Hitchin and Harpenden MP Bim Afolami on Brexit, train services, school funding and the redevelopment of Churchgate shopping centre.

Bim Afolami has defended his Parliamentary voting record, which has drawn criticism from pro-EU groups, insisting that – despite voting Remain in the 2016 referendum – his manifesto promised he would work towards implementing the Leave result.

He said therefore he is in support of Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement: “You have got the Labour Party who are opposing it for political reasons. They want a chaotic situation so they can benefit from it politically.

“I criticise them, but this is opposition politics. It is pointless me whinging and saying the Labour Party’s job is to make our lives easier.

“The Liberal Democrats say ‘we want to save our jobs, investments, universities, etc’, and yet they are the people, by voting against this [withdrawal agreement], dragging us into a no-deal Brexit.

“So that is the choice. I refuse to play political games with people’s jobs and lives. That is why I am backing the efforts to get this agreement through.”

Mr Afolami, who has recently been appointed parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to the Secretary of State for International Development, said he also does not support a People’s Vote: “To be honest, the British public and MPs don’t really want one. It hasn’t caught fire.

“So the responsible thing to do now is say, ‘I haven’t got what I want’ – you don’t always get that in politics – ‘but how do I contribute positively to this and to the country?’

“That is what we should be focusing on. How do we make this exit the smoothest, most effective, most profitable and most prosperous that we can.”

He also believes the current structure of Network Rail should be decentralised: “I need to have a phone number and I need to know personally the Network Rail person responsible for, say, east of England services.

“That person needs to be all over what happens with signalling and timetabling in our area. At the moment Network Rail is too big, it is too distant, and the relation between them, the operator and the passenger doesn’t work well at all.”

However, he also said the 2.97 per cent fare increase across Great Northern and Thameslink services is “something we can live with”, because it is in line with inflation.

Mr Afolami stressed, however, that £15 million is being redistributed into passenger benefit projects.

The MP also spoke about school funding: “There is a real difficulty around a lot of our rural primary schools because, frankly, we are not in a deprived enough area to get lots of top-up funding.

“A typical primary school in a rural area, in my constituency, gets half the funding that a school in London might get of the same size per kid. That just isn’t sustainable at all, we need to really readdress the balance here.”

Teachers and headteachers should also be allowed more freedom to experiment with the curriculum and in lessons, Mr Afolami said.

“We also need to think about how we conduct lessons. Are we really training young people in the ways the modern workforce is going to require? We are still operating in a world where a lot of preparing for exams is rote learning. Is that really, in all instances, what we need to be doing?”

He is also optimistic about the regeneration of Hitchin’s Churchgate shopping centre: “This needs to be gripped and needs to be grasped.

“There are some complex contractual issues to do with it, so it’s not the easiest thing in the world but, fundamentally, with the will of the local MP, and I’m putting a lot into this, the government willing to help out through its Future High Streets Fund, and making sure we put the bid in the right way, we can.

“I don’t know if this bid [for the Future High Street Fund] is going to be successful, but what I do know is this whole process will bring everybody together.”

He stressed that a new Hitchin shopping centre would need to reflect the 21st century: “Undoubtedly, in the centre of Hitchin there will have to be both more modern retail spaces that can be used for start-ups, pop-ups, and those sort of more dynamic new innovative shopping environments, and there is not as much need for as much retail space as there has been because the truth is the modern high street is not necessarily in that place.

“I’m not a town centre designer, I would never pretend to be, however the Future High Streets Fund gives us an opportunity to put together a new, innovative way of how Hitchin should work.”