20 SEP 2018

Backing our local high streets

High streets up and down the land are facing challenging times. They struggle to compete with online retailers. These internet giants don't have to pay for high street buildings – or business rates. And their selfish culture of tax dodging gives them an even stronger edge. Small wonder then that so many high street shops struggle to make ends meet.

Here in Dover and Deal it's no different. Our high streets find things tough too. We can't wish it all away. The hard truth is that our high streets will need to change. That's not to say we shouldn't act to make a level playing field with online retailers. We should. For example, in Parliament I have been active in making the case to tackle online tax dodging. Yet proud as we are of our high streets, we all know there is work to do.

Locally, we must remember just how far we've come. For decades the hated Burlington House cast a long shadow over Dover. It took a monumental effort – yet it was finally torn down. The fall of Burlington House was a symbol of how Dover was changing for the better. The new St James cinema, shops and restaurants rose in its place. The once desolate car park is now packed with shoppers. The £50 million invested is paying off. The redevelopment of the leisure centre next door will boost things further.

No-one likes empty shops. There are 45 empty shops in Dover and 10 in Deal. So it's welcome to see a scheme for grants to spruce up empty shop fronts approved by Dover District Council's Cabinet last week. In Dover, the old Stembrook Co-op store is being turned into a start-up business base, helping entrepreneurs test ideas before moving into the high street.

Deal's high street has been crowned Britain's high street of the year and tops a list of the UK's best coastal towns. So Deal is in a better position. Yet even there retailers tell me things are not always easy.

The key to the future will be to make our high streets attractions in their own right. This is part of the reason Deal has done better – the sea is closer and there are quite a lot of more niche businesses. A key question will be how we can make Dover's high street more of an attraction and put more buzz in. Maybe having more people living in the town centre will help – as could having more entertainment there to draw people in.

There are no easy answers and it's something we need collectively to think about. To work together to make our historic high street successful destinations with a greater future. I would welcome hearing what readers think we should do to move things forward.

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19 SEP 2018

Funding boost for our hospitals

An extra £6.48 million of Government funding has been handed to local hospitals to help staff prepare for winter. The cash was allocated after East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust put forward plans to help with its emergency care capacity. The investment is part of a £145 million pot for 81 schemes at hospitals across the country.

The Department for Health says the funding will enable the NHS to deliver additional beds, redevelop A&E units and upgrade wards, enhance bed management systems, and improve 'same-day' emergency care.

I welcome the funding boost for the Trust, which runs local hospitals including Buckland and the William Harvey. This funding will be well received by the hardworking staff who keep our hospitals running day and night throughout the difficult winter period. Every year our local NHS staff go the extra mile, working additional shifts and long hours. We must do everything we can to support them and put patients' care first.

I have long fought to deliver a fairer share of healthcare for Dover and Deal, getting the £24million Buckland Hospital built and securing the future of Deal Hospital. Both hospitals have continued to see improvements, with clinics operating out of Buckland doubling since 2015 and staff numbers at Deal Hospital rising by a fifth.

I am also battling to bring more GPs to the area – and successfully campaigned in Parliament with fellow Kent MPs to deliver a new £30 million East Kent Medical School. To tackle the issue in the short-term, I have called on Kent County Council's Health Overview Scrutiny Committee to launch an inquiry into GP recruitment issues in South Kent. I have also asked the Committee to examine what South Kent Coast Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) is doing to boost the number of doctors locally – and to support the hard-working GPs we already have.

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17 SEP 2018

Battle of Britain memorial service

A memorial service to mark the heroics of the Battle of Britain was held in Dover on Sunday. I was among those paying their respects to The Few. Air Cadets from the 354 (Dover) Squadron also joined the commemoration along with standard bearers at Dover Castle's St Mary in Castro.

It was an honour to join the service and remember the brave pilots who fought the Battle of Britain across our skies 78 years ago. We will never forget the The Few who defied the odds to defeat the Luftwaffe – and save the lives of so many.

The Air Cadets on parade showed yet again how they are a real credit to our community. It would be great to see even more local youngsters joining the squadron. Lt Col John Morrison and Canon Jonathan Russell led the service, organised by The Royal Air Forces Association.

On September 15th in 1940, the Luftwaffe launched their largest attack yet on Britain. The RAF's defence of London and the South East resulted in a decisive victory that marked a turning point in the Second World War.

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14 SEP 2018

Backing the campaign for a new youth hub

Parents of troubled youngsters from Dover are on the lookout for buildings in the town centre area for a new youth hub. I am backing the Families United campaign and trying to help them secure funding for the project.

The group wants to hire space where young people can hang out after school to "keep them off the streets". They would like to provide seating, speakers and games and keep the hub open between 4pm and 9pm seven days a week. The campaign comes amid growing concerns over 'county lines', where drug dealers from urban areas target young people in regional towns to run their operations.

County lines has become a real problem. Police are cracking down on it – but as a community we have to play a part as well. I have met with Families United a few times now and really want to help them with their project. First of all we need a suitable location for the hub.

Families United has also been working closely with the London-based St Giles Trust, a charity which trains people who have already overcome disadvantages to help other troubled youngsters. I met with St Giles caseworkers, who were working with Dover youngsters as part of a pilot scheme until September funded by the Home Office. I spoke to Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Scott, who has agreed to take over funding until at least April, while a bid for further funding is made to the Home Office intervention fund.

Families United were clear the St Giles team were getting real results. I was very impressed myself after meeting them. So I asked Matthew Scott to keep funding their work. I am delighted he has managed to do so. Yet again he has shown real foresight and leadership.

Families United has asked anyone with suitable space in the Dover town centre area to contact them on familiesunited2018@gmail.com or my office on charlie.elphicke.mp@parliament.uk.

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14 SEP 2018

Fighting to get more doctors in East Kent

We've come a long way in delivering a fairer share of healthcare for Dover and Deal.

After hard-fought community campaigns, we got the new £24 million Dover hospital built – and the future of Deal hospital has been secured.

Twice as many clinics are now operating at Buckland than in 2015. Deal Hospital staff numbers are up a fifth. Meanwhile, around £200 million is going towards upgrading East Kent's A&E departments.

We're getting more healthcare provided locally. Yet I know there is much more to do.

For many years, I have been urging health chiefs to step up efforts to bring more GPs to our corner of Kent. And I've been doing what I can in Parliament to help.

We fought a long and hard battle for a new £30 million East Kent medical school, so more doctors and nurses can be trained locally. I asked other Kent MPs to join in the fight. And earlier this year it was finally confirmed that our bid had been successful. This victory will make a massive difference in the longer term. Yet it's clear that more needs to be done right now to bring more GPs to our area.

This issue has been brought into sharp focus by Eastry Surgery's proposals to close and move all appointments to Sandwich. The doctors would like to keep the practice running – yet despite their best efforts, they have not been able to recruit any more GPs.

Residents are understandably concerned. The two public meetings held to discuss the plans were packed. People are particularly worried about public transport and parking. The GPs have listened and tell me they are taking action to address these concerns. Yet it's clear this problem would never have arisen had we been able to bring more doctors to Dover and Deal. We simply must do better.

That's why I've called for Kent County Council's Health Overview Scrutiny Committee to launch an inquiry into GP recruitment issues in South Kent. I've asked the Committee to examine what South Kent Coast Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) is doing to boost the number of doctors locally – and to support the hard-working GPs we already have.

This is a problem that needs addressing fast. The CCG have opened a new £2.3 million GP hub at Buckland and Deal hospitals, where doctors can work seven days a week so more people can be treated locally. Yet to make this work properly, we need more GPs.

We must get better at attracting doctors to South Kent – and at training GPs locally too. This is exactly what the £20 billion funding boost for the NHS announced in June must go towards – not more pay for middle managers and bureaucrats.

In Dover and Deal we are lucky to have excellent GPs who work long hours and care deeply about their community. Doctors who put patients first. I am determined to do all I can to support them.

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12 SEP 2018

Disability firm under threat due to EU rules

A Kent disability firm says it is "likely to go out of business" because of EU tariff charges which can't be changed for almost a decade. Kingsdown resident David Wilsher's firm Mission Cycles, based in Maidstone, sells products designed for disabled people – which should make them exempt from import duty.

But HM Revenue and Customs enforced a rate of 6% – an £85,000 bill for the small business – blaming tariff classifications decided by the EU. A more recent order was subject to new anti-dumping charges on Chinese steel imports. The electric trikes from China were suddenly charged at a rate of 43% – an extra £17,640.

Mr Wilsher said: "I had no advance notice that duties of 37% would apply before I could clear the order through customs. I had to take a loan out from the bank just to get the products out of the warehouse, where they would have been picking up even more charges.

"Our customers rely on these products for mobility. They are not wealthy and it is extremely important to their quality of life. Meanwhile, we as a company are likely to go out of business."

After I went to HMRC, their officers reduced the £85,000 bill to around £65,000 and arranged a visit to Missions Cycles to discuss the remainder. But officers did not agree to further concessions, again blaming the EU's classifications.

During the visit, Mr Wilsher says he asked how the tariff classification could be changed and says he was told submissions had already been made for 2022, so it couldn't be looked at until the next round in 2027.

This case underlines how damaging EU rules can be to British businesses – and why it is so important that we take back control of our trade policy. The EU's Customs Union protects foreign companies with no links to the UK. And it stops poorer countries in the rest of the world from trading with us.

Lower tariffs mean lower prices, for everyone. That's why I am fighting for a proper Brexit, so we can have a trade policy that is sensible, flexible and global.

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10 SEP 2018

Crunch talks over Eastry Surgery

I have urged health chiefs to step up efforts to attract more doctors to East Kent, calling for an inquiry into GP recruitment issues – following crunch talks over the future of Eastry Surgery. Imet with doctors, health chiefs and councillors on Thursday to discuss the practice's proposals to move all appointments to The Market Place Surgery in Sandwich.

I had previously written to the Eastry GPs highlighting villagers' worries over parking in Sandwich and public transport. The doctors told me they were meeting with Dover District Council to discuss tackling the concerns over parking. They also said that a nurse practitioner could potentially work out of the pharmacy in Eastry.

Meanwhile Cllr Sue Chandler told the meeting she is looking into how concerns over transport could be addressed with the help of local transport schemes and community bus services. The GPs said that Eastry Surgery had to close due to difficulties attracting more doctors. I have now asked Cllr Chandler, who chair Kent County Council's Health Overview Scrutiny Committee, to launch an inquiry into GP recruitment issues in South Kent.

We need to attract more GPs to our corner of Kent. That's why I fought so hard to help secure the new medical school, where more doctors and nurses will train and work locally. Yet we also need to tackle this issue right now. Local health chiefs must step up efforts to boost the number of GPs in Dover, Deal and the villages.

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Hopefully Clr Sue Chandler will arrange for any new transport scheme to accept bus passes, otherwise it will be unaffordable. The closure of Eastry surgery has come at a time when there have been cuts to bus services in the villages. To get to Sandwich from Eythorne will now take over two hours by bus, travelling via Canterbury. At what point were patients going to be told about the closure? I have been registered at Eastry surgery for 36 years, but only heard about this by word of mouth. How is it going to be possible to get an appointment at Sandwich if all the patients from Eastry are added to the list?
- Eythorne Resident

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07 SEP 2018

Fighting for resilient roads

Families stuck in standstill traffic for 12 hours. No communication from the authorities. Drivers not knowing whether they will be able to make it home.

This is the sort of thing we've seen all too often on the roads to Dover – usually caused by the French. Yet this the problem with the Department for Transport. Time and again they seem unable to put people travelling on the roads first.

We all remember the summer of 2015, when strikes by French ferry workers led to scenes of bedlam. Queues of 4,600 lorries stretched back 30 miles. Emergency teams handed out more than 18,000 bottles of water and 6,500 meals to truckers and passengers. Four days' disruption cost the economy £1 billion.

A year later, in the summer of 2016, a shortage of French border staff led to extraordinary disruption. There were delays of up to 10 hours with traffic queuing back 12 miles. 250,000 people were caught up in the chaos – many forced to sleep in their cars for two nights.

Then last week we saw it all again – this time at the M25 Thames Crossing. Two lorries collided between junctions 30 and 31. Before long, huge tailbacks formed along the busy motorway.

Yet it didn't have to be this way. I happened to be driving back from East Anglia that day and, luckily, had checked the traffic before getting too close. I knew that with the motorway closed, people would start heading towards the Blackwall Tunnel and that would soon snarl up. The only way to get back to Dover was to go all the way round the M25 in the other direction.

If I hadn't checked, we would have been stuck all night long. Just as thousands were – babies who went hungry, diabetics for whom time can be critical and the elderly and infirm suffered too. All because the information provided by Highways England was wholly inadequate. There was no warning of the gridlock that lay ahead. Listening to the radio phone-ins, many drivers had the same experience. The roadside signage flagged up possible queues of one hour – when in fact people were stuck the whole night. It's not good enough.

The chaos showed yet again how fragile our road infrastructure really is. Just like when the French cause delays at Dover, a closure of the M25 causes gridlock for thousands of people. It's not a regional problem – it's a national one. It shows how the Department for Transport is not fit for purpose.

That's why I've been fighting to secure resilient roads. To get the Lower Thames Crossing taken forward at speed. It was approved last year. Yet progress so far has been at a snail's pace. Everyone knows we need a viable alternative to Dartford. Yet it takes years for the Department for Transport to build even the simplest road in today's Britain.

Or lorry parks for that matter. We need lorry parks along the M20 and the M2/A2. Yet despite the urgent need to get going, the Department for Transport has conked out. Their latest claim is that motorways are best for parking. That may be an inevitability given the way they carry on. Yet it's time they put their foot on the accelerator, built resilient roads, ensured motorways are for free flowing traffic, the lorry parks are built and the Thames Crossing is taken forward at speed. Yet above all, they need to make sure people on the road come first.

Photo: Brian Chadwick

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05 SEP 2018

Homeless refuge's future secured after campaign

The future of a homeless refuge in Dover threatened by funding cuts has been secured following a hard-fought campaign.

Staff at Emmaus Dover described it as an "immense relief" after the Government scrapped plans to shake up housing benefits. I urged Ministers to scrap the controversial proposals after meeting with the Emmaus team last year.

Under the Government's former plans, funding for refuges and short-term supported housing would have been overhauled, removing both from the current welfare system.

The changes would have meant that vulnerable people seeking shelter at charities like Emmaus could not pay for the accommodation using housing benefits.

Currently, such benefits are the last guaranteed income available for refuges, making up 53 per cent of their funding on average.

Emmaus operates out of Archcliffe Fort in Dover and offers a home and work to 27 formerly homeless people.

Debra Stevenson, community manager at Emmaus Dover, said: "I want to thank Charlie for his support in safeguarding the future of Emmaus Dover and other supported housing organisations.

"The Government's announcement that housing benefit will be retained for supported accommodation was an immense relief. We wholeheartedly welcome the decision."

Emmaus, and other charities offering supported housing, play a vital role in Dover, ensuring our most vulnerable get a warm bed, a warm meal, and the chance to build the skills and confidence to get on in life.

My support of their work is a given – and I will resist any attempt to rob them of their funding. That's why I pressed Ministers to scrap their plans.

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03 SEP 2018

Seeing the unique new stand at Deal Town Football Club

Deal Town Football Club welcomed me to the Charles Ground last week. Chairman Dave Chmura showed me around the recently refurbished facilities in St Leonards Road.

We chatted in the plush hospitality suite, before popping into the new club house and walking out onto the pitch. Mr Chmura told me how they are now able to hire out the club house to groups including the NHS heart therapy team, MAPS learning difficulties/disability group, EE Fitness classes and new club sponsors Channels & Choices foster care company.

He also showed me the new "stand", a double decker bus being converted so fans can watch the game from the seats inside. They also discussed the club's ambitions to have a 4G pitch, so more local youngsters and adults can play at the Charles Ground throughout the whole year. The modern facilities at the club, playing in the Southern Counties East Football League, were built following a huge fire in 2011. Some 30 firefighters were called out to tackle the blaze that destroyed a partially completed new pavilion.

It was great to come and meet Dave at the Charles Ground to see the great work he, the directors and a small force of volunteers have been doing. From the ashes of the fire in 2011, they have built something truly impressive. The new hospitality suite and clubhouse are fantastic – surely the best facilities in the league! From these foundations I'm sure the club can keep building a bright future and boost attendances even further. No-one likes to see a team 'park the bus'. But Dave assures me the brilliant new double-decker stand will be behind the goal – not in front!

Mr Chmura said: "What you see now is really only the beginning of what we aim to achieve here. Yes it all looks bright and beautiful but unless we can replace the aging floodlights our current league status is in jeopardy.

"To maintain our dream of a fully committed club for the whole community we need a 4G pitch working 24/7.

"The grass pitch, although looking the best it's ever been, cannot take the strain of everyday use.

"We should have a constant stream of children playing football here during these school holidays and adults playing late into the evenings.

"We have already received welcome help from Kent County Council councillors Trevor Bond and Derek Murphy but we need 100% backing from every Dover District Council councillor – because Deal Town FC should be the heart of the district's community. This is a venue for every single person in the area not just for a few football fans.

"Thanks to DDC our new 99 year lease should see football and maybe other sports played here into the next century and as we are only the current custodians, we need to build and leave a sustainable legacy for future generations.

"As we say in the clubs newly adopted battle cry: 'Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now!'"

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Charlie Elphicke

Here you can read about local news matters and what I've been up to. You can make comments too. I'd welcome your feedback, so please do feel free to comment!

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