I am a firm believer in having MPs who represent individual constituencies (rather than a system like the European Parliament where a clutch of MEPs represent a region). There are many reasons for having a constituency system – but one of the most important is that, when ministers sit in rooms in London, making decisions on behalf of the country as a whole, each one of them will have particular experience of a particular part of something which they will know extremely well and with whose population they will be endlessly in touch in a very direct way.
Even American senators, who do have single constituencies, represent areas so vast that they deal with their constituents through a huge staff. By contrast, our constituencies are sufficiently small so that the connection between an MP and his or her constituents is very immediate – and this is all to the good.
I was reminded forcefully of these points a few days ago when I found myself in the unusual position of arriving in Dorchester, not as the local MP but as the Minister charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the lessons from the way in which the recent floods and storms were handled in Devon and in Dorset are properly learned, and for promoting the smooth running of the various recovery and repair programmes now underway in the two counties.
I had some very useful meetings, both with the authorities and agencies involved in the response and recovery work and with representatives from local parish councils and businesses. I was very conscious of the difference between the parts of the meetings where we were dealing with West Dorset and the parts of the meetings where we were dealing with other constituencies in Dorset or in Devon.
It all meant something to me of course but, when it came to West Dorset, I found myself equipped in a completely different way. There really is no substitute for direct knowledge of a place.
It was, of course, the battering taken by Lyme Regis, West Bay and Charmouth that constituted much the most vivid aspect of the bad weather we experienced in the winter months. And there is serious repair work to do – though I am delighted to be able to report that, at the meetings, I was able to confirm that the councils, the Environment Agency and English Heritage are all co-operating effectively to make all the repair work that is needed at the Cobb (the biggest project with which we are faced).
Moving north, the problem was not the great winds and tides but surface water rising due to the level of the water table.
Although the worst of this was in north Dorset and Somerset rather than in West Dorset, there have still been some serious surface water problems in the Sherborne area – and these are particularly intractable.
You can pretty easily (though rather expensively) build barriers to keep out the sea or to keep rivers within their banks. But it is by no means so easy to find ways of dealing with water that rises from the ground.