Q&A: Weston's MP John Penrose
PUBLISHED: 16:00 31 July 2017
In June, John Penrose was voted back as Weston-super-Mare's MP in the General Election. Mercury reporter Sarah Robinson sat down with him for an in-depth interview into some of the town's biggest issues, including travel, education and Birnbeck Pier.
What do you feel are your biggest achievements from your 12 years as Weston’s MP?
John Penrose said: “One of the first things I campaigned on was to try to clean up Weston. Then there was a really severe problem with rehabs and drug addiction in the town. It was the right thing to do because Weston had addicts sent from other parts of the country and they were not being looked after properly and they didn’t have a good chance to stay clean.”
“It was the necessary first step to unlock the door to more investment in Weston which was what it needed, and still needs, to get the economy moving properly. That was a big team effort.
“The number of rehab beds dropped dramatically, and what we were left with was fewer and better rehabs and fewer addicts, and those who are here have a better chance to get clean and stay clean.”
What have been the main challenges in those 12 years?
Mr Penrose said: “Since then, it has been about trying to make sure the town’s economy has a chance to rebuild and regrow – an economic rebirth.
“Economic rebirth is an ongoing process. It has been good for several years now, but we can’t stop now. We are great at creating more jobs and faster than other places. The unemployment rate is much lower than the national average.
“There is still more to do. There are still sites we all want to see improved.”
What does the town need to do to ensure the economy can rebuild?
Mr Penrose said: “Because the town is growing, we need to carry on investing in transport. That is absolutely essential so customers, visitors and businesses can come and go from Weston easily.
“The transport infrastructure is better, but it needs to carry on expanding. The council have been doing stuff to try to make the arrival to Weston gateway between the station and the seafront to make it more impressive and more welcoming.”
What is the current state of Weston’s education system?
Mr Penrose said: “The number of pupils has gone up but a higher proportion are getting a really great education than was the case a generation ago.
“For years, we were under the national average for people going on to further education to get more qualifications. Schools are raising aspirations.
“A higher proportion of pupils are getting better qualifications and having more skills and life chances. That’s one of the key drivers behind Weston’s economic rebirth and the fact it is creating more jobs faster than the national average.
“Investors looking at Weston see it as a good place to open because there is a pool of talent and trained people they can hire. That’s a really big transformation and making a big difference to the town.
“It doesn’t mean everything is rosy. I have regular conversations with parents, governors and headteachers, and there are concerns about ongoing discussions on whether schools will become academies in their own right or join another trust.
“That is a decision for individual schools to take. Most are in groups they are comfortable in.”
You and the Mercury have both campaigned for fairer funding for education in North Somerset, where it has historically been bad. What is the current situation looking like?
Mr Penrose said: “The funding formula is not finished yet, but the latest second and third drafts look better than the first.
“The campaign has been running for 10 years. It is potentially a really good thing, providing the details work. It could be nearly there, hopefully but I’m not counting any chickens.”
The difficulties parents with children with special education needs face in North Somerset was raised quite a lot during the election period. At the Mercury, we have seen more parents getting in touch to say they are having troubles with the system. Is that something you have also seen, and what is being done about it?
Mr Penrose said: “Being contacted by parents is something that has started to happen more often in the past six to nine months. It’s gone from a drip of messages, to a trickle.
“For quite a lot of children with special needs, the system works well because they can be accommodated in mainstream school with a bit of help. It’s people whose needs are more specialised is when it is more difficult.
“I have a meeting with the council officials to talk about this and find out where North Somerset sits and are we better or worse than the national average.
“I need to find out if I am I going back to Parliament to say ‘there is a problem here, please fix this’ or ‘nationally, we have a problem here’.”
Birnbeck Pier is still deteriorating, and there are no hints from the owners, CNM Estates, about what it wants to do with it. What pressure are you putting on Birnbeck Pier’s owners?
Mr Penrose: “Birnbeck Pier is a classic example of one of those remaining eyesores in Weston.
“I am continuing to put Birnbeck’s owners under pressure. At the moment, they seem impervious to pressure. That doesn’t mean I will give up. They don’t seem to care about how they are viewed by the community in and around Weston.
“They might as well stand aside and let someone who does care about it take over. But they will not do that.”
What is next for Weston?
Mr Penrose said: “I think Weston now has the potential to be a sort of economic hub in its own right.
“After the tourism industry went through a really rough time when it became cheap to fly to Spain in the early 1980s, for a couple of decades Weston lost its self-confidence. We thought about ourselves as a dormitory for Bristol.
“The early Westonians would not have recognised that, because Weston was a proud economic local powerhouse in its own right.
“I think we are getting to the point where we can regain that self-confidence.
“Weston has now become its own travel to work area. We have people coming in to Weston, both in-commuting and out-commuting. It shows Weston is standing on its own feet.
“Weston’s motto is ‘ever forward’. Let’s get a bit of that pride and self-confidence back because economically we can get a bit of that economic swagger back.”