Burnham-On-Sea MP's Official Blog

.November 12th, 2009:

We are near the end of a parliamentary session. Next week, the Queen will open parliament for the final session before the general election, expected next year in March (before Easter) or on 6 May (local elections).

The Queen reads out a speech written for her by the government, but she always manages to keep a straight face.

I got in unexpectedly at Prime Minister’s questions recently. The Speaker called me right at the end of the half hour session. Gordon Brown and I have clashed repeatedly in the past over taxation (when I was a treasury minister) and the EU (over my demands for a referendum).

This time I asked him to support the Campaign for Dark Skies. This helps amateur astronomy by cutting light pollution, and also saves energy. I pointed out that, ‘the lights are all on in 10 Downing Street very late at night, and would he help by switching some of them off?’

The Prime Minister is never one to take a joke. His predecessor Tony Blair would have answered in kind. Gordon Brown spluttered something about not blaming it all on Europe, and looked glum.

On the subject of energy, I am beginning to get letters about the planned new grid connection from Bridgwater up to Avonmouth. One proposed route follows the line of an existing but smaller line of pylons near the M5. The other, route 2, is further to the East. I am in touch with National Grid about this, so if you may be affected please let me know, as well as responding to the planning consultation.

The new pylons are necessary if EDF gets permission to build two new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point, to replace the existing reactors in due course. Also there are plans for an off-shore wind farm to the West which will need the new connector.

I asked the Energy Minister if the re-started energy programme could make Somerset a centre for nuclear engineering. It could also boost the proposed Somerset University, based on our existing further education colleges. Unemployment has doubled in the Wells constituency over the past two years, so we need to grasp these opportunities.

Remembrance Sunday is always an important day for me. This year I attended Wells in the morning and Cheddar in the afternoon. It is getting difficult to find marching bands for all these services.

Cheddar solved the problem this year by having a van with a loudspeaker. We all marched, roughly in step, from the church to the war memorial to the sound of Colonel Bogie on CD.

This year I think we all gave a bit extra to the poppy appeal in memory of Harry Patch, Somerset man and last of the Tommys. And the other reason was the knowledge that Afghanistan is returning a stream of badly wounded soldiers who need our help.

.May 21st, 2009:

Three things were on my mind last week: Parliamentary allowances, Afghanistan and the National Grid.

Let me explain (and in the case of Parliamentary expenses, apologise).

It has been a terrible time for Parliament and it is clear that the Parliamentary allowances system is not fit for purpose and needs radical change.

The allowance for a second home is designed for MPs who attend the House of Commons during the week and travel to their constituencies at weekends. The allowance pays for these expenses and for the upkeep and maintenance of the constituency home. Capital costs, or enhancements to a property, are not allowed.

I have never claimed for household furnishings or mortgage interest. But I have claimed for the services of a part time gardener and this has been paid without query by the Fees Office under the heading of ‘Services/Maintenance’. Over three years to 2007 this included £380 worth of garden manure (since repaid), and it was this that got me onto the front page of the Daily Telegraph.

The whole system is now to be reformed. Although I am the lowest overall spender amongst Somerset MPs, I apologise for my part in this.

The week before the expenses row I was in Afghanistan with the Foreign Affairs Committee. We are conducting a study into British policy and the war and will be reporting to Parliament.

The present 8000 British troops there are of course not the first. In 1838 the Somerset Light Infantry were in Afghanistan and survived the five month siege of Jellalabad. Their commander, General ‘Fighting Bob’ Sale, knew that his wife had been taken hostage by the revels. The garrison eventually broke out and defeated the rebel force.

The Somerset Light Infantry were one of the few regiments to come out of the 1st Afghan war with credit, and were honoured by Queen Victoria.

Today, British troops are fighting with equal bravery and distinction. But yet again it is proving extremely difficult to defeat an enemy, this time the Taliban, who exploit their knowledge of mountain territory and acknowledge no frontiers. The Taliban embrace an extremist form if Islam. Women and girls, for instance, are denied any form of education in areas they control. Our committee visited a large girls' school in Kabul which would certainly close if the Taliban took over.

We talked to some of the 5300 girls educated at the school. They are educated in shifts because there are not enough classrooms. British aid id helping this school and it has a link with a school near Liverpool.

Town twinning has become rather stale. Many towns in Britain are twinned with continental towns without much public enthusiasm. Would it do more good if we created new links with towns and villages in Afghanistan and other countries where the needs are great and they need our friendship?

Finally, the National Grid. Somerset looks like becoming a centre of electricity generation. The Severn Tidal Power scheme could be the largest source of generation in the country. I have reported to government the views expressed at the two meetings I held last month in Burnham and Brean. We will know next year which of the five short listed schemes are recommended for construction. Meanwhile, Hinkley Point is likely to be designated as a site for a large new nuclear power station, to replace Hinkley B which is getting near the end of its useful life.

Then there is offshore wind power and the planned Atlantic Array off the north coast of Devon.

All this means that the National Grid network will have to be strengthened, to take all this electricity to market. That means new power lines, and one possible route goes from Bridgwater to Bristol. There will be public consultation, but I am keeping a close eye on this on behalf of constituents who might be affected.

.February 18th, 2009:

The recent wet weather has turned attention to the question of flooding. Somerset has always lived in the shadow of flooding risk, either from the sea or from rivers. But the Environment Agency's response is not satisfactory.

About half of my constituency has been designated as a 'Flood Zone 3'. It now includes most of Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge, and many villages further inland.

Zone 3 means a presumption against all development. People wanting to undertake even modest developments have to spend a great deal of money on surveys and are likely to be turned down.

Oddly, the existence of flood defences makes no difference: the zoning maps assume they don't exist. This threatens to mothball a very sizeable area of Somerset. This is bound to damage the local economy, as jobs and development go elsewhere.

Meanwhile the Environment Agency does not do a proper job in maintaining the rivers they are responsible for. If they did more to prevent flooding, I would be more willing to support their flood zone maps.

On the subject of weather, I recently returned from a Foreign Affairs Committee visit to Warsaw and Prague, where the temperature was minus 12°C, which is normal for winter.

These East European countries live on the frontier with the former Soviet bloc. They still feel threatened by Russia, which had just disrupted gas supplies. This has a lesson for us: we too are dependent on imported gas and most of it comes from unstable or unfriendly parts of the world. We are at the end of the pipeline for gas from Russia, and that country has made clear that it regards energy as a foreign policy weapon.

Unfortunately, we have neglected our power stations. No new nuclear plants have been built for 15 years, our coal burners are increasingly obsolete, and there is no immediate prospect of building thousands of wind generators, even if they worked.

This is not a situation we should accept, cold winter or no. Changes are on the way: Hinkley Point is the site for a nuclear generator planning application. And the government is consulting on proposals for a Severn barrage. I have already started to hold meetings about the barrage and how it would affect this coastline, and more are planned.

I recently attended a dinner for MPs who have run the London marathon. 42 MPs have run the 26 mile race, some many times. Our fastest was Matthew Parris, now a newspaper columnist, whose best time was an astonishing 2 hours 32 minutes. My own best time was a more leisurely 3 hours 55 minutes which puts me in 14th place among MPs.

The dinner was a splendid event which brought back many memories and stories of the race, the runners, the crowd, and the charities which benefit. I would urge anyone who can jog to give it a go. Modern running shoes mean you can continue well past middle age!

Finally, thanks to a constituent who wrote to me. We can all feel a bit safer. He pointed out that locksmiths who are recruiting staff or trainees are not allowed to check if the applicant has a criminal record. After a good deal of correspondence with the Ministry of Justice, I have just been told that the Master Locksmiths can in future make checks through the Criminal Records Bureau. As I have recently been burgled myself, I am grateful for the reassurance.

.December 18th, 2008:

This ought to be the season of good cheer and festivity, but the economic recession is now biting and job losses are rising. Many of the local firms I visited in the summer are now working short time and face an uncertain future.

Excessive debt got us into this mess, and unfortunately the government has the biggest debt of all. It is due to rise to over £1 trillion: we will be paying it off for many years to come.

I think we must look again at how we earn our living in this country. We have relied too much on housing, financial services and government expenditure. I have proposed in the House of Commons that we back British industry, and start by banning all further job-destroying regulations, red tape and unnecessary new laws.

And parliament could take a lead by reducing the number of MPs – there are 646; 500 would be about right. Also we should end our final salary pension scheme which few firms in the private sector can afford.

At the same time, local authorities must try and help the economy here in Somerset. An example is tourism. The lower pound should persuade more people to take their holidays in England next year. Holidays abroad are certainly going to be much more expensive. So it’s time Somerset County Council finally did something to help the holiday trade in Brean by completing the foot and cycle path along the Coast Road. That way, they could do something for holiday makers and help jobs in the construction industry at the same time.

I send all constituents my best wishes for Christmas, and may the New Year bring some better news.

.October 8th, 2008:

Parliament is back, and the first task is to tackle the global debt crisis. What started as a banking collapse has now spread to the rest of the economy. All political parties must pull together, or the recession could be long and deep. I am greatly helped by the many constituency visits I carried out in September. This year I concentrated on schools, businesses and voluntary organisations. It has given me a good picture of what is happening locally and how the Somerset economy is bearing up.

I also had meetings with Sedgemoor District Council and Somerset County Council to discuss a number of long standing problems. I am afraid that the County Council is still unwilling to complete the much-needed pathway long the Berrow Coast Road. It is crazy that a project which they previously planned and approved should be cancelled in this way. I remain determined to get it done somehow.

Better news for the Frank Foley Parkway. This 'missing link' is now to go ahead with construction next summer.

Somerset must also play its part in preventing a future 'energy crunch'. Too few power stations have been built recently and those we have are showing their age. A cold winter, or unexpected breakdowns, could lead to blackouts.

Hinkley Point is the natural site for a new nuclear power station, and two planning applications have been submitted. Obviously we must insist on the highest safety standards. If local authorities work positively with the energy companies we would secure our power supplies and also become a centre for engineering skills and jobs. This in turn would help us get out of a recession. Let's look to the future and think positively.

.June 18th, 2008:

From the Somerset Coast we can almost 'see' southern Ireland in line-of-sight. So give the Irish a wave and a cheer; they have just voted no to the latest treaty. In doing this they have spoken for all the people of Europe and shown great courage and independence.

Will the Irish vote be respected? Or will the Brussels elite press on with their project for a yet more powerful and centralised EU? There is now only one way to decide the matter here, and that is to hold the national referendum which all three major parties promised before the last general election, but so far denied by the government.

Will the government take a lead in Europe and argue for a simpler, democratic system which listens to the people instead of imposing everything from above? There is a real opportunity for Britain to press for fundamental reform and I will be arguing for it in the House of Commons debate later this week.

Meanwhile, I have attended a further meeting on the Severn Barrage. The two year study is now underway and, if agreed, the barrage will start from Brean. It has become much more likely as the government has signed up to an EU target of 15% of all energy from renewables. This translates into about 40% of electricity production from renewables, which is far higher than even the most optimistic projection for technologies like wind power.

My colleague, John Penrose, MP for Weston-super-Mare, has discovered that the EU directive on renewable energy contains a bias in favour of very big schemes. Such projects will count towards a Member State’s renewable energy target while they are still under construction, rather than when they are finished and working.

This means that the Severn Barrage would count towards contributing almost 5% of Britain’s electricity from renewable sources for up to 10 years before any power has been generated. Smaller scale technologies, such as tidal lagoons, would not qualify.

These artificial targets, with their bias and distortion, are not the right way to assess these projects. John Penrose and I will be doing all we can to ensure that the needs of the coastline and the estuary are properly taken into account, and that the government does not go ahead with a huge project just to meet a legal target.

.May 30th, 2008:

I have recently returned from a trip to Japan and Korea. As a member of the all party Foreign Affairs Committee I travel a lot, but this visit was special given the distances and time involved.

We are doing a report on global security and the Far East is of pivotal importance. Japan has a constitution which bans the deployment of Japanese troops overseas. But they are extremely alarmed by the behaviour of neighbouring North Korea, which is practically the last communist state in the world, and one with nuclear weapons.

Tokyo is a well ordered city, although difficult to navigate - even the taxi drivers get lost. Few of the buildings date from before 1945 as most of the city was destroyed in conventional air raids during the Second World War. The underground trains are spotlessly clear without a scrap of litter; a contrast to London's rubbish strewn carriages.

We had good discussions with Japanese ministers and MPs and we found them in sombre mood. Japan has a falling birth rate, a stalled economy, and they are heavily dependent on imported energy even though they have a civil nuclear programme. They are developing renewable energy, particularly solar power, but they have little interest in wind energy which is generally regarded as unreliable. Despite Japan's problems it is still an economic powerhouse and generates 12% of the world's wealth.

The Japanese have considerable regard for Britain - another island monarchy with a seafaring tradition - but America is the country which guarantees their security.

We then flew to Seoul, capital of South Korea. At the end of the Korean war in 1953 the city was a heap of rubble but is now prosperous and modern. Indeed the South Korean economic miracle is even more impressive than that of Japan. It shows what a backward country can do through hard work and good organisation, even if it possesses no natural resources.

After a day of talks in Seoul we drove north into the world's most unstable and heavily fortified border area. North and South Korea have never signed a peace treaty with each other so they are still technically at war. Instead, the 1953 armistice is policed by the United Nations, with America providing most of the troops.

North Korea is a closed society, extremely poor, and it is a crime to try and escape. Kim Jong-il inherited the leadership from his father and likes to be known as 'Dear Leader' by the 23 million inhabitants. Despite its backwardness, the country has developed or bought nuclear weapons and a missile system. Negotiations are in hand to dismantle this nuclear programme in return for food aid and fuel oil, but no one we spoke to was very hopeful.

The armistice ending the Korean war was signed at Panmunjon which is now the only contact point between the two sides. Accompanied by a British army officer, we visited the hut right on the border (pictured) where negotiations take place. The two sides sit on either side of a table, with the border running down the middle. Unsmiling North Korean guards watched our every move through binoculars. I have not seen such unrelenting hostility since crossing into East Berlin in 1970.

More encouragingly, we visited a factory site in North Korea (pictured at the top of this post) where the business expertise and capital is provided by the South and the workers are supplied by the North. The workers have few rights, but their wages, about $60 a month, are much higher than they could earn elsewhere in North Korea. Our attempts to talk to some of the workers were quickly discouraged by our communist 'minders'.

After this day on one of the world's front lines we drove back to Seoul and the next day flew back to London. This is a region of great economic interest, including as it does the rise of China. It is also strategically important and potentially dangerous. Britain must keep closely in touch with such developments, and our committee will make a full report to Parliament.

.March 19th, 2008:

Budget statements used to be occasions of high political drama with a packed House of Commons listening to every word. Now they are rather boring, partly because some of the decisions are leaked beforehand, and partly because the government has run out of money.

The only interest is in just how many taxes are going up again. This time it was particularly bad for rural Britain (or England, as Scotland seems to escape). We are losing many of our facilities, like post offices, and this encourages people to use their cars. Now the price of motoring goes up with a steep rise in car tax. These taxes now come with green camouflage, but it’s your money that the Treasury want.

The extra tax on alcohol will hit the village pub. This is supposed to deter binge drinking by young people, but I would have preferred a targeted approach on certain high alcohol drinks rather than putting the price up for everyone. It’s also madness to create an even bigger business in Calais supplying British day visitors and enriching the French exchequer.

Last week also saw the conclusion of the debates on the EU Treaty. I intervened or spoke in each of the twelve days of debate on the bill to ratify it. It will transfer more powers from parliament to the EU, which will now pass laws on sensitive matters such as immigration, criminal justice and policing. And our power to block such EU laws will almost disappear.

Whether or not this is a bad thing, I am certain the public must have the final say. I kept my promise to vote for a national referendum on the subject but it was narrowly lost. Now the House of Lords will debate the matter. I hope they force all political parties to keep their manifesto promises to hold a referendum on how we are governed.

I am shortly to write to the government opposing the planned closure of the local post offices. After four public meetings, and hundreds of petition signatures and letters, I have plenty of ammunition. If any readers would like to add anything, please write to me soon.

.February 16th, 2008:

The economic picture is darkening, and the Government is running out of money. Despite all those extra taxes, the Government is borrowing hard. And the Northern Rock collapse means that all taxpayers have in effect lent that company £1300 each, whether they like it or not.

One consequence of this is the very tight financial settlement forced on District Councils this year (although Somerset County Council seems to have escaped, with a generous 9% increase).

A very unhappy group are the police who came up to Westminster last week for a rare demonstration. They were awarded a 2.5% increase by the independent pay body and the government has cut this back to 1.9%. No government in my memory has done this before.

Next, we had to vote on our own pay - always a somewhat embarrassing event. We eventually agreed a 1.9% increase for MPs; but I had a more radical idea. I believe that if the new EU treaty is ratified we should have a pay cut. The Treaty transfers more powers away from parliament to the EU. So if our powers and responsibilities are reduced, we should be paid less. The same applies to ministers' salaries.

I suggested this in the House of Commons, and was backed by two other Conservative MPs. But not surprisingly the idea didn't catch on. Even if the House of Commons is reduced to the status of a local council it seems that MPs would want to be paid as though they still legislate in a sovereign chamber.

Energy policy was debated again last week. I was pleased that the proposed wind farm near Brent Knoll was turned down on appeal. Wind power is expensive and unreliable.

A much more interesting idea is to extract energy from the strong tidal flows of the Bristol Channel. The government has announced a study into the possibility of a huge Severn Tidal Barrage. This would probably start from Brean, in this constituency, with major implications for people living nearby and for the Mendip Hills which would provide much of the material.

The minister responsible has agreed to keep me closely informed, and I would welcome ideas, both for and against, as the project unfolds.

.December 28th, 2007:

As we near the end of 2007, I have been reflecting on events that have had an influence on my life over the last year both professionally and personally. Some of the most enjoyable moments have occurred when I have been in Somerset meeting my constituents either on a personal or professional basis.

I am spending Christmas with my family in Pilton, as I never cease to be aware how fortunate we are to be able to call this wonderful county of ours home.

Parliament will reconvene in early January.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish all my constituents a very Happy Christmas and a Prosperous and Peaceful New Year.

.October 12th , 2007:

So there is to be no general election after all, at least not until 2009. Having ordered all the posters and pamphlets, Gordon Brown called it off. It was the opinion polls that did it of course, but I think he also had visions of dark evenings, November gales, and people asking, 'why are we having an unnecessary election?'
So it's business as usual in parliament, with the difference that the two main parties are now very evenly balanced. I have returned to the new session with some pressing local issues to raise.

For instance, I remain very worried about the flood risk in Somerset. We face two dangers: from the sea and from river flooding. We need to review our sea defences and also make sure that the river and drainage network can cope at times of very high rainfall. If the July rainstorms had hit Somerset instead of Gloucestershire we would have been in serious trouble. Having examined our rivers and pumping stations last month, and having discussed the matter with the Environment Agency, I believe that more should be done to reduce the flooding risk.

A select committee of the House is doing a report on this and I am in touch with them to make sure Somerset's voice is heard and that the Environment Agency gives more attention to its flood prevention duties. Yrs David.

.July 12th , 2007:

Two very disrupting events last week: first the Glastonbury festival, which actually takes place in my village of Pilton; second the change of Prime Minister.

Glastonbury was of course a mud bath, and a week later the site is still a sea of abandoned tents. The idea was to send the tents to Africa as part of an aid programme but no one will want them in this state and I believe most of them will be dumped. Still, a lot of good bands played at the festival and the organisers have a four year licence, so let's hope the long range forecast is better for next year.

Meanwhile back at Westminster, Gordon Brown takes over and promises lots of 'change'. It's not clear yet what this means. Does it mean an end to higher taxes? Or getting out of Iraq? Or stopping the English subsidy to Scotland? I doubt it.

There are rumours of an early election. But I will make one prediction: there won't be one. Gordon Brown says there will be no referendum on the European constitutional treaty, despite the promise in Labour's last election manifesto. If there is an early election, the Conservative party (and maybe the Lib Dems) will promise to hold a referendum on Europe. This would wrong-foot Brown; he won't risk it.'

.June 20th , 2007:

Last week, as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I visited Moscow where we had discussions in the Kremlin with Russian ministers. Russia has huge reserves of oil and gas and is using this as a powerful weapon of foreign policy. They assured us that they wished to be a reliable supplier but I believe we need to become more self sufficient in energy if we are to avoid the possible threat of blackmail in the future.

Our committee then went on to Vienna where we met the International Atomic Energy Agency. They monitor the Non Proliferation Treaty and try to ensure that the rules governing the peaceful use of nuclear power are not broken. They are deeply worried by Iran which seems to be developing a nuclear weapons programme and is so far refusing to back down.

Then back to the UK and down to Burnham for an advice surgery. Mostly about local issues, but they are often connected somehow to the international questions we are grappling with on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

.April 26th , 2007:

Welcome to the official blog for Burnham-on-Sea and Highbridge's MP, David Heathcoat-Amory.

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