February 2023: News from MP Darren Jones

Ministers must negotiate to resolve public sector strikes 

For our nurses, teachers, fire fighters and other public service workers, the cost-of-living crisis is having a huge impact. The storm that’s brewing in the UK over workers’ pay and working conditions is expected thanks to such a poor performance on the economy from successive Chancellors. The diagnosis is well understood, but Ministers need to resolve it now. 

Instead of negotiating with public servants and their unions, the Government decided to introduce emergency legislation that could ban them from striking. The Government promised to introduce legislation to improve workers’ rights but has said for the third year in a row that there hasn’t been sufficient time to do so. I was therefore surprised to see this emergency Bill being rushed through. 

We are still waiting on the details of the new Bill, but the elevator pitch is that if you work in healthcare, the emergency services, education, transport, border security or nuclear decommissioning, then you are only allowed to strike if the workforce can meet a set minimum level of service. Most people would agree this sounds reasonable, but Ministers haven’t even tried to agree minimum service levels before introducing legislation. If it’s 95% of what normally happens every day, then it will effectively be a ban on the right to strike. After years of public sector workers raising the red flag after years of austerity, what else can they do?

Meanwhile, actual storm clouds have gathered over Bristol in recent weeks, bringing a deluge of prolonged rainfall. The storm overflows that followed, pumping sewage into our waterways, was at the forefront of my mind as I visited the Wessex Water site in Avonmouth in mid-January.

The chief executive of Wessex Water wrote to me towards the end of 2022 to share his latest data on storm overflows. The data shows they’ve achieved a significant reduction in the number of discharges: down from 679 in the 2020/21 monitoring period to 281 for the same period in 2021/22, and discharges during the bathing season reduced from 242 to 85. Promising news! He attributes this, in part, to the company’s continued investment to improve and eliminate overflows – currently £3m  per month.

During my visit I was keen to find out more about the new legislation that they say is needed to free us from these cursed overflows completely. Wessex Water says legislation is needed to prevent new developments from connecting surface water to combined sewers, and to give water companies the power to retrospectively disconnect surface water from privately owned roofs and driveways (to instead discharge locally to the ground).

Since I’m writing this on the day of my visit, I need time to fully consider this call for new legislation. But, with the swell of feeling from constituents contacting my office about sewage in our rivers and seas, I’ll do what I can to help raise this matter in Parliament.

Moving from water to air pollution, the Clean Air Zone has now been in force for a couple of months. I understand the Clean Air Zone is necessary to make Bristol’s air cleaner and healthier – especially given the recent media reports that Bristol’s traffic congestion is second in the UK only to London. However, I would like to see the exemptions that were introduced for low-income residents and Blue Badge holders remain for the duration that the zone is in place. With the temporary exemptions currently set to expire on 31st March, I plan to discuss this with the council as a matter of urgency. 

Another bone of contention with the Clean Air Zone is the inclusion of the A4/Portway, as it makes it difficult for constituents to drive to South Bristol and Bristol Airport without incurring the charge, even if they have no intention of heading into the city centre. Following a letter sent to Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, I have been successful in securing the installation of traffic pollution monitors at various points from Sea Mills to the Downs. This will show if cars are naturally re-routing and therefore just moving pollution from one area to another, or whether the zone is reducing the number of polluting vehicles from our roads. If it’s the former, then I’m confident we can have the Portway removed from the zone in the medium term.

The Clean Air Zone isn’t the only scheme to reduce Bristol’s air pollution. I welcome the council’s scheme of banning cars from being driven outside schools during drop-off and pick-up times – an idea that I had put forward for consideration previously. I’m pleased this scheme will now be extended to three more schools in Bristol.

As always, if you need my help or have a question, you can get in touch with me on e-mail at darren.jones.mp@parliament.uk, by calling my office on 0117 959 6545 or by writing to me at the House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA.