It was a sombre mood in Parliament yesterday as we returned from our Conference season, given events in the Middle East and the continuing coverage of truly shocking violence and brutality beyond comprehension. Responding to the Prime Minister’s statement, I was struck by the number of colleagues reporting increasing incidents of antisemitism in their constituencies, following the terrorist attacks by Hamas and the military response from the IDF made inevitable by such atrocities.
Although now happily settled in Suffolk, I was born in Edgware, North London, and attended the local Primary School, near to where schools have had to close in recent days due to fear of anti-Semitic violence. The point is that Edgware has a large Jewish community. Neighbours on our street had personally survived concentration camps; many other families had relatives who had not been so fortunate, perishing in the hideous deployment of multi-millionfold mass murder that was arguably the darkest episode of 20th century history.
So it is hard to comprehend that the malevolent force that is antisemitism has reared its ugly head, just as the people of Israel have been subject to such indescribable outrages, with holocaust survivors understood to be among those persons kidnapped in the attacks. The decision to launch these attacks would have been taking in the full knowledge that it would trigger a military response from Israel, with all that implies.
Of course, in undertaking those military operations, the Prime Minister stressed yesterday that Israel must seek to minimise civilian casualties. We must also be concerned about the potential for a wider conflagration. As such, it has been important to see President Biden heading to Israel, and as with the UK, pledging strong support but also urging the strongest consideration of humanitarian implications. To that end, in his speech Rishi Sunak announced an additional £10 million of humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people. And finally, we are strengthening our regional engagement to sustain the prospects of people and stability in the region, which ultimately requires security for both Israelis and Palestinians and a two-state solution.
I can entirely appreciate that readers will have been profoundly unnerved by the situation in the Middle East, not just the terrible reports of atrocities, but considering the broader sense of threat – not least as the conflict in Ukraine continues with its own unremitting rhythm of attrition warfare. Hence, when I attended a number of conference events in Manchester on Ukraine - speaking as a Defence Minister - I emphasised the need for us to stand firm in our support and be prepared for the long haul.
Returning to the home front, both main parties’ conferences inevitably touched on major issues of concern locally. For all the coverage on the Prime Minister’s decision to halt HS2 beyond Birmingham and instead spend on local rail projects ‘in the north’, in fact the saving has resulted in the go ahead for crucial investment in East Anglia. Specifically, Ely and Haughley rail junctions, with the planned upgrades creating additional freight and passenger services.
As far as the Labour’s conference was concerned, I thought the most striking point was the promise from Sir Keir Starmer to ‘ignore’ local voices on housing and planning, with his commitment to ‘bulldozing’ through development. Now, I always try not to get too political in this column, but this is quite a significant statement. Since being elected in 2015, I have been well aware of the totally understandable and justifiable concern from people in Suffolk to ensure that we don’t over-develop on our beautiful countryside, I’ve always strived to encourage Neighbourhood Plans. Indeed, since holding a meeting of South Suffolk’s parishes on this very topic in 2018, I am delighted to confirm that 14 plans have since been adopted. The big problem here is that there appears to be an automatic assumption that a local voice in planning must mean fewer homes delivered. On the contrary, what I have said to communities is that a Neighbourhood Plan enables you to shape where housing goes, not stop it completely.
The ‘garden cities’ promised by Sir Keir would take years to bring forward, where I happen to believe – from my experience in the housing sector running an SME in the noughties – that the single thing that would most unlock housing today is greater certainty over interest rates. In other words, once again it underlines why controlling inflation must remain the number one domestic priority, particularly given the continuation of international uncertainty, on the back of Hamas’s horrific attacks.
Published in the Suffolk Free Press.