Stephanie Millward from Box was the cause of some teasing 10 years ago now, when I met her at the entrance to Parliament, and escorted her arm-in-arm down to the Terrace. Some of my jealous MP friends refused to believe that this glamorous young woman really was a constituent in to see me about MS matters. Since then, of course, she has become a great local hero, most recently winning two swimming gold medals in the Rio Paralympics. That feat was marked last week with the opening of the Springfields Community Campus in Corsham, and the renaming of the swimming pool after Stephanie. (She was heading off to London afterwards to collect her well-deserved MBE).
It is a mark of the huge success of Wiltshire Council that under the very able leadership of another MBE, Baroness (Jane) Scott of Bybrook they were able to find £16million to spend on the Community Campus, and that they are trying to find the funds to do something similar in other towns across Wiltshire. (I lobbied Jane and her Deputy Councillor John Thomson hard on behalf of Royal Wootton Basset and Cricklade, both of whom are in negotiation over their campuses). Amongst other things, Wiltshire Council brought all six local authorities who used to govern Wiltshire together into one, and amongst other savings got rid of a very large number of redundant buildings. Local Government have a great deal of power to make sure that council taxpayers’ money is spent sensibly in ways like this, and Wiltshire Council certainly do so.
The vibrancy of our High Streets needs more than just well targeted spending. We also need to keep our business rates under control if we are to allow high street shops to thrive. I have been lobbying Chancellor Philip Hammond for them, and for riding schools locally who are also facing sharp business rate rises. At very least I hope that any necessary increases will be phased in sensitively.
And we must not allow our market towns and villages to sprawl. I have reacted strongly to the renewed planning application for hundreds of houses and a supermarket at Marsh Farm just outside Royal Wootton Bassett (as well as several around Chippenham). The Council really must not allow it, nor the Planning Inspector. It would ruin the High Street in this little town, whose very global fame comes from the activity down its High Street. You only need to look at a few other local towns, who have allowed out of town shopping. Their High Streets look like ghost towns, populated largely by charity shops, mobile phone shops and travel agents. Don’t let Bassett get like that.
Local authorities have great powers and duties – taxes, planning, economic development. In an area like this it is vital that they use those powers to retain as well as enhance and improve the wonderful town and village environment, which is why we all came here in the first place. If we wanted to live in Swindon or Bristol, or their lookalikes, then presumably that is exactly what we would do.