I love Christmas. The town centre is looking great, with a particularly magnificent Christmas tree outside the town hall. I cannot think of anybody more deserving to switch on the lights this year than local hero Prabhu Natarajan, who with his family did so much to help others during lockdown.
December is the busiest time for a lot of local businesses. I recently visited independent shops to celebrate Small Business Saturday. I also enjoyed a visit to Hook Norton Craft Fair last month to buy lots of Christmas presents. Local businesses have faced many challenges and hurdles this past year but have shown incredible resilience by adapting their operations. I hope everyone will show their support by shopping locally this Christmas.
As we continue to learn more about the new Omicron variant, the recent extensions to the vaccination programme will ensure our vaccine shield is strengthened. Over 30,000 boosters have been administered locally. Everyone aged 18 years and over, and those aged 16 years and over who are at risk, will be offered a booster jab. I encourage everyone to come forward when they are eligible. I have mine booked for next week.
Last month, I received a letter from Health Minister Edward Argar about OUHFT’s expression of interest for improvements at the Horton. A lot of effort has been put into the submission to the Government’s Health Improvement Programme. I will continue to update you on progress
I was delighted to join His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester at Katharine House Hospice for their 30th anniversary celebration last month. The Duke met staff, patients and volunteers. He also officially launched the hospice’s ‘Celebration Tree’ – a specially commissioned rose tree situated on the hospice wall that celebrates the lives of loved ones.
Finally, the public consultation on access to Banbury Station via Tramway Road will be closing next Tuesday. It aims to improve access to the station from the south, by providing a new access to Banbury Station West Car Park and an additional drop off area. It also proposes a new bus, taxi, cycle and pedestrian access to the station forecourt from Tramway Road. Make sure you share your views before the deadline by visiting the Oxfordshire County Council website.
Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Since Conference Recess at the beginning of the month, it really does not feel like we have stopped throughout October. Parliament has been especially busy as we have tried to make up for time lost during the pandemic. Last week, I oversaw the Second Reading of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill in the Commons. I’m proud that the Bill will extend and strengthen protection for pets, farm animals and kept will animals. The UK has a long history of leading the way on animal welfare and it is great to be part of this tradition.
It has been a bumper month of visits in Banbury. I was delighted to visit chartered accountants Whitley Stimpson in recognition of their 90th anniversary. I met directors Martin Anson and Ian Parker to talk about the firm’s work in the community. It is a remarkable achievement to have served the people of Banbury and beyond for all this time. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting DPA Lighting Consultants at their Oxfordshire Studio in Deddington too. They design lighting installations for everything from housing and museums, public buildings and hotels. I met Partner Nick Hoggett, who told me more about their exciting projects including work on the Imperial War Museum. I also made a visit to Lockbund Foundry & Gallery where I met sculptors Simon Allison and Jane Hamilton. They first established the foundry in Cropredy in 1993 and now produce their own sculptures on site, as well as providing fabrication and casting services for other artists. I was interested to hear that they are currently working on a Covid memorial sculpture for Barnsley Borough Council as a fantastic tribute to key workers.
It was great to see Banbury United beat Bath City 1-0 to progress through to the FA Cup First Round earlier in the month. The Puritans welcome League Two opponents Barrow AFC to the Spencer Stadium on Saturday which I will be eagerly watching. The game will be televised on ITV4 with Banbury approximately receiving £50,000 in broadcasting fees. I know that this extra money will go a long way in developing the club further and supporting the wider community.
With winter fast approaching, we need to make sure that our vaccine shield is as strong as possible as the weather turns colder. More than 230,000 jabs have been administered in North Oxfordshire alone which is a tremendous achievement. Vaccines offer high levels of protection against Covid, but immunity reduces over time. It is so important that those eligible come forward and get their booster jabs to increase their protection for the coming months. As of this week, Covid booster jabs will be available at walk-centres without needing to make an appointment.
There has been a real sense of getting back to normal over the past month.
Throughout the pandemic, I have held regular surgeries with constituents via zoom. I was so pleased to be able to restart my in-person surgeries after eighteen-months last week and I met local residents in the Sainsbury’s café on Oxford Road. We covered a range of issues, from the Covid-19 vaccines to local developments. Later that day, I enjoyed a trip to The Brasenose Arms in Cropredy as part of my Pub Tour. Pubs are so important to both local communities and the wider economy, and we are lucky to have some really good ones. It has been wonderful to see them busy again.
A high point was witnessing the presentation of the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Services to local theatre group Voices Across Time. Their shows bring history to life and always involve a good sing-a-long. Joe Cummings and his colleagues do so much to get all ages involved in music, including the organist in my family. It was also an opportunity to thank the retiring Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, Tim Stevenson, who presented the group with their award. He has done so much good in our area during his 13 years of service.
I also enjoyed joining the fantastic Let’s Play Project to celebrate their 20th anniversary. The charity provides after-school clubs, holiday activities and youth groups for some very special children with additional needs in Banbury. The day had a festival feel to it and the weather was brilliant. All ages enjoyed themselves; three generations of my family loved joining in.
UK Parliament Week 2021 will soon be taking place. Running across the first week of November, young people across the country will be participating in activities designed to support learning about Parliament. Last year, North Oxfordshire was found to be the most engaged constituency in the country. More schools, groups and young people signed up to take part in the activities locally than from anywhere else. It was brilliant to see so many actively involved and I hope we can carry that momentum through to this year.
As part of Parliament Week, I will be hosting my seventh annual democracy challenge at the Cherwell District Council Chamber. This debating competition is something I look forward to. I’m always impressed by local pupils’ awareness of issues and debating skills. It will be good to see the competition return in-person after taking place virtually last year. Teams from local schools are already forming and signing up to attend.
I know it may seem a little early to start thinking about Christmas, but I like to give plenty of notice for my annual card competition. This year’s theme is ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’. I hope as many primary school children as possible will send in entries. The winner will have their design printed on the front of my Christmas card and will also get to meet me for tea in Westminster. All entries should be sent to my constituency office at Orchard House, Hopcraft Lane, Deddington, OX15 0TD by 31 October.
It only seems like yesterday that students were breaking up from school for the summer. I was so pleased to see how well pupils did in their A-Levels and GCSEs last month. I know how difficult the past 18-months has been for them all. I hope that the autumn term gets off to a great start and wish students, parents and teachers the very best.
I have long campaigned for better maternity services so I was really concerned to hear last week that the rating for maternity services across the Hospital Trust has moved from good to requires improvement following an unannounced inspection from the Care Quality Commission. It is clear that the inspection of the service was focused in its approach, looking at the safety of the maternity service provided by the Trust across its three sites at the John Radcliffe, the Horton and in Chipping Norton.
There are clearly some key learning points and improvements to be made. I was really worried to learn that information about transfer times from community settings is not readily available. The safety of mothers and their babies has always been the top priority. While time of transfer has been raised time and again with the Trust and the local ambulance service, from whom we have sought assurances that adequate measures are in place, the CQC’s report makes it clear that more needs to be done immediately. I plan to meet the CQC to discuss the contents of their report in the weeks ahead, and have also written to the Chief Executive of the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Dr Bruno Holthof, to underline my concerns and offer my support, where appropriate.
The relationship between the Trust and those of us who support the Horton has not always been easy. However, in recent months we do seem to have turned a corner and are united in our desire for the Horton to get the funding it needs to improve its outdated facilities. After the 2019 General Election, the Government announced that it had set aside funding to go towards the creation of 40 new hospitals. The latest - and final - round of bids opened just before the summer and the Trust has been working hard on an Expression of Interest (EOI) for the Horton which was going in front of Board members on Wednesday 8 September. While still in its very early stages, the EOI sets out a vision for the hospital to improve its facilities, making them fit for purpose and capable of serving our growing population. We need to do all that we can in the months ahead to unite behind the vision, engage with the finer details and show our support for our hospital.
July flew by: we moved to Step 4 of the roadmap, marking the start of a new phase of caution, managing the risks as best we can. Lots of constituents contacted me about the lifting of restrictions, with some expressing concerns about a further opening up. Coronavirus isn’t going away, so we do need to learn to live with it. There is no optimum time to relax the restrictions, but with the natural break of the school holidays and the summer months, it does give us the opportunity to see how we can manage the disease ahead of the autumn and winter. I continue to receive regular briefings from our local public health officials and feed back to my Ministerial colleagues when necessary.
I enjoyed dropping in to some of our high street businesses this month, including Ruskin Bakery, Wildbean Café, David’s Flowers, and Nothing But Footprints Zero Waste. I am pleased to hear that business has returned to some normality and foot traffic along the high street has increased. The job market in Banbury is recovering too and it is encouraging to hear of so many opportunities in the area. It was great to visit the new temporary job centre in Castle Quay Shopping Centre to find out how everything has been going. I was impressed at how well equipped and welcoming the centre was: the Jobcentre team told me that the new modern look was intentional and has helped break down the barriers usually associated with jobcentres.
Other visits have also been memorable: I enjoyed visiting two of our magnificent, eighteenth-century Church’s, Hook Norton Baptist and St Mary’s Banbury. Both are in the midst of renovation and essential maintenance works to help preserve these listed buildings and modernise to improve accessibility. Earlier in the month, I had a useful meeting with Katharine House Hospice’s new Chief Executive Trevor Johnson. We discussed their new partnership with OUHFT and also spoke about their future plans, including how the Hospice are looking to develop services further and improve outreach.
I have been keeping up to date with negotiations at JDE and am pleased that associates voted overwhelmingly in favour of accepting the new proposals. It has not been an easy process for all those involved, but I am encouraged that progress has been made after the uncertainty associates have faced for months. Last week, I had a useful meeting with BEIS Minister, Paul Scully, to discuss fire and rehire practices and the Government's approach.
Finally, I was delighted to resume my Pub Tour which had had to be paused during the pandemic. It was lovely to see so many constituents at The Bell in Lower Heyford and to feel that some normality was returning. There were lots of questions on a range of issues from the climate change agenda to the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange proposal at Ardley. I look forward to future dates in September so do keep an eye out if you would like to pop along for a chat.
It is good to be back writing a regular column in the Banbury Guardian again. A lot has changed since I was last writing here: we have had a General Election and we have almost weathered the storm of a pandemic. The past year has not been easy for any of us. With our vaccination programme on track in North Oxfordshire, it does feel as though we are approaching the light at the end of the tunnel. I had my second dose a few weeks ago, and all those are now eligible for their vaccination. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the health services and all the volunteers who have been working tirelessly to ensure the rollout programme continues to go smoothly. Vaccination offers us the best possible line of defence against coronavirus; I hope all those eligible to book their appointments do so in the weeks ahead.
The gradual easing of restrictions has meant that I have been able to get out and about in the constituency more, resuming in-person visits with local businesses, schools and organisations. In recent weeks I was fortunate to join one of the UK’s oldest wig-making suppliers, Banbury Postiche, to celebrate their centenary and meet our local hero, Prabhu Natarajan to present him with the Prime Minister’s Points of Light Award he so deserved. I have also visited Banbury-based Dragonfly Lighting and the Mill Arts Centre, both of which were recipients of support from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund, a scheme designed to support our much-loved cultural organisations, heritage sites and businesses as they recover from the pandemic. Visits to local schools have resumed: staff and students have welcomed me to Sibford School and the Banbury campus of Banbury and Bicester College. It was a real privilege to join in Saturday’s Armed Forces Day celebrations in Banbury alongside our Town Mayor, the Lord Lieutenant and my predecessor and High Steward, Sir Tony Baldry.
Constituency emails have been at their highest level throughout the pandemic: my team and I have been working hard to support and signpost all those who have contacted my office. While lots of people have been getting in touch with me with coronavirus-related concerns, much of my time is also spent dealing with concerns about housing, health appointments and benefit claims. Local issues including the ongoing situation at the JDE facility in Ruscote Avenue and the Wroxton Motocross track have also been hot topics in recent months. Negotiations at JDE have now resumed. It is in everyone’s interests to keep the conversation open to find the best solution for all those yet to agree to the new terms and conditions offered to them. And of course, the Horton remains my top priority. We have a future vision which we now need to see become a reality. I contacted our new Health Secretary immediately about the Horton at the weekend and have since followed up with a formal letter. He knows the hospital well from his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer and understands how important it is to all of us that the Horton gets the funding it needs to make it a hospital that is truly fit for the future.