Steve Cook bought the Walter Rose and Son butchers shop, at the end of Sidmouth Street in Devizes, when he was 21. Now silver-haired (but buzzing with vim and vigour) he tells me what lockdown has meant for him. The shop has done fine but the business behind it delivers local meat to hotels and restaurants all over the country, and those hotels and restaurants are closed. He has dozens of delivery vans parked in his driveway, the drivers on furlough, the farmers and abattoirs who supply him without a market for their meat. The news today, that hospitality businesses can open again on 4 July, has not come a moment too soon.
I spent Friday popping into shops. Some – like the butchers, and Planks Farm Shop near Devizes – have stayed open through the lockdown but others, like the wonderful Digger and Mojo (furniture and home stuff) in Woodborough have emerged from hibernation into uncertain weather. Devizes Books, and the White Horse Bookshop in Marlborough have continued to sell online but now can welcome customers again. Please do patronise your high street as much as you can.
My highlights of the last week or so:
- I held a public meeting on Zoom (advertised in these newsletters and online) at which I was lambasted (sometimes gently, sometimes not) on a range of government policies, and particularly the challenges faced by small businesses. I explained that my team and I spend most of our time lobbying government on behalf of constituents, as well as pointing them to the many generous schemes that do exist.
- I visited the site, in Lydeway on the edge of Devizes, where we hope the new train station will sprout like an organic mushroom, almost invisible but packed with nourishing goodness for the whole neighbourhood. I have also spoken to the Department for Transport and look forward to more discussions about how to land this vital project.
- I attended a meeting with the Chancellor and asked him for reassurances that British food and farmers will be supported through the trade deals we strike as we leave the EU. He gave them!
- I spoke in Parliament to urge the Government to prioritise local track and trace systems – human beings working in local government and community groups – not just apps and national call centres. My Wiltshire neighbour Andrew Murrison MP (and GP, and experienced public health practitioner) and I spoke to Tom Riordan, the official in charge of the local element of the track and trace system, about the situation in Wiltshire and nationally.
- I joined a cross-party group of MPs discussing the looming crisis in youth employment. Joblessness among young people has fallen steadily since the peak following the 2008 crash, but will now almost certainly rise sharply, and we urgently need a range of initiatives to save a generation from the long-term effects of unemployment in early adulthood.
- I wrote a long letter to the Health and Social Care Secretary setting out principles for the social care system we need, and which the Government is working on. This is inspired by conversations I have held during the lockdown with Wiltshire social care providers and local charities. The system at the moment isn’t working for vulnerable adults and older people, or their families, or their carers and care workers. But a better system is possible.
- I spoke to a director of the Post Office to discuss the opportunity and need for a strong local Post Office network. Separately I’ve been pushing for the local Post Office in Marlborough to reopen and am assured it will be open by the end of the month.
- I spoke in Parliament in the debate on Free School Meals. I’m glad the Government has committed (ok, under pressure from an articulate and passionate footballer) to an even bigger support package for children over the summer, and beyond into the next academic year when they will need additional help to catch up on missed school work and personal development.
- I asked the Health Secretary to commend the work of the British Army stationed on Salisbury Plain, in helping the NHS and other public services rise to the challenge of the pandemic. I also said I was pleased the NHS was becoming far more collaborative, and less of a fortress – and that we should try to sustain this new openness into the future.
In Devizes Books I bought the late lamented Lorna Haycock’s famous History and Guide to Devizes. Here I discover the strategic importance of the Devizes Castle in the old days, when a chronicler called it ‘the finest and most splendid in Europe’. In the wars of Stephen and Matilda the adventurer Robert Fitzhubert boasted that if he took Devizes he could control the whole of England from London to the far west. He captured the castle – but was soon captured himself by King Stephen, who hanged him in the market place and replaced him with his son-in-law, Count Hervey.
Next comes the point of the story: the tradespeople of Devizes were sick of all the fighting, and forced Hervey to hand over the castle to Matilda, who promised peace and prosperity. She gave it: ‘My burgesses of Devizes, in consideration of their service, are exempt from land-toll, ferry-toll, fair-toll and every other Custom throughout the whole realm and the seaports.’ That’s what we need! Cuts to rates and rents and taxes and tolls and tariffs. Less fighting in the streets. Less civil strife. Peace and prosperity. A few years after Matilda the Crown Jewels were brought to Devizes, as the safest place in the country to keep them. In our past is our future.