Infrastructure Bill

December 10, 2014

On Monday, the House of Commons held the Second Reading of the Infrastructure Bill. It is described as a ‘portmanteau Bill’ as it covers a wide range of different topics. However, as strategic road infrastructure – one of the Bill’ primary concerns – is very important to North-East Hertfordshire, I would like to explain what effects this Bill will have on our major roads.

The upkeep and improvement of our highways is central to keeping Hertfordshire as economically successful as it is now. Our highways link us to London, to Stanstead and Luton airports, and to the soon-to-be “Northern Powerhouse”. However, the Highways Agency is unable to manage our roads as effectively as we need, and, over the last 20 years, we have seen a major underfunding and mismanagement of our roads.

The highways managed by the Highways Agency account for only 2% of all roads in England by length, but they carry a third of all traffic by mileage, and two thirds of all heavy goods traffic. As the Highways Agency itself says, these roads are the “economic backbone of the country”. They must be well-managed. The railways have long undergone long-term, five-year investment plans, but the roads have not. This Bill will bring long-term planning to our road network.

The provisions in Part 1 of the Bill would transform the Highways Agency from an agency of the Department for Transport into a government-owned Strategic Highways Company. This will allow for a much more long-term and business-like approach to the management of our roads. One point in particular struck me: the current arrangements force the Highways Agency to follow government budget rules, which prevent unspent budgets being carried over to the next year. This compels the Highways Agency to spend for the sake of spending in February and March in order to prevent budget cuts in the next financial year, and it does not allow for the Agency to “save-up” for major investments in a few years’ time. The House must surely see that this is not how something as important to our country as its strategic road network should be managed.
Government rules are made for administrators, but the body that controls our truck roads cannot simply be an administrator. In order to provide the roads that this country needs, it must have the vision, imagination, and the resources to manage a long-term, cost-effective, and successful roads programme. This greater level of independence from government guidelines can provide this.

However, although the Highways Agency must, in one way, be given more independence from government, in another way it must be made more accountable to it. The provisions for Road Investment Strategies will allow for just this. Binding directives for long-term targets from the Transport Secretary will make the running of our highways more accountable to the representatives of the British people, but will allow for greater day-to-day autonomy and flexibility in the execution of these directives.

In the Government’s first Road Investment Strategy – published last week – Hertfordshire was granted funding for the widening of the A1(M) from Welwyn to Stevenage, following a long campaign on the matter from me and other Hertfordshire MPs. This will allow the A1(M) to flow much more freely, and make it easier for workers to get to their employment, get their products to the market, and life will also be made easier for local residents.

One of the main reasons why we managed to win this funding was the state of Junction 7. The A1(M) is known for its long queues and tailback every morning and evening, and Junction 7 is one of the worst areas for this problem, and has been so for 25 years. Junction 7 is also the junction for the Stevenage industrial area, which is the home to major companies like GSK. Research done by the Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce which found that a number of businesses in and around Stevenage had suggested that if their access to Stevenage was not remedied, then this might prompt their relocation. This, of course would be a terrible blow to a county which provides an annual net contribution to the UK of £4 billion and is one of the powerhouses of the British economy.

This illustrates the importance of long-term planning for our trunk roads, and the improvements to our ability to do this is one of my primary reasons for supporting this Bill. To change the Highways Agency in to a government-owned Strategic Highways Company, directed by Road Investment Strategies, will allow problems to be dealt with much faster than the quarter of a century that this one has taken. This Government’s first Road Investment Strategy is a huge investment that is greatly needed.

I am also heartened by the provisions of Section 3 which commit the Secretary of State and the Strategic Highways Company to take account of the environmental and road-safety issues when drawing up and executing a Road Investment Strategy. Britain has some of the safest roads in the world, but anything to ensure that the safety of the British people on their roads remains a central concern in roads planning is very welcome. As for the environment, with the current state of the chalk streams in my constituency, I am all too aware of the damage that human activity can have on local wildlife, and I am glad that this Bill will ensure that future road investment is implemented with full sensitivity to local nature.

As a country, our infrastructure must be able to keep up with increases in population and international competition. If we do not, then we fall behind in the global race. As the rest of Europe – our main market – suffers economic decline, this task becomes ever more difficult, and so it becomes ever more vital that we have a world-class road network. Two-thirds of all our heavy goods traffic runs on these roads, and it is imperative that they can get their workers in, and their products out, as quickly, cheaply and efficiently as possible.

This Bill gives the people who manage our strategic highways greater autonomy, flexibility, and day-to-day freedom to carry out their duties. It gives the representatives of the British people a greater level of control over the targets and priorities of our highways. It gives road safety and environmental issues a higher level of importance than ever before. It gives the British people themselves a greater level of influence over the administration of their roads, and it holds the Strategic Roads Company accountable to an external assessor.

It passed the vote 276-10, and now goes to a Committee for line-by-line scrutiny.

This Bill represents a real advance in the way our most important roads are managed, and I am happy to support it.

http://www.oliverheald.com


A record low for the gender pay gap

November 24, 2014

I was pleased with the announcement from the Office for National Statistics that the gender pay gap is now at its lowest level since records began in 1997. The difference now stands at 9.4% in April 2014, compared with 1997 when it was 17.4%. It has fallen sharply in the last year. The gap is the narrowest at the ages of 22 to 29, and this is especially heartening news as we look for progress in achieving more equality in the future.

This is another step in the right direction, but we must not be complacent. Equal pay for equal work is a principle that is so obviously correct, but we still see an imbalance in our economy. It is suggested that better paid, more flexible, part-time work opportunities, and better paid leave for fathers to encourage more equal parenting could cut the gap further, and I agree that more flexibility in the jobs market can only be a good thing.

These figure show that we have come a long way, but there is still a way to go.

http://www.oliverheald.com


Some good news for small businesses

November 12, 2014

I was very happy to hear that the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills has given independence to the British Business Bank. The Bank has been a key part of the Government’s Industrial Strategy, and its independence represents an important development in providing finance to small and medium-sized businesses.

Before being given its new independence, the Bank was run from within the Department and, in the 12 months to June 2014, helped provide £829m of lending and investment to small UK firms, taking the total number of companies helped by the Bank to over 35,000. It builds on previous government schemes of supporting venture capital and promoting lending diversity. High levels of investment are a powerful way to grow our economy and strengthen our position globally, and with nearly a billion pounds put into businesses last year, the British Business Bank is becoming ever more successful. The fact that the Dutch Parliament has recently voted to create its own institution based on our model is testament to its success.

http://www.oliverheald.com


The Eurozone Crisis…

May 17, 2012

The Eurozone crisis has shown up the very different economies which operate in certain parts of Europe. For a large country such as Germany, centrally located with a very skilled workforce, plenty of capital and modern efficient industries, the low exchange rate for the Euro gives huge trading advantages, the product of which we are seeing in Germany’s growth. However a moment’s thought shows that if the Deutschemark were still the German currency, its exchange rate would be sky high, making life difficult for German business.

For smaller countries such as Greece, life is not so easy. Normally a currency union succeeds where there are capital transfers from the wealthier parts to more disadvantaged areas, labour mobility follows and a united fiscal policy would exist. Looking at it on a micro scale, within the UK taxes are taken from Herts and spent in less fortunate parts of the country, people move to find jobs and all parts of the union have the same fiscal policy. However this is not true of the Eurozone and these structural issues need to be addressed. It is only when a sensible package is hammered out, that this Eurozone crisis will be resolved.


At last – good news on the economy?

February 8, 2012

This morning I was pleased to read the latest Jobs Report from the recruitment industry body REC. They produce this report monthly with KPMG and this month there was good news with permanent jobs’ placements increasing for the first time in four months. This is the first positive indicator for some time that employers are looking to hire staff. It is particularly encouraging that six out of eight sectors surveyed show growth in demand, including engineering, IT and office professionals.
This Report can be seen to confirm the other good news last Friday with better-than-expected services’ data from the Purchasing Managers’ Index. This suggests strengthening confidence in the UK economy from consumers as well as businesses. I believe that it also ties in with ERSA’s figures showing a good early performance by the Coalition’s Work Programme in helping the long-term unemployed into work.
I have long been concerned that many vacancies are in skill areas where we do not have enough trained workers. The REC Report seems to suggest that this is still a challenge. I agree with Skills Minister John Hayes MP that increased use of apprenticeships to get young people into employment with vocational skills development is important. REC also comment that improved careers guidance is needed too.
The recent massive increase in apprenticeships in NE Herts is a good start, but we must all hope for the continuation of these signs of the Jobs’ Market looking up.


Strengthening links with China…

January 26, 2012

Oliver speaking to a Chinese Delegation

Britain is trying to strengthen links with China at all levels and George Osborne has recently visited China to develop trade and economic contacts. The Chinese are also interested in how our constitution works and our anti-corruption measures.

I was recently invited to speak to a delegation of elected officials from Shanghai about standards in public life. I was able to explain the development of thinking in this country over recent years, leading to the establishment of the Nolan Committee, subsequently the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and the introduction of IPSA and the role of the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee. The officials were well-briefed and took a keen interest in Nolan’s seven principles of public life. We had a lively discussion – or as lively as can be had via an interpreter – and it did seem that the highest echelons of local government in Shanghai are looking closely at emulating some of our procedures.


Strike Ballot Turnout

March 23, 2010

With strike ballots very much in the news, it is worth considering whether there should be a turn-out threshold for the results to stand. At present a simple majority of votes cast is enough. Given the potentially drastic impact of a strike, there is a case for requiring a majority of those balloted. This would enhance workplace democracy by putting a premium on turnout. Some argue that in a General Election not even a simple majority is required to elect an MP. But there is a difference between deciding on a strike action – yes or no – or electing an individual MP taking account of their qualities and party policy issues. It is noteworthy that in that other area of workplace democracy – trade union recognition – there is a threshold that 40 per cent of those balloted must support recognition. Conservatives introduced modern workplace democracy with the introduction of secret ballots. A reasonable ballot threshold would further encourage turnout and legitimacy.


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