West Briton column 27 February 2014 – Cornish inclusiveness

Last week I had the privilege of attending the start of excavations at St Piran’s Oratory, the ancient chapel that marks the spot where our patron saint landed in Cornwall. According to legend St Piran floated across from Ireland on a millstone before landing amidst the dunes at Perranporth. Seeing the dedicated volunteers of the St Piran’s Trust start work alongside our county archaeologists was a special moment, and one that I know sent a tingle down the spines of all present.

It also got me thinking about Cornish identity, and what it means fifteen centuries after the time of St Piran.

This is an issue that is becoming increasingly topical. With the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum focusing people’s minds on identity, a campaign is being mounted in Cornwall to press for the Cornish to be registered within the EU’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

The Convention commits member states to protect what the EU calls ‘minority groups’ living within its borders from persecution. On signing the Convention in 1998 the Labour Government interpreted the term minority group as meaning a racial group. Some in Cornwall are therefore calling on the Coalition to designate the Cornish as a racial group, to pave the way for protection under the Convention. Whilst sympathising with their passion for Cornwall’s distinct identity, culture and history, I have to part with campaigners on this issue.

When I look around Cornwall today I see a vibrant and inclusive society, based on a distinctive Cornish culture. People from all over the UK and indeed the world, with a range of different cultural and religious backgrounds, have come to Cornwall and love it, as dearly as any of us brought up here. I don’t think it is a coincidence that, as the amount of people choosing to come to Cornwall has risen, so too has the number of St Pirans flags being flown. When you choose to live in a place it is perhaps hardly surprising that you are keen to celebrate it and to identify with its culture.

Given the welcoming and inclusive character of Cornishness today, I think that attempts to racially define it would represent a backwards step. The definition of identity as a matter of race can exclude people, and restrain cultural expression. Instead of limiting Cornwall’s identity in this way, I will be pressing for the UK’s understanding of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities to be changed, so that it isn’t based on race. This may pave the way for Cornish inclusion.

Rather than squeezing Cornishness into a racial definition, let us instead celebrate the friendly dynamism of Cornish identity in the twenty first century and support the burgeoning expression of that identity, from St Pirans flags in back gardens to Cornish language teaching in our schools. It is an identity bolstered by its welcoming character, not threatened by it. St Piran, who travelled across an ocean in order to contribute the rest of his life to Cornwall, points the way.

West Briton column 20 February 2014 – The storm

Another week, another battering from the weather. Once again our emergency and essential services, Cornwall Council, the Environment Agency, local media and volunteers have done a magnificent job in minimising the weather’s impact.

One incident serves as an example of countless disasters averted by the hard work of local men and women. At the former mine workings of Wheal Jane polluted water is pumped from the mine and is carefully managed and treated. Over the course of recent weeks, swelled by rainwater, extra help was needed to prevent polluted water reaching the Carnon River and the Fal Estuary posing a threat to water quality, wildlife and fisheries. The Coal Board, who manage Wheal Jane, were determined to prevent this and with the help of the Environment Agency and Cornwall Fire and Rescue stepped up their pumping operation. The Carnon River remains unpolluted.

Whilst we may see more flooding this winter, I have been contacted by many constituents asking about what help is available for them now. The Government has agreed a grant of up to £5,000 for flood-hit homes and businesses, with affected businesses also receiving 100% business rate relief and having all other tax payments deferred. To find out more about this business support call the business support helpline on 0845 600 9006. Ministers are working to ensure that fishermen, who haven’t been able to go to sea for weeks, can apply to special hardships fund for financial support.

The Government has also asked the insurance and banking industries to do what they can to help people who urgently need it. Major banks have agreed to provide loan extensions for businesses affected. The Association of British Insurers, representing all the major UK insurance companies have agreed a commitment to all affected. I urge constituents who need help to contact their insurers and banks.

I know local people who have been flooded are worried that they will not be able to get insurance in the future or the cost with rocket up. At the moment legislation is going through Parliament that will enable people who live in places that are at risk of flooding to get reasonably priced insurance. This scheme, known as Flood Re, has been agreed with UK insurers and will ensure that affordable flood insurance is in future available to homeowners at high flood risk.

I will continue to all I can for constituents here and now and make sure lessons are learned so we are prepared for future storms and flooding. Regular updates are posted on my website http://www.sarahnewton.org.uk. I will be working closely with Cornwall Council, the Environment Agency and the Prime Minister to ensure that his pledged help for Cornwall to clear up from the storms, repair roads, coastal and flood defences is delivered. This must be a thorough job, not a patch up.

Joined up working has enabled Truro to be defended from floods with a £3 million scheme opened in 2012 and work in Falmouth is starting this year with plans for Perranporth underway.

West Briton column 13 February 2014 – Cornwall’s rail link

The last ten days have reminded us yet again of the awesome power of nature, and of the equally remarkable dedication of the public servants, volunteers and the local radio who work so hard to keep us safe, protect our homes, roads and railways that we all rely on.

That protection has been stretched to breaking point by the exceptional weather, leaving the Penzance to Paddington mainline severed and Cornwall battered. Battered, bruised but not forgotten by central government.

As the MP for a rural constituency also at risk from flooding the Prime Minister has been swift to offer all available assistance. He chaired a special Cobra meeting on the day the latest storm hit our coastline and announced that ‘whatever is required, this Government will help those families and get this issue sorted’. David Cameron has backed this promise up with emergency funds, promising £100 million of extra cash to help flood-hit communities across the South West.

It is my now my job, along with my colleagues, to see these welcome words translate into action.

The first priority has to be our railway, restoring the mainline rail link and securing its long term future. On the day the sea consumed the tracks at Dawlish I attended an emergency meeting with Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin MP and Network Rail to discuss what could be done. It was agreed at the meeting that the assistance of the army would be offered to Network Rail, in order to speed up repairs to the line. A rigorous review into alternative train routes that services could use to reach Cornwall was also agreed. This work is essential and I will be pressing Ministers to think the unthinkable, and do whether is necessary secure a secure rail link for the decades to come. Cornwall deserves no less. The money is there, with Network Rail having a £38 billion budget for the next five years.

Meanwhile fast and frequent rail replacement coach services have been put in place to carry Cornish rail passengers to Exeter and Bristol, to use mainline rail services from there. I am regularly updating my website (www.sarahnewton.org.uk) with the latest news; do get in touch with me if you encounter any problems with the interim arrangements.

Another priority has been ensuring that Cornwall Council has the funds it needs to clear up after the storms, and to help those communities worst affected. In the past the structure of the Bellwin Scheme, the principle means of reimbursing local authorities for flood damage, has left the Duchy out of pocket whenever bad weather hit.

After urgent representations from colleagues and I the Government announced significant reforms to the Bellwin scheme last week. These reforms mean that Cornwall Council will be able to qualify for funding as readily as any other council, and that the funding itself will be 15% higher than it has been in the past. This will help ensure that those communities worst hit by the storms will have the funding they need to repair the damage.