Toby Lloyd: Two years since Johnson promised to level up Britain, has the detail proven better than the spin?

27 Jul

Toby Lloyd is a former special adviser to Theresa May and Chair of the Create Streets Foundation’s No Place Left Behind Commission on prosperity and community placemaking.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over two years since Boris Johnson stood on the steps of Downing Street for the first time and promised to “level up” the country. I missed the speech, as I was slipping out of the back door of No 10 at the time, having been stripped of my pass, phone and laptop, along with the rest of Theresa May’s advisers, as part of the brutally clinical hand-over ritual that each outgoing PM must go through.

To us policy hacks, regrouping in the sweltering heat of a nearby bar, “levelling-up” seemed like one of those sound bites that would be quickly dropped, to join May’s “burning injustices” and David Cameron’s Big Society in the pile of unifying concepts that never quite worked.

After all, few people know what it means, and many of those that do actively dislike the idea, as Rachel Wolf pointed out on this site – and even ministers have been accused of a “complete lack of understanding” of the agenda. In the wake of the Chesham and Amersham by-election, the logic goes, it’s time to drop all this nonsense and pivot back to the base.

But instead of dropping it, the Government has doubled down on levelling-up. There’s a £4.8 billion government fund bearing it’s name. The appointment of Neil O’Brien to lead the development of the forthcoming levelling-up white paper shows real commitment to the agenda – not just lip service to an electoral strategy. And Johnson chose to speak for a full hour on the subject recently. Clearly, levelling-up is here to stay.

Which makes it even odder that it’s still not clear what it actually means, and no agreed indicators to measure success or failure by. Last week Johnson seemed to imply that disparities in life expectancy were the best indicator of regional inequality, and even that he had single handedly raised the life expectancy of all Londoners in his term as Mayor.

Life expectancy is an excellent proxy for all sorts of things, and a very robust data point – so if the Government is making that it’s central metric of levelling-up it could silence the carping of the wonks.

And it’s obviously a good policy aim to level up life expectancy across the country. Given the new shift in electoral geography it may be smart politics too. But it’s not necessarily great comms to tell your new voters that they’re going to die sooner than your traditional base – especially if you don’t have a really good plan for how you’re going to change this.

In this regard, Johnson’s latest attempt to flesh out the vision was rather thinner. Much of his emphasis was on crime, big transport infrastructure, better broadband connections, and education. All of which are excellent subjects for public investment – but it’s hard to see how they will turn around the sense of neglect accumulated over decades in some of our most left behind places. HS2 is certainly not about to increase life expectancy in seaside towns that have seen better days.

Part of the problem is that whenever Johnson – or anyone else – tries to explain levelling-up, they have to grapple with big economic structural forces at the same time as hyper local factors; hard infrastructure as well as a more intangible senses of pride and community.

While big national kit is expensive, and often controversial, it’s at least something clear you can announce and eventually, hopefully, cut a ribbon in front of. Dealing with local issues from the Prime Ministerial pulpit can seem incongruous at best, patronising at worst. Although all politicians love a positive message of national pride for all, with or without implied criticism of all other nations for being just not quite as good as us, the resentments between different parts of the country are much harder for a PM to speak to.

The result can be vague, even incoherent, and easy to ridicule: you’re not going to reverse 50 years of deindustrialisation with a few quid for removing chewing gum from pavements. But despite all these vulnerabilities, it is the right approach, because the problems of left behind places, and of geographic inequality more broadly, really are both big and small, hard and soft, at the same time.

The dog mess and graffiti that spoil the local park really matters – as does the damage to town centres wrought by 1960s urban motorways and the decline of seaside tourism. Levelling-up, and left behind places, work as concepts precisely because they speak to both dimensions at once.

If you want proof that being left behindness cannot be boiled down purely to economic data, look no further than the Brexit referendum. The Index of Multiple Deprivation, an excellent source of data on poverty, tells you almost nothing about the likelihood of a place voting Leave or Remain.

By contrast, the Community Needs Index, formulated by Local Trust to identify which places really are left behind, has a strong correlation with voting leave. Poverty matters, hugely, but it doesn’t describe everything. We need a more subtle, more human, understanding of why some parts of the country feel neglected. Elected politicians often have a better nose for this sort of thing than policy wonks like me.

The politicians also have an answer to the technocrats’ critique that levelling-up lacks a precise metric. Goodhart’s law states that once a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. This is because individual and organisational behaviour adjusts to hit the target, but frequently misses the point. This iron law of policy surely applies to concepts as messily human as levelling up: there can be no simple measure of levelling-up – but we’ll know it if we see it.

More serious is the risk that such a broad agenda creates the perfect conditions for waffly speeches with impressive but context-free numbers, and reports celebrating nice things happening in diverse places.

These are invariably a means of avoiding difficult decisions and trade-offs. Isn’t it lovely that this community group has got a grant to bring that abandoned Victorian workhouse building back into use as hub for local business and community activity! No need to ask why it had been left empty for decades, raise the spectre of tricky tax changes, or to worry about the future viability of those lovely new micro-enterprises.

The solution to these tensions is to return to the beginning. The entire levelling-up agenda is about place: places that feel left behind, people who live in places that have been poorly served by state and market alike for too long. Here the Government’s strategy is better than Johnson’s speech. There is real money on offer for improving town centres, for local transport, for communities to take ownership of the assets they need to shape change. To make this investment work, it has to be combined with a coherent attitude to localism, as Paul Goodman argued.

I would add that Whitehall also has to start trusting local people and, yes, local government a bit more and get over its addiction to competitive bidding for time limited pots. These waste huge amounts of energy as councils and community groups complete endless bids promising subtly different outcomes for the same projects – and inevitably mean that those best at playing this game win at the expense of the others.

This is no way to overcome division and level up. Better to follow the call for “localism on steroids” from Bill Grimsey, the former CEO of multiple high street business, and empower local communities to redesign their town centres to meet the needs of the 21st Century.

This is the territory that the Create Streets Foundation’s No Place Behind Commission is exploring – and in the next few months will be proposing real reforms and investments to turn the good intent into reality. The real test of the levelling-up agenda will not be how it scores on socioeconomic metrics, but whether it can start a process of empowerment, improvement and investment that makes left behind places look and feel better. for the communities that live in them.

If the Government wants to hit Net Zero, it will have to foot the bill

27 Jul

This morning’s papers report that there may be yet another Government u-turn, this time on green policy. According to The Sun, ministers are preparing to give families more time to switch from ‘dirty’ gas boilers to greener alternatives.

British homes apparently make up a substantial chunk of this country’s emissions, and changing that has therefore to be front and centre of the Government’s plans to achieve ‘Net Zero’.

However, overhauling millions of houses will be eye-wateringly expensive. And unlike a big set-piece project such as a new power station or similar, it will cause disruption for many millions of voters.

Worst, it will impose costs too. The impact of simply legislating to ban gas boilers, which was the Government’s plan, is to impose the financial burden of replacing them on ordinary households. Some in Whitehall were pushing for ‘carbon cheques’ to help offset such costs – but these have been vetoed by the Treasury. Instead, the boiler ban may get pushed back by up to 15 years.

Is this an example of the lamented ‘Treasury brain’, which has often seen the UK’s long-term policy priorities subordinated to Exchequer shibboleths? Or does this row simply highlight the shortcomings of the ‘legally-binding targets’ approach to policymaking?

I have written before about how it increases the democratic process’s exposure to judicial meddling. But it is also a problem of trying to impose rigid plans on an unknowable future. Large amounts of green spending must have seemed much more practical before the Treasury’s extraordinary interventions to support the economy through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Then there’s new technology. No doubt Net Zero will help to drive R&D investment in clean tech, and this will be extremely welcome. But even if so, the exact nature and timescale of technological change is very hard to predict.

To take just one example, one reason New Labour reject the UK Ultraspeed maglev alternative to HS2 was expert advice to the effect that its green benefits would be offset by the coal burned to generate the energy it needed and the pollution caused by passengers driving to out-of-town stations. Yet we have already all but banished coal from British energy generation, and by the time even HS2 is finished the Government plans to be well on the way to the electric car revolution!

It seems an unenviable dilemma. The more politicians put off interventions towards Net Zero, the more brutal the scramble to hit it as the deadline approaches. But the earlier they move, the greater the chances of a policy being overtaken by events or technological change.

One can see why politicians with an eye on today’s electorate might be tempted to start putting off expensive decisions. But if the Government wants to hit Net Zero, it is going to have to foot the bill.

Ben Houchen: Achieving hydrogen heat for the nation is worth investing in – as Teesside can prove

27 Jul

Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.

As we approach COP26, the Government has been firm in its commitment to lead the world in decarbonising our economy and to see Britain become a pioneer in a new green industrial revolution. From powering Britain’s chemical industry to keeping our homes warm, these laudable aspirations mean big challenges on the ground.

As the Tees Valley Mayor, I see all around the amazing technological advances we are making which will make this possible, but I’m also acutely aware of how pressed many hard-working families already are by rising energy prices.

There is increasing anxiety about the cost of Net Zero. As Daniel Hannan has also emphasised on this website, the climate challenge needs to be tackled not with millenarian self-indulgence but with practical, level-headed, down-to-earth solutions.

Though some on the Left may think otherwise, the Treasury’s coffers are not bottomless. Jacob Young, Redcar’s MP, was right to recently warn on ConservativeHome that green policies needed to be affordable for ordinary people, and that’s true whether the burden falls on people through taxation or through rising living costs.

In Teesside, there’s nothing we do better than practical solutions. For years, Labour politicians have instead tried to drag us down the road of griping self-indulgently in the hope of a few more handouts, without offering real answers. Since my election in 2017 I’ve worked hard to reverse this and unleash the true spirit of Teesside.

Now, Teesside is tackling challenges and seizing the day, from manufacturing vaccines in Billingham to being the first part of the country to welcome e-scooter trials, bringing many people a flexible, affordable, and Covid-regulation compliant commuting option. And I believe our biggest contributions on the horizon are going to be the ones which will make Net Zero affordable and even profitable for Britain.

The Government is soon going to publish its Heat and Buildings Strategy, which will attract a lot of attention – rightly so, because it will lay out the Government’s approach to affordably achieving significant efficiencies in heating our homes. Less widely anticipated are the detailed guidelines for the Government’s hydrogen village trials, but these will be essential in actually delivering on more widely-quoted aspirates for homes powered through green technology.

Customer choice is essential in domestic energy, as in most areas of life. However, many fashionable options for designer homes won’t work for many ordinary people. In terraced streets or in blocks of flats, electric heat pumps are a non-starter. Many electric technologies may struggle to give elderly people the quick and powerful heating which is needed to keep people not just comfortable but safe in much of the North in winter. In many cases, only hydrogen can effectively overcome the difficulties. Making hydrogen work as a real alternative for natural gas is imperative.

There have been a variety of tests of hydrogen technology in homes, but these have been limited to proving that hydrogen is fundamentally safe, and that it could run safely through its own new and expensive pipe network. What we now need to prove is that the existing network can be very affordably repurposed to safely deliver gas to all the different kinds of homes people want to continue to live in, with minimal disruption and reversible technology.

Scientists and engineers in my region are working on some amazing plans to deliver this. Wedded to assumptions about electric heating developed in Whitehall many years ago and long since overtaken by cutting-edge research, some in government still work on the basis that hydrogen must be outlandishly expensive because of a need to replace all the gas pipes in the country. In Teesside, we can prove that these fears are unfounded and that hydrogen really can be the solution we all need.

The time for tinkering trials has come to an end. Achieving hydrogen heat for the nation is worth investing in, and I am urging the Government to ensure that we secure the right level of participation in these trials by subsidising participants’ bills.

We can’t test the affordability of this technology if ordinary people are put off from joining the trial by the risk of costs for new hobs, potential short-term heating bill increases, and reversing any trial technology if it proves necessary. We also need to be looking to scale up the planned hydrogen village to a hydrogen town at a much faster pace than over-cautious bureaucrats are planning.

In a sense, hydrogen heating is a back to the future technology – Britain’s houses were heated by hydrogen until North Sea gas was found and took over the network within many of our lifetimes. To that extent, we are looking at tried and tested British technology which just needs to be honed to ensure it’s safer than ever and genuinely affordable for ordinary people today.

But the development of blue hydrogen and green hydrogen is what is putting hydrogen back on the energy map. Making green energy for homes affordable isn’t just about pipes and boilers but about the supply of hydrogen. Again, my part of the country has the answers we need.

Teesside already produces more than half of the UK’s hydrogen. The pioneering Carbon Capture technology of Net Zero Teesside will create the clean blue hydrogen which ought to be a big part of the Government’s plans to affordably bridge our energy transition – blue hydrogen needs to be incorporated in as many trials as possible and ministers make sure that it is consistently backed.

We’re also doing outstanding research into green hydrogen, whose production can become increasingly affordable. Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool are key to making hydrogen supply affordable. Achieving critical mass in this technology is also crucial to securing the future of Britain’s chemical industry, so much of which is based in my region.

What is even more exciting is that, by leading the way in hydrogen technology, Britain can set itself up to export our green technological revolution to the world, just as we exported the technology of the first industrial revolution across the Earth.

This kind of technology can be a significant part of Global Britain’s international trade offering, securing prosperity and a better quality of life for our people. But to position ourselves to achieve this, first we have to get the basics right. Little is more basically essential than securing an affordable power supply for British homes, and I will do all I can to help our government to make the future-proofed choices and the investments that can achieve this.

Newslinks for Tuesday 27th July 2021

27 Jul

Coronavirus 1) Compulsory vaccine passports ‘could spark first Tory Party split in nearly 200 years’

“Boris Johnson could spark the first split in the Tory Party in nearly 200 years if he brings in compulsory vaccine passports, a senior Conservative has warned. Former minister Steve Baker made the explosive prediction as football clubs, universities and raging MPs all hammered the plan. While senior scientists warned that “using the stick approach” could massively backfire and put youngsters off getting the jab. The PM has sparked uproar by threatening to make uni students get both jabs in order to attend lectures or stay in halls of residence. He is mulling the idea as a nuclear option to force the ‘missing 3 million’ of 18 to 29 year-olds who have not got their jab to get one. The radical plan – being pushed by Michael Gove – has sparked concern with Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and his department who fear it may be open to legal challenge.” – The Sun

  • Tugendhat accuses Johnson of turning Britain into a ‘Beijing-style democracy’ – Daily Mail
  • Vaccine passports plan ‘railroaded through’ despite ministers’ concerns – Daily Telegraph
  • Universities balk at ‘Covid passports’ plan for English campuses – FT

>Today: Georgia L Gilholy in Comment: The Government has no business coercing my generation into getting the vaccine

Coronavirus 2) No 10 ‘cautious over declaring Covid turning point’ despite fall in cases

“Downing Street and scientists remained cautious about declaring a turning point in the outbreak on Monday night despite a huge drop in Covid case numbers for the sixth day in a row. No 10 said it was “encouraging” that infections had fallen to their lowest level in three weeks at 24,950 confirmed cases, with Boris Johnson taking the decision to allow more double-vaccinated key workers to avoid isolation with a daily testing programme. But the prime minister’s official spokesman said he still believed the UK was “not out of the woods yet” and highlighted the fact that the full impact of the 19 July unlocking has not yet been reflected in case numbers. Several Whitehall health sources said the government was still extremely cautious about the implications of the falling case data, which cannot yet be fully explained by scientists.” – The Guardian

  • Covid-19 cases fall again as pandemic starts retreat – The Times
  • ‘Vast numbers classed as being hospitalised by the virus’ when they were admitted with other ailments – Daily Telegraph
  • Johnson warns ‘we’re not out of the woods yet’ – The Sun
  • Public must be ‘very careful’ and wait a few more weeks before celebrating fall in cases – Daily Telegraph

>Today: ToryDiary: Javid was gracious to apologise for his tweet. But backing down comes at a cost.

>Yesterday: Nat Wei in Comment: To make lockdowns a thing of the past, we need a smart revolution in healthcare

Coronavirus 3) Pingdemic is leading to panic buying, supermarket bosses warn ministers

“Downing Street has been warned that the “pingdemic” has led to panic buying and forced one in five workers at some supermarket chains to isolate, as calls mount for self-isolation rules to be relaxed before August 16. The Telegraph has learnt that, at a crunch meeting with supermarkets last week, ministers were told that the impact was hitting rural, tourist and coastal areas hardest. During the meeting on Thursday, chief executives in the food industry are understood to have highlighted that the Co-op’s absence rates nationally are now above 20 per cent as a result of staff being sick with Covid or self-isolating. Waitrose is also said to have warned that it had begun to see panic buying on the back of images of empty shelves caused by problems with deliveries and disruption to supply chains.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Soldiers and sailors ordered to turn off their Test and Trace apps as a record 5,200 are self-isolating – The Sun
  • Binmen, soldiers and prison workers added to list of key workers exempt – The Sun

Travel:

  • Brits jabbed abroad will be able to head home quarantine free at the end of the month – The Sun
  • UK to consider relaxing travel restrictions from EU and US – FT
  • No quarantine for Americans who enter the UK with a vaccine card – The Times

Comment:

  • England’s ‘pingdemic’ is a convenient distraction from the real problem – Stephen Reicher, The Guardian

>Today: Jonathan Rogers in Comment: A psychiatrist’s view. Lockdowns reversed Cameron’s progress on mental health.

Johnson gets tough on burglars with new stop-and-search powers

“Burglars and thieves will be tracked using electronic tags and restrictions on the use of police stop-and-search powers will be scrapped under plans to be announced by Boris Johnson today. The prime minister will use his first day after leaving quarantine to present a package of measures aimed at “beating crime” as he attempts to shift his premiership away from coronavirus. All burglars, robbers and thieves who have served a jail sentence of a year will automatically be fitted with a GPS tag on their release, allowing their movements to be tracked. Offenders will also be required to carry out unpaid work such as cleaning the streets and picking litter while they are on probation so they are “visibly and publicly making reparations for their crimes”.” – The Times

  • Patel promised to make ‘yobs pay back to the communities they’ve blighted’ – Daily Mail
  • MPs and campaigners alarmed at UK’s ‘discriminatory’ crime reduction plans – The Guardian

Priti Patel: The public want to see justice done… and offenders pay for crimes

“Crime destroys lives and ruins neighbourhoods. It leaves people afraid, bereft and bereaved. It must be confronted. Our Beating Crime Plan contains a range of measures to reduce crime and level up the country so that everyone has the security and confidence that comes from having a safe street and a safe home. From day one as Home Secretary, I’ve made it clear that I will back the police. We have already recruited nearly 9,000 extra police officers as part of our unprecedented recruitment drive to bring in 20,000. We’ll make sure that every community in the country has a named police contact – someone who knows your neighbourhood and can act on the challenges your community faces.” – Daily Mail

Johnson could rethink national insurance rise after Tory backlash…

“Boris Johnson could rethink plans for a national insurance rise to fund an overhaul of social care, after a significant backlash from cabinet ministers and Conservative MPs. At least five cabinet ministers are said to oppose plans for a 1% increase in national insurance, likely to be branded a health and social care levy, to tackle the NHS Covid backlog and long-term funding for a more generous social care package based on a cost cap. One cabinet minister said the prime minister was pushing back against what they saw as an attempt to bounce him into the tax rise, against the Tories’ manifesto pledge. Treasury sources denied they had briefed the plans. “The Treasury was trying to push the PM in a particular direction, and he’s put his foot down,” the cabinet minister said, suggesting there were more options still on the table.” – The Guardian

  • Mental health must be at the heart of social care reform – Andrew Lewer, Times Red Box

>Yesterday: Duncan Simpson in Comment: With the Covid bill standing at £372 billion, the Government’s spending spree looks increasingly unsustainable

…and Brits may be allowed more time to swap over dirty boilers in major row-back plot

“Brits would be allowed up to five more years to swap out their dirty boilers in a major row-back plotted by Boris Johnson. The PM is looking at pushing back a ban on sales of all new gas boilers by 2035 after a furious backlash over spiralling costs. The shift would give more time for new heat-pumps and hydrogen boilers to come down in price, and for businesses to pump extra cash into shifting people over gradually. Brits will be incentivised to buy an eco-friendly heat pump next time their boiler breaks down, but would be given extra time to buy one if they want to before the ban kicks in. That may mean that working boilers could have to be taken out before 2050 or Britain would be at risk of failing to hit Net Zero targets – something ministers are desperate to avoid.” – The Sun

>Yesterday: ToryDiary: The war on cars

EU’s protocol proposals don’t go far enough, says UK

“Britain has told the European Union that new proposals from Brussels aimed at resolving the standoff over the Northern Ireland Protocol do not go far enough. On Monday, the EU issued a paper which suggested that checks on over-the-counter medicines destined for Northern Ireland could be conducted by UK authorities. Brussels said this would require the UK to meet several conditions – including ensuring all drugs comply with European Medicines Agency standards and that all packets destined for Northern Ireland are labelled as such. However, a UK government spokesman said the proposal “remains the same as the one [the EU] sent to us in late June” and does not address outstanding “issues and concerns”.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Unionists warn Boris Johnson could be caught ‘off-guard’ by support for Welsh independence – Daily Express

Comment:

  • If Britain wants to resolve the Northern Ireland protocol, this is not the way to do it – Anand Menon and Jill Rutter, The Guardian

>Yesterday: Jayne Ayde in Comment: It’s time to move beyond Brussels on financial services

France rejected plan for British warships pick up migrants and take them back to shore

“France rejected a request to have British warships pick up migrants in the Channel and take them back to shore. The French military gave a resounding “non” to the request by UK border officials. Last year, Border Force carried out exercises alongside the Royal Navy to show it was possible to pluck migrants out of the sea and return them to France safely. Home Secretary Priti Patel said at the time: “We want the French to work and collaborate with us on this.” It has now emerged the plan was flat-out rejected by Paris. Since then, two separate deals have been made, with Britain paying more than £70 million to help patrol French beaches. It comes as Home Office insiders said people smugglers are launching migrants in stormy weather.” – The Sun

  • UK been hindered by a French legal ruling that has prohibited the use of drones – Daily Mail
  • Small boats used by migrants to cross the Channel will be handed to British charities – The Sun

MPs demand nation register of home-schooled children

“An ‘unacceptable level of opaqueness has clouded elective home education’ for too long, the chairman of an influential Commons committee has said. Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who heads up the Commons Education Committee, has branded it ‘frankly astonishing’ the Government is only able to make a ‘best guess’ over the standard of education children who learn at home were receiving. And his committee has called for a national register to be established and more data to be collected to ensure all children out of school get a suitable education. A report from the group of MPs released on Tuesday detailed how the Association of Directors of Children’s Services projected that, as of October 2020, more than 75,000 children were being educated at home, an increase of 38 per cent from the previous year.” – Daily Mail

Labour pledges same rights for all workers from day one of jobs

“All workers from direct employees to those in the gig economy would be eligible for sick pay, holiday, parental leave and the minimum wage from day one of their jobs under new plans announced by Labour. The party said it would create a new definition of “worker” in law to make sure everyone in employment gets the same protections. Under the current system, there are qualifying periods for rights such as statutory maternity, adoption, paternity, shared parental leave and flexible working requests. Labour said all workers should get rights immediately, whether they were in direct employment or working in the so-called gig economy. The move would mean an extra 6 million people in insecure work having access to sick pay, potentially helping to solve the issue of some gig economy workers with Covid being reluctant to isolate because of worries about losing money.” – The Guardian

  • Starmer clashes with unions over stay-at-home staff – Daily Mail

More:

  • Shadow chancellor promises Labour will repair trade ties with EU – FT
  • Butler was right to call Johnson a liar, says Starmer – The Guardian

Comment:

  • Starmer is shrinking the Labour party – Tom Blackburn, The Guardian

News in Brief:

  • What the SNP’s missing referendum fund tells us – Henry Hill, CapX
  • Nationalists have blurred lines between party, ‘Yes movement’, and devolved state – Henry Hill, UnHerd
  • The Lancet, China and the origins of coronavirus – Stuart Richie, The Spectator
  • A new report is gratifyingly pro-freedom and pro-free speech – Andrew Tettenborn, The Critic

And finally… Cummings backs Britney Spears in her conservatorship court battle

“Dominic Cummings last night backed Britney Spears in her conservatorship court battle as he declared “free Britney”. The rogue ex No10 aide waded into the blockbuster case to urge the pop star’s lawyers to lobby American politicians to challenge the “shocking conservatorship laws”. His bizarre intervention comes after the singer, 39, told a court she is “depressed” and cries every day because she cannot have a baby or make any life decisions on her own. The millionaire songstress has been under the control of her father, Jamie, since 2008. The drastic step was taken after Britney suffered a very public breakdown… Weighing in behind the popstar, Mr Cummings urged American President Joe Biden and members of Congress to intervene and tear up the draconian laws which have left Britney a virtual prisoner.” – The Sun

  • He’s right: we deserve better leaders – Max Hastings, The Times

Javid was gracious to apologise for his tweet. But backing down comes at a cost.

27 Jul

The restless urge to find something, somewhere, by which to be outraged, can without much effort be satisfied by scrolling through Twitter until one comes across a statement which might be construed as insulting.

One then hurries to denounce the author of the offending tweet for committing an unspeakable act of cruelty, which will cause unpardonable hurt to some vulnerable group of people.

Within moments, a vociferous Twitter mob appears, consisting of righteous citizens intent on driving this monster from public life, or at least forcing the depraved individual into an abject apology for having offended so grievously against every canon of public decency.

Something of the kind seems to have befallen Sajid Javid, the new Health Secretary, after he posted a tweet which ended with the words:

“Please, if you haven’t yet, get your jab, as we learn to live with, rather than cower from, this virus.”

The press weighed in and reported that the word “cower” had caused “deep hurt” to the bereaved by implying that their “loved ones” who died were “too cowardly to fight the virus”.

The term was also said to have insulted “all those still doing their best to protect others from the devastation this horrific virus can bring”. Here are the tweets by 17 of the most prominent people to denounce Javid.

This episode raises an awkward question. How does one represent the views of the large number of people who did not feel in the slightest bit offended by what Javid wrote?

It seems clear enough to many of us that he intended no harm. He wants people to get the jab and to find the courage to live with the virus.

He has no desire to worsen the sufferings of a single bereaved person, or to insult those labouring to protect others.

And yet we do not want to have a row about this. For once the Twitter mob have sprung into action, it is too late. They are unreceptive to any plea of “hang on a minute, I think it should be obvious to any normal person that Javid didn’t mean it that way”.

Nor do other parts of the media have any incentive to knock the story down. “Javid says something sensible” is not a story. “Javid sparks fury”  is a promising news line.

To murmur at this point “I think we should live and let live” would produce a furious retort about the 129,000 people in the UK who have died from Covid-19, along with the assertion that you murdered them.

For the Twitter mob are so intent on putting the worst possible construction on your motives, that they have placed themselves beyond the reach of any plea to reason, fairness or their better nature, and are instead competing like mad with each other to see who can sound the most outraged and the most virtuous.

Life is too short to waste one’s time on such demeaning battles. And after all, who knows, perhaps some people were genuinely hurt by the way Javid put things, and if so, one doesn’t want to make matters worse by showing a lack of sympathy.

So it makes sense to keep quiet, or in Javid’s case to apologise in a graceful manner and move on.

But keeping quiet, or backing down, comes at a cost. The Twitter mob and their allies imagine they have won a famous victory, and that they have spoken on behalf of all decent people.

Their self-righteousness waxes ever greater, and with it their hypersensitivity to any departure from the strict path of virtue.

Many institutions – universities, charities, businesses, Parliament, the civil service – have responded by developing their own hypersensitive mechanisms for avoiding even the appearance of impropriety, which may mean not using language which only last year was regarded as acceptable.

Behaviour is controlled by codes of conduct which only a prig could observe, and a single incautious word can still get you into trouble.

This yearning to render everything inoffensive has itself become offensive, for it leads to persistent self-censorship, and means that organisations waste inordinate amounts of time policing their own employees. Milksops are appointed to senior positions because they can be relied on not to say boo to a goose, which means they can’t react when an emergency occurs.

This is not freedom. But it may help to explain why so many people voted for Boris Johnson.

Jonathan Rogers: A psychiatrist’s view. Lockdowns reversed Cameron’s progress on mental health.

27 Jul

Dr Jonathan Rogers is a psychiatrist and researcher at UCL.

A decade ago, the Coalition Government, as part of its broad-ranging health reforms, pledged “parity of esteem” for mental and physical health, promising that future policy would give equal weight to services.

This was welcome and was underpinned by David Cameron’s ideology of bolstering the country’s wellbeing, not just its pocket. It is also an idea that is still present in healthcare policy with mental health waiting time targets the latest attempt to enshrine parity of esteem.

However, despite the rosy language, the past 16 months have witnessed a staggering deterioration in the nation’s mental health. Although thankfully suicides have not increased, ONS figures suggest that the proportion of adults with symptoms of depression during the first wave of the pandemic rose to almost one in five, twice its pre-pandemic level.

It might have taken years of patient investment to shave 10 per cent off these figures, but they have doubled in the pandemic in one great swipe. Meanwhile, hospital admissions for young people with eating disorders have risen by 50 per cent.

There would likely be an outcry for other areas of health and, indeed, there has been for patient groups such as those suffering from cancer. However, mental health seems to be a disposable asset at crunch points.

This is partly a reflection on the Government’s narrow definition of health during the pandemic: essentially – being alive. The daily death toll has emphasised that what really matters in Whitehall is saving as many lives as possible without very much regard to the quality of those lives.

Early in the outbreak, several psychiatrists examined the potential mental health impact of lockdown policies, concluding from historical examples that lockdown is associated with various poor outcomes, such as post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression and insomnia, some of which can persist beyond the duration of the epidemic.

They recommended that any such policy should be brief and extensions should generally be avoided, due to the risk of compounding mental ill-health through uncertainty.

As a researcher, I have spent a considerable amount of time examining the neurological and psychiatric consequences of being infected with SARS-CoV-2, which are not trivial.

However, I have increasingly become convinced that at the population level the mental health consequences of lockdown substantially outweigh those of actually being infected.

New research looking at the first lockdown in the UK has found that mental health took a massive hit during the first few months of the pandemic and only started to improve as lockdown eased. Moreover, even local lockdowns were associated with poorer mental health in the specific regions where they took place.

This chimes with research from Europe showing that mental health problems eased in tandem with liberalising lockdowns. With this in mind, the broader perspective of Sajid Javid on healthcare beyond Covid-19 is encouraging.

However, the Prime Minister’s refusal to rule out a further lockdown, even after 90 per cent of the adult population has received at least one vaccine dose, is concerning for society and particularly for my patients, as those with pre-existing mental health problems are among those who have suffered the most from this pandemic.

Health means more than just being alive and parity of esteem means giving consideration to mental health even during a pandemic.

Georgia L. Gilholy: The Government has no business coercing my generation into getting the vaccine

27 Jul

Georgia L. Gilholy is a Young Voices UK contributor.

Despite what David Icke and Kate Shemirani might have shrieked in Trafalgar Square on Saturday, Covid-19 is very much a real disease.

It has been responsible for many thousands of deaths across the world, and thus the UK’s speedy vaccine scheme, now capable of inoculating almost every age group, is a good thing.

Of course, it makes sense that the elderly and those with health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the disease are sensible to take the vaccine. Likewise, anyone who sees fit should be able to choose to access it, including young people. I myself have taken the first dose, admittedly for the purposes of convenience rather than concern for my health, as I will likely be required to travel internationally either for work or because I would very much like to see a close friend of mine who lives abroad.

However, it makes zero sense to blackmail young, healthy people – who have less chance of dying from the disease than from a surprise accident – into taking the vaccine, or risk being barred from attending university and any other indoor public place worth the effort of leaving one’s front door for. 

If the Government is willing to essentially deprive young people of their freedoms for the sake of “protecting” them from an infinitesimal chance of death, why not deprive them of their liberty if they do not have jabs for various other diseases, many of which are much more dangerous? Why not require breathalyser tests before driving?

It is up to the individual whether they are injected with a certain medicine, and it is not the Government that is absolutely unjustified in forcing inoculation against a largely low-risk disease. If the vaccine is effective, it is unlikely that a segment of healthy, unvaccinated individuals risk the rest of the population through passing on the disease, or indirectly by overwhelming health services.

This kind of Government overreach is likely to increase rather than mitigate so-called vaccine hesitancy, especially in the case of groups highly unlikely to suffer adversely from the virus. Threatening young people to “take the vaccine or else!” sets the groundwork for reducing confidence in the Government’s rationale, and thus emboldens the “this is all just a conspiracy to inject us with 5G” crowd.

People must be persuaded by arguments, and not by un-personing the unvaccinated via a Chinese-style social credit system of vaccination passports, and tracking our behaviour through digital identity cards. If people are offered a vaccine that they see as necessary, especially if it is free, they will take it. It is as simple as that. 

While far too many people are ambivalent about such measures, or even see them as an understandable way of improving public health, they are a danger to society. The reality is that once the precedent has been set for such life-altering invasions into our privacy, there is generally no going back, and such systems are obviously ripe for far more sinister purposes than handing out free vouchers because we bought a salad instead of a pizza.

This is not about improving lives. It is about control. If the Government was really concerned with what is “best” for young people, and thus the future of society as a whole, it would perhaps focus on the fact that we are already in the grip of a mental health crisis that has reaped devastating impacts on the young.

80,226 more children and young people were referred to Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services between April and December last year, up by 28 per cent in 2019, to 372,438. According to the Office for National Statistics, almost one in 14 people aged 16 or over in Great Britain report being lonely, up 40 per cent since spring 2020. 

Our priority should be getting all of us, especially young people out and about, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated or not. Blackmailing us to get jabbed or stay inside as we already have done for the best part of two years, is surely more dangerous than us wandering around unvaccinated.

David Evans: True Conservatives should back sweeping reform of our socialist planning system

27 Jul

Cllr David Evans is a councillor on East Hampshire District Council.

The White Paper “Planning for the Future” is clear about its intentions which are “to streamline and modernise the planning process, improve outcomes on design and sustainability, reform developer contributions and ensure more land is available for development where it is needed”.

Seems reasonable – so why should it have stirred up so much opposition?

What’s wrong with the present system?

Well, it doesn’t actually enable enough homes to be built; it doesn’t ensure they are well designed or in the best locations; – and it has been failing to do this for decades. People can see this and have nothing but contempt for the system. Planning Officers have to administer this dysfunctional system and do sterling work trying to get good results, often straining mightily against the benighted system.

The 1947 Act and its successors are there to control, which is to say restrict, development – and it works exactly as designed. The fact that Governments have tried repeatedly over at least the last ten years to amend the system so that it delivers more homes, and it has signally failed to so, proves that it is the system that is at fault. The planning system has a brake but no accelerator.

Professor Robert Adam has written for Policy Exchange:

“Most past reforms have just modified or added to the basic system introduced in 1947 as the first stage in a never-fully-executed socialist land reform agenda. Reform should go back to first principles.”

There you have the reason why all attempts to improve the system have failed – it was designed in such a way that reforms to change it would not be allowed.

As Anthony Breach has written for Capx:

“The problem is that it is eerily similar to the old Soviet-style planning systems of the former Eastern Bloc. Like in those countries, it is not possible for firms to just buy what they need – they must first apply for a planning permission which planners may not give them. In Britain today, developers can propose something that’s not forbidden by the plan, and lawfully be denied the right to build, creating massive uncertainty.”

It’s quite revealing to read what some opponents of the reforms have said. A group of Leftist academics have written in “The Right Answers to the Right Questions” that the reforms are proposed: “because they are opposed to its [the 1947 Act] foundational commitments to the redistribution of land value and environmental justice”. The Planning System must “promote social justice”. Under “Decolonising British Planning” they insist it must “Acknowledge the racial and Eurocentric history of planning techniques, both in Britain and abroad”, “recognise the structural existence of racism, beyond individual actions and behaviours, and use the planning system to combat it” and “the private appropriation of rents and of land value appreciation now diverts a large share of the social product from workers’ disposable incomes”

So  there you have it: exposed as a key policy in establishing a Socialist command economy. Control housing and you control people. So why want the present system to remain? Is there something about individual liberty and freedom that you are desperate to suppress?

About ten per cent of England’s land has been developed and about two thirds of this is gardens, parks, playing fields, and the like. Green Belts, about 13 per cent, exist to stop cities growing. National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Special Protection Areas, already keep development away from vast areas with special significance.

In 2018, CPRE claimed that greenfield development was “rapidly concreting over the countryside” (which they repeated about these reforms). Does that stand up? From their figure for 2017 a calculation shows that by 2060 the developed land area would have grown from ten per cent to 11 per cent. “Rapidly concreting”? – I don’t think so.

So far as “Land Banking” is concerned – apart from its nonsense as a business proposition – take one simple number. Councils must maintain a five-year housing land supply, that is permissions granted, but not yet built. At a current build rate of 200,000 pa, that’s the one million that the builders are blamed for holding back on. It is the planning system that requires that.

So, who else benefits from this dysfunctional system?

Most obvious are all the planning consultants who live very well from guiding developers through the byzantine system – without adding anything of value to the outcome beyond gaining permission. It’s worth mentioning a study published a few years ago that found that the UK Planning system accounted for about 35 per cent of the cost of a new home.

Then there are bodies like CPRE who gather paying members by opposing development. Their response to the White Paper is to suggest adding even more restrictions thereby making the system even more dysfunctional – but giving CPRE an even longer list of ways to stop people having the homes they need.

People who own their own homes also may use the system to try to resist development near them. The cry “our fields are special and should not be built on – build somewhere else” always pops up, ignoring the fact the UK is so well endowed with beautiful countryside that there is nowhere a “somewhere else” that cannot make the identical claim.

It’s clear that much opposition is not because the new system would fail to deliver more, better-designed homes, according to what and where people would like, but because it would achieve precisely that outcome.

The claim that the new system will allow developers to build where they like, and all local influence and democratic control will cease is a compete inversion of what is planned. In fact, the “front-loading” of planning will give local people precisely what that they say they want.

With the present system, a landowner can agree to sell to developer who can then draw up plans and, provided it complies with the Local Plan, NPPF and so on, has a 90 per cent chance of being permitted without local people even being told that a development is coming. If anyone thinks that being able to make objections at that stage is a useful and effective exercise of “democratic oversight” then I’m afraid they simply haven’t been paying attention.

The new system envisages communities engaged fully from the start, long before the developer gets in, in deciding what goes where, what it might look like, what community facilities might be needed and, very importantly, feeding in their local knowledge about what people would like, what might not work, and all manner of things.

A system of zoning, where people have their input when and where it can have the greatest influence, and a rules-based approach rather than a discretionary system open to political leverage and bad decisions, together offer a real improvement over the present command and control system which is never going to yield the homes we want at the prices people can afford.

So get behind these reforms that sweep away the old 1947 Socialist-inspired system that doesn’t work and isn’t used anywhere else in the West, so that we can get more and better homes quickly. Let’s work to make the new system as flexible and responsive to people’s need as possible – or – sometime soon, we will wake up to a far-left Labour Government that will build huge council estates and reduce home ownership – and the Tory Party will be history for failing to deliver the homes we promised.

Jayne Adye: It’s time to move beyond Brussels on financial services

26 Jul

Jayne Adye is the Director of the leading grassroots, cross-Party, Eurosceptic campaign Get Britain Out.

Since the UK finally left the EU at the end of 2020, there has been an almost universal focus on the problems created by the Northern Ireland Protocol, as well as the abandonment of UK fishing communities. However, despite being this country’s single biggest export to both the EU and the rest of the world, the financial services industry has seemingly been entirely ignored.

In the last month Rishi Sunak, Lord Frost, and Andrew Bailey, the Governor of the Bank of England, have all confirmed a deal on financial services equivalence with the EU somehow appears to be dead in the water.

The EU’s justification for the lack of progress is the UK’s refusal to commit to “dynamic alignment with EU regulatory changes” for years to come. Why should we accept these demands when this is not a requisite which the EU has forced on any other countries they have equivalence deals with – for example the USA, China and Singapore – so why single out the UK?

Despite this clear pattern of unreasonable rejection, the UK Government has been unwilling to take any real action to move beyond this stalemate, leaving businesses and investors unable to properly plan for our future.

Yes, the Chancellor tried to get the ball rolling this month with his speech at Mansion House, announcing the world’s first Green Bond (a fixed-income instrument designed to support specific climate-related or environmental projects) ahead of the ahead of the COP26 Climate Conference, scheduled to be held in Glasgow from October 31 – November 12 this year.

Unfortunately, the Chancellor’s detail was limited, with interest rates for the bonds not announced and a greater focus on making sure businesses report the impact they have on the environment. While this is a good start, it barely scratches the surface of the possibilities available to the UK and the Chancellor does not seem to be making any substantial attempts to change the regulations enforced on us by the EU.

Thankfully, because the City of London is such a significant player on the world stage, the stalemate and lack of cooperation from the EU is never going to end the dominance which the UK has enjoyed for so long. To use the mainstream media’s favourite term, “Despite Brexit…”, London is still the top financial services hub in Europe and has even reclaimed the top spot for European share trading which was held by Amsterdam for a short time recently – in spite of the EU attempting to block London-based firms doing business in the EU.

In other words, even though some additional barriers have been created, companies and individuals still want to choose the expertise and experience which exists in London, rather than move to the EU – contrary to what many had claimed.

So, with the UK’s advantages over the EU being so clear, why do we seem stuck in the mud when it comes to implementing the advantages of Brexit? Right now the Government appears to be unwilling to diverge from the EU, seemingly for no other reason than “not rocking the boat” and “upsetting the EU” while we negotiate other areas of concern – primarily Northern Ireland, as the Government announced last week with their ambitious call for a total renegotiation of the NI Protocol.

This tip-toeing over glass on these issues simply cannot continue. Yes, London has maintained its position in the world, but if the Government wants to reach the full potential of Brexit, then this must mean bringing about serious change and not simply accepting the status quo. Nobody stays at the top by doing nothing. As an independent country, we cannot deprive ourselves of opportunities to thrive because it might annoy the European Union.

Quite frankly, anyone who makes this argument for the Government’s lack of action has not been paying attention. We currently seem to be sitting idly by, wasting time by continuing to abide by EU legislation, and in return the EU is not showing us any leniency or “goodwill”. Instead, it is trying to carve off Northern Ireland from this country – recently rejecting our proposals for renegotiation in just three hours; hitting us with multiple legal threats; and now it is demanding an extra £2 billion as part of a “Divorce Bill” (which was only agreed because of the UK’s desire to show goodwill).

The EU clearly has no interest in “playing nicely”, so it is about time we stopped the charades and got on with putting out own interests first – whether that be triggering Article 16 of the NI Protocol or slashing EU financial services regulation.

Companies have flocked to the UK for decades because of their trust in our economic system and the “light-touch” regulation which drives it. This has been diluted through our EU Membership, but it is something we can recover from.

There are swathes of EU regulations governing financial services and investment which we actually opposed at the time of their creation – such as the Solvency 2 laws on investment risks; and the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive – both of these create swathes of bureaucracy which stymie innovation and try to remove any chance of businesses taking risks – risks which help drive an economy forward at a higher rate and create more competition.

No, this doesn’t mean financial services should be an industry devoid of scrutiny or regulation. This is about shaping a system which encourages new businesses and is prepared for the future, rather than being stuck in the past, tied to a sclerotic EU legislative process which lags behind the rest of the world.

The UK has the chance to cement itself “as the most advanced and exciting country for financial services in the world”, as Sunak described at Mansion House. However, the Government must have the courage to reach out, grab this chance and bring about real regulatory change quickly. Whether this is by encouraging FinTech, green investment or digital trade, our exit from the European Union has come at an opportune time when fresh thinking and a new regulatory approach can allow the United Kingdom to reach its full economic potential.

It is clear a “good deal” with the EU is not on the cards anytime soon, so the Chancellor must not lose this opportunity to push forward and really Get Britain Out of the mindset where we worry about how our every move might affect the relationship we already have with the EU. We are now an independent sovereign nation, and it is time this Government started acting like we want to forge ahead to really explore the advantages of a truly Global Britain.