77 Brigade at Denison Barracks, Hermitage

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On Thursday the House of Commons Defence Committee visited Denison Barracks at Hermitage, the new home of 77 Brigade. The Committee was keen to see this interesting new addition to the Army’s Order of Battle. While it may be new, it has its roots in the bloody battles in Burma in the Second World War. Then as now it practised a different kind of warfare. This new Brigade aims to challenge the difficulties of modern warfare using “non-lethal engagement and legitimate non-military levers” as a means to change the way an enemy or a potential enemy behaves. To use modern management speak, it thinks outside the box.

The HQ walls are covered with pictures of some of the historical figures who have always fascinated me. Lawrence of Arabia is there, alongside the Chindit commander, Orde Wingate. There are also lesser-known characters such as a Scotsman who despite advancing years was brought back to Army service in 1944 following the fall of Caan in Normandy. His quiet efficiency brought order to the post conflict town and saw water and electricity restored, schools rebuilt and the like. 77 Brigade at its best will prevent wars happening in the first place. They incorporate a number of quirky and innovative Army organisations such as the Security Assistance Group, the Military Stabilisation and Support Group, the Media Operations Groups and the Psychological Operations Group. It is hard to summarise exactly what they do because it is so multi-faceted but a visit there is uplifting. You see evidence of an Army that is really thinking about how war and conflict happens and how to prevent it. You see a real understanding that to achieve success a modern Army has to work with aid agencies, Non-Governmental Organisations, the private sector, religious and cultural bodies. In 77 Brigade you meet clever, creative thinkers who are also very much like soldiers you meet in any other unit in the Army. It is a highly operational unit with regulars and reservists working alongside each other with many deployed abroad.

I am proud to have this unique and ground-breaking organisation in West Berkshire. As it settles in to life at Hermitage, I am sure it will form as close a bond to our community as its predecessor, the Royal Engineers, did during their many years at the barracks.

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More heat than light?

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There are many good reasons for leaving the EU. There, I said it. Yes me, a card-carrying member of Stronger In, Conservatives In, Environmentalists for Europe, Countryside In and, if it existed, Newbury Pigeon Fanciers for In. I just think that the case for leaving is far outweighed by the case for remaining. But I am just one vote. With just three weeks to go I have come to a realisation. Our media and the London-centric chatterati do not share the same view on this as people outside the M25. Most people in the real world are not actually interested in what Boris may have said to Dave or what Nigel thinks of Michael, or whether Jeremy will share a platform with Dave or who made Boris' bus (yes, this is apparently an issue). Most of the electorate are having a serious think about this on their own or with their families, colleagues and friends.

 

Hustings in town and village halls are the warp and weave of politics for people like me and I like the opportunity to have a verbal tussle with political opponents. But as in elections there is a tendency to find that the majority of those coming to such events are doing so in support of one side or the other. Their minds are made up and they just see hustings in the same context as street theatre. But for the genuinely undecided, hustings often generate more heat than light. So I have decided to do something different.

 

I am having a series of conversations in the constituency. The first is on Friday 3rd June at the Burdwood Centre, Thatcham (starting at 6.30pm). The second is on Friday 10th June at Newbury Rugby Club (starting at 7pm). The object is not for me, or others attending, to harangue an audience but to calmly make the case why I believe Britain's future is better in the EU, and to take questions. I hope the "leave" campaign will do the same so that the genuinely undecided can have a similar conversation there. Of course there’s nothing wrong with a good argument, it is an indicator of vibrant democracy. But I hope this recognises that for many this is a difficult decision with huge implications and they deserve to be taken seriously.

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The Queen's Speech

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The Queen’s Speech this week, announcing the Government’s legislative programme for the year, included a number of measures which are especially relevant to us in West Berkshire.

A Digital Economy Bill will put new obligations on broadband providers to make sure that everyone has access to an affordable high speed internet connection. The Government believes that it is on track to get superfast broadband to 95 per cent of households by next year, and this week restated its determination to ensure that the final 5 per cent are not left behind. The Universal Service Obligation will mean that even the most remote areas will be legally entitled to fast broadband by 2020.

I’ve been pressing hard for measures to close the “digital divide” and the contract with Gigaclear ensures that rural West Berkshire is ahead of the game on this: 99.9% of households in West Berkshire, not already connected with BT or Virgin, are already on track to get superfast broadband.

A Local Growth and Jobs Bill represents the biggest change in local finance for decades, giving local authorities full control of the money they raise through business rates, so they can attract business and investment to their local areas. This is a change that I have been pressing Ministers to make and will go some way to resolving the very difficult funding issues faced by West Berkshire Council this year.

Also welcome is a Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill which is intended to reform planning and give local communities more power to control and shape their own area. The Education for All Bill will include the new funding formula to deliver the Government’s manifesto commitment for fair schools funding - a really welcome measure which I am keen to see enacted in West Berkshire. Our schools are not funded fairly and deserve equal treatment. Finally, with my interest in defence, I was pleased that this Queen’s Speech put investment in Britain’s armed forces on the agenda, together with securing the long-term future of our nuclear deterrent and giving our security and intelligence agencies the powers they need to keep us safe.

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A tale of two businesses

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Xtrac is one of the most exciting medium-sized companies in the country. It makes high precision transmission systems (gear boxes to you and me) mainly for the motor sport industry. It employs around 400 people, most of them at its factory in Thatcham. The company is owned by its workers and it takes on around four apprentices each year in an arrangement with Newbury College. I visited them last week with the Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Sajid Javid. Every time I visit Xtrac I leave with the warm glow you can only get from seeing a great company in action. Sajid had the same experience and it is vital that the success of this company becomes the model for so many more. Xtrac exports 77% of what it makes. Around half of this goes to the EU. The company’s award-winning Chairman, Peter Digby, said he was old enough to remember what trading in Europe was like before the single market. He and others leading this remarkable business have firmly pinned their colours to the “remain” side of the EU referendum debate.

Business excellence was something of a theme last week because I also got to visit a Newbury-based precision farming company called SOYL where I presented them with an innovation award. This was for iSOYL, a precision farming app developed by SOYL for the iPad and used by UK farmers. This spectacular piece of technology sits in the tractor cab and using satellite data it automatically regulates the amount of sprays and fertilizer that is applied to crops. It ensures that only what is required is applied. It ensures that features such as rivers and grass headlands are protected. The farmer saves money and the environment benefits. This product now has considerable export potential.

These two companies are world beaters and both have chosen West Berkshire as their home. They are part of the success story that has unemployment in West Berkshire at just 0.5% and economic growth outperforming much of the rest of the country.

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Top cop elections

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Anthony Stansfeld has been re-elected as the Thames Valley’s Police and Crime Commissioner. This role came into effect four years ago and a lack of understanding about it saw people elected on astonishingly low turnouts. This time the turnout was still pretty low but considerably higher than last time. There is perhaps more understanding that this role matters. Anthony is responsible for spending £365 million of your money each year. A sizable part of this amount is raised locally through a supplement to your Council Tax bill. Anthony has to focus the police on the key priorities he has put to the electorate. He has to juggle limited funds while coping with a wide range of demands for police activity. As well as what you might call routine police work such as traffic patrols, dealing with break-ins and keeping big events like football matches safe, Thames Valley Police have extra demands on their resources. Following the child sexual exploitation cases in Oxford they have had to put a lot of time and effort into investigating these cases and ensuring that the chances of this dreadful crime happening again anywhere are as limited as possible. They have responsibility for large rural communities which brings its own challenges in terms of policing. They also have a large number of high profile individuals to protect. These include, of course, the Queen and the Prime Minister.

Regardless of the fact that Anthony and I are from the same party, I think he deserved the endorsement he got from the electorate on Thursday. His determination to reduce crime has resulted in record low crime rates and an improving detection rate. He has maintained a balance between urban and rural crime. He has also put resources into protecting vulnerable people from exploitation. All of this has been done at a time when the police have had to face new terrorist threats and emerging crimes such as cyber fraud. He has achieved this with an honest, no-nonsense approach and, importantly for anyone in public office, a degree of humour. I wish him well for his next four year term.

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Richard Benyon was re-elected as the Member of Parliament for Newbury on 7 May 2015, with an increased majority of 26,368. Richard won 61 per cent of the vote share.

 

 

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