West Briton column 31 October 2013 – Political participation and renewable energy

Who said that political participation was dead? Earlier this month Truro saw not one but two protests, one in favour of renewable energy, another calling for fewer large on shore wind turbines and solar farms on Cornish fields. It is good to see people taking part in these campaigns, which for me are not incompatible, both having concerns about Cornwall’s environment at their heart.

Cornwall is pioneering the development of one of the most innovative forms of renewable energy; marine energy. Since my election I have worked with Ministers and local experts to help develop the South West Marine Energy Park. The Park designates the South West coast as a marine energy hub, where private and public sectors work together to enable the further growth of marine energy. New marine energy testing facilities at Falmouth, known as ‘Fabtest’ are at the heart of the Park. The FabTest site, operated by a partnership including Exeter University and Falmouth Harbour Commissioners, uses the calmer waters of the Fal to test the efficiency of new marine energy technologies before they scale up and move to the ‘Wave Hub’ off Hayle. Earlier this year I was pleased to show Energy Minister Greg Barker round the FabTest site so that he could see firsthand the excellent work being done there and I am delighted that in June the Government provided £777,000 of Regional Growth funding to help the project to expand. This investment is creating high skilled and well paid jobs.

This is cutting edge energy technology being pioneered by the UK that draws on, rather than mars, our beautiful landscape. In the mind of many, large on-shore wind turbines and solar farms on green fields cannot be described as such. Every week I am contacted by constituents concerned by the impact that large turbines or solar farms could have on the surrounding area, constituents who believe in developing sustainable energy in the UK but don’t think that this should be at the expense of Cornwall’s natural beauty. I agree that roof tops and former industrial sites are preferable to greenfield locations.

Last year, along with a number of colleagues, I called on the Prime Minister to shift subsidies from large scale onshore wind energy generation, and to give communities more powers to resist unwanted large scale greenfield wind and solar developments. I am pleased to say that the Prime Minister listened and that the Coalition Government has given new planning guidance that instructs Cornwall Council to give more weight to local views, and visual impacts, when considering onshore wind and solar applications.

As these changes begin to take effect it is important to remember that we do need to develop new renewable energy generation capacity in the UK. Non renewable sources of energy are just that. Support for renewable energy and giving communities more power in the planning system should not be viewed as separate efforts; both are in fact helping communities make well balanced decisions to conserve our precious countryside.

West Briton Column 25 October 2013 – Energy Prices

Last week we saw shocking rises in the price of energy. With winter approaching I know that many people are very worried about rising energy bills and the increased pressure on household finances.

To take effective action we need to first understand the reason why prices are rising – too much of our energy is imported; demand for energy is growing rapidly around the world and secure supplies are diminishing. How can we resolve this?

Ed Miliband has adopted a predictably short termist approach, suggesting a price freeze that would do nothing to resolve the causes of price rises. Had he made the necessary investments in securing UK energy supplies when in charge of energy policy we would not be experiencing such steep price rises now.

The Coalition is having to catch up years of lost investment. I believe that we have to continue to take the difficult but necessary decisions that will deliver secure, sustainable and affordable energy for the years to come.

To do this we must invest in our energy infrastructure, and develop sustainable energy from secure UK sources. The industries that distribute energy to our homes and businesses must be well regulated and offer a wide range of choice, including community and social enterprises.

Whilst working towards this sustainable and affordable energy future we cannot forget those who are struggling to pay their energy bills in the here and now. Grandmothers choosing between heating and eating is now something of a media cliché but, as I know from my constituency casework, it is still a tragic truth in too many cases. Hard working local people whose incomes are not keeping pace with rising costs of living need support too. While I am proud that the Government has taken 4,000 of the lowest paid people in my constituency out of paying any income tax and a further 30,000 have had their income tax bills cut by £600, more needs to be done.

The Government is making sure that customers get value for money from energy companies, who will from next year be required to place customers on the cheapest tariff available, resulting in real savings. It has also been made easier to switch energy suppliers to take advantage of any better deals available. I would encourage anyone interested in doing this to visit the Citizen Advice Bureau’s helpful webpage http://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/index/aboutus/events/bigenergysavingweek/besw_switch.htm

There is a range of financial and practical help now available within Cornwall, local social enterprise Community Energy Plus can be contacted on 0800 954 1956 for more information.

Working with local partners, for the third year, I have produced a guide to the many sources of help that are available and would urge everyone to have a look. Copies can be downloaded from my website wwww.sarahnewton.org.uk or obtained free of charge through calling my office on 01872 274 760. Please inform yourself so you, your family, your neighbours and people you work with can all benefit.

West Briton Column 17 October 2013 – RCHT and Cornwall Council

Last week we were all shocked to learn that operations at Treliske had to be cancelled, due to delays in arranging for patients to go home or onto a suitable care facility. Whilst NHS staff and social workers were, as ever, working restlessly to look after patients, the system that ensures that people who no longer need to be in hospital move onto a more appropriate caring environment didn’t work as it should.

This situation, with its unacceptable consequences for the patients affected, has drawn attention to the urgent need for a determined joint effort to ensure people have access to care, where and when they need it. Cornwall Council has a pivotal role to play as it commissions frontline social care and support for many residents. The Council’s caring role is not just a duty required of it; it is deep down in the DNA of local government. When created in the late nineteenth century Councils were built around the need to look after the health and wellbeing of individual communities, to this day the inscription ‘the health of the people is the highest law’ can be found above older Council buildings.

Many Councils are once again making the health and wellbeing of the communities they serve the foundation of their work and recognising that, during a financially challenging time when demands on the health and care system are increasing, innovative collaboration is key. For example, Warrington Council has set up a partnership linking its social care team with care users and other private and not for profit care providers. Not just a talking shop, the partnership discuss local social care provision, including for the majority who pay for themselves, ensuring that any developing problems are swiftly highlighted and addressed through joint working.

It would be great to see Cornwall Council lead an effective partnership, to embrace its role as the key shaper of health, care and support across the Duchy.

The support is there from the Government to help partnership working happen. As well as increasing Cornish NHS budgets and new Council funding for integration a pioneering Care Bill has been introduced, including measures that will help Councils to become the coordinator for all enquiries from local people concerning care.

Government reforms have also enabled a Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Health and Wellbeing Board to be created. The Board, led by the Council, comprises four Council representatives and two NHS managers, decides how the Council and NHS can work together to improve the health and wellbeing of all local people.

I believe that this approach, the coming together of different organisations to provide patient-focussed care, could develop to prevent incidents like last week’s from happening again. Cornwall Council has the means and the opportunity to deliver this. It is encouraging that the Council Leader has now met with NHS heads to discuss the situation that led to the cancelled operations, let us hope this marks the start of real, collaborative working to secure better care for all.

West Briton column 10 October 2013 – Homelessness and Housing

On Saturday I was pleased to be able to join volunteers from Truro Homes Action Group (THAG) in helping out in this year’s rough sleeper count. As a hot and tasty meal was served to homeless people, as it is 365 days a year, THAG volunteers and I recorded the personal details of the men and women who had spent the previous night on Truro’s streets and in fields around the City.

This annual count is essential to build a clear picture of homelessness in the UK and was introduced by the Coalition in 2010. After years in which the Labour Government grossly under-estimated the numbers of people sleeping rough in Cornwall, we are now beginning to fully understood the problem of homelessness in the Duchy, and ensure that the resources are there to tackle it.

Funding to help homeless people into safe and secure homes, along with spending on the NHS and disability support, has been protected from cuts. Cornwall is benefiting from the £400 million that is being spent on tackling homelessness in the UK up to 2015. Cornwall has also received a number of special homelessness grants, including £149,000 given to Cornwall Council last month to help homeless people leaving hospital to go into safe accommodation, not back to the streets. Cornwall received £360,000 from the Department of Health between 2011 and 2013 to help prevent avoidable winter deaths. Part of this funding was used to create an overnight winter shelter at St Petrocs, a shelter that will be extended this winter to also cover Camborne and Newquay.

Of course we also need to do all we can to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place; an important way of doing this is to ensure that there are more genuinely affordable homes available to local people. Cornwall Council is being given the powers it needs to do this, powers that include the ability to retain rents from social housing tenants. These funds can now be used to improve existing homes and build new ones. The Council now receive a financial reward for each new home created through the New Homes Bonus, and has new flexibilities that is can use its assets, including former offices and pension funds, to help deliver new homes.

The private sector also has a key role to play in providing more affordable homes and is being supported to do so. New planning guidance ensures special consideration for applications to build homes not for sale, but to be rented. These rental developments are also being supported by a ‘Build to Rent’ fund. These measures will help build a bigger rental sector, giving more choice for those looking to rent. Whilst most private landlords operate in a very ethical way, consideration is being given to what can be done to tackle the minority who act irresponsibly. Cornwall Residential Landlords Association have led the way on this in Cornwall, and I am pleased that they will be discussing this issue further with Cornwall Council later this month.

West Briton column 3 October 2013

One of the privileges of being MP for Truro and Falmouth is the opportunity to meet and work with some inspirational people. One of those people has been Detective Inspector Simon Snell, head of Devon and of Cornwall’s Police child exploitation unit, who is retiring this week.

Shortly after my election in 2010 some truly shocking cases of child sexual abuse in my constituency came to light. Sharing the horror that we all felt that such crimes could be happening in our community I asked for an urgent meeting with Devon and Cornwall Police to discuss what more could be done. My subsequent meeting with DI Snell made it clear that, whilst Cornwall was attracting headlines for these dreadful crimes, its police force was leading the way in developing a new approach to prevention and detection.

DI Snell and his team had developed a new strategy for preventing the sexual exploitation of children, focusing on the need of for all agencies connected with protecting children to work closely together. The team had written protocols for this joint working which have now been adopted by polices forces, local authorities and many other organisations. This simple concept of always sharing information between organisations can and is making all the difference in keeping children safe, helping making sure that no child at risk or predator at large falls between the cracks between organisations.

I have being working with DI Snell to highlight the importance of such joint working, and last year spoke alongside him at a pioneering conference on how best to prevent and detect the sexual exploitation of children. I have been particularly keen that the work of the child exploitation unit inform the development of government policy and was pleased to introduce DI Snell and his work to the then Home Office Minister in 2011. It was good to see DI Snell’s recommendations taken up in the action plan on child sexual exploitation subsequently published by the Government, which stresses the need for every community to have a coordinated multi-agency response to child sexual exploitation in place.

Another crucial aspect of the child exploitation unit’s work has been to raise awareness of how child abusers use the internet to access and then facilitate the abuse of children. Just this month the national Child Exploitation and Online Protection (Ceop) team have issued a report detailing how British children have been blackmailed into abusive relationships through online chat rooms. DI Snell and his team have been at the forefront of efforts to tackle this, through encouraging greater parental supervision of internet use, and better education for children about the dangers that can lurk online. I am pleased to support this work through my role as a Parliamentary champion for the Internet Watch Foundation, an industry body that works to tackle the sexual exploitation of children online.

As DI Snell retires this week, he can be certain that the vital work he has spearheaded continues apace. I will continue doing all I can to prevent the exploitation of children.