The former Cheltenham MP who first raised the issue of poor broadband service in parts of Cheltenham has accused the new Tory government of breaking its promises and his Tory successor of dropping the ball.
Former LibDem MP Martin Horwood called a special debate in Parliament in November 2014, just months before the May 2015 general election, once it became clear that many hundreds of houses across Cheltenham with historically poor broadband speeds were being left out of both commercial upgrade opportunities by BT and Virgin AND the government subsidised programme administered in Gloucestershire by the County Council under the name ‘Fastershire’.
‘The Tory minister spent most of that debate on his mobile phone but he did promise to ‘knock heads together’ and get the problem sorted. And the coalition government’s pledge was that by 2016 everyone in the country would have a decent basic connection speed of at least 2 megabits per second’ said Martin. ‘Both those promises have been broken: the gaps in Cheltenham haven’t been filled despite the fact that just before the election I supplied both commercial suppliers and the County Council with the addresses of more than 600 affected homes so they had no excuse that one side wasn’t telling the other who had been left out. Parts of Cheltenham are still plagued with very low connection speeds and still have no prospect of an upgrade, making it nearly impossible to do business, online homework, online banking and shopping and many other transactions many of us now take for granted.’
‘The Tory County Council’s Fastershire programme hasn’t solved the problem and the Tory government has dropped the coalition’s 2 megabit pledge, pretending the only places affected are in the Outer Hebrides or other far flung rural areas where people ‘don’t want to be connected.’
‘My team and I were hot on the heels of ministers, commercial suppliers and the County Council right up to the election. Since then my Tory successor seems to have completely dropped the ball. He was very quick to jump on the bandwagon during the election campaign but seems to have fallen right off it afterwards.’
- The worst affected areas combining both poor connection speeds and inability to upgrade are in Pittville, Up Hatherley and Benhall wards. Cheltenham councillors in some of these these areas include Cllr Dennis Parsons 07540 398914, Cllr Roger Whyborn 07960 240090 and Cllr Nigel Britter 07752 109307.
Technical note: the historically slow broadband speeds in Cheltenham are due to the unusual centralised telephone exchange which leaves outlying areas with a really poor broadband service, often under 2Mbps. Commercial suppliers, principally BT and Virgin have delivered ‘superfast’ broadband upgrade availability across much of the town where they believe this is commercially viable – mainly via large BT cabinets serving whole neighbourhoods. But newer estates like the former Midwinters site off Tommy Taylor’s Lane in Pittville ward, Manor Farm in Up Harherley ward and Grace Gardens in Benhall typically have cabinets serving smaller populations and failed the commercial suppliers’ viability test. The County Council has been subsidised by the government to provide for less viable areas but has exclusively targeted more rural areas (see http://www.fastershire.com/where-when ), having broadly categorised entire Cheltenham postcodes as ‘commercially viable’ and so ineligible for subsidy under EU competition rules – but failing to find out from commercial suppliers which exact addresses, for instance in newer estates, were not actually commercially viable. This subsidised programme – which they have called ‘Fastershire’ – has completed much of its work and is due to end by 2018.
Millions are being cut from the government’s support for local community pharmacies and Cheltenham’s former LibDem MP has added his voice to those of pharmacists who are raising the alarm. The cuts are to the Community Pharmacy Contractual Framework which pays local pharmacists to provide minor ailment services and public health advice, reducing pressure on GPs and the NHS.
The Department of Health (DH) plans to reduce funding by £170m from October 2016 as part of the government’s comprehensive spending review.
National pharmacists’ representative Sue Sharpe has said the cuts “will deliver a destructive blow to the support community pharmacies can offer to patients and the public.”
Former Cheltenham LibDem MP Martin Horwood says the cut could have a real impact in the town. “Local pharmacies like Badhams have hugely increased the range of services and advice they provide to local people. They don’t just dispense pills these days. They can take your blood pressure, give you lifestyle advice and review medication. The clear direction in Gloucestershire and nationally in recent years has been to support community pharmacy and take pressure off GPs and the local NHS. Now the new Tory government is putting that policy into reverse.”
The cuts are all part of Chancellor George Osborne’s plan to cut faster and deeper than the coalition government. Lib Dem ministers distanced themselves publicly from Conservative spending plans before the 2015 election.
Leading local pharmacist Peter Badham says “The future of community pharmacy is at a crossroads. Patients are receiving mixed messages: pharmacy first, use your local pharmacy for minor ailments, flu vaccinations, advice on medication and so on. And then that up to 3,000 chemists will close!”
“It is clear the cuts are going to implemented, with no negotiation or consideration of impact on patients'” he added.
Martin Horwood has strongly welcomed the Liberal Democrats’ new commitment to mental health services, which has been outlined in the new publication Manifesto for the Mind, and has backed equal treatment for mental and physical health in Cheltenham and Gloucestershire.
Martin, Cheltenham’s MP since 2005, understands the importance of proper funding to mental health services, having met with many mental health charities and organisations over his ten years as MP, including the Suicide Crisis and Gloucestershire Beat (Eating Disorder) Support Group.
Speaking in Cheltenham today, Martin said “One in four of us in Britain will experience mental health problems in our lives, and for too long it has been stigmatised by society and ignored by successive governments. I am proud of the work Liberal Democrats have done in government to address this historic problem, including the first ever waiting time standards for mental health which will take effect tomorrow (1 April).
“I strongly welcome my party’s Manifesto for the Mind which sets out an even more ambitious vision for mental health services, and know that many organisations and charities in Cheltenham and Gloucestershire will benefit from the proposals, which include plans to ensure all front line public service professionals, including in schools and universities, get better training in mental health – helping them to develop their own mental resilience as well as learning to identify people with mental health problems.”
Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg said “Liberal Democrats believe that no matter who you are, where you come from and what your circumstances, you should not be denied the opportunity to fulfil your potential. Yet, in Britain today, millions of people are denied the opportunity to get on and live happy, fulfilling lives because they live with mental health issues.
“In the coalition government’s final Budget we secured more than a billion pounds to revolutionise services for children and young people, alongside the first ever waiting times standards and a plan to roll out talking therapies across England. But we cannot and must not rest there. Equality for people with mental health issues is a liberal mission.
“That’s why I am so immensely proud that we are the first party to put equality for people with mental health problems on the front page of our full General Election manifesto.”
MP for Cheltenham Martin Horwood has written to the Treasury calling for a full commitment on maintaining pensions for the widows, widowers and civil partners of Intelligence Services personnel who die in the line of duty.
In the budget statement on Wednesday the Chancellor explicitly outlined changes to the current pension arrangements for the spouses of firefighters, police and security service members, to reverse “historic injustices”. However, in the text of the Budget itself, it states that immediate changes will only be made for firefighters and police, and only commits to “examine the possibility of making similar changes” for members for the Intelligence Services.
In his letter to the Treasury, Martin wrote, “I am concerned that ‘examining the possibility’ is not a clear commitment to reversing historic injustices, especially when members of the intelligence services who do die in the line of duty are often in a position where their service cannot be publicised, and in fact their service connections deliberately (and properly) obscured.
If we cannot give them the public honour they deserve, at the very least we can commit to giving their remaining families the same survivor benefits which will now be afforded to police officers and firefighters.”
Martin has also taken the opportunity today to raise the issue with ministers from the Department for Work and Pensions in the budget debate. Speaking in the House of Commons he said “Many of my constituents here in Cheltenham work tirelessly in the security services to protect our country. It is fantastic that these pension injustices have been reversed for our firefighters and police men and women, but it is unfair that the government has not yet made the same revisions for the Intelligence Services. I am raising my concerns at the highest level and will press for rapid clarification from the relevant ministers.”
Cheltenham MP Martin Horwood has expressed strong support for the Green Homes Bill, which was announced by the Liberal Democrats this week. The bill, which would be brought forward in the next Parliament, would improve energy efficiency and promote renewable heat across the UK, ensuring more people benefit from permanently warmer homes and cheaper energy bills.
The new Bill would ensure these achievements are built on, incentivising people to insulate their homes by:
- Offering at least £100 each year off your Council Tax for 10 years, when you significantly upgrade the energy efficiency of your home
- Reforming the Green Deal ‘pay as you save’ scheme into a new ‘Green Homes Loan Scheme’ which would extend the current scheme to include renewable heat and electricity
- A new ‘Feed out Tariff’ for investment in Solid Wall Insulation, the most expensive and disruptive type of energy efficiency measure
“The Green Homes Bill builds on the fantastic changes that Liberal Democrats have already delivered in Government relating to energy efficient homes. More than one million homes have been built with better energy efficiency in just two years thanks to ECO and the Green Deal; legislation for Zero Carbon Homes in new build and regulations to ban landlords from renting out energy inefficient homes from April 2018; and an ambitious new Fuel Poverty Strategy.
I believe energy efficiency should be one of our national infrastructure priorities and this bill would deliver what the country really needs: a Green Homes Revolution. The Lib Dems will create 10 million energy efficient homes by 2025 through ambitious targets and generous incentives for people who carry out work to make their homes warmer, cheaper and greener.”
Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Leader, Nick Clegg said:
“We relentlessly pushed the green agenda over the last five years in government, in the face of strong resistance from the Conservatives.
“Yet despite much needed progress, people particularly from vulnerable households still suffer from homes that are too cold and bills that are too high.
“Energy efficiency is the most important fuel we didn’t know we had. Insulating millions of homes will significantly improve the cost of living and quality of life of people across the UK.”
make their homes warmer, cheaper and greener.”
- Up to an additional £2bn a year will be needed to deliver the energy efficiency targets Liberal Democrats set out today, based on current average costs to insulate homes and incentivise occupiers and owners. Revenue projects will be funded out of existing budgets from 2018-19 when the budget has been balanced and departmental spending is rising again. Capital projects will be funded from borrowing where they meet our rule for “productive investment”. The precise mix of these policies would be determined in the early part of the new Parliament as part of a full Spending Review.
- Reforming the Green Deal to include renewable heat and electricity could lead to much greater take up of renewable heat and electricity and make it more accessible to the less well off.
- A Feed out Tariff for installing Solid Wall Insulation would mean that those with savings could invest in their own home’s energy efficiency and get a higher return than they would get compared to leaving their money in the bank.
- Our Energy Efficiency ambition to ensure all homes get to EPC Band C by 2035 would be achieved by:
- new legislation forbidding letting of property which was not at EPC Band C by 2027
- measures to help owner occupiers such as the Feed Out tariff, Council tax discount, 0% loans and a continuation of the Green deal Home Improvement Fund.
Together these policies mean that by 2020 an estimated 4m homes would have had energy efficiency improvements and up to 10m homes by 2025.