The purpose of the Queen’s Speech debate is to flag up some of the areas that I will be probing the Government on in the coming weeks and months.
The areas that I devoted most of my time to included the need for the Government to continue with the roadmap out of lockdown for people and businesses to have certainty on when they can return to normal. I also raised the priority of our children’s lost education due to the pandemic and how the Government can provide the very best opportunities to train or learn, so people can acquire skills at any stage of life.
The issue that is of most concern to many constituents is the Planning Bill which is particularly sensitive in the Cotswolds AONB. Finally, I flagged the landmark Environment Bill which is a subject very close to my heart as it is vitally important that we pass on to the next generation a planet that has been maintained to at least as good, but hopefully an even better condition than how we inherited it.
Madam Deputy Speaker, it was wonderful to see Her Majesty in the other place last Tuesday giving the Gracious Speech, announcing the Government’s priorities for this year, and I am grateful to you and to the House for giving me the opportunity to participate in this important debate. We have today reached step 3 of the road map out of lockdown, and as we recover from this dreadful year there seemed to be an added salience to this excellent Queen’s Speech. We will be judged on the success of this programme: on how quickly we can help people return to their normal lives, restoring their liberties, abolishing emergency powers and allowing them and their families the freedoms to go about their daily lives, free from government diktat. In essence, this means that we can reinstate some common sense and personal autonomy, without there being government instruction on every aspect of citizens’ daily lives and without the constant financial bail-outs.
Equally, the culture of the Government must change. It needs to change from one of preventing people from doing things to one of encouraging citizens to take their own action and decide what is best for them and their families. It is very good to see my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary introduce the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The timing of that could not be more urgent, after the completely unacceptable violent antisemitism we saw over the weekend. Regardless of people’s view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is simply no justification whatsoever for antisemitism in our society. My right hon. Friend is also introducing one of the most significant overhauls of the asylum system in decades, which I wholeheartedly agree with. We need a fair, long-term system that will work for this country.
In essence, I believe that education ought to be the number one priority, giving everyone the best possible education at any stage of their life, as it opens up opportunity and careers that can improve their lives. It is the best route out of poverty and should be available to all. An important priority should be to expand support for children of all ages to compensate for their lost learning time during the pandemic. There is a huge programme in the Queen’s Speech to help to recover that lost learning, recognising that the disruption this year has had a major impact on our children’s learnings and lives, and including, importantly, catch-up classes in the summer.
The Government are committed to helping people to buy if they want to and they have committed to an ambitious target of 300,000 new houses by the mid-2020s. However, as a representative of one of the most important and unique areas of outstanding natural beauty, I am extremely concerned about some aspects of the planning Bill. It is the biggest overhaul to the planning system in 70 years. There are some positive proposals in the Bill and the planning system does need modernising. Home ownership needs to be an attainable aim, especially for young people. However, for areas such as the Cotswolds, there needs to be an absolute commitment to protect the AONB.
The proposal to abolish section 106 and the community infrastructure levy should speed up the planning process, and it is important that the money is retained locally so that the infrastructure can be built at the same time as developments. However, the algorithm to calculate housing need was a great concern to many of my constituents, as the Cotswolds had one of the highest proposed increased housing targets anywhere. There is a real danger, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) said, that it will simply be replaced by a zonal planning system, foreshadowed in the White Paper, which will mean that all land will have to be designated as either growth for renewal or protected areas, and that could be enforced through the local planning system.
As I have said to the House before, the most important factor is not housing number, but housing mix. The proposals to simplify and speed up local plan making and retain neighbourhood plans where possible are welcome, and the design codes can be specified so it should be possible to protect our unique Cotswolds vernacular. I do not want building to be at the expense of our unique environment and wildlife here in the Cotswolds or anywhere else. I believe strongly that new builds should be sympathetic to the local surroundings and well designed so that they do not become the slums of tomorrow. Above all, they should be built to high environmental standards, such as insulation and electric vehicle charging points, as I set out in my 10-minute rule Bill.
To wrap up, I would like to quickly mention the electoral integrity Bill and giving votes for life. I would also like to welcome the internationally important landmark that is the Environment Bill. Wearing my hat as chair of the all-party group for shooting and conservation, I will be scrutinising carefully the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill for any possible effect on shooting.