Whilst only three weeks have passed since we all celebrated the New Year, we can all be forgiven for feeling as though those celebrations were a lifetime away. If January 2024 is anything to go by, we can expect 2024 to be a busy year. My work on the people’s priorities for Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire is well underway.
Firstly, last week saw the Rwanda Bill clear its way through the House of Commons. Whilst in the House of Commons I made it clear that we must do whatever it takes to tackle illegal small boat crossings and put in place the proper deterrence needed with the Rwanda policy – that is why I backed amendments to deliver the toughest possible new laws.
It cannot be argued that progress has not been made in tackling illegal migration, illegal boat crossings are down by 1/3 in 2023 and illegal migration from Albania has decreased by 90%. It is only thanks to these multi-pronged actions by the Government that the use of the North Stafford Hotel in Stoke-on-Trent can be ended.
But we need to go further – it is only by implementing properly the Rwanda policy with the clearest possible new laws, will we see numbers come down further. Whilst I supported amendments to give us the best possible chance that Rwanda can be delivered, in the end I also voted for the Bill to pass unamended as we cannot lose this chance entirely which is what would have happened if the Bill had been rejected at this stage.
It now goes to the Lords where it faces the toughest challenge, I hope the Lords do see sense and do not attempt to defy the democratic wishes of the vast majority of sensible people. Residents across North Staffordshire have rightfully aired their frustrations with me and want to see illegal immigration tackled to stop the boats and scupper the evil people smugglers business models. It is only by enacting the Rwanda policy that we will unlock the additional deterrence necessary.
Last week, I also led a debate in parliament on the cancellation of HS2 Phase 2a and Network North. The reality of Phase 2a was great pain for Staffordshire, and I welcome Network North because it promises great gains for Staffordshire.
In cancelling Phase 2 the Prime Minister made a huge commitment to invest in major transport improvements across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire as part of Network North. £36bn freed up from the cancellation will be invested in major local transport upgrades to help level up opportunities as well as still delivering better high speed rail services to Stoke and Stafford.
During the debate, I was pleased to hear the Rail Minister, Huw Merriman MP, back the numerous projects to improve our rail, road, and bus networks. This includes: reopening Meir Station, reopening the Stoke to Leek Line, upgrading J15 of the M6, upgrading the A50/A500 Corridor, more money to fill those potholes, and bus fare caps extended. I would like to thank my Staffordshire colleagues who came to support the debate and outline the need for better transport within our county.
Lastly, I am very pleased to say that my Private Members Bill which will create new laws to help get our high streets thriving again is progressing at pace. My Bill focuses on getting councils to assess the condition of our high streets and working with our communities come up with action plans to help them improve. It is due to be debated in Parliament this Friday for its Second Reading.
If there was any indicator of why this is necessary, it was the figures I uncovered recently showing that the City Council has not issued a single S215 enforcement notice over the last year against property owners who fail to properly maintain their properties. This is despite the extremely poor condition of a number of buildings on our high streets, with some having fallen into the street recently, and myself and others having repeatedly raised the need for urgent action.
The Second Reading will give MPs in the House of Commons the first opportunity to debate the main principles of this important Bill. Following this, if successful, my Bill will then continue its progress through the scrutiny stages of the House of Commons and House of Lords before hopefully receiving Royal Assent from the King.
I am very excited to have a real opportunity to further help our high streets to turn a corner. Our high streets have faced real challenges up and down the country with the move online and out of town, but I know they can improve. Our high streets and towns must again be hubs for employment, leisure and creativity.
Longton is an example of where we are starting to see steady progress. Levelling Up Funds have kick started redevelopment of the Crown Works (Tams), Heritage Action Zone Funding is helping bring buildings back to life and Longton Town Hall will soon reopen as a new hub for small businesses following investment through the Getting Building Fund. We also are seeing excellent work being done at Longton Exchange Shopping Centre with organisations like Urban Wilderness working together with the Centre and others to attract in new uses and develop events.
I will continue to work extremely hard to support these efforts and ensure my Bill becomes law so we can get our high streets flourishing again.