Below is an open letter from Damian, with an overview of recent news and events from Westminster and across East Hampshire:
I hope this finds you well in these difficult times. With public meetings and other gatherings not possible, I’m writing with a Westminster and East Hampshire constituency update.
2020 began with the hallmarks of a truly auspicious year. It turned out to be a year like no other, though for entirely different reasons. When we first heard of this new virus in Wuhan province, China, none of us could have imagined it would still be dominating our lives into 2021. I hope we can soon look forward to a more normal way of life returning, for our health and wellbeing, for our economy and jobs, and for our children’s education and development.
For now, restrictions do of course remain in place, and we are all still having to adapt our daily lives in one way or another to help control the spread of the virus. Locally, people’s adaptability has been remarkable – but I know it has been very hard. Much of my focus in recent months has been casework connected to the pandemic.
As MPs, though we are away from Parliament, we have a lot of engagement with ministers and the medical experts and scientists, and with our local authorities here in Hampshire. Two-way communication is so important, both to get the public health messaging consistent, and to ensure ministers and officials are up to date on local realities. Here, our local authorities and public agencies, and the Hampshire Local Resilience Forum, have risen to the challenge very strongly.
I pay tribute to all our local NHS and frontline staff, who have done a remarkable job in immensely trying circumstances. We owe them all an enormous debt of gratitude.
We can be proud of how our country has stood up the vaccination programme so quickly. Locally and nationally, it is on track to meet its targets. I am continuing to engage with the NHS on a regularised vaccination location for Alton, in addition to the provision in Petersfield and Bordon.
Local people have also been receiving vaccination invitations to attend the big national centres, such as at Guildford and Southampton. Both systems – the local GP-led, and national network – will continue in parallel; this means the NHS can maximise the number of people protected.
The vaccination programme is essential not only for public health, but for our economic recovery too. The District Council has been making great efforts to support our small businesses, which are the backbone of the local economy. Visiting local businesses in Alton, Liphook and Petersfield on Small Business Saturday I heard about how they had adapted, their concerns and their hopes for the future.
Moving away from coronavirus, another big topic in recent months has been planning reform. I am pleased the government has decided to retain the existing method of calculation for Local Housing Need. Proposed new plans would have meant an almost 50% increase in the number of homes required to be built annually in East Hampshire. Along with other Hampshire MPs I made clear in Parliament that this would not work for our area, and I am glad the government has listened.
Separate proposals have been put forward on reforming the way the planning system itself works. There were 44,000 responses to the consultation on these proposals, and the government will respond in due course. I will be looking very carefully at the government’s response when it comes. I am also highlighting the particular issues that can occur when you have (as we do) a local authority area which is part-in and part-out of a national park. Following a Parliamentary Question I submitted, the Office for National Statistics has now produced an analysis of housing costs inside and outside national parks.
Veolia’s proposal to replace its recycling operation on the A31 near Alton with an incinerator continues to generate concern. Locally all levels of democratic representation are opposed to this proposal, and I have published my own objections. A second consultation exercise is being held to allow members of the public to provide comments on further information supplied by Veolia on air quality, landscape impact and transport impact. I am submitting a response to this consultation too.
Of course, 2021 also marks the start of our new relationship with the European Union. The UK-EU Trade & Cooperation Agreement is better than many thought possible. Indeed, it goes further than any other EU trade deal with a so-called third country, and this achievement should not be understated.
There is still work to do, for example on financial services, data adequacy requirements and mutual recognition of professional qualifications, as well as work to minimise trade ‘friction’. Focusing on these areas in the months ahead will be important. However, having the agreement in place allows us to move forward as a country, and will enable us to take advantage of our newfound freedoms.
Among those freedoms is the ability to develop our own independent trade policy for the first time in decades. Especially as we recover from the pandemic, we need more trade, not less. I support the government’s steadfast commitment to uphold our high standards in future trade agreements, particularly when it comes to agriculture, which of course is very important locally. Having called in Parliament for a Trade and Agriculture Commission, I was pleased when the government established one – and welcome that it recently went further by tabling an amendment to the Trade Bill to put the Commission on a statutory footing and to give it a more active role.
Recently Parliament has passed some other landmark pieces of legislation, including the Fisheries Act and Agriculture Act, both of which I was pleased to support. Coming up we also have the Environment Bill, a key piece of legislation which will help us become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.
Climate change remains one of the great challenges of our age, and the COP-26 global summit, with the UK chairing, will be the world’s focal point this year. Exploring the issues specific to rural areas such as ours, for example in the transition to zero emission vehicles, is something I will be focussing on in the months ahead.
The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee, of which I am a member, has been busy running multiple inquiries, ranging from the impact of COVID-19 on the tourism and cultural sectors, to issues around broadband connectivity, 5G, the future of public service broadcasting, misinformation, and grassroots sport. Recently we also had the opportunity to question Richard Sharp, who has now been confirmed as the next Chairman of the BBC.
Last month a range of local sports groups including from Alton, Grayshott and Petersfield joined a DCMS Committee roundtable to help inform the ‘Sport in our Communities’ inquiry. Clearly these are very difficult times, but it really was encouraging to hear the positivity and determination of these groups.
In addition, the Committee has been looking at how to address the issue of what we call ‘online harms’. One of the big policy challenges we need to overcome is how to make our country the safest place in the world to use the internet, while at the same time protecting users’ freedoms. The government will shortly be bringing forward legislation, and I will be taking a keen interest in it during its passage through Parliament.
In September last year I also became chair of the new the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Education Technology. The APPG is currently working on a detailed report, Lessons from Lockdown: What we learned about Education Technology in 2020. The report will look at what has worked well in deploying tech to support remote learning and consider how positive innovations can be harnessed in future.
In the immediate future, Parliament’s focus will continue to be on bearing down on this terrible virus. Increasingly it will also be on building the economic recovery and getting children’s education back on track. We must also deal with other issues left in the wake of Covid, for example the effects of inactivity and increases in domestic abuse. I am afraid the effects of the pandemic will be with us for a long time.
You can see regular updates from me on my website and on my Facebook page (facebook.com/damian.hinds). Please do get in touch at email@example.com if there is something I can assist with."