With Long Melford Litter Pick volunteers and outside St Mary's Church, Hadleigh on this year's Ride n' Stride.
Throughout my time serving as MP for South Suffolk since 2015, I’ve always been keenly aware of how much the various communities of our constituency depend on volunteers. I do believe an awful lot of that work is under-appreciated - but the often ‘silent’ army still get on with their tasks nonetheless. We are talking about the likes of school governors, parish councillors, litter pickers and everyone involved in our crucial local charities.
I’ve been a staunch advocate of Neighbourhood Plans throughout my time in Parliament; they give communities a greater say on development, whilst ensuring a proportionate level of new housing supply comes through. And yet, their often-laborious design and consultation stages result from the many hours input by those giving their time for free.
I attended litter picks in Long Melford and Preston St Mary recently. Of course, the best way to ‘volunteer’ one’s support to keeping our country tidy is to not deposit detritus in the first place. However, whilst some persist in despoiling hedgerows and roadsides, in my view it is the sign of a serious commitment to the community to don the requisite luminous jacket, grabber and bin bag, before setting out to make a difference.
Regarding local charities, one in particular has been busy of late – Citizens Advice Bureau. Visiting the Sudbury branch last week, I was briefed on how the cost of living crunch has seen the workload of the organisation broaden to include those on higher income levels than previous cohorts. This includes those affected by rising mortgage costs.
I’ve written many times in this column on the cost of living. I am very much aware of the strain that people right up the income scale have experienced. Whilst it is true that interest rates have increased around the world – with higher rates in the US than here in the UK – the Government is accountable for delivering the PM’s aim to halve inflation. We have made significant progress, but I do understand that many continue to feel the pinch. Ultimately, only a growing economy with rising wages – together with falling inflation – can really address this challenge, but I know that for the people who use the CAB and other such charities, their interventions and support are crucial.
One charity which receives a lot of attention this time of year is Suffolk Historic Churches Trust, with its ‘Ride n’ Stride’ sponsored cycle – in aid of church buildings of all denominations – occurring on the second Saturday of every September. SHCT marked its 50th anniversary on Sunday, and its recent grant awards included funding for All Saints, Little Cornard.
I’ve taken part in each ‘Ride n’ Stride’ of the last five years. On every occasion it’s been lovely, blue-sky weather – but this year was something else, as we found ourselves pedalling from parish to parish on the hottest day of the year. I cycled in aid of St Mary’s, Hadleigh this year and just about made it from 9am-5pm, doing my ‘eastern lap’ of the constituency’s finest ecclesiastical buildings – from Leavenheath and Stoke by Nayland, both receiving thousands of pounds of investment in the last 12 months, via Hadleigh and Capel, and right round the Shotley Peninsula, via Belstead and Elmsett to finish up at beautiful Chelsworth church.
There will be many serious stalwarts who went further, but on my chunky mountain bike and in 90 degree plus heat that was quite enough for me. I was so grateful for the many volunteers who participated, particularly those awaiting us at each church with urgent hydration to hand!
Of course, some of the most powerful collective endeavour was during the twin challenges of pandemic and war, which have combined to cause such a significant part of the policy challenges we now face. From those face-masked souls who stood outside vaccination centres during Covid to ensure that people could park and get to their appointment; to the herculean efforts of those collecting supplies for Ukraine.
Such a spirit shows the best of our community, even if it’s occurred at a time when charities have also had to contend with higher cost pressures. Of course, we in Government have our role to play, to show how difficult decisions on the nation’s finances, not least resisting the more excessive demands for public sector pay rises, are necessary if we are to look forward to brighter times – and lower inflation. But it helps that our vibrant voluntary sector, despite challenging circumstances, has been on hand in our hour of need.