This was a year that I shall never forget, for reasons both good and bad.
What a bizarre year! Can anyone remember anything like it? I thought it started apocalyptically – with the Australian forest fires – but, now that I look back, the things we thought were bad at the beginning of the year seem positively banal by comparison to what was about to engulf the world. It is hard to remember that, up until March, we thought the worst things that could happen to us in Billericay were Storm Ciara and our trees getting infected with Ash dieback disease. Little did we know!
2020 started normally enough, albeit with the extraordinary backdrop of the dramatic death throes of the Zombie Parliament. Remainer MPs continued to frustrate the efforts of the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to deliver Brexit. This led, inexorably, to the General Election in December 2019 and it was for that reason that we entered the year with a Conservative Government with an 80-seat majority and an unstoppable mandate to deliver the will of the people and honour the result of the 2016 referendum. By the end of January, Boris had done just that, passing the Withdrawal Agreement Act and formally leaving the European Union on 31st January 2020.
Meanwhile, the Government was enacting an ambitious domestic agenda. Almost their first act was a 6.2% rise in the National Living Wage. We introduced the Veterans’ Railcard and the Government opened up consultations on putting an offence of deliberate trespass onto the statute book to help tackle unauthorised encampments – something which residents will recall that I have been campaigning for over many years, supported by all three of the Borough’s MPs – and also on decriminalising non-payment of the TV licence (a positive step towards scrapping the telly tax altogether). We tabled the Overseas Operations Bill to tackle vexatious prosecutions against British servicemen and were presiding over record high levels of people in work, record high levels of female employment, record high levels of full-time employment, and the lowest crime figures on record. The Government were setting about introducing an Australian-style points-based immigration system (since delivered) and, in February, they announced the biggest increase in local council funding in a decade. The Budget in March saw more money for Essex Police, Basildon Hospital, Essex Highways, our schools, and a typical family was getting a £200 tax break. Happy days!
Locally, the Conservative Group in Basildon remained in Opposition but looked forward to the local elections in May, confident that we would remove the perfidious alliance of Labour and Independents that have been running the Council since May 2019. Until then, the year commenced with the usual pattern of meetings and community events and suchlike. I continued my work on the Infrastructure and Inclusive Growth Committee and the Enforcement Sub-committee. On the former, in particular, I continued to push for delivery of the Innovation Warehouse in Pitsea.
In January, I enjoyed attending the Billericay Community Cinema’s 100th performance – the new live action version of “Aladdin” – with my partner and her daughter. Later, the following month, I volunteered for the first time front of house (having attended for years in my capacity as their ‘resident film nerd’ to give my talks) and finally obtained my long-coveted BillericayCine polo shirt.
I stood down from my role as Chairman of the Basildon and Billericay Conservative Association but, glutton for punishment that I am, only after I had taken up the role of Deputy Chairman (Political) of Essex Area Conservatives. I also remained the Conservative Chief Whip on Basildon Council and the Group Spokesman on Economic Development.
I attended the first Outwood Common Estate community meeting at St John the Divine Church in January, which along with my regular monthly surgeries at Billericay Library, brought me into regular contact with my lovely constituents.
… And then it all stopped!
I remember in February being propped up in bed, reading. My partner next to me on her phone started talking about this strange virus coming out of China. She was worried. “Bah, humbug!”, I said, “It’ll be Y2K and bird flu’ all over again. A whole lot of fuss over nothing.” Goes to show how much I know.
Very soon, it became apparent that the novel coronavirus, or Covid-19 as it would be called, was going to change everything; although life limped along normally for a while yet. The February surgery went ahead as normal. We were pretty much just being told to wash our hands. We held the Billericay ‘Together for Safer Communities’ event at Hannikins Farm in March and I gave my ‘film nerd’ talk for Roman Holiday at BillericayCine and attended the Gateway FM open day at the Eastgate Centre. All the while, the Brexit trade deal negotiations were bubbling on in the background, with more foreboding about the gloomy prospects for a deal.
I know there will be lots of people who will vehemently disagree but, in my opinion, Boris Johnson has shown strong leadership throughout the pandemic crisis. He has done his best to chart a course for the country that follows the scientific advice, responding to the epidemiology of the virus, but also taking into account broader considerations around the economy and the principle of policing public behaviour by consent. The Government also reacted quickly with an unprecedented package of financial aid for businesses, including the furlough scheme and loans and grants to allow business to pay salaries and rent, and changes to Universal Credit and introduction of higher education loans and free college courses for adults. Notwithstanding challenges with PPE and Track and Trace, and the tortured question of what best to do about the schools, I think the Government has done about as well as a reasonable person could expect. Certainly, not every call has been the right one and there will be many lessons that will need to be learned when we are out from under this. On the whole, however, I am pleased that we had Boris in charge rather than any of the conceivable alternatives.
The cancellation of the local elections in May, however, was a very bitter blow. It has meant another year of the Labour-led alliance running Basildon Council and robbed us of the opportunity of unseating them. That said, I cannot really criticise the manner in which Basildon Council has approached the crisis and officers have been working hard for residents. There have been frustrations for us as opposition councillors. The Administration took an inordinately long time to move meetings online, even allowing for the fact they were waiting for guidance from Central Government. We did not start holding committee meetings over Zoom until the middle of June and we did not have a meeting of Full Council until October. There were things like the Leader of the Council’s rather silly moves to try and have Billericay High Street pedestrianised but, otherwise, the Council’s engagement with local businesses was good. I suspect the inability of both the Opposition and the public to properly scrutinise the Administration has suited them rather nicely. They have shamelessly pressed ahead with things like the ridiculous loaded online consultations on their terrible Basildon Town Centre Masterplan and moves to close a large number of local play areas, not to mention the £10,000 the Labour Leader spent on his new office and their plans for South Essex ‘mega-council’.
Essex County Council have been playing their part throughout this crisis, with a number of schemes to support families, business grants, investment in nursing and social care, new stock for local libraries, emergency assistance grants for vulnerable people, funding for youth services, and supplying laptops and similar devices to children and older residents to combat loneliness. They also instigated a blitz of potholes and other highways issues. I know there was a great deal of public incredulity and cynicism around their decision to move us voluntarily into Tier 2 in October but I think, in hindsight, they were proved correct.
Locally, also, we saw the best and worst in our community. Although the images of people panic-buying (remember the whole bog-roll madness?), then flouting Covid restrictions in the summer, large numbers flocking to parks, to beaches, not wearing masks, not social distancing, mixing households, and anti-vaxers and others sharing ridiculous fake news and conspiracy theories on social media, have all been hugely frustrating, these frustrations have been overshadowed by the brilliant way in which our communities have come together. From the food banks and volunteers across the Borough and up and down the country, we have seen an overwhelming outpouring of willingness to help others. Friends, neighbours, families, communities, our fabulous key workers in the NHS and the police and other services, have all pulled together. It has been magnificent.
In mid-March, we entered the first nationwide lockdown. We cancelled our local surgeries for the foreseeable future. I started working from home full-time, and increasingly my regular meetings and interactions moved onto Zoom – a medium I had hitherto never heard of before. All our cafes, pubs, bars and restaurants had to close. Nearly half a million people registered as NHS volunteer responders in 24 hours. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, turned around a bespoke support scheme for the self-employed more or less on the head of pin. I pay particular tribute to Essex County Council’s Welfare Service, whose work during this time was tireless and brilliant.
It was a tense and testing time. Even the PM himself was hospitalised with the virus. In April, the Queen addressed the nation and her now famous “We shall meet again” speech gave us the boost we all needed. We also marvelled at Sir Tom Moore doing laps around his garden at the age of 99 to raise money for the NHS. We had a strange Easter and a strange St George’s Day and a strange VE Day and a strange Remembrance Sunday… but we made the most of all of it. We also saw the disappointing cancellation of things like the annual Billericay Art Trail, events to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower, the Billericay Community Cinema’s 5th birthday, and a number of local community events and charity fundraisers. We started to emerge into what was ubiquitously known as the ‘New Normal’. We now live in a world characterised by face-masks and hand sanitiser and people shouting “You’re muted” in meetings and green arrows on the pavement that everybody ignores. But we settled into things. I stood down from the Infrastructure and Inclusive Growth Committee and joined the Housing and Communities Committee and the Housing Development Sub-committee in September and the following month I also joined the Local Government Reorganisation and Transition Committee. I also stood down as Spokesman for Economic Development and took on the role as my Group’s Spokesman on Local Government Reform and Covid-19. My group also responded to the Government White Paper on planning reform and were, I believe, the only political group in Basildon to publish our response.
The year has ended on some positives. In November, the Government announced a four-day bank holiday weekend in June 2022 to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen, marking her 70 years on the throne. Something for us all to look forward to! The Government’s Kickstart scheme announced it had created 19,000 jobs for 16-24 year olds. The UK protected more than 4.3 million square kilometres of the world’s ocean, creating the world’s biggest marine conservation zone. The Armed Forces got their biggest funding boost in 30 years and the Spending Review gave NHS workers a pay-rise and more money for schools, police, science, a pay-rise for the lowest paid public sector workers and yet another increase in the National Living Wage. The Home Secretary secured a deal with France for greater co-operation to tackle the channel crossings by migrants.
The Pfizer vaccine was authorised and began to roll out. Margaret Keenan, aged 90, made history on 8th December, when she became the first person to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Finally, there was an end in sight but the game-changer came when the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine also got the OK. This enables us to greatly accelerate the vaccination programme. It did somewhat take the sting out of the tail of being placed in Tier 3 but nothing could make up for the crushing disappointment of having a very different Christmas to the one we had all been hoping for.
I hope that all my constituents were able to make the best of Christmas, as I did, even though it was not the kind of Christmas we are accustomed to and had been looking forward to. This was the first Christmas in my life that I did not see my mum and my two brothers. I saw my dad only very briefly from a distance. I was fortunate to be able to spend it with my girlfriend, Rosie, and her daughter. This was especially lucky, as I proposed to Rosie on Christmas Day.
On 24th December – Christmas Eve – we got the news that Boris and Lord Frost had concluded an historic trade deal with the European Union. I already waxed lyrical on this in my last blog. This meant that the transition period ended, on schedule, at 11pm on the 31st December. An hour later, we rang in the New Year as a sovereign, independent trading nation with a deal – something that had been called ‘impossible’. Our very first act on formally leaving the transition period was to scrap VAT on women’s sanitary products and we have also put in train our manifesto commitment to end live animal exports.
It is in that spirit, notwithstanding the ‘major incident’ currently taking place in our local NHS, that I have entered 2021 with a renewed sense of hope and optimism. I wish all my constituents a very Happy New Year and look forward to making 2021 a brilliant year.