predecessor had gone in the
first time. But this one kept breaking free.  When he was almost
trapped he retreated and bucked, roared and rolled, turned and
charged, (while my ninety year old father staggered aside from the
broad slashing horns), and then, finally, leaped, hooked its front
legs above the five foot rail and dragged itself over the side of the
crush. Testing and injecting cattle is time consuming, can be
dangerous for the humans, (we have had fatalities in Cumbria
recently), and terrifying and risky for the animals. The day was a
reminder for me of why almost no farmer would support compulsory
annual testing for bovine TB. And yet, I may have to press for such
testing.

Almost nothing matters more for Cumbria than preventing endemic bovine
TB. Gloucestershire and Cornwall, where a third of farms are infected
and hundreds of herds are killed, show us life with the disease.  The
compensation is never enough, businesses are wiped out and the effect
is emotionally terrible because herds, carefully bred and built up
over years, are murdered. Cattle prices in infected areas can be a
third lower than in a clean area, auction marts cease to trade, and
everyone else who depends on farmers, from feed merchants to milk
processors, from fencers to agricultural contractors, suffer. But
Gloucestershire is on the edge of the London commuter belt, with many
other income streams. Cumbria is the dairy field of England, the
genetic livestock treasure of Britain; it is three hundred miles from
London and farming is one of the two largest parts of our economy.
Endemic bovine TB could destroy Cumbrian rural communities, families,
our economy – and thousands of livelihoods.

And unless we act soon, it will. Every year more TB infected cattle
come into our county, partly because the tests are not accurate,
partly because you can ‘link’ a holding in an infected area hundreds
of miles away to one in a clean area of Cumbria. Under current rules
it can be four years before you test a cow.  Four years is a long
time: long enough for a TB cow not just to infect the rest of the
herd, or spread across fences into neighbouring herds, but most
importantly, long enough to infect wildlife – badgers and deer. And it
if gets into our wildlife it would spread rapidly, many miles across
the county: it would become endemic.

What is the solution? We don’t know. But one solution could be to
implement universal annual TB testing across Britain. This is what we
did after the War and it eliminated TB. But even if annual testing
could save us, politicians would be very reluctant to push for it,
because farmers would hate it. It would anger farmers who are already
fed up with testing, restrictions and paperwork, and who have been
promised less not more bureaucracy. And, as I was reminded when
handling my father’s bull, testing is tricky, time-consuming, and
sometimes violent.

So instead politicians have fallen back, and may continue to
fall-back, on half-measures: things which may be helpful, but which
are insufficient. We might call for a live data-base to give more
information on a cow’s real-time movements and health; or for
education; or for an end to linked holdings; or for eradication of
badgers. But Cumbrian badgers don’t yet have TB. And a live-movement
database would take years to construct and would only record the
location and health of the cow. This – and an end to linked holdings –
would help farmers to know exactly what they were buying, but the
tests could still be inaccurate or out of date, and under the current
system it could still be a long time before you detected infection.
Nor are there the resources for a huge educational programme on TB,
including bringing farmers from infected areas to share their
experience. And many farmers will never be convinced that the threat
in Cumbria is real, or that annual testing is essential: yesterday
someone told me it was all a plot by vets – ‘jobs for the boys’. What
reason is there to think we are finally going to go beyond these
half-measures, and do what it takes – however unpopular – to prevent
Cumbria from being crippled by endemic bovine TB?

The banking regulators saw the risk of what the banks were doing in
2007, and realised that we were flirting with catastrophe. But they
did nothing, because imposing more checks, tests and regulation would
have enraged all banks, and some businesses; would have been costly;
and might have slowed short-term economic growth. If a politician had
taken the plunge, risked the anger of the banks, and succeeded in
preventing the crisis, no-one would have been grateful – because
no-one would have ever seen what might have happened, or been able to
prove it would have occurred.  I’m not sure that I would have done the
right thing on banks, but with the benefit of hindsight, we should
have done. I hope we can now do the right thing – however unpopular –
on bovine TB.