The Bridge Interviews
Robert Courts MP
The editors met Robert Courts at the end of a turbulent week in British politics. On the Wednesday Theresa May had given her brilliant/ill-fated/courageous/catastrophic speech (choose your own adjective according to taste) to the Conservative conference. On the Friday when we met, Grant Shapps had been outed as conspiring to assemble enough MPs to seek a vote of no confidence in her leadership. Robert had just been interviewed by BBC Radio on this subject. No, he told us, he was not one of the conspiring MPs and he had not been approached to join them. He stoutly supported the prime minister to carry on as leader of her party until the next general election. At the time The Bridge went to press she was still clinging on, but in these fast-moving times there may be a different story by the time you read this.
Asked about the current political turmoil, Robert said that the most important thing is for the government to concentrate on the job of dealing with Brexit and other issues. “The last thing we need is a period of navel-gazing as constituents want their MPs to concentrate on their jobs”. So how is Brexit going? “It is going very well”. There will be hard negotiations and there are bound to be some bumps in the road but the government has a “great team” handling this. We will come to a “sensible deal”, outside the customs union and the single market but with a close trading arrangement with the European Community and cooperation on defence and security. Does that mean what has in some quarters been called “Canada plus”? “Something like that, but it will be a bespoke free trade deal”.
What have been the most important issues Robert has been dealing with which affect his constituency? In no particular order he mentions the A40, planning and homes, schools, broadband, hospitals and defence issues which affect Brize Norton and Carterton.
He says that not enough new houses are being built and that they are too expensive, mainly because of the cost of land. At the same time new housing should be subject to democratic consent and housing should not be imposed where there is not enough infrastructure – roads, schools etc – to support it. New housing must also fit in with the architectural style of the area and he knows that this is a big issue in Burford with its unique collection of listed buildings. He has written a lengthy response to the government’s housing white paper and this can be seen on his website http://www.robertcourts.co.uk/downloads/housing-white-paper.pdf
Robert sees the emerging local plan as a vital part of this process. He points out that the new planning framework was only introduced in 2011 and there is a forthcoming green paper reviewing it to which he will contribute. He supports the approach that decisions on new housing are devolved to district level but points out that the numbers of houses are not decided by the district council – they are arrived at independently although the process for assessing the numbers has been challenged [a recent recalculation concluded that the need over the next 20 years for Oxfordshire as a whole is 68,000 rather than 100,000]. The district council has to decide where the housing is to go and its decisions are examined by a planning inspector to ensure that they are sound.
He is also in favour of local communities producing their own neighbourhood plans as those have local knowledge which is invaluable to the process. [This ball is now rolling in Burford, albeit gently].
He wants to see a multi-faceted approach to solving the problem of traffic on the A40. The county council wants the full length of the A40 to Oxford made into a dual carriageway with a slip road connecting it to the A34. People who travel to work on science and business parks on the outskirts of Oxford or in places like Abingdon are always going to need to drive to work, but at the same time public transport should be improved for those who can use it so that some traffic is taken off the roads. He tells us that before entering parliament he used to cycle eight miles each way between Bladon and Oxford with his work papers strapped on behind, although he accepts that not everyone can do this.
Robert did not find life as an MP came a surprise. He has been involved in politics for some time before his election so he had a good idea of what to expect. He was previously in practice at the bar but gave this up when he entered parliament. He explains that parliamentary debates used to take place in the evening so barristers could spend the day in court and go to the house afterwards. Now MPs have more family-friendly hours and being a member is a full-time job. He travels to London on Sunday evenings. The House of Commons sits late on Mondays. It rises earlier on Tuesdays and Wednesdays but there are often evening functions to attend. He usually is able to go home to Bladon on Thursday evening. Fridays and Saturdays are for constituency business. On Sunday he goes to church in one of the many parishes in this area. The rest of his time is his own.
He recalls that at the beginning of his career he read that the bar was “not so much a job, more a way of life”. He regards being an MP in the same light. You don’t go into it unless you really want to, and there is an inevitable sacrifice in terms of family life. However he does not regard himself as being exceptionally hard-working. Many other people work long hours and make sacrifices, he points out, not least members of the armed services who may go abroad and not see their families for months on end.
Robert has lived in Bladon since 2010. He previously lived and worked in Winchester while his then girlfriend (now wife) Kathryn lived in Warwick where she worked as a music therapist. Oxfordshire was a convenient midway point for them and Bladon was a natural choice for him as he has a strong interest in Winston Churchill. He has been a member of the Churchill Centre for many years and regularly reviews books for its quarterly journal, Finest Hour. He is a member of the Bladon parochial church council and therefore shares responsibility for the maintenance of the church and the churchyard where Churchill is buried. In 2015 he organised a campaign which raised £40,000 for a memorial window in the church.
He and his wife enjoy walking, particularly along the Palladian Way which runs from Buckingham to Bath. On one occasion they walked the section from Woodstock to Burford in one day. They have also walked along Hadrian’s Wall
Robert has had an exciting ride over the last year or so. The Witney by-election received a lot of coverage and he had the possibly unique experience of being photographed while campaigning between two prime ministers – May and Cameron.
He now has to get used to being approached by constituents who recognise him on the train and his son Henry (14 months) is becoming accustomed to having his photograph taken at constituency events.
He does not share the view of the Labour MP Laura Pidcock who recently announced that she had “absolutely no intentions of being friends with any Tories”. He says there is scope for cross-party cooperation and that you achieve more if you can cooperate. “On a personal level, MPs of all parties can get on; they have one thing in common, which is that they share the understanding of what it is like to be an MP”
Robert was elected at a by-election in October last year after David Cameron stood down to spend more time in his shepherd’s hut. The new MP first entered the House of Commons chamber to be sworn in on a day when the prime minister was about to make a statement. The house was full, the atmosphere was electric and he will remember this to his dying day. He first spoke in the house during prime minister’s questions. He was sitting around 12 feet from the PM but had to strain to hear what she was saying. When we see it on television we can hear what is being said with the help of microphones but inside the chamber it is even noisier.
What would he do if he was told he could achieve one reform? “To solve the A40 traffic problem” was his immediate reply.