'Meet Nick Herbert' - interview for Sussex Local magazine
A political high-flyer, Nick Herbert MP for Arundel & South Downs and Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs talks exclusively to Sussex Local about weighty local and national issues [originally in two parts].
Sussex Local: The new South Downs National Park is clearly going to have wide ranging effects on the area over the next few years (planning, tourism, etc). How do you see this unfolding and how do you think residents and traders will benefit?
Nick Herbert: I wasn't in favour of the South Downs National Park because I didn't think it was really necessary. It's a complicated argument but I felt it would mean bureaucracy and in particular a loss of local decision making. So although not everyone was for the park the decision has been made and it's important to make sure it's a success and ensure that local people do benefit. I would like see the park head quarters in my constituency because that would place it pretty much in the middle of the park. Arundel itself would be an ideal candidate although the town is not part of the park although the castle is. Arundel is a very important town in its own right for tourism and would provide a perfect gateway for the park; one of the gateways. There are a series of meetings taking place now about how the park is going to work and I have been involved in some of those so we'll have to see how it unfolds.
The rail service seems to have deteriorated on the Arun Valley line. When Southern won the franchise it was stated that the missing 250 metres of track at Lyminster/Wick to enable trains to run from Arundel direct to Worthing, Shoreham, Hove and Brighton would be built. Having won the franchise, they seem to have dropped the idea. ls there any chance of promoting this?
I try and use the train as much as I can and travel by train all around the country in my front bench role. I would certainly be in favour of the Arundel chord upgrade. Currently trains travelling south down the Arun line can't turn left after Arundel. If that chord was built you could have direct services from places like Angmering and Worthing. It would also free up a bit of capacity on the Brighton line so I think it would be good and would mean more services running through places like Arundel and Pulborough. Generally there needs to be an upgrade of the Arun Valley line with improved signalling so you can run trains closer together to help speed up the services. It would also lessen the delay when trains divide and join at Horsham. I am in constant dialogue with Southern about this to make sure they remember it's not just people in the coastal towns who use the railways. My job as MP for the South Downs is to remind Southern that people from the villages use the railways too and rely on them and would like to do so more. If we want these sustainable forms of transport it is important to get full value out of the line. It's a question of getting these things in the investment programme. What we must do is collectively jump up and down and keep pressing for it. Clearly the issue is that money is going to be tight for the next few years.
What was your view of the proposal to downgrade services at the three West Sussex Hospitals?
I was heavily involved in all three campaigns for the retention of A&E and maternity services at St Richards in Chichester at Worthing and at The Princess Royal. All three hospitals serve my constituency and in the years that this battle took it was my preoccupation. Hundreds and thousands of us signed petitions, tens of thousands of us marched more than once and we won. The primary care trust essentially backed down and A&E and maternity services are going to be retained at these hospitals. There's an issue about in what form but essentially the original proposal to have only one major general hospital in West Sussex has gone - we killed it and it was people power. It was the community working together that did it.
What are your views on the proposed Laybrook landfill site?
I'm strongly opposed to landfill at Laybrook - in fact I'm opposed to the continuing use of landfill to dump rotting rubbish anywhere. We should be finding more environmentally friendly ways to dispose of rubbish. Landfill is the most damaging way to dispose of rubbish and the disruption, flies, noise, smell, lorry movements that the communities would have to suffer both in Thakeham and in Ashington would be totally unacceptable. We managed to see off one proposal at Rock Common, this will be harder, but we will fight and I and am doing everything I can to support the campaign and am marching with them tomorrow (Saturday 12th September.) We should move to a zero waste society where we recycle more and view waste as something to use for resources, energy and materials. Other countries are much further ahead than we are with recycling so we've got a lot of catching up to do in Britain. It's also totally unacceptable that we should be taking thousands of tonnes of waste from London when their recycling rates are lower than ours.
Would you like to make any comment on the recent news about your views on hunting?
I've never changed my views on hunting. I'm a country boy and used to hunt avidly. I am strongly in favour of the right of individuals to participate in country sports if they want to. The hunting ban is unworkable, the legislation was an act of political spite and wasn't based on any evidence. It hasn't improved the welfare of a single wild mammal. The Conservative party has had a consistent view that says we should allow a free vote on the repeal of the legislation. So it would be up to a future House of Commons to decide whether the legislation should be repealed. I will certainly vote for repeal but we don't want to waste time on this issue.
What has given you the most satisfaction as an MP?
Definitely winning the battle against the proposed downgrading of the county's hospitals.
We are told that business is at the heart of the nation's fortunes yet it seems that the Department for Business is constantly changing, both its Minister and, lately, its name and responsibilities. What are your views on this and if you get power next year what would you like to change?
How departments are shaped would be a matter for the future Prime Minister - I hope David Cameron. There has been far too much chopping and changing of government departments. No one can remember what the current Department for Business is called other than it is part of Lord Mandelson's empire. It is important that we focus on wealth creation, we need to get sustainable growth back into the economy and small and medium sized businesses are the big job creators of the future.
What are your views on out of town shopping centres taking the heart out of our towns and villages?
There is often concern when supermarkets set up on the outskirts of towns and villages and local planners need to keep an eye on this. However, I think everyone knows we can't turn back the clock. Supermarkets are popular; they wouldn't keep being built if they were not. It is vital though that communities continue to use their local shops to help sustain the towns and villages. The proposed Waitrose in Storrington seems like it could benefit the community.
Which job would you most like to have in government should you win power next year?
I enjoy my current position with responsibility for the environment, food and rural affairs which matches my own interests and those of my constituency. But it would be for David Cameron to decide and firstly for the country to decide - we are not complacent.
Since becoming a member of the Shadow Cabinet has it been difficult to juggle the demands on your time? Do you get to see much of your family?
I'm very family orientated and come from a strong family. My parents live in Essex and I don't see them as much as I would like to. Being an MP is very demanding on your time - it's a 24/7 role.
How do you like to relax?
I don't get much time to relax but am a real film buff. I also enjoy theatre, opera, walks, reading, horse racing, cricket and rugby. I was lucky enough to go to the final day of the Ashes at the Oval.
Are you in favour of a second runway at Gatwick?
No. Firstly because of the impact on communities and also due to the overall environmental impact. We currently take too many unnecessary domestic flights and need to improve internal travel with new north/south high speed trains. People still need to fly and there has to be adequate provision for this but I am opposed to a second runway.
What are your views on the Ford Eco town and the proposed plan for a new town at North Heath and Adversane? Do you generally favour the build up of new homes in or near to rural villages?
The Government's target to build 74,600 new homes in West Sussex over the next 20 years is simply not sustainable. It would mean an increase in the population by a quarter. The infrastructure to support this does not exist and it would also require building on greenfield sites. These targets put the local authorities in a very difficult position as they have to find suitable sites and there is rarely agreement over this. The Conservatives would scrap housing targets and allow the local authorities to decide what is needed. Clearly there is demand for local, affordable housing but a balance is needed. "People Power" saw off the plans for an Eco town at Ford and I am appalled and wholly opposed to plans for 4,000 houses in a new town in the countryside between North Heath and Adversane. It would be twice the size of Pulborough and easily be the biggest settlement in my constituency. I am wholly opposed to unsustainable development on this scale and will give my full support to the local community.
Are you in favour of an A27 Worthing bypass and what are your thoughts on the proposed Arundel bypass?
Some form of upgrade is certainly needed with regard to Worthing but a bypass is problematic due to the Downs, and a tunnel would be hugely expensive. Towns along the south coast are suffering due to a lack of efficient roads. The A27 is not a coastal highway it's a coastal car park. My priority is the Arundel bypass for which there is general agreement. A new route to the south of Arundel has already been proposed although worryingly the Highways Agency is now looking for a cheaper option using existing roads as well as building some new ones. Using existing roads would carve into Arundel and would be very disruptive and noisy and not what the local community wants. My proposal is to build a fantastic bridge over the Arun which would enhance the area and become a landmark. A fine new bridge with the beautiful old cathedral in the background would be an incredible sight and would get people talking.
Question from Arundel Resident: With the certainty of higher energy costs in the future, how can we sustain local planning rules in Arundel which do not allow any form of solar panels on buildings?
I don't know the detail of this case but suspect that the person concerned lives within the conservation area. In general I am a fan of renewable energy but it is important to preserve the character of historic towns and villages and Arundel's skyline is one of the features of the town. It may well be that there are certain things that can't be done which would otherwise be desirable, because they would change the character of the area.
Which other issues do you think are of major importance in your constituency?
My overall feeling is that there has been a great attack on rural communities in West Sussex. This includes the shutting of rural post offices, police cuts and the proposed bail hostel in Arundel. Central government has an arrogant approach and my feeling is that local authorities should be left to decide what is best for them and that the government should concentrate on doing its own job properly, not least running the economy. More power should be given to local communities who know what is needed in their own areas.
What would you like to see done to help small and medium sized businesses survive in these difficult times?
I think there are a number of things we need to do. In the short term we need to ensure businesses can access credit which is still a problem. We need to get credit moving again and I'm not sure the plethora of schemes the Government has proposed have been successful in doing that. More generally there is too much red tape on all businesses. It's true whether you're talking to people in business or police officers, teachers, doctors, farmers, they all have the same complaint which is that there is too much interference by Government, too much form filling and this imposes a major cost on businesses and we've got to find ways to reduce that burden. I would also like to see through various simplifications and be able to reduce the tax burden on small businesses as well. We need a competitive business sector to create jobs. There is great potential for this in West Sussex but we've got to have the conditions to allow such businesses to start and then to flourish.
Do you think the public sector, and in particular, the Civil Service, could achieve greater efficiencies?
The country is on the edge of bankruptcy with the severe budget deficit costing a fortune in interest payments. The country must live within its means and correction is required. Government departments need to be run more efficiently, we need to reduce the number of quangos and cut wasteful spending. This will take great determination but I think people want to see it done.
Do you think that we are losing our privacy in this country with the proliferation of CCTV and the powers of surveillance which have been handed to various bodies, for example local councils?
There is concern about intrusion and surveillance must be properly governed. We must remember however that CCTV offers security so we need to find a balance between protection and privacy.
Do you think that private wheel-clamping should be regulated and a sensible cap put on the fines charged?
Fines can seem to be excessive in both the public and private sectors and it's important that firms have sensible terms and conditions in place. I appreciate the problem - I've recently had a constituency case of a cowboy clamper who went too far. There should be proper controls on them.
If you win power next year what is the first thing you would like to see the new government deal with?
The priority has got to be the economic situation and the budget deficit. We need to get the country's finances back on an even keel. We must also continue to protect the NHS and have a big drive to improve schools.
Sussex Local thanks Nick Herbert for his time.