Ripley & Heanor Column – 17th March 2017

It’s been a busy month in Westminster, as the Chancellor announced the financial plan for the year ahead in the Budget and, after a bit of ping pong between the Houses, the Brexit Bill has passed through Parliament and received Royal Assent. This means the Prime Minister can now trigger Article 50 by the end of March and begin Brexit negotiations.

With our exit from the EU in mind, and the aim of getting Britain and our businesses ready to capitalise on the opportunities Brexit will hopefully bring, the Chancellor presented a primarily sensible and cautious Budget. As it’s been a few weeks since his announcements, now is a good time to reflect on a few of the key themes, what they mean for Amber Valley, and consider further measures constituents want to strengthen our area.

Alongside welcome further increases in the national living wage, childcare funding and the personal allowance (the threshold will be £11,500 from April 2017), which will benefit many constituents, the Chancellor put business at the heart of his plans for the years ahead. This includes measures to delay the introduction of digital tax returns for small businesses below the VAT threshold and business rates mitigation, which will provide especially welcome support for struggling small pubs, with up to £1000 relief per year.

Although included in the Budget, I welcome the Chancellor’s decision not to proceed with the proposed increases to National Insurance for the self-employed. In my speech to the House, and in public interviews afterwards, I highlighted that the proposed rise would be unwelcome news to people who are struggling and not getting all the rights they are entitled to, and that a tax rise which discourages any kind of activity is not attractive, especially when our economy is considerably reliant on self-employment.

On doorsteps around Amber Valley, constituents shared these concerns, so I’m pleased the Chancellor listened and confirmed there will be no National Insurance contribution increases in this Parliament. We do need to ensure that employers who are disguising employment to avoid tax are prevented from doing so, but we need to guarantee that the genuine self-employed are not unduly disadvantaged. It’s therefore good news that the Chancellor has also announced the positive step of widening the review of the benefit entitlement differences between employed and self-employed people, so it won’t just encompass parental benefit differences.

Locally, I’ve recently delivered surveys around Amber Valley with our county council candidates, and the main local priorities residents came back to me with were, rightly, social care and school standards. I’m therefore pleased that the Chancellor also put these areas high on the agenda by increasing social care funding and providing an extra £2 billion over the next three years as we consider a more permanent solution to ease the pressures on care services. There’s also increased funding for NHS transformation plans, to provide more health services in the community and relieve pressures on hospitals, so I hope some of this money will help fund the completion of Heanor Memorial Hospital.

Regarding education, I welcome the extra £536 million for schools, and the plans for the new schools funding formula. The new formula should be allocating more money to rural and Derbyshire schools as its aim is to balance the previously uneven distribution of funding. So, I’ll be pushing to ensure schools in Amber Valley benefit to help improve standards and ensure every child can achieve their very best.

In addition, the Budget offered increased funding for transport, and I’ll be campaigning to ensure the East Midlands gets its fair share of the money. In particular, alongside continuing to campaign for the overdue installation of step-free access at Alfreton Station to start as soon as possible, constituents have also recently contacted me to highlight the need for improvements at Langley Mill Station. I’ve highlighted the similar desperate need for step-free access at Langley Mill Station with Network Rail and East Midlands Trains in the past and, indeed, I discussed the issue again with Network Rail at a meeting a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, there is no easy scheme to facilitate the installation of level access on the southbound line at Langley Mill, so the project would be likely to be very expensive. Although there has been a notable increase in passenger numbers at Langley Mill, National Rail maintain this still doesn’t justify giving this project priority at the current time, but I will keep raising this issue to ensure it remains on the agenda for future schemes and funding.