As we move forward to 2022, it is natural to reflect on what has been another difficult year. Events have continued to be dominated by the coronavirus pandemic. This has brought deep sadness and loss, with many people's lives being touched by the virus. And, as ever, my thoughts remain with those who have lost loved ones or been adversely affected in other ways.
However, I continue to be inspired by the positive groundswell of community support for those in need. I've never felt prouder to represent this constituency after learning of all the help provided by good neighbours, other individuals, and organisations. Much has been done by volunteers and I applaud you all for your commitment and dedication to our community.
I, also continue to pay tribute to all the fantastic work done by our local NHS, care teams, emergency services, council staff and the army of businesses, charities and individuals who respond to frequently changing needs. The roll-out of the vaccine booster is testament to this.
Despite the challenges we face with the spread of Omicron, I am pleased that over the last 12 months, we have made excellent progress on many of my local priorities. These include:
- Protecting the Green Belt: I have made clear to the Government my position on the need to protect the Green Belt, and successfully argued down the increased housing targets proposed by the Department. Sevenoaks District Council is enabling the delivery of much needed housing in the district whilst protecting the environment and I am clear the Government must trust our excellent local authority to make such decisions.
- Delivering School Choice: Further to my election pledge, this year the Sevenoaks campus for Tunbridge Wells Grammar School for Boys has opened. The changes will mean parents have more choice locally of quality secondary schools; pupils are more likely to get their first choice of school; and families will spend less time and money on the school run. We secured funding from the Department for Education to rebuild Orchards Academy in Swanley, which is a huge and very welcome step forward for this brilliant school. I am very encouraged by the increased funding committed in the Budget for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND. The Schools Minister has confirmed Kent will be receiving £6.6 million, and I am following up with Kent County Council to discuss the breakdown for Sevenoaks and Swanley.
- Improving Women’s Safety: Following my local survey, and by working together with Kent Police, Sevenoaks District Council and Matthew Scott, Kent’s Police and Crime Commissioner, excellent progress is being made to ensure women feel safe in our community. Southeastern have agreed to upgrade the lighting on the platforms at Bat and Ball and Otford stations and are looking at the lighting in the car parks. Over the next two years, all older CCTV across the whole estate will be upgraded and they will be employing a specific safeguarding manager who will be responsible for all aspects of safety at stations and will work closely with the British Transport Police. A much welcome development. Sevenoaks District Council have produced a wonderful one stop advice page which sets out various advice and contact details including how to obtain free panic alarms and how to report places which feel unsafe to the Kent Police StreetSafe scheme.
- Securing a Nightingale Court: By working together with our excellent Police and Crime Commission, Matthew Scott, we secured a Nightingale Court for Kent. The court, based at Mercure Maidstone Great Danes Hotel, has been carrying out Crown Court work and provides an additional two hearing rooms on top of the current operational capability helping to reduce delays to cases, and deliver speedier justice for victims. We campaign hard for this court to be operation; I asked many times about it in the House of Commons and I also met with the then Minister for Immigration Compliance and Courts, Chris Philp with Matthew Scott to discuss the plans in detail. Victims deserve swift justice, so I am delighted that we now have the resources in place here in Kent to tackle the court backlog.
- Tackling Climate Change locally: To align with COP26 I hosted the Sevenoaks and Swanley Climate Change Conference, so we could discuss as a community what is being done nationally, and locally. It was encouraging to hear the fantastic progress already underway across the district to ensure we are playing our part, as well as so many constituents who feel strongly in supporting such efforts.
- Supporting local Sevenoaks businesses: The Stag in Sevenoaks was awarded £211,908 as part of the second round of funding from the Culture Recovery Fund. I have been so impressed by the enormous amount of work the Town Council, District Council and particularly the leadership of The Stag have put into keeping the theatre going in this difficult period. I know the central Government funding has, and continues, to make a huge difference. The role The Stag plays in our community has never been clearer, and I will continue to offer my full support to ensure its survival until normality is restored.
There is of course more still to be done, and looking ahead to 2022, I am hoping to see progress with:
- Securing a firm date for the delivery of the Maidstone East Fast line running through Otford and Swanley, which will deliver better and safer transport in our area – as well as improving the ticketing services in all our stations;
- Arguing for the Green Belt and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to be taken more fully into account when setting housing targets for local authorities. When the Planning Bill comes to the House of Commons, I will also be looking for flagrant abuses of the planning system to be treated as a criminal offence;
- Supporting the Covid Recovery by attracting business hubs and employment to the constituency;
- Continued work with Kent Police and our Police and Crime Commissioner Mathew Scott to ensure we see more police officers on our streets.
As the Omicron variant continues to spread, I continue to encourage you and your loved ones to receive the booster. I am pleased that the local doctors’ surgeries in Sevenoaks, Westerham and Otford will be providing booster jabs to all those eligible over 18, and that both Sevenoaks Pharmacy and St Mary’s Hall in Swanley have increased their capacity – both for booked appointments and walk-ins. Do keep checking the system as more appointments are being made available and you may well be able to bring your appointment forward.
And finally, thank you for your continued support. Over the last twelve months I have received and replied to over 21,000 emails and I enjoy reading the views and questions sent it. It is an honour to serve as the MP for such a wonderful community, and I wish all readers, whatever their political preference, a Happy and Healthy New Year!