The pomp and circumstance of the State Opening of Parliament has quickly receded. In less than a week the focus has returned to the EU referendum and many Tory backbenchers seem more focused on the impending leadership election rather than their legislative agenda for the year ahead.
In what must be a rare occasion, the Prime Minister didn’t even attend the first PMQs of the Parliamentary session to defend his Queen’s Speech and instead left it to a nervous George Osborne.
He need not have worried, as there were surprisingly few questions about the Government’s legislative agenda with the focus of the session turning once again to Europe.
Tory Party naval gazing means they are failing to address the issues we face as a country. As PMQs showed, they not only have the wrong answers but are simply asking the wrong questions to put our country back on track. A Government in total paralysis, they have nothing to do, nothing to say and think nothing, was the verdict of former Tory grandee Michael Portillo.
The Tories refuse to address the issues facing our economy, from falling productivity, a lack of investment in skills and infrastructure, a collapse of key industry like construction and manufacturing as well as widening regional economic inequalities.
The Tories are ignoring the housing crisis, rents are soaring, homeownership is falling and house-building is at its lowest levels since the 1920’s, however all the Chancellor can promise is more austerity and debt.
The talk of a “Northern Powerhouse” is little more than meaningless rhetoric as our region is starved of investment for skills and infrastructure.
The Tory solution to a housing crisis has been to scrap affordable housing for rent and replace it with starter homes costing up to £450,000. This isn’t a hand up for young first time buyers, but a personal debt trap which is unaffordable for most and unsustainable in the short, medium and long term.
There are a number of Bills in the Queen’s Speech which require closer scrutiny.
On the surface, a Local Growth and Jobs Bill should be universally supported. However, this Bill comes after six years of a Tory Government slashing local government finance particularly in deprived communities, with our own County Durham losing over a quarter of a billion pounds. The retention of business rates has been welcomed by more affluent Tory controlled Authorities however, the government will have to explain how this can be done fairly and how it will not widen existing regional economic inequalities.
While County Durham collected £111 million in business rates, Westminster Council collected £1.8 billion. The Government must therefore explain how they will support areas with lower tax bases in order to ensure they do not entrench inequality and deprive areas with the greatest needs of vital public services.
On Housing, another area of my responsibility as a Labour Whip, the Government have introduced a Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill. However, this will do little to address the damage caused by the appalling Housing and Planning Act passed in the last parliament which will cut the supply of affordable housing for rent to be replaced in part by unaffordable starter homes.
This Bill is also another example of how the Government’s rhetoric on devolution does not match the reality on the ground. In another power grab, the Government will restrict and introduce new limits on the conditions councils can attach to a development. These conditions often support and fund affordable housing, new amenities and services which are required by local people in and around new housing developments.
The Bill also fails to address housing needs in the North, as not only do we require more housing, we also need regeneration and housing renewal in areas where properties no longer meet the needs of the community. In East Durham, we have a specific issue in Horden due to the withdrawal of Accent Housing who allowed their properties to fall into a state of disrepair and dilapidation before abandoning the community though selling the properties at auction. Similar problems with an unregulated and increasingly dilapidated private rented sector in Easington Colliery cannot be allowed to continue without intervention from government.
How can the Government address housing issues such as those in Horden and Easington Colliery when they will not recognise that a problem exists or that there is an urgent need for a housing renewal and regeneration policy.
Transport is another key issue in East Durham.
It will not be until the end of this Parliament at the earliest that the much maligned ancient Pacer Trains which connect Middlesborough Hartlepool Sunderland Newcastle and Hexham on Northern Rail lines will be taken out of service and the Government have so far offered little in the way of an assurance that finance for improved services and much needed new stations in East Durham will be made available.
A lack of infrastructure and services has been further compounded by the Government indifference to rising costs for commuters.
Since 2010 the cost of rail and bus fares has increased by a quarter, and the Department for Transport has imposed rail fare rises on commuter routes in the North of up to 162% for a worse service.
Transport networks are becoming less and less reliable with rail punctuality falling to a ten year low. Local roads face a pothole crisis after six years of the Tories, with a £12 billion road maintenance backlog as local maintenance budgets have fallen 27% in real terms.
Urgent action is required to address these concerns, however, the Queen’s Speech was devoid of any long term transport strategy.
While I do welcome the Bus Services Bill, which is needed to address the long term decline of bus services which followed Tory de-regulation in the 1980s I am keen to understand the detail of this Bill.
This is on the face of it an important U-turn by the present Government which opposed Labour’s calls for re-regulation in the last parliament.
As with the majority of Government Bills, the devil is in the detail, and we must secure some important safeguards to protect safety critical staff who may be transferred to a new company following a tender award. We also need assures that all areas will receive new powers and not just those who sign up to devolution deals.
A Bus Services Bill which fully empowers local authorities to set routes, exercise greater control and to manage bus services would be welcome, however, if history has taught us anything over the last six years the Government are good at rhetoric but are often reluctant to devolve real power to local communities.
In the year ahead, while the Tories look inwards, consumed by Europe and the departure of David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party needs to speak to the country.
We need to outline our vision for a fairer economy. A Labour alternative which delivers long term growth through supporting skills and training, protecting vital public service and industries as well as investing in our national infrastructure, in transport, housing and education, all of which will help to secure a modern economy where everyone including my constituents in East Durham have the opportunity to succeed.