The year 2019 is coming to a close with an almost mirror image of the end of 2018.
In 2018, I entered the year as an Opposition backbencher on Basildon Council, with a Labour-led alliance in power, only for the Conservative Group to regain administration in May and the new Leader of the Council, Cllr Andrew Baggott (Con, Burstead), appointed me to his senior frontbench team. It was thus I entered 2019 as a Conservative frontbencher, chairing the Economic Development and Growth Committee. It was a really exciting time. There had never been an Economic Development committee at Basildon before, so this was virgin territory and I relished the opportunity to chair my own committee and drive forward an agenda for economic growth in Basildon. We knew the first year in administration would be a slow-burner, as we undertook the work necessary to further a comprehensive vision for the whole Borough but following our success in the 2018 local elections, I was ready and energised for the task at hand.
Nationally, the picture was very similar in 2019 to 2018. In my political review last year, I wrote, “We had a Conservative Government in Westminster who were struggling to get the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill through a hung Parliament, obstructed all the way by a Labour Opposition whose own position on Brexit was so vague and changeable as to defy description.” This persisted long into 2019 and culminated in yet another General Election, just two years after the last one.
Locally, the big project I was keen to push through my committee was an ‘innovation warehouse’, ideally to be based at Wat Tyler Park in Pitsea. The idea was the create a ‘maker space’, with facilities for start-ups, entrepreneurs and small businesses, to develop an idea and build a business. It had the support of Essex Chambers of Commerce and the Basildon Business Group and received cross-party support at committee. We opened the Advice Store in Basildon Town Centre, which proved to be a massive success. The Advice Store is a one-stop-shop for providers, agencies, employers, and other organisations passionate about helping people into work, change careers, upskill, find an apprenticeship, and provide other skills or training opportunities and I felt the new Innovation Warehouse would complement my committee’s skills agenda and seemed a fitting way to celebrate Basildon’s aspirational spirit as we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the New Town.
In February, the Essex County Council budget brought good news, with more money to tackle homelessness, investment in pavements and footpaths, targeting criminals using county lines to evade justice, and more support for mental health. We sought to follow this up with our own good budget at Basildon Council, funding more police for the Borough, investing money in new ‘Pride Teams’ to clean up our estates, enforcement officers to tackle fly-tipping and anti-social behaviour, match funding street scene improvements and we were to create a new fund to support small businesses and help disadvantaged young people obtain BTEC qualifications. We also restored the free parking that Labour had taken away. We had already delivered the first new generation of social housing in twenty years and we were looking at swimming pool provision across the Borough. In March, I was able to announce to Full Council that we had been awarded £150,000 by the South Essex Local Enterprise Partnership to deliver a ‘digital hub’ in Basildon and in April I co-sponsored a cross-party motion to ensure Basildon Council uses products containing palm oil certified as sustainable.
We saw another minor success in my ongoing campaign for a change in the law to combat the problem of unauthorised encampments, with the Government announcing a consultation on new police powers. This proved particularly timely, as we had another incursion by Travellers on Sun Corner in June. On that occasion, Police used their ‘Section 61’ powers to disperse the encampment but it underscored the urgent need for a change in the law to make trespass a criminal offence. The cudgels were taken up in Parliament by Mark Francois, the Conservative MP for Rayleigh & Wickford, who led a large group of MPs, including John Baron and Stephen Metcalfe, the other two Borough MPs.
Generally speaking, the Conservative Government has had a good story to tell this year. We have continued to preside over nothing short of an economic miracle. We have the highest employment and lowest unemployment since the 1970s. Wages have been rising and the Office for Budget Responsibility are predicting we will have created 600,000 new jobs by 2023. We are now running a multi-billion-pound budget surplus, whilst borrowing is now at its lowest level since before the economic crash. British exports are booming, up by £25.1 billion from last year. Ten million people have been auto-enrolled onto a workplace pension. We now have the lowest proportion of low-paid workers since 1980. We have seen more money going into policing (with the introduction of more visible, local, town centre teams) and the NHS and other public services, as the years of austerity draw to a close. GDP has been growing at its fastest rate in years and inflation is below target. UK household income was on the increase. The then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, visited Basildon in March to welcome the substantial £23 million funding increase for Essex Police (the largest increase in police numbers for over a decade and making Essex Police the fastest-growing force in the country). Essex Police also received £1.16m to tackle violent crime.
All in all, we felt we had a good year in office locally and were hopeful of continuing the good work after the local elections in May. But it was not to be. Brexit continued to dominate everything, locally and nationally. Three years after the country voted to leave the EU, some politicians in Westminster were still working hard to overturn the result. Nobody worked harder in Parliament to honour the referendum than our own MP, John Baron. Nevertheless, at the local elections in May, the Conservative Party received a predictable rebuke from the electorate. Although many Conservative councillors were returned and we probably did better in Basildon than in other parts of Essex, where Tories were decimated, and we remained the largest political grouping on the Council, the Council fell back into No Overall Control. Predictably, the Labour Group and the Independents re-cobbled together their coalition from 2017-18 and the Conservatives lost administration and returned to opposition. I was reappointed to my group’s frontbench as Opposition Spokesman on Economic Development, sitting on the Council’s new Infrastructure and Inclusive Growth Committee. I was somewhat saddened to step down as Chairman of the Conservative Group but this was necessitated by my appointment by the Group Leader to the position of Chief Whip.
Later that same month, Theresa May finally resigned as Prime Minister. The Party was at its lowest ebb. Having been elected Chairman of the Basildon and Billericay Conservative Association at the AGM in April, I found myself chairing a Special General Meeting of the Association a month later to readopt John Baron as our Prospective Parliamentary Candidate. Although no general election was announced at the time, it seemed inevitable to me, as the only way to break the increasingly intractable political deadlock in Westminster. I attended the National Conservative Convention hustings in June to listen to the six contenders to replace Mrs May. As a consequence, I supported Boris Johnson as the next Conservative leader. He won and hit the ground running, with a pledge to further increase police numbers, invest in the NHS, and to deliver Brexit. I was also delighted when, in November, the new Home Secretary, Priti Patel, announced that the Conservatives would be changing the law on trespass, as I had long advocated. Boris immediately set about renegotiating the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and, despite being told that it could not be done, he achieved an amazing feat of statecraft by negotiating a new agreement that removed the hated Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ and ameliorated some of the worst aspects of the May agreement. Unfortunately, despite the deal passing Parliament, Remainers continued to frustrate the will of the people. This led, inexorably, to the 2019 General Election.
It was a great privilege to serve, once again, as John Baron’s re-election agent. The stakes in this election could scarcely have been higher – not just in terms of getting Brexit done and delivering on an inspiring One Nation Conservative domestic agenda but also to prevent the catastrophe of a hard-left Marxist government led by Jeremy Corbyn. I was, therefore, chuffed to bits to see John Baron comfortably returned as MP for Basildon & Billericay and a Conservative Government returned with the largest working majority since Margaret Thatcher. It is amazing what a change we have already seen now that the Zombie Parliament is dead and buried. As we enter the New Year, the new Withdrawal Bill has already been passed. We will finally leave the EU on 31st January 2020.
I am hopeful that this will bode well for our chances at the Local Elections next year. We only need to win two more seats to take back control of Basildon Council. So far, the self-styled Basildon Borough Alliance are an administration running on fumes. They have spent the municipal year so far claiming credit for Conservative projects that were put in train by the last Conservative Administration, but which are only now bearing fruit. Once again, we are seeing regeneration projects around the Borough stalling, committee meetings with wafer-thin agendas, no new initiatives or ideas and precious few of Labour’s electoral promises have materialised. They have expended their energies on pointless reorganisations at the Basildon Centre, sabre rattling with Essex County Council over unitary status, and expensive fripperies like the incredible £2,500 they spent erecting a Chairman Mao-style portrait of Gavin Callaghan. Apart from paying Essex to turn the streetlights back on, they have produced relatively little that is new. They have completely dropped the Innovation Warehouse, to the point that Cllr Callaghan tried to claim the project had never even existed (despite having been presented to the SELEP). Economic development seems to have flatlined. Basildon Conservatives are desperate to regain administration and get our ambitious plan for the Borough back on track.
In the meantime, I have continued to enjoy working on my own ward casework, helping residents with their problems. I have been working on a complex enforcement case involving waste dumping in woods in Billericay East. Other enforcement actions have proved less popular but no less necessary and I have been working with Queenies diner in Billericay High Street to work out an acceptable long-term solution to replace their illegal signage. I have continued to support the Billericay Community Cinema as much as I can. I remain amazed at how successful it has been. I was pleased to see Billericay Pool finally re-open after much delay. I have also served on the Transparency and Accountability Working Group, the Enforcement Sub-committee, the Laindon Town Centre Working Group and the Billericay Town Centre Working Group. The budget the Labour-led cartel have allocated to Billericay is a measly few thousand pounds, so I am not expecting big things from it. Billericay need not expect any meaningful investment while Labour are running the show.
Above all else, serving the residents of Billericay East continues to be a real joy and, regardless of whatever happens next May, I look forward to continuing to serve them and represent their interests on Basildon Borough Council.
I wish all my constituents a very Happy New Year.