Parliamentary Update: 28th February 2017
TASTE OF AYRSHIRE
I was delighted to co-host a Taste of Ayrshire event at Westminster earlier this month. The two-part event, organised by all four Ayrshire MPs, focussed on Ayrshire’s exceptional and award-winning food and drink producers in the morning, and some of our key industries in the afternoon. It also provided the opportunity to promote the Ayrshire Growth Deal to Government ministers, MPs and their staff, as well as other London-based potential stakeholders.
It is hugely important that we take every opportunity to highlight Ayrshire as a great place to visit, and to do business. The Ayrshire Growth Deal has the potential to transform the economic prospects for the region, and already has the backing of the Scottish Government. This event provided all three Ayrshire councils involved in the venture a great platform to put the plans in front of decision makers in the UK Government, and the feedback from all was very encouraging and, in some cases, people were somewhat surprised at what Ayrshire has to offer.
The bill to kick-start Brexit has been rushing through parliament. Barely three lines long, it allows the Prime Minister to invoke Article 50, and has moved with considerable speed and little debate. I was disappointed to be forced to miss the opening vote on the bill, due to ill health, and extremely saddened at the inevitable outcome of it. So far, the Government have refused to accept any amendments, and it is unlikely the Lords will be able to make any significant changes.
The former UK Permanent Representative to the European Union, Sir Ivan Rogers, has confirmed that the UK’s Representation to the EU (UKREP) could facilitate the involvement of the devolved administrations in Brexit negotiations, if the Prime Minister would keep her promise that she would not trigger Article 50 until she had an agreed “UK-wide approach.” However, if Scotland is to get a differential deal from Brexit negotiations, it must be referenced in the UK government’s Article 50 letter.
The Scottish Government has repeatedly relayed a compromise deal in relation to the White Paper Scotland’s Place in Europe. The ball is now very much in Theresa May’s court on whether or not she will meaningfully engage with the devolved administrations.
Windfarms continue to be high on my agenda, and I am working closely with a number of individuals and community representatives to support them with their concerns and issue. The Scottish Government’s policy on renewable energy tries to strike a careful balance between maximising Scotland’s huge green energy potential and protecting some of our most scenic landscapes and wild land areas, but it is clear that many believe the Carrick and Doon Valley area has now reached saturation point as a number of new windfarm projects have come online in recent years.
I firmly believe that Scotland can continue to be a world leader when it comes to renewable energy, and that this will boost our economy, create jobs and protect our environment, but I am also of the opinion that windfarm projects must not be to the detriment of local people and their communities, and will continue to put pressure on windfarm developers to resolve issues as they arise and to work with communities to ensure any plans have widespread support.
I was pleased to hear the Scottish Government’s announcement on a wide-ranging business rates relief scheme. The complete package will ensure that around 70 per cent of businesses across Ayrshire will see either no change or a decrease in their business rates bill – with more businesses being entitled to support through the small business bonus scheme.
The relief proposals will provide some welcome support for hotels, restaurants, pubs and cafes, which had seen their rates rise the steepest following the 2015 re-evaluation. Any rises in this sector will be capped at 12.5 per cent.
There have been a number of issues with the provision of adequate telecommunication services for the village of Barr. I have been working with community representatives for over a year now trying to get some resolution to the problems they are facing. In the course of this work it has become clear that Barr is a village that has been badly let down by a number of organisations and services and I therefore decided to host a multi-agency roundtable meeting, to see if we can achieve some improvements for this remote village.
The meeting, held earlier this month, was very productive, and involved agencies responsible for telecoms, broadband, and some wider community issues, such as roads and access to health and emergency services. It was useful to get everyone in one room to try and reach some agreement on how we can all support the villagers to improve the economic development and sustainability of the community there. I do not expect many of the issues to be resolved overnight, but I do believe we are now moving in the right direction to ensure the future of the village.
I had the opportunity last week to highlight concerns about cuts to support for disabled people in a debate on publically accessible amenities. Disability is caused by the way society is organised rather than by a person’s impairment and, while there is some fantastic work being done across this constituency, and the country, to try and break down some of the barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people, UK Government policy on supporting disable people seems designed to make life more difficult for them.
This was highlighted at the weekend when it emerged the Government is planning changes to the eligibility criteria for Personal Independence Payments, following a tribunal ruling that they should also cover conditions including epilepsy, diabetes and dementia. Rather than expand eligibility, however, the Department of Work and Pensions slipped out a plan to overturn the tribunal’s decision on the day of last week’s by-elections, which will actually restrict eligibility further. The move has been roundly condemned, with even some Tory backbenchers criticising it. I have tabled an urgent question on the matter, and will be working hard to get this decision overturned.
A major feature of my mailbag recently has been complaints about Transport Scotland using weekend closures of the A77 as its preferred method of dealing with road repairs on the trunk road between the port at Cairnryan and Ayr. While I acknowledge the necessity for these repairs, the persistent closing of the road entirely, and the subsequent diverting of ferry traffic onto small rural roads around Carrick, is having a significant impact on local businesses and communities.
Transport Scotland have limited options where the road width means that a traffic light or convoy system would endanger road workers, but more needs to be done to ensure that the full closure of the A77 only happens when no other option is available. To this end I, along with my colleague Jeane Freeman MSP, have arranged a roundtable meeting with Transport Scotland, Ayrshire Roads Alliance and local business representatives next month. Hopefully, we will be able to get a resolution to this issue.
On a related note, I was pleased to see the Scottish Government’s budget for the next year, which was passed this month, including funding for the long-awaited bypass at Maybole. This development will help the town’s ambitious renovation plans, and I am sure I am not alone in looking forward to seeing the town flourish following Heritage Lottery funding of just under £2m.This money will be used to repair important historic buildings located within the town’s conservation area, improving up to 75 properties, shopfronts and public spaces, making the town attractive for people and investment.
EARLY CHILDHOOD & COMMUNITY CENTRE
I was delighted to be invited to open the new Early Childhood and Community Centre in Drongan earlier this month. East Ayrshire Council have invested £1.2m in the new centre, which saw the existing school campus transformed into a more spacious and brighter learning facility, with the community hub and library being developed on the site of the old youth wing.
This was a significant investment in the heart of the Drongan community, and is a great example of East Ayrshire Council’s commitment to quality education facilities for our children and young people. I am confident that the new community hub will provide the wider community with a superb resource, and everyone, young and old alike, will benefit from this investment for years to come.
NEW POLICE CHIEF FOR AYRSHIRE
I was sorry to hear of the departure of the Ayrshire Divisional Commander, Chief Superintendent MacDonald. I had developed a good working relationship with her during my time in office, and found her to be extremely helpful and forthcoming in our dealings. She has fostered a strong partnership working approach to policing in Ayrshire, and I would like to thank her for the work she undertook in Ayrshire, and wish her well in her new role.
Her successor, Chief Superintendent Paul Main, met with me recently and I was able to highlight some of the issues I have come across in the constituency. He took the opportunity to share his priorities with me, and I am pleased to see he is as keen as I am to ensure we maintain a good relationship going forward.
LOCAL SCHOOL VISIT WESTMINSTER
Pupils from Queen Margaret Academy visited London last week and took part in a tour at Westminster while they were there. Pupils were able to see the House of Commons and Westminster Hall, and had the opportunity to observe part of the debate on the Dubs Scheme, which was meant to support unaccompanied refugee children but will be ending with only 350 children benefiting. They also had the chance to ask questions about how Parliament works, and to quiz me about my role as an MP.
The Parliament’s Education Service arranges school visits to Parliament, provides teacher training about citizenship and political literacy, and creates resources to help teach these subjects in the classroom. While I am able to facilitate small groups of up to six people, schools interested in bringing larger groups should contact the Education Service at email@example.com or call 020 7219 4496.