“If hon. Members googled my name as a new MP, the first website they would find is that of Steve Barclay, the comedian and cabaret entertainer. I can assure the House that that is not me in an unregistered second job. My speech sadly lacks the zany comedy and musical backing that his performances offer, and the current headline on his website, “Barclay storms the cabaret floor” is one that my local paper—the Cambs Times—will never ascribe to my performance in the House.”
Having talked about the drainage of the fens in the mid-17th century, he went on to talk about “a second drainage that is taking place in the fens”:
“This drainage leaves not fertile land, but barren areas, as more and more assets are centralised in our cities, paradoxically as houses are being built in rural communities. There is a misconception that all rural areas are rich. Eighteen of the 25 most deprived wards in Cambridgeshire are in fenland, and one in 10 people in my constituency have used the excellent services of the citizens advice bureau in the past 12 months alone, 43% of whom did so for advice on personal debt—the manager, Linda Hutchinson, does a formidable job. Prosperous areas mask pockets of deprivation in rural communities, and often float us above the aggregate score on which national funding is usually targeted.
“The drainage of our amenities continues at a frightening pace: we recently lost our driving test centre even though it cost only £11,000 a year in rent; our new further education college was scrapped a month before building work was due to begin; and local pubs are closing. There is a battle on to save them, not least Claire Hammond’s fight to save the Nag’s Head in Eastrea. We now face the risk of the closure of our magistrates court, adjacent to which is our police station, the cells of which have already been closed. I will discuss this closure with Ministers in the weeks ahead. As a community, we pay twice as much to the Exchequer in business rates as we receive back in the local settlement grant. It is time that the funding imbalance between the rural shires in England and elsewhere in the United Kingdom is looked at again.
“I want to resist the temptation today to focus on the previous Government’s legacy. Anyone in any doubt can look at that temple of waste, the regional fire headquarters in Cambridgeshire, which was built at a cost of £23 million and stands empty because the emergency phone lines cannot be made to work. Instead of large regional projects, we need to focus spending much more effectively to deliver the jobs and services that we need in rural communities such as mine.”
He concluded by addressing matters pertaining more closely to the Finance Bill:
“First, we need to target money more wisely. The Budget was painful but necessary. However, I still feel that there are areas where policy needs to catch up with the new reality. Constituents in North East Cambridgeshire are staggered that we borrow money simply to give it away to countries such as China and India, which can afford their own space programmes. Likewise, factory workers in my constituency in food packaging, who are on modest incomes, wonder why councils can put as much as 20% of their total income into staff pensions.
“Secondly, we need a clearer distinction between investment and spending—the lines have been deliberately blurred in recent years. The fens are only 100 miles from London, yet they are held back by the chronic lack of transport infrastructure. Wisbech, the capital of the fens, has no rail line when it used to have two train stations. There is a single-carriageway road, the A47, which has not been improved in decades. Its port—the only one in Cambridgeshire—was more used even in Roman times than today, and some of our villages around Wisbech get just one bus a week.
“Money needs to be focused on things that can deliver economic return, including transport and our further education college. We also need to use money where it will directly save lives. I commend the campaign of my constituent Graham Chappell, who has done so much work to highlight the issue of deep waterways adjacent to fen roads, where we have had so many fatalities.
“Thirdly, we need to empower our small business base far more. North East Cambridgeshire is not just about farming. We have many small and medium-sized businesses, such as the high-value engineering firm Metalcraft in Chatteris. I am delighted that we are expanded the apprenticeship scheme, but grants can also have a positive effect. In the commercial world, the aim is always to make it easier for customers to access products, and the public sector needs to do the same. It needs to cut the duplication and time-consuming paperwork so that small businesses that do not have specialised staff can access grants.”