Used an urgent question in Parliament today to raise the huge costs being faced by leaseholders at Cardinal Lofts by the Waterfront as a result of the dangerous cladding on their building. I’ve been in close contact with residents of Cardinal Lofts who’ve written to me about how they’ve essentially had a note slipped under their door by the management company telling them they now have to pay almost £400 per month per flat for a waking watch because of the fire risk. This is unacceptable when they weren’t responsible for putting this dangerous cladding up. Clearly the bill should be being slipped under the door of those who are responsible.
This is a huge amount of money and understandably it’s left leaseholders with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over them. Especially as some I’ve spoken to have said their property price has already plummeted and many are under real financial pressure as it is because of Covid-19.
This is a fundamental issue of fairness and I’ve been raising the similar cladding issues affecting St Francis Tower in Parliament since soon after I was elected. But since then more and more buildings in Ipswich have had issues. And I called today on the Housing Minister to meet with me to discuss how we can provide residents at Cardinal Lofts with the certainty leaseholders need and deserve. The Government needs to look very closely at whether we can stop leaseholders being caught in limbo by providing the funding for cladding replacement up front, and pursuing the freeholders responsible for putting it up afterwards.
I’ve also been working with leaseholders at Cardinal Lofts to submit written questions asking the Government to look at direct support for leaseholders with the cost of waking watches and other interim fire safety measures. The Government’s £1 billion Fire Safety Fund does help with cladding replacement costs (although I think it should go further) but it doesn’t cover incidental costs like waking watches before the cladding is removed.
I have meetings scheduled this week with Cardinal Lofts’ management company where I will raise the impersonal way residents have been contacted about these bills they face. And after my question today I’ll also be meeting with the Housing Minister again. I also hope to meet directly some of the leaseholders at Cardinal Lofts who’ve written in to me very shortly.
Whether it’s meetings, questions in Parliament like today, written questions or sending letters directly to Ministers, I’ll use every tool at my disposal to make sure leaseholders don’t have this cloud of uncertainty hanging over them for any longer.
Yesterday I asked the Children’s Minister about the £220 million expansion of the Holiday Activities and Food programme through Easter, Summer and Christmas in 2021. Ipswich was one of the pilots of the programme, and I saw it in action when I visited Inspire Suffolk with the Children’s Minister in the summer. One of the key ways the activities were able to benefit the children was the participation of different local organisations and young people from Ipswich in delivering the pilot. And It’s important that when this programme comes back and is rolled out across the country, that schools, childcare providers, voluntary organisations can all play a role, as the Minister also underlined.
The programme provides meals for children during the school holidays as well as keeping them engaged in activities and exercise. And it’s important it’s rolled out with as much involvement from the community as possible to make the most of it. I’ll be keeping a very close eye on the expansion of the programme next year and I’ll do everything I can locally to help make sure the community is completely aware of how they can get involved.
Used a question in the House today to welcome the £5.2 million investment in an new Molecular Lab for Ipswich Hospital which will allow our Hospital to keep increasing testing up to 3,000 Covid-19 tests a day by the end of March. (It was actually the Prime Minister who was planned to respond to my question today. But the Health Secretary had to step in at the last minute when his virtual connection to Parliament broke.)
The news of this investment was released to the Hospital on 11 November after I wrote to the Health Secretary on 29 October calling for this new lab to be approved. I had been informed by the Hospital that testing there was at capacity and the lab they were working in wasn’t appropriate for scale of the task, but their bid for this new Molecular Lab was essentially sitting on Ministers’ desks just waiting for final approval.
It’s crucial that Ipswich Hospital is where it needs to be on testing and it’s good we were able to get this investment into the Hospital where it’s needed. These tests will also be turned around in hours, rather than days as was the case at the start of the pandemic when all tests had to be analysed in Cambridge before being returned.
The new lab will also have long-term benefits for Ipswich residents as it will improve services for a wide range of effective diseases and cancer diagnosis.
I also raised the reports that NHS England are looking to use Gainsborough Sports Centre in Ipswich as Suffolk’s first site for delivering vaccinations if and when a vaccine is approved. Increased testing and a safe and effective vaccine represent two crucial ways we can beat Covid-19. And it’s important that Ipswich is at the forefront of both issues for Ipswich residents as we hopefully move ever closer to defeating this virus.
I’ll be monitoring the roll out of any vaccine and increased testing in Ipswich exceptionally closely over the coming weeks and months, raising them at the highest levels and supporting our local NHS. And I’ll be looking very closely at everything the Prime Minister has said today about the restrictions after the end of the national lockdown and what they mean for Ipswich.
Highways England have completed their safety validation work so we at least now know that at some point soon we will touch wood be turning our back on frequent closures of the Orwell Bridge. However I remain dissatisfied with how long this has all taken and I will continue to push for the new measures to be implemented as soon as possible. Following pressure that has been applied it now seems likely that Highways England may be working to deliver the changes ahead of the end of March deadline they set themselves a few weeks ago.
I was promised in January that they would deliver the changes at the start of winter not the end. Next week I will be meeting with the Roads Minister to discuss the timeline for delivery. I will provide more updates soon.
Yesterday was International Men’s Day and it was important to raise the issue of men’s mental health in the Chamber. Mental health in our society was an issue before this pandemic, but given the impact of the last few months on everyone’s mental health, awareness of our mental wellbeing has never been higher. And we must use some of this focus to encourage men to talk about mental health and do away with the notion that somehow talking about it is a sign of weakness.
I spoke about my own dad, who a couple of years ago would have most likely taken the stiff upper lip approach to talking about mental health. But being older and having to shield during this pandemic he has spoken about it with me and I think that’s a good thing. Hopefully more of these conversations can happen across the country.
I also spoke about the great support group set up by Penny, the Landlady of the Kingfisher Pub in Chantry. She spoke to me in the summer about wanting to do something to help men’s mental health in the community and the support group she’s set up already has 33 members with the group growing every day. Of course talking about mental health is still easier said than done for many men and the pub has also set up an allotment at Robin Drive where men can go and just have some peaceful time away and grow vegetables to be served in the pub. It’s important these kind of ways men can focus on their mental well-being go hand-in-hand with more encouragement to talk about the pressures they’re under.
Penny and the support group have ambitious plans about how the support group can grow and reach more people and I’ll back them all the way. And I’ll keep raising the importance of addressing mental health across the board in Parliament.
Raised Ipswich BMX Club at Landseer Park directly in the Chamber today and their campaign to raise money for a new track. The club does vital work giving young people in the local area a positive hobby but the track is deteriorating and they’re currently around £60,000 short of the amount needed to resurface it. That’s why I called on the Minister to work with me and the club to leave no stone unturned in finding this extra funding.
In response to me, the Minister mentioned funding from British Cycling and I’ve written to them to ask if they’ll consider upping the amount they’ve indicated they will contribute to the project and to meet with me to discuss it. This meeting is now in my diary for next week with Tracey Reeve who’s leading on this project with club.
I’m also having conversations about whether a small amount of the £25 million secured for Ipswich from the Government’s Towns Fund can help make the new track a reality.
The BMX club is a huge community asset in Gainsborough which has been identified as an area of deprivation. In my letters to Ministers about the new track before, I’ve made the case that this investment would be repaid many times over in the benefits it brings the community. You really can’t put a price on keeping youngsters away from negative influences and giving them positive role models which the club does. I’ll keep exploring every avenue to ensure the club can go from strength to strength with this new track.
The Sports Minister also announced a £300 million support package today to protect the sports sector over the winter, and I’ll be looking very closely at how we can benefit from this in Ipswich.
I spoke yesterday about the need for certainty as soon as possible across a number of key areas. I was able to relay to the Minister some of the concerns that were raised with me last Friday by year 10 and 11 pupils at Stoke High School about how they will be assessed this year, I was also able to raise the concerns that have been communicated to me by the retail and hospitality sectors in Ipswich.
This also follows a letter I received yesterday from Ipswich Central. Ahead of the 2nd December (end of national lockdown) they need certainty asap about what things will look like after this date. They need to be able to plan now and every day of extra planning matters and will make a huge difference in determining whether or not they will be able to make up some of the lost ground they are experiencing this month.
The Government should soon be outlining what the plan is post 2nd December soon and though I’m confident this will not involve an extension of the national lockdown, we need to know asap what any new locally tiered system will look like and where Ipswich will end up.
Special educational needs is one of things I’m most passionate about. Since my election I became a member of the Education Select Committee in Parliament and locally I have become an Associate Governor of the Sir Bobby Robson school on Lindbergh Road which started up this September and provides tailored support for those with social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) needs.
The Sir Bobby Robson school has made a positive start and will hopefully turn the lives around of many of the young adults who have started there this September. However its a sad reality that not everyone who could benefit from a place at a special school such as the Sir Bobby Robson school is able to get a place. This academic year in Ipswich we are seeing two new special schools but we need more. We also need to ensure that those with special educational needs who are within a mainstream school get the support they need, I did but many don’t this is a great unfairness that I’m determined to be part of addressing.
Back in May, the landlords of the Arcade Tavern pub got in touch with me to highlight the despicable behaviour of their insurance company. I raised in Parliament today how this insurer is refusing to pay out on the Arcade Tavern’s insurance against notifiable diseases by blaming the Government for the pub’s loss of income rather than Covid-19. And using technicalities in the contract’s wording to get out of paying.
This has left the Arcade Tavern facing the double burden of this pandemic while also having to fight for the money they’re entitled to. I’ve already written to the Chancellor and the insurance company in question about this case, but so far nothing has budged and it was appropriate to call out what’s happened to the Arcade Tavern in the Chamber today, and urge the Government to look very unfavourably on insurers who don’t honour their contracts. This mustn’t go without consequence when the pressure on pubs and other businesses in Ipswich has never been greater.
The Arcade Tavern is one of my favourite pubs in Ipswich and it’s not right they’re having to fight for this money when they did the responsible thing by taking out insurance. This case does have all the hallmarks of the small business being stitched up by the bigger one, and the Business Minister was right to describe it as incredibly concerning. I’ll be sharing the letters I’ve received from the Arcade Tavern directly with the Minister so this case can be looked into directly. I won’t let this drop.
Yesterday I raised with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions the need for the newly announced £170 million Covid Winter Support grant scheme to be easy to access for those who need the support the most and that work must start now to ensure this is the case.
I welcome the fact that the Government are providing £170 million to local councils from the start of next month until March to provide targeted support to the children and families who are most vulnerable over the winter (80% ring fenced for food and bills) but we need to ensure that everyone knows as much as possible about the fund and how it will work in practice, as soon as possible.
In her response to my question the Secretary of State who is of course a Suffolk MP I was able to share with me that it seems that Suffolk is in line for around £2 million through this fund. However the work must start now to identify those who need the support the most and raise awareness of this fund.
Earlier this year the Government provided £800,000 to Suffolk and Suffolk Councils added further to this to provide a £1.5 million Suffolk Hardship Fund. However my concern is that awareness of this fund wasn’t as widespread as it could have been and I know that some concerns have been raised by those who have tried to access this fund through the hotline provided.
I plan to hold a number of meetings over the coming weeks to ensure that the support provided works as intended and that the moment this money is distributed to Suffolk we are well placed to ensure that the support gets to all those who need it as soon as possible.
All in all what was announced on Sunday was unprecedented in its scope and ambition to support the most vulnerable however it needs to work in practice on the ground and I’m keen to play my part to ensure this is the case. It must be easily identifiable, easy to understand and efficient in distributed support to all those who need the help.
As I’ve said before I really do welcome the Holiday Activities and Food Programme having seen it in action in Ipswich over the summer. The £220 million expansion of this support across the country to cover next Easter holidays, Summer and Christmas 2021 is hugely positive news.