SIR ALAN BEITH: Rural communities lose out

The A1 to the south of the Felton junction.
The A1 to the south of the Felton junction.

Within a week we should have confirmation of which sections of the A1 north of Morpeth will be dualled soon.

I am confident that there will be a specific announcement in the Autumn Statement, because I have been working closely with Liberal Democrat Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander, who is responsible for the infrastructure part of the statement.

We would not be making this much progress but for Danny Alexander’s personal commitment, backed by Nick Clegg, to give priority to the A1 because of its strategic importance.

NHS FOR ALL

Just because we live in a rural area, those in our community who cannot easily get someone to drive them to distant hospitals are at risk of being penalised for where they live.

I have had numerous recent cases of people who need patient transport – not an emergency ambulance but transport for treatment or tests at Wansbeck, North Shields or Newcastle hospitals – being told over the telephone that if they can get to the shops they can get to hospital.

It really is not good enough in a National Health Service, and I am working with health managers to try to get things improved quickly.

As soon as the problem was brought to me I arranged a meeting with the people in charge of the Clinical Commissioning Group. I think the problem has been caused by over-rigid and unthinking application of general rules about who is entitled to transport.

The decisions on transport are made by telephone operators employed by the ambulance service and I have been assured that in future that they will ask an additional question – is your journey to hospital more difficult than your journey to get your regular shopping?

Frankly, it should be pretty obvious if someone in Powburn or Scots Gap or Craster is asking how on earth they can get to North Shields, to the Freeman or even to Wansbeck.

This will involve at least two buses and sometimes three in each direction. The buses do not connect and some do not even stop anywhere near each other.

Most people who have not already been there have no idea where Rake Lane hospital or the Freeman Hospital actually are.

So my advice in the meantime is that if you are faced with a difficult hospital journey, explain clearly why it is too difficult to manage by yourself on public transport.

If your treatment means you would not be fit either to drive home or even to travel on the bus, make that clear.

And ask whether the test, consultation or treatment can be done nearer home, at Alnwick Infirmary, at Rothbury Hospital or at your local GP surgery – too often I have found that appointments are available locally but people are not told that they have this alternative. And I am constantly pressing for more treatments to be available locally.

Clearly, when you need the most complex facilities or the most specialised medical attention, you should go to where you can get it, and we are fortunate in the very high quality of much of the specialist medical attention available, both in Newcastle hospitals and at the Wansbeck. If you still face a difficult hospital journey and are refused help, do let me know. I want to see this problem sorted out.

The Trust which runs our local hospitals including Wansbeck (but not the Newcastle hospitals) has asked me to chair an advisory group to oversee work they want to do on improving transport and access to hospitals for patients in our area.

This work was planned before we were hit by the latest clamp-down on patient transport, but I intend to use this initiative to push for better provision.

I have asked for the next meeting to be in Alnwick and for both the Clinical Commissioning Group and the Newcastle Hospitals to be involved.

CITY AND COUNTRY

It is not just in health that rural areas feel that they are treated less favourably than the cities.

I arranged for the Prime Minister to face questions from senior MPs who chair the House of Commons select committees on how England is going to be governed following further devolution to Scotland.

The Coalition Government has a good record in beginning the transfer of more power from Whitehall to big cities like Manchester and Liverpool. But looking at our area, for example, giving more power to Newcastle or Tyneside would do little or nothing for Northumberland and County Durham.

That is why the councils, including Northumberland and Durham, have got together to create a combined authority for major strategic purposes, and it is to that body which more power may be passed down.

But, as we pointed out to the Prime Minister, so long as Scotland has the Barnett formula and tax-raising powers, areas like the North East will have nothing like the same opportunity to tackle their problems through deciding how money should be spent.

A further problem is that rural voices, and voices other than those of the Labour Party, have no say in the running of the new combined authority as at present constituted, and hardly any say even in the oversight of what it does.

Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London all have powerful bodies which are elected by fair proportional systems, so as to make sure that they have to take account of the whole of their area and the whole range of opinion; power in the North should not be concentrated in an urban one-party mini-state, and the combined authority should have its leadership chosen on a fair proportional basis.

A FAIR PINT

It is fairly well known that I am not a beer drinker, but in the House of Commons last week I voted against the Government, and with my Liberal Democrat colleague Greg Mulholland, in a bid to put landlords who are tenants of big pub companies in a fairer position when they want to buy their beers more widely and more cheaply.

The reason the Government was not going as far as we wanted was that some Conservatives, taking the side of the big pub companies, wanted to restrict the competitive freedom which an all-party campaign was trying to secure.

The campaign had the support of the Campaign for Real Ale, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Guild of Master Victuallers. Greg Mulholland made clear that his amendment would have no effect on the increasingly popular micro-breweries or the family breweries who own fewer than 500 pubs.

Well, we won the vote, and the Government will now have to take more notice of this valuable campaign, which is closely linked to the campaign to save many smaller pubs which are under threat.