At the beginning of June, Huw Merriman, MP for Bexhill and Battle, and I hosted a rural roundtable with Rother-based businesses and Rother District Council to discuss economic growth and development. Over 40 rural business representatives including farmers attended the event which was held at the Woodland Centre in Flimwell. Rother Councillors attended along with officers from RDC too.
Rother, like many rural areas, faces numerous economic and social challenges with an older age demographic, a high proportion of residents employed on the minimum wage, and rising property prices, all of which poses challenges to our local population. With over 85% of land designated as Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or Site of Special Scientific Interest and protected under planning laws, we must maximise our rural economy in terms of jobs, housing and tourism.
Huw and I had decided to hold this roundtable with leaders of RDC following concerns raised with us about rural planning issues and the challenges they can present. The Council has shown through engagement that it is keen to ensure that their planning policies and procedures support sustainable economic growth and employment in rural areas whilst conserving the areas of outstanding natural beauty and the environment. Our rural and farming businesses need to adapt to changing farming practices and businesses want - and need - to diversify. It was helpful to hear straight from the horses’ mouths about concerns regarding planning delays and an historic apparent lack of real understanding about the needs of rural businesses. Some of the discussion was quite challenging but feedback from all sides illustrated how useful the meeting was to everyone concerned, and I was really encouraged by RDC’s engagement.
Last week, Huw and I also held a meeting for Rother-based farmers with representatives from DEFRA and the Rural Payments Agency at St Mary’s Hall in Udimore. Again, this had a good turnout, with the focus being on the new environmental land management schemes which are replacing the existing farming support schemes. From a previous meeting with local farmers, it was made very clear to me about the lack of information regarding the new payment schemes and the need for clarity. The RPA recognised that there is uncertainty during this transition period and offered to come to speak to local farmers. The event was very helpful by all accounts, and it was agreed that a similar event should be held next year to discuss developments and for DEFRA and the RPA to receive feedback on how these new schemes work in practice.
We also saw the launch of a Government review and call for evidence on short-term holiday lets and their impact on both the tourism industry and local communities. I am really pleased that this is now a focus of the Government as I have been campaigning for ministers to launch such a review following an increasing number of concerns raised with me regarding the growth in AirBnBs and second homes in Rye, Camber, and Hastings. This has an impact on house prices and the ability of local residents to rent and or buy homes in their own community. We need to better understand the effects – both positive and negative - of these short-term holiday lets, and the review provides an opportunity for local residents to have their say so please do engage.
Finally, I cannot finish this piece without commenting upon the last few days in Westminster. Some of you may have heard that I no longer feel able to support Boris Johnson as Leader of the Conservative Party nor as Prime Minister. Many of you will agree with my decision, many of you will not; I feel that I have made the right decision on behalf of the constituents of Hastings and Rye, whom I believe deserve better than what we have all witnessed over the past few months. This has not been an easy decision for me as I have been loyal to the Prime Minister since I was elected in 2019, but I cannot bend any further. I firmly believe that he has got the big decisions right, delivering Brexit, steering the country through a pandemic, and leading international support for Ukraine. I have also felt that the country does not need the Conservative Party squabbling about internal matters whilst going through a very difficult time economically and that we should be focusing on these issues, not on pieces of cake.
Loyalty is really important, especially in politics. However, so is integrity. I admit to being very disappointed to find out yesterday that the Prime Minister was indeed made aware of a complaint as regards the former Deputy Chief Whip, Christopher Pincher, and his historic inappropriate behaviour but nonetheless appointed him to a Government position responsible for the welfare of MPs. I am disappointed that the Prime Minister was not honest about his knowledge of the complaint, and it took a former senior civil servant to challenge claims made by No.10.
My drive to do this job has always been about Hastings and Rye and my priority is to my constituents, party members and local colleagues (who have all worked tirelessly for residents) and I will continue to do all that I can for our wonderful part of the country.