Tackling Poverty

There is much debate about poverty in the UK.  To have an effective debate in our open but fragile democracy, we need to have objective information to consider. Over time a range of measures of living standards and poverty have emerged. Some are calculations of the amount of money people need for what society considers the essentials of life. There is much debate on what is considered essential. Other measures are about comparing how much money different groups of people have to live on compared with other groups. The most commonly reported measures of poverty use this relative poverty approach. So if average incomes were £1 million, people earning £400,000 could be deemed to be living in relative poverty. Relative poverty measures mean that, whoever is in government, there will always be people deemed to be living in poverty. 

It’s an important debate, but I am more focussed on the people living here who are struggling to make ends meet and putting more money in their pockets.  Long before I was elected as your local MP, I worked hard to help people out of poverty. When I was Director of Age Concern England, I campaigned to end pensioner poverty. Since being elected I have continued my work with people who are all too often overlooked. They need help from their families, friends, employers, communities, as well as local and national government agencies.  

The most fundamental need is for a decent, warm and affordable home. Housing costs are the biggest part of living costs for many local people, especially for those on the lowest incomes. 

Although it has taken much longer than I and many Cornwall Council employees had hoped, Cornwall Council leaders are now beginning to use the powers they have been given and their financial resources to build more social and genuinely affordable homes and to drive up standards in the private rented sector. It is thanks to this government’s new Homeless Prevention Act and the ramped-up regulation of landlords that Cornwall Council is now focussing on this issue. I am delighted that it has recently said that it will buy homes for homeless people rather than pay for bed and breakfast accommodation. 

Some people need financial help too. Thanks to good partnership working, including with Cornwall Council, Universal Credit is helping local people. The more tailor-made support local work coaches can offer people in and out of work is a significant improvement on the previous complex benefit system it replaces, where too many people missed out on support they were entitled to. It’s a major reform being introduced carefully. Lessons are being learned and improvements made. I work closely with local, impartial, expert welfare advisers, taking up issues identified and securing positive changes in processes as well as extra funding. We spent £264 billion on welfare in 2017, 34% of government expenditure. Some benefits for people who can work are capped (£20,000 per year for couples and lone parents). Pensioner and disability benefits are not capped. 

First published in the West Briton 29/11/18

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Supporting constituents in Fuel Poverty

Last week I was delighted to welcome the Minister for Energy and the Industrial Strategy to Cornwall to see for herself the innovative work that the Winter Wellness Partnership and, more recently, Warm and Well Cornwall have been doing. This effective partnership is making real inroads into a long standing, stubborn problem by doing things differently. Helping people on modest incomes stay warm and well in their homes by improving energy efficiency remains a priority for me. New technology is playing an important role, for example, free energy efficient central heating systems are being installed in homes in fuel poverty. Most of us take living in centrally heated homes for granted but there are too many cold homes in Cornwall without it. Last week’s Government announcements were welcomed by the partnership as they will enable us to build on our work of helping over 7,200 homes and 16,000 people to stay warm and well in winter by funding more help for more people.

New technology has the ability to improve many aspects of our lives. I am encouraging local businesses to apply for a share of £40million of government funding to develop new ways of charging electric vehicles. Electric vehicles significantly improve air quality, boost the environment and reduce costs for motorists. It’s vital we ensure the charging infrastructure is in place so we keep pace with demand. The government wants nearly all cars and vans to be zero-emission by 2050. A major challenge will be to grow the UK’s charging infrastructure quickly enough to make electric vehicles an attractive choice. The government has launched two competitions, with £40million up for grabs. The first focuses on charging vehicles in public spaces, to support people who don’t have suitable off-street parking. The second focuses on wireless charging of commercial vehicles, such as taxis and delivery vans.

There are so many innovative businesses in Truro, Falmouth and Cornwall as a whole, and it would be great to see some of them secure funding and lead this revolution in UK transport.

The deadline for applications for both competitions is midday on 29 August 2018.

Projects must be led by a business, working with other companies, local authorities, research organisations or charities.

New technology is also important for improving our local NHS. So last week I was delighted to see that the new Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, has earmarked the NHS in Cornwall for a tech-funding boost of over £4 million.

The funding is part of a half a billion pound national package, available immediately to the NHS, to roll out innovative tech aimed at improving efficiency, enhancing patient safety and helping more patients access health services at home.

A good example is Scan4Safety where barcode tracking in hospitals is enabling staff to track all patients and their treatments, manage medical supplies and the effectiveness of equipment.

The funding will be formally allocated once our local NHS and care improvement plan, ‘Sustainability and Transformation Partnership’ is submitted and approved.

First published in the West Briton 26/07/18

Working to reduce plastic pollution and provide security for tenants

Thank you to everyone who responded to the recent government consultation exploring how changes to the tax system, or charges, could be used to reduce the amount of single-use plastics we waste by reducing unnecessary production, increasing re-use, and improving recycling.

Last week, I met with the Treasury Minister responsible for this important policy area to discuss ideas developed with local people. I was assured that the government will consider all options for using the tax system to address single-use plastic waste and to drive innovation, and will use the evidence gathered to inform that process. The government wants to look broadly across the whole supply chain, from production and retail to consumption and disposal, in order to gain the best possible understanding before deciding on the best course of action.

Since being elected I have worked with Surfers Against Sewage on their campaign to prevent plastic entering our precious natural environment, especially the sea. In Parliament I support their work and am pleased that we introduced the 5p single-use plastic bag tax that has seen a dramatic reduction in their use. The use of microbeads in everyday products has been banned too. Thanks to many local initiatives to reduce single use plastic, particularly the work in schools with young people, positive change is happening.

Last week I was also delighted to welcome new moves to enable people to have longer and more secure tenancies. The Secretary of State for Communities proposed the introduction of a minimum 3-year tenancy term, with a 6-month break clause, to help renters put down roots, and give landlords longer term financial security.  According to government data, people stay in their rented homes for an average of nearly 4 years. But despite this, 81% of rental contracts are assured shorthold tenancies with a minimum fixed term of just 6 or 12 months.

Local people tell me that this can leave them feeling insecure, unable to challenge poor property standards for fear of tenancies being terminated, and unable to plan for their future or contribute to their wider community. Although tenants and landlords can already agree longer terms between themselves, the majority choose not to do so. Under the proposed longer term agreement, tenants would be able to leave before the end of the minimum term, but would have greater protection if they wanted to stay in a property for an extended period of time.  Being able to call your rental property your home is vital to putting down roots and building stronger communities.  Landlords play a vital role in providing homes to many local people and the proposals ensure that longer tenancies help them avoid costly periods while they search for new tenants and offers them flexibility to regain their properties when their circumstances change.  The government understands that some landlords worry about the time it can take to gain possession of their property in the courts. The consultation runs until 26 August 2018.

First published in the West Briton 12/07/18

Campaigning for affordable local housing

I was delighted to secure the commitment from Government that stamp duty on the sale of second homes will be used to support more community led housing. In 2016, the government provided £60 million to Cornwall Council and others to build capacity in this important, innovative housing sector. That investment has led to new homes being built for local people. Cornwall Community Land Trust received some of this money to build up their capacity to help more local people into new homes and support the creation of new trusts, such as the Truro Community Land Trust. I am pleased to hear that they are making good progress with their plans.

This week the government announced that it is making available an additional £163 million across England up to 2020 to 2021 through the Community Housing Fund.

The Fund aims to support an increase in housing supply in England by increasing the number of additional homes delivered by the community-led housing sector; to provide housing that is affordable at local income levels and remains so in perpetuity; and to deliver a lasting legacy for the community-led housing sector in the form of an effective and financially self-sustaining body of expertise within the house building industry in England.

Funding outside London is being allocated by Homes England across 2 phases.

Under phase 1 of the Fund, Homes England is making available grants to eligible organisations to support: applications for revenue funding for capacity building and predevelopment costs, including revenue grants to local authorities to support community groups; and capital bids for associated infrastructure costs which will support community housing development.

Full details of phase 1 and how to bid are published in the Community Housing Fund prospectus. Bidding for capital funding to support the costs of building new community-led housing schemes will be covered under a second phase to be launched later in the year.

The housing market needs to change. We have become far too reliant on a small group of big developers who build our homes. We need an injection of innovation and competition into the market, which means getting new organisations involved, supporting small and medium sized builders and embracing Modern Methods of Construction that will allow us to drive up quality and choice for people.

Through this fund, housing will be delivered where the mainstream market is unable to deliver what we need. Enabling self-build and homes that will be tailored to meet specific local needs that will help sustain local communities and local economies and help raise the bar in design and construction standards.

This week I also met with the leadership of our Local Enterprise Partnership to discuss the opportunities that this investment in community led housing as well as local social housing presents for local employment. I want to ensure that local people of all ages have the opportunity to acquire new skills and training to enable them to secure the well paid jobs that are available in this industry.

First published in the West Briton 04/07/18

Pushing for appropriate development in Falmouth

Since being elected I have worked hard to enable planning decisions to be made in Cornwall not Westminster. I believe that this is the best way to ensure that development meets the needs of local people. Too many young people growing up in Truro & Falmouth cannot afford to live here. Making sure people have a decent, really affordable home has always been a top priority for me.

The Coalition Government from 2010 – 2015 returned decisions about planning and homes from Westminster to Cornwall Council. I supported these plans to better enable local people to shape the future of our communities.

I have written before about my disappointment with the leadership of Cornwall Council who have persistently not used these powers for the benefit of local people. Cornwall Council was amongst the last planning authorities to agree a Local Plan, only submitting Cornwall’s housing allocations to the Planning Inspector in October.

Sadly, despite the hard work of many local people we still don’t have an agreed Falmouth Neighbourhood Plan.

So as a result of the delayed Cornwall Plan and the yet to be agreed Falmouth Neighbourhood Plan, we are left without a proper plan for the growth of our town. This is particularly worrying as Cornwall Council has supported lifting of the cap on the number of students in our universities while not addressing the pressure on local housing and services that inevitably follows.

There is no doubt that Falmouth is a great place to work, study and live. Together with the vast majority of residents, I have been concerned by the approval of a number of unpopular and unsuitable planning applications.

The impact of this is clearly being felt. I read the letter from the Planning Inspector who approved the application to build new student accommodation on the site of the The Ocean Bowl. He acknowledged the strength of local feeling against the development and drew attention to the lack of an effective reason not to grant permission. Cornwall Council should and could have done more to prevent Falmouth being in this situation.

I wrote to the Secretary of State to ask that he call in the planning applications at Ocean Bowl, Fish Strand Hill and the former Rosslyn Hotel site.

In his response the former Secretary of State pointed to the fact that Cornwall Council did not seek to challenge the Inspector’s decision, which meant that it was not expedient for him to revoke the approvals.

In light of this information and following the approval of a further appeal by a Planning Inspector on the Old Coachworks site, I wrote to Cornwall Council to ask that they challenge the decision. The Council said that they would not be opposing the decision in this instance but did acknowledge that the Council had been criticised “for continuing with an argument after an appeal decision had concluded that little weight could be given to emerging plans. This is a lesson that we must learn for our future decisions.”

It is my hope that Cornwall Council will now work urgently with local Councillors to ensure that future development better meets the town’s needs.

First published in the Falmouth Packet 30/05/18

Combating Fuel Poverty in Cornwall

Out and about at this time of year I expect to be chilly. However, I don’t expect anyone to be going home to live in a cold house. Each year the Winter Wellness Partnership works hard to ensure that people living in cold homes get the help and support they need to stay warm and well during the winter.

This year, 7,500 homes in Cornwall identified as potentially having people living in fuel poverty are being sent in the post, a Thermocard. Each card enables the householder to test the warmth of their home and if it is below the acceptable level of warmth, asks them to seek help. The Thermocard provides contact details for that help, including a free post address. Households have been identified by using data recently made freely available by the government to Public Health and Cornwall Council, to combine with additional household data, so that people living in the least energy efficient homes on low incomes are made aware of the available support. Help includes energy saving measures as well as access to financial assistance.

This activity is just one part of a significant “devolution deal” being undertaken in Cornwall that sees energy company SSE working with Public Health, Cornwall Council, the NHS and award winning local charities such as Community Energy Plus and Cornwall Rural Community Charity as well as local social housing providers and the broad partnership of local voluntary groups and charities that make up the Winter Wellness Partnership.

For eligible households in private rented homes as well as socially rented homes, there is funding this year for 1,100 new central heating systems. There is funding for insulation too. I think the provision of caseworkers that will visit people’s home to provide personal advice and support to switch energy suppliers, apply for relevant benefits and signpost to health and work services is really important. From my experience, I know that it is often the people who would benefit the most that are the least likely to seek support that is available to them. Working with community groups, I very much hope the individual caseworkers will be able to change this, so no one is cold at home this winter.

Each year as a contribution to the Winter Wellness Campaign, Cornwall Community Foundation runs a winter appeal asking people to donate to their Surviving Winter Appeal. This money is then allocated to Winter Wellness partners so that local people who need financial help to stay warm get it. You can be sure that donations get to people that need it and in addition to this emergency help, people are signposted to additional support to find longer term solutions. Solutions include help to reduce heating bills and increasing their household incomes through benefits or employment. So far this winter 206 people have been helped in this way. If you feel you can make a donation, please do so now as there are more people who could benefit.

First published in the West Briton on 15/02/18

Helping the homeless in Cornwall

We cannot accept rough sleeping as a stubborn problem that will always be with us. That’s why we are providing over £1 billion of funding, supporting those who are homeless and rough sleeping and bringing in the most ambitious legislation in decades that will mean people get the support they need earlier.

Tackling homelessness is complex, but no one should ever have to sleep rough. I have spent most of my adult life volunteering with organisations supporting homeless people and very much support St Petroc’s campaign to end homelessness in Cornwall.

I am pleased that this newspaper has done so much to raise awareness of the challenges faced by homeless people. Local residents have kindly provided a huge amount of help.

Using the additional Government funding that I helped secure for Cornwall Council, work started last summer with multiple publicly funded agencies, charities and housing providers from across the county joining forces on the Rough Sleeping Reduction Strategy, to help stop homelessness in the first place, help get rough sleepers into housing and provide support to keep rough sleepers off the streets permanently.

As a result of much improved team work there are fewer people rough sleeping in Cornwall than last year. Out of all of the local authority areas in the country, Cornwall showed the biggest reduction in rough sleepers. In November 2016 there were reported to be 99 people sleeping on the streets and by November 2017 that figure had been cut to 68.

There is still so much more that needs to be done. I am pleased that leading experts from homelessness charities, housing and local government met for the first time last week as part of the government’s new rough sleeping advisory panel and committed to work together to help eliminate rough sleeping within a decade.

The new panel chaired by Homelessness Minister, Heather Wheeler, will help develop the national rough sleeping strategy to halve rough sleeping over the course of the Parliament and eliminate it altogether by 2027.

Made up of experts, charities and local government, including from Cornwall Housing, the panel will draw on their considerable experience and individual successes to support the Ministerial Taskforce. This will bring together ministers from key departments to provide a cross-government approach to preventing rough sleeping and homelessness.

The government’s determined, more holistic and joined up approach, as well as new investment is making a positive difference that will end this stubborn problem.

First published in the West Briton 08/02/18