Column: Building On Our Achievements In 2017

In his latest column for the Sevenoaks Chronicle, Michael has written about the need to build on Sevenoaks’ progress this year:

2016 was a very successful year for Sevenoaks.  In an unsettled year nationally, our local economy remained strong, with unemployment falling to another record low.

Though there will be challenges, I believe 2017 could be even better.

After so many years of campaigning, in September our new grammar school annexe will finally open.  I visited the site just before Christmas and I could already see that it will be a great addition to the remarkable range of high-quality school choice that is now on offer in Sevenoaks.  There is still more to do to secure grammar provision for boys, though, and that will be one of my top priorities this year.

Meanwhile, discussions on the new rail franchise will be a great opportunity to lobby for the extension of the Oyster network and the many other rail improvements we want to see.  I look forward to continuing to make the case for passengers this year.

With an ageing population increasing pressure on the NHS and our care system, we need to continue to protect Sevenoaks Hospital.  It is a much-loved feature of our town – but it also has an important role to play in relieving pressure on facilities at Pembury and Darent Valley.  Carrying on making that argument will be vital this year.

Finally, we need to make sure the District Council develops a robust and reasonable Local Plan that will give us the homes we need without encouraging inappropriate development in our town and in our villages in the years to come.

With all of these priorities and more, I am looking forward to continuing to represent Sevenoaks this year.  After a successful 2016, let’s build on our achievements in 2017

Column: Let’s Seize This Opportunity for Rail Improvements

In his latest column for the Sevenoaks Chronicle, Michael has written about the need for improvements to rail services:

As the nights draw in, rail disruption on long, cold journeys home seems ever more frustrating.  Problems like the ones we experienced in Sevenoaks last week seem to happen all too often.

I regularly receive complaints about Southeastern’s performance and I recently joined other Kent MPs to press the Rail Minister for improvements.  I will be paying particularly close attention during the winter months.

Next year will see the start of a wider process to decide on the details of the new regional rail franchise from 2018.  For anyone who wants to see better services in Sevenoaks, this is an important opportunity to have your say.  There will be a consultation in the spring on what we want to see and I encourage everyone to participate.

My top priority will be the extension of the Oyster network to stations like Sevenoaks.  I promised to fight for this vital improvement at the election last year and I will be lobbying hard.  There are wider issues too, though, such as making sure there are enough trains and seats to cope with growing passenger numbers.

Securing all of these changes will only be possible if we push for them together.  I know some people think that things will never change.  I know they are tired of the old excuses for poor service and disruption.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for new solutions.  We have to seize this opportunity to secure the meaningful improvements we need.

In the meantime, I would like to wish all of my constituents a very happy Christmas and New Year.  In a politically eventful year, Sevenoaks and Swanley have continued to thrive and I am looking forward to continuing to serve as your MP in 2017.

Column: We’ve Beaten Mental Health Stigma – Now Let’s Finish the Job

In his latest column for the Sevenoaks Chronicle, Michael has written about the challenge of mental health:

For too long, mental health was a taboo subject.  But with MPs and celebrities speaking out about their own experiences, much of the stigma that used to be associated with mental illness has gone.

In its place, though, is a realisation of how significant this challenge is for our country.  One in four people experience a mental health problem each year, with myriad effects on their families, jobs and lives.

We have made a lot of progress already.  Mental health now has parity of esteem with physical health in the NHS; five times more people are accessing treatment for conditions like depression and anxiety than six years ago; and extra funding is being invested in mental healthcare over the next few years.

But more money and warm words need to mean something practical.  That means coming up with innovative and wide-ranging ways to make sure people get the help they need.

I have recently been meeting local organisations to discuss their efforts to meet this challenge.  Their work includes better liaison services in A&E, provided by Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust (KMPT).  Another improvement is cooperation between KMPT and Kent Police to give people the care they need, rather than a night in a cell because there is nowhere else to go.  West Kent Mind has always offered a fantastic service to our community that I have been proud to support.  Now it is also providing counsellors, alongside KMPT, to talk to vulnerable callers to the emergency services.

There is still a lot more to do.  People need to be able to find help more easily and the system needs to be simpler.

But with these organisations working together to find the innovative solutions we need, this is a challenge we can beat.

Column: Local Development Should Reflect Local Priorities

In his latest column for the Sevenoaks Chronicle, Michael has written about the need to protect the Green Belt:

Like many in Sevenoaks, I was concerned by the suggestion that our district council is considering allowing swathes of new housing on the 300 sites that were submitted earlier this year for possible development, including many on Green Belt land.

While more homes are needed to cope with a rising population, the idea that 12,400 new sites in the District would be developed by 2035 led to understandable alarm.  We love our town and villages with the beautiful countryside that surrounds them.  The large amount of Green Belt land in this area is one of the many things that makes my constituency one of the nicest places to live in the country.

But it is important to remember that this number is merely an initial target, calculated using national figures without accounting for local constraints.

It is vital therefore that the council undertakes a proper, methodical process to develop its plan.  If its plan isn’t sound, unwanted development could run rife, with applications governed by national policies, not local priorities.

We need to get this right.  But I am confident the council’s work will demonstrate that the constraints presented by our large areas of Green Belt and AONB make it impossible for so many houses to be built.

We also need to ensure that this process stands up to local scrutiny so that people can have confidence in the final plan.  The public consultation that will take place next year must not merely pay lip service to the legitimate concerns of local residents.

Of course we need some more housing.  But there are still many brownfield sites awaiting development and any development needs to respect our local priorities and the characteristics that make our town what it is.

At the general election last year, I promised the people of Sevenoaks that I would fight to protect the Green Belt from inappropriate development.  I intend to keep that promise.

Column: We Needs to Give Our Young People the Skills to Succeed

In his latest column for the Sevenoaks Chronicle, Michael has written about helping young people to develop skills:

Last month, unemployment in Sevenoaks fell to its lowest recorded level.  Even more encouragingly, the level of youth unemployment in my constituency is now just one percent, down by over three quarters since 2010.

I am always impressed by the students I meet when I visit schools in Sevenoaks.  But academic achievement is only part of the story.  To maintain this employment record, our young people need to be given the chance to develop the skills and experiences that it takes to succeed.

Opportunities like National Citizen Service (NCS) are the best way to do that.  NCS has already enabled more than 200,000 teenagers, like those I’ve met from Sevenoaks, to take part in adventure challenges, skills development and social action.

Research has shown that nine out of ten participants find their experience worthwhile.  But it doesn’t just benefit them.  Getting involved is proven to make young people more likely to volunteer, more likely to vote, and more likely to be involved in their community.

Even on a smaller scale, opportunities like this can be found everywhere.

In June I visited Supajam, an innovative project in Swanley which is successfully helping teenagers who have struggled in formal education to learn about the music industry and through it to learn basic lessons in numeracy and literacy.  Instead of an uncertain future, the vast majority move into further education, employment or training when they leave.

Earlier this month I joined Westerham Sea Cadets for one of their regular boating sessions on Chipstead Lake.  The Sea Cadets offer practical training in the water and the confidence-building and self-esteem that comes with it, as well as valuable courses and certificates.

These opportunities are creating a new generation of well-rounded individuals with the skills they require to succeed.  But they also have huge social benefits – strengthening our communities now and into the future.

Column: Conversation, Companionship and Cake – All Part of Our Fight Against Dementia

In his latest column for the Sevenoaks Chronicle, Michael has written about the challenge of dementia:

Dementia is one of the biggest challenges facing our country.  There are an estimated 850,000 sufferers in the UK.  In Sevenoaks there are almost 600.  Dementia costs the economy £23 billion a year – more than the costs of cancer, heart disease or strokes.

It is a situation that is only going to become more serious.  By 2040, the number of dementia sufferers is expected to double, with the costs predicted to treble.

I recently visited the Forget-me-not Memory Café run by local volunteers.  Despite only starting in October last year, it already attracts dozens of dementia sufferers and their carers.  They come for conversation, companionship and cake.  My first question for them was “where did you go before this?”  The answer of course was “nowhere”.

The Memory Café is bringing people together, many of whom would otherwise rarely leave their own homes.  The problem is that these initiatives are few and far between.

We are making some progress.  Since 2010, a 50 percent increase in our dementia diagnosis rate has made it the highest in the world.  Local NHS organisations tell me that they are working positively with the voluntary sector.  Fewer people with dementia now have to travel long distances to unfamiliar surroundings for treatment.

But there is still more to do to achieve the ambitious goal set in last year’s ‘Challenge on Dementia 2020’ for the UK to be the best country in the world for dementia care and support for sufferers, their carers and their families.

For too many people, there is still “nowhere”.  But with initiatives like the Memory Café, we know how to start fighting the challenge of dementia.  The priority now is to make sure we do it.

Column: Let’s Give Local Businesses A Bright Future

In his latest monthly column for the Sevenoaks Chronicle, Michael has written about the need to improve broadband provision in Sevenoaks:

Over Parliament’s February recess, I visited the Falkland Islands in the first trip by a UK Defence Secretary in more than a decade.  As well as meeting islanders and military personnel, I paid my respects to those who died in the 1982 war.  Britain is committed to the Falkland Islands and they have a bright future ahead of them.

Sevenoaks’ own bright future is always at the forefront of my mind.  In particular, we must ensure that our town has the better, faster broadband it needs.  Our local economy is buoyant, with over 500 more businesses set up and a 60 percent reduction in unemployment across my constituency since 2010.  But, as the Chamber of Commerce has confirmed to me broadband is vital for the continued success of local businesses.

Superfast broadband expansion is as essential today as the introduction of gas, electricity and water networks in past centuries.  The Government has put aside £1.7 billion, of which over £17 million has been spent in Kent.  Progress has already been made: as of June 2015, superfast broadband availability in my constituency had reached 76 percent.  But this needs to make more difference on the ground where there are still big gaps, particularly in more rural areas, for our businesses to prosper.

We must also ensure that we keep up with a world that is becoming faster and faster.  With speeds of at least 100 megabits per second, ultrafast broadband is the future – and yet availability was at only 1.2 percent in June.

I will shortly be launching a fresh campaign to ensure that our town and local businesses have what they need to flourish.  For a bright future, Sevenoaks needs better broadband; now and for years to come.

Column: A Dunton Green Surgery Would Benefit Everyone in Sevenoaks

In the first of a new monthly column for the Sevenoaks Chronicle, Michael has written about his support for a new GP surgery in Dunton Green:

Following our grammar school success and with renewed progress on the Oyster campaign, with this new monthly column I will be keeping you up to date about my work as your Member of Parliament.

One of the best parts of my job is spending Friday and the weekend visiting different parts of my constituency.  I look in on schools and businesses, I meet residents, and of course I hold my monthly advice surgeries in both Sevenoaks and Swanley.

Recently, I spent time focusing on healthcare and the challenges that our growing and ageing population will bring to Sevenoaks.  We need more GP places and I believe a new medical facility in Dunton Green could help.

This is not just about Dunton Green, though with the ongoing development at Ryewood this is a rapidly growing area.  It’s a valuable opportunity to relieve the rising pressure on other surgeries, securing benefits for residents across Sevenoaks.

I also met West Kent Clinical Commissioning Group which oversees our GP services.  As they made clear, it is important to create a long-term plan for GP provision in Sevenoaks – but we must also deal with the immediate situation.  Several local surgeries are already full and without timely action the situation could worsen. 

We also need to look again at Sevenoaks Hospital and make sure that we are making fullest use of all the services provided there.  The NHS is much more than the big district hospitals like Pembury and Darent Valley; it works best where it’s local and loved.