Drug deaths in Kent have doubled in the last three years – to the highest level in the UK. Every life is precious and these deaths cause such devastation – to families, friends and local communities. It's a trend we must reverse.
There is help out there. I recently visited the Dover hub of the Forward Trust who provide drug and alcohol support services for our area. Across the South Kent coast, they help more than 500 people. Their work includes going into places like local homeless shelters, where they show volunteers how to use naloxone kits – medication which reverses overdose effects.
Most of the people the Forward Trust help suffer long-term addictions to heroin or alcohol. They told me that it's rare that new people will come to them, with very few teenagers seeking help.
Yet we know that some young people in our area are being lured into the dark world of drugs. London gangs are said to send people down to Dover to recruit local teenagers. Our Chief Inspector Mark Weller told me tackling drugs is one of his top priorities. I'm doing everything I can to support him.
Some people say the war on drugs is unwinnable. I disagree. I think it's vital we fight back. Because drugs can draw young people into gangs and a life of crime. And because drugs can kill the people closest to us.
Robert Fraser, from Deal, died at the age of 18 after being given an extremely powerful opioid. Robert was no drug addict. Yet fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin – and just a small dose was enough to be fatal.
Robert's mum Michelle wants justice for her son and for him to leave a legacy. So together we started a campaign for Robert's Law – which means tougher sentences for suppliers of fentanyl. The Crown Prosecution Service listened to our case and changed its drug offences guidance to include fentanyl.
Crucially, the Sentencing Council has now also launched a review on tougher sentences for fentanyl. Last week I met with Justice Minister Rory Stewart, who said he would seriously consider their findings and the case for Robert's Law. So we are well along the road to achieving real change.
This is such an important campaign. Michelle wants to stop any more lives being lost. I'm pleased the authorities have listened and taken action so swiftly. Normally it takes years to get people to listen. Yet our campaign – driven by Michelle's love for her son and passion for the cause – has made people stand up and immediately take note.
I'm determined to do all I can to help those affected by drugs. That's why I want people to get in touch with me – either to see what I can do to get them help, or to flag up local hotspots. If we work together, we can all fight back in the war on drugs.
Town centre businesses and tourism chiefs are calling for the controversial 'Welcome to Dover' sign to be torn down. I agree that the horrible hoarding in Townwall Street needs scrapping.
I met with local fish and chip shop owner Silvio Macari and White Cliffs Country Tourism Association chairman Graham Hutchison. We also invited Dover District Council's regeneration supremo Tim Ingleton to see the former Crypt site in Bench Street – which has been left to ruin for decades.
The 'Welcome to Dover' sign and the Crypt are just a stone's throw away from the hugely successful St James development which opened earlier this year. When I visited last Thursday lunchtime (June 7th), nearly all of the 445 St James parking spaces were taken. I am proposing a three-point plan to tackle the problems – to tear down the 'Welcome to Dover' sign, clear up the Crypt and deliver more town centre car parking.
The 'Welcome to Dover' sign, put up by the Labour mayor and the 'town team', was well-intentioned – but it's become a laughing stock. It's time to tear down this horrible hoarding.
Just round the corner, the former Crypt site is still left to ruin – more than 40 years since the building was devastated by fire. This area urgently needs clearing up, while the Banksy must continue to be protected.
Barely a stone's throw away, business is booming at the St James site, with hardly a spare parking space to be found. Right next door is Dover Leisure Centre, which could be used as a site for lots more parking, as well as shops or cafes, once it closes. We've come a long way over the past few years – yet we must keep working to make Dover town centre the best it can be.
Mr Hutchison pointed out that visitors to Dover travelling along the A20 are dazzled by the iconic Banksy on the corner of York Street, only to then be faced with the worn-out 'Welcome to Dover' sign. The hoarding was commissioned by Dover Town Team – whose directors include Labour mayor Sue Jones – and created by K College in 2014. Yet it has since had graffiti sprayed over it, become discoloured and some of the signage is peeling off. It is placed directly in front of a rundown site, with weeds and trees hanging over the top.
The Godden family own the area and buildings covering the Crypt and the Banksy. The Crypt was erected in 1840. There were bars and restaurants on the lower floors and residential accommodation upstairs. Tragedy struck on March 27, 1977, when seven people died after a devastating fire ripped through the four-storey building. Since then the shell has been left to decay in the heart of Dover town centre.
Controversial plans to slash hours at Deal Mental Health Centre have been scrapped – and the vital service will now remain open five days a week.
Services at the facility in Bowling Green Lane, near Deal Hospital, were under threat with proposals to run clinics only on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays. Kent and Medway NHS and Social Care Partnership Trust, which manages the building, planned to shut it for the other two days.
But after I contacted them, senior managers at the trust agreed to review the proposals. They have now arranged for community mental health services for older people to run at the site on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, so the centre will remain open all week.
As soon as I heard about these plans I was really concerned. We need as many health services as possible in Deal. It's vital that all of us get support close to home. That centre is an important lifeline for anyone in our town struggling with mental health problems.
The trust has assured me there are no plans to review their latest decision, so the centre will remain open all week for the foreseeable future. That's really good news. I want to thank the trust for listening to our concerns. The leadership team has engaged well in recent years and the trust do a good job with ever-increasing demand.
I was alerted to the situation by constituents, including Deal volunteer group Talk It Out. He visited them, along with Deal Town Councillor Keith Lee, at the Landmark Centre on Friday. The group offers a range of free support and now has more than 50 members, up from just a handful when it started seven years ago.
Up to 10,000 trucks pass through the Port of Dover every day. Line them all up and you get 180 kilometres of lorries. Enough to queue all the way up the M20 and round the M25. This grim picture is every motorist's idea of hell. And that's before you take the Channel Tunnel, which is the same again.
This is why we've got to keep trade flowing freely across the border post-Brexit. That means building resilient roads – dualling the A2 all the way to Dover and opening up more lorry parking facilities.
Whether we were leaving Europe or not, it's investment we desperately need anyway. This past Bank Holiday weekend, we had queues of lorries stretching back along the A20 to the Roundhill Tunnels. We're a victim of our own success. Dover is still the best and most popular way of getting to Europe for tourists and truckers. And it's going to get busier.
Over the next 10 years a huge £6 billion is being spent on the Lower Thames Crossing. To take pressure off Dartford, two three-lane tunnels are being dug under the Thames to link the M25 near North Ockendon, Essex, with the A2 near Shorne, Kent.
In order for this scheme to be a success it is vital the A2 is dualled. The previous Labour government axed plans for this essential infrastructure – but we've been working relentlessly to get the scheme back on the table. The new Thames Crossing opens in 2027. By 2030, freight traffic at Dover is set to have risen 40%. A single carriageway is simply inadequate.
The Port of Dover say that if the A2 was fully dualled, a second 'Dover TAP' scheme could be used on this route. Like the current A20 TAP, it would involve queueing lorries in the left-hand lane when there are delays at the port. They say this would cost less than the £250 million quoted for the axed Stanford lorry park plan.
Yet this alone is not enough. I'm deeply concerned that a new A2 Dover TAP – along with the proposed Operation Brock 'contraflow' on the M20 – would turn the roads to Dover into one long rolling lorry park. Our town would be cut off from the rest of Kent. And everyone knows what a battle it was to sort out the A20 TAP scheme.
That's why it's just common sense to build more lorry parking facilities, like at the Stop 24 services off junction 11 on the M20. Brenley Corner on the A2 is another option. And we need a wider network of lorry parks up and down the country.
Combined, Dover and Eurotunnel handle 30% of the UK's trade in goods – around £210 billion. So this isn't just a local issue. This is a national priority. It's high time we had real investment in East Kent's roads – and I will keep fighting for it.
Cross-Channel port operators say they can "absolutely" deliver preparations for Brexit at the border. Representatives from Eurotunnel, the Port of Calais and the Port of Zeebrugge appeared at a Treasury Select Committee hearing in Parliament this morning (Tuesday, June 5th). They revealed that authorities in Belgium and France have told them to prepare for every eventuality – including Britain leaving the European Union with 'no deal'.
The operators expressed their frustration at not yet knowing how the UK-EU will work post-Brext, despite it being nearly two years since the referendum. But I asked: "With clear specification for Brexit and what's expected of you, would you say you can deliver?" John Keefe, director of public affair at Eurotunnel, said: "Absolutely."
Joachim Coens, CEO of the Port of Zeebrugge, added: "The British and the EU and Belgian customs [authorities] should prepare practicalities – and they've waited too long to do that. Everybody knows what the decision is. Let's start on technical things – prepare on practical things – and that should be started immediately." Mr Coens said that the French and Belgian government advice to ports on Brexit is to "prepare for the worst".
Benoit Rochet, deputy CEO of the Port of Calais, was asked by another MP if Brexit preparations would be ready by January 2021, the end of the proposed 'transition period'. He said: "We will have no choice. We are not going to close the port. We will do what we will have to do."
Later in the hearing, I questioned Jon Thompson, chief executive of HM Revenue and Customs. I cast doubt on Mr Thompson's previous claims that businesses would face Brexit customs costs of £20 billion if the Government chose the so-called 'maximum facilitation' option. Charlie pointed out that many businesses and firms think the figure would be far lower. Mr Thompson said it was a question of 'methodology'.
In any case, it's really encouraging to hear cross-Channel port operators say they can absolutely deliver Brexit border preparations. They had a positive attitude towards Europe's trading relationship with the UK post-Brexit. Yet they want more clarity from Government. It's high-time they had it.
A huge £240 billion of trade passes through the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel every year. It's in everyone's interests to keep that trade flowing. That's why it must be a national priority to invest now at the Dover frontline. We need resilient roads and modern border systems ready for Brexit.
We must invest in the roads to Dover to make the Lower Thames Crossing a success. That was a message I made loud and clear to Highways England's project director Tim Jones at a meeting at the Port of Dover.
I said it was vital to fully dual the A2 all the way to Dover in order to handle the increased level of traffic when the £6 billion crossing is complete. Two three-lane tunnels under the Thames will link the M25, near North Ockendon, Essex, with the A2 near Shorne, Kent. The planned opening date is 2027.
At the meeting at Harbour House, the port's head of policy and communications Richard Christian underlined just how much traffic travels through Dover's docks. There are 60 arrivals and 60 departures of 12 different ferries every day, carrying up to 10,000 trucks in total – which lined up in a queue would be 180km in length.
The port handles up to 500 trucks an hour and has space for less than 1,500. Combined, Dover and Eurotunnel handle 30% of the UK's trade in goods – around £210 billion. Mr Christian suggested that if the A2 was fully dualled, a second 'Dover TAP' scheme could be used on this route. Like the current TAP scheme on the A20, it would involve queueing lorries in the left-hand lane when there are delays at the port. Mr Christian said this would cost around £65-70 million compared to the £250 million quoted for the axed Stanford lorry park plan.
But I warned against turning the roads to Dover into "one long rolling lorry park". We've been saying for years that we need to dual the A2. The previous Labour government axed the plans but we've been working relentlessly to get the scheme back on the table. With the increased traffic expected when the Lower Thames Crossing opens, dualling the A2 is more vital than ever. Yet this alone is not enough. I'm concerned that a new 'A2 Dover TAP', along with the proposed 'contraflow' on the M20, would turn the roads to Dover into one long rolling lorry park. Our town would be cut off from the rest of Kent.
That's why it's just common sense to build more lorry parking facilities, like at the Stop 24 services off junction 11 on the M20. Brenley Corner on the A2 is another option. And we need a wider network of lorry parks up and down the country. This is a national priority. It's time we had real investment in Kent's roads.
Dovorians will be given 'first pick' on scores of affordable homes for young people at Farthingloe, according to the man behind the project. More than 500 new houses and flats are proposed to be built on the brownfield site – where temporary housing for Channel Tunnel workers once stood.
I recently met CGI operations director Rob Prince at Farthingloe, off the B2011. I asked Mr Prince for assurances that young people and renters looking to get on the housing ladder would benefit from the plans.
Mr Prince said he wants to give priority to Dovorians who want to get on the housing ladder. He said he cares about Dover being a town on the up and giving young people a chance to buy their first home, and that there will be affordable housing.
The ambitious project – which includes £5 million of investment in the historic Drop Redoubt – was previously given planning permission by Dover District Council in April 2015. But following a lengthy court battle over a planning technicality raised by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the proposals are now being resubmitted – with a few enhancements.
There will be fewer residential units proposed at the Western Heights – from 94 to 40. Less land is being developed at Farthingloe, increasing green space. The height of buildings in the south west corner is also being reduced. Mr Prince's draft plans include: 66 one-bed flats, 43 two-bed flats, three three-bed flats, 14 one-bed houses, 180 two-bed houses, 170 three-bed houses and 45 four-bed houses.
I asked how much these homes would cost. Mr Prince said if they were to go on sale in today's market, a two-bed house would be on sale for around £200,000 and a three-bed house would be around £250,000. The prices for flats would probably start at £100,000.
The project also includes repairs and restoration work to historic structures at the Western Heights, including St Martin's Battery the Guard Room and Officer and Soldiers' Quarters. The Drop Redoubt will be converted into a museum / visitor centre to attract more tourists to Dover. There will be improvements to the landscaping around the Grand Shaft pedestrian connections with the Drop Redoubt – including a reinstated swing bridge to create a safe visitor entrance. A 130-bed hotel is also proposed.
Everyone knows we need to build more homes so young people and renters have a chance to get on the housing ladder. We all want Dover and Deal to be a place where you can get a job, have a home to call your own and raise a family. So I'm delighted with these ambitious plans to build affordable homes for Dovorians on the brownfield site at Farthingloe. Let's get on with building the homes we need.
There's no doubt that Dover and Deal are on the up. The years of hard work have made a huge difference. After a long battle, Burlington House came down. While the arrival of the fast train has seen Deal go from strength to strength.
What's more, we've seen Deal win Britain's high street of the year and been ranked as the number one coastal town by The Times. It's vital to build on this success. So it's great to see the £500,000 refurbishment of Deal Pier coming along nicely. At the end of the pier, the council plans a café offering cups of tea and snacks during the day, and a restaurant in the evening. This is a fantastic asset with such great potential - and set to be another step forward for Deal. Also high on my list is to get a dual carriageway to Deal, although we all know that will take a long time.
Meanwhile, over in Dover, the good news keeps coming. Burlington House is long gone and the St James development has risen in its stead. Over the past few weeks the M&S Food store has opened, along with Superdrug. This comes after Cineworld, Nando's, Food Warehouse, Travelodge and others started welcoming customers back in March.
We've got Next, Costa, Anytime Fitness and many more still to come - as well as Follies pizzeria which plans a rooftop terrace bar.
Yet I am very aware that the St James development brings challenges too. First in parking - we're going to need more parking spaces. So I've been pressing the council to make sure a big car park is built when the Dover leisure centre is developed. I'm also working hard to ensure the arrival of St James boosts our current high street. Visitors need to see everything our town has to offer. So I'm fully backing district council leader Keith Morris' plan to invest £500,000 in the high street. Lots can be done to support our hardworking small business owners, like cash for sprucing up shop fronts. Our streets must be safe too - the local police force deserve great credit for listening to concerns and stepping up patrols.
We need to make the most of tourism too. Everyone knows about our world-famous castle – yet how many tourists also stop at the Roman Painted House? While the old town jail under the Maison Dieu needs to be on offer as well.
Speaking of tourism, the new marina curve at the port should soon be open. Construction is well underway. Once built, with commercial units, bars and cafes, the marina is sure to attract visitors from all over. Everyone has seen the huge success of the Folkestone Harbour Arm. We can enjoy equal success here at our iconic docks.
Much has been done with the delivery of some £500 million of investment since 2010.Yet I know we can do better still and deliver even more for Dover and Deal in the years to come.
"Dover is a beautiful place, with beautiful people – and I will fight for this town."
These were the words of Sandra Mahlo at her Cannon Street café La Salle Verte. I had organised a meeting with high street business owners, local councillors and the police. We talked about how we must all work together to look after our town. And it was clear how passionate everyone is about getting the best for Dover.
The meeting was held following a spate of break-ins and burglaries earlier this year. These crimes caused serious concern among local firms. So our police force deserve real praise for swiftly catching the culprits.
Yet there were still worries about the level of police presence in the high street. I contacted our Dover District Commander, Chief Inspector Mark Weller, and he said patrols had been stepped up in Market Square, Cannon Street and Biggin Street.
I was delighted to hear from Sandra and the others at the meeting that they had noticed the boosted police presence in town. People must feel safe when shopping in our high street.
The issue of people consuming alcohol and taking drugs in the town centre was also raised. Ch Insp Weller said the force was cracking down on this through 'Operation Urban'. He also revealed shoplifting in the high street is down 17 per cent. His team play a vital role. They know their patch inside-out and work closely with business owners and support services.
It's the nature of their job that sometimes officers will be called to deal with someone who suffers from mental health problems. Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Scott has shown real leadership in this area. He's given funding to Talk It Out in Deal and to Dover Outreach Centre. They work with the police to get the most vulnerable people the help they need.
Both in Dover and Deal, the police and shopkeepers are clearly passionate about protecting our high street – and I am determined to help in any way I can. In Parliament, we recently secured more funding for Kent Police – up from £279.3 million to £288 million – which is going towards 200 more officers. We need to see lots of these new recruits deployed in Dover and Deal. I have made that case to Kent's Chief Constable, who told me he was "confident the increase will be felt tangibly by the residents of Dover district".
In Deal in particular, people tell me they want more opportunities to speak face-to-face with the police. So I've asked the Commissioner to consider doubling the number of hours residents have access to the local force.
We may be living in the age of the internet and social media. Yet for so many people, the heart of our community is the high street. Our local business owners and police force are a huge part of that. We must do everything we can to support them.
Whether looking for jobs or belting out karaoke classics, people feel part of a community at Dover Big Local's hub. I went along to the Charlton Centre to meet the team, hearing how Dover Big Local and the Shaw Trust, both based in Unit 18, are helping people back into work.
The hub hosts a number of community events, including a "coffee and karaoke" morning which was in full swing during my visit. I joined in with a rendition of Ticket to Ride by The Beatles, then chatted with Shaw Trust staff members Kemi Fatola, Gerda Vaiksnoraite and Mark Hoda. They told me that 57 people are taking part in their work and health programme, of which three have found employment.
Ross Miller, chairman of the Dover Big Local Partnership, told me about the range of services being offered at the hub. This includes a jobs club, run with Southern Housing every Tuesday from 10am to 4pm, which has helped 17 people find work over the past nine months. People are also given support setting up their own businesses. Dover Big Local was handed £1 million of lottery funding, which it has been investing in the town since 2015.
It was fantastic to see the brilliant work being done at the Charlton Centre hub. We fought hard to secure the £1 million lottery funding for our town – and it's great to see Dover Big Local spending the money on projects like this.
The Shaw Trust is doing great work too, helping people in tough circumstances back into employment. This hub just goes to show how strong our community spirt is in Dover.
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