Hilary Benn - Member of Parliament for Leeds Central
Slung Low, Leeds Baby Bank and Smart Motorways
It was a great pleasure recently to visit Slung Low in their new home in Holbeck. Slung Low is a really imaginative and energetic theatre company that brings performing to the heart of our community and builds links all over the place. I first met Alan Lane and his team a few years ago when they were based in a couple of railway arches in Holbeck, and I have watched their development ever since, including delivering food parcels during the pandemic (when performing wasn’t, of course, possible). Their next big project will be hosting performances of Benjamin Britten’s Noah’s Flood with a full orchestra and pupils from Ingram Road primary school – dressed in suitable animal costumes – two by two, of course.
Slung Low have a wonderful motto which is: be good, be kind. And they certainly live up to it.
I visited Leeds Baby Bank a couple of weeks ago to help hand over a cheque which Persimmon Homes had kindly given to support their work. Like our local food banks, there is huge demand for the practical help they give to new mums and their babies, and their stockroom was piled high with baby clothes, nappies, mattresses, buggies, and other essentials.
Leeds Baby Bank was set up in January 2017 by the co-founders who had a shared interest in supporting families in and around Leeds. Since then, the charity has grown at great speed. It works on a referral only basis from professionals working directly with families like social workers, midwives and GPs. They are currently dealing with about 200 referrals a month.
The Baby Bank estimates that there are at least 33,000 children living in poverty in Leeds – that’s around 20 per cent in comparison to 17 per cent nationally. Children experiencing poverty are more likely to face a wide range of difficulties, both in day-to-day life and in the future, and Leeds Baby Bank is all about helping children to thrive and to grow. It’s such an important and a worthy cause and if you want to donate to them then here is the link: https://leedsbabybank.org/donations/
The Government has finally decided that there will be no new smart motorways. I welcome this decision because I think they are inherently dangerous. If you use what was previously the hard shoulder as a live running lane on a motorway and you break down, unless you happen to be close to one of the yellow refuges then you have to stop where you are with vehicles coming up behind you at high speed. Tragically, official figures show that there were 38 recorded deaths on smart motorways between 2015 and 2019, and as AA president Edmund King said, ‘We have had enough coroners passing down their deadly and heart-breaking judgments where the lack of a hard shoulder has contributed to deaths.”
But what about existing smart motorway lanes and those that are in construction? I’ve just called on the Transport Secretary to abandon the plan to convert the hard shoulder into a live lane between junction 2 and 3 of the M621 in Leeds, and I also think that ministers should go further and reinstate the hard shoulder on all existing smart motorway stretches.
It’s taken quite a long time to get to a point where common sense has prevailed, but it does show that campaigning works.
Talking of which, we have just celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that has brought peace to Northern Ireland.
Like so many people, I grew up watching the Troubles on the television. I will never forget the only time that I heard an IRA bomb go off. It wasn’t a bang, but as I heard it, a kind of deep thump. It was two and a half miles away, but the sound had travelled through the night air.
If someone had said to me at that precise moment, “I know you may be despairing, Hilary, but one day Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness will sit side by side with each other as the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in a power-sharing Government”, I would probably have said “I would love to live to see that, but I do not suppose I will.” Well, I did. We did. And that tells us how extraordinary that moment was.
And what did we learn ? First, that peace is built step by step.
The second lesson is persistence. All of those who did their bit over the years did not give up.
And the third lesson is about courage. In conflicts when people feel a wrong has been done to them, it is actually much easier to sit there and say, “I am a victim”. We should therefore reflect on the courage that was required on the Unionist side to say, “You know what, they’re nearly half of the population, and we’re going to have to share power with them,” and on the part of the Provisional IRA leaders to say, “You know what, we can’t bomb Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom.” Those were two very courageous steps to take – at great personal risk – but without them the Agreement would not have happened. In the end, the parties to the conflict recognised that they had to compromise in the interests of peace.
That, I think, is the true legacy of that miraculous Good Friday 25 years ago.
First published in the May edition of South Leeds Life, available online here https://southleedslife.com/mps-notebook-slung-low-leeds-baby-bank-and-smart-motorways/