Alicia Kearns: Levelling up must mean protecting our rural communities

6 Aug

Alicia Kearns is the MP for Rutland and Melton

This week NFU Mutual released their Rural Crime Report. It is not good reading. In the midst of the worst crisis our nation has faced since the Second World War, our rural communities are being hammered by organised crime.

£54.3 million stolen in 2019, the highest in eight years and a nearly nine per cent increase on 2018.

Agricultural vehicle and land rover theft up by over a quarter.

No region of the UK reporting a decline in the cost of crime. Scotland’s numbers up nearly 45 per cent.

This is a crisis in our rural communities, and it must end. But we need resources, and rural people need to be heard and supported. It’s time to level up on rural crime.

Too often when policymakers, the public and the press think of rural crime, it’s almost idyllic: the stakes often low, thefts the actions of overly boisterous young men, and the impact minimal. But in fact, much of rural crime involves the theft of heavy equipment, the very tools that farmers and businesses rely upon to make their living, put food on our tables and maintain our beautiful countryside. The stakes are anything but low. According to the latest yearly figures from the National Police and Crime Commission (NPCC), over £39 million of insurance claims were made because of crime in rural areas.

The NPCC has documented the sophisticated cloning, exporting and asset stripping of farms by organised crime groups. In my constituency, I know of one case where a tractor left a farm one evening and arrived on the shores of Poland the next. This isn’t your opportunistic likely lads nicking a quad bike for a couple of hours.

This has a real impact on local communities – not just financially, but also in terms of the mental health of farmers. The NPCC says that “being watched or ‘staked out’ is the biggest concern for people living in the countryside.” A local NFU representative said to me recently, “country people feel that they are under siege”.Farmers have one of the highest rates of suicide in the country.

But what response have constituents received when seeking help from the authorities? When one constituent had his ATV stolen, the first response from 101 was ‘are you sure your kid hasn’t taken it for a spin’? A local farmer, when he told the operator that several of his sheep were missing, was asked ‘are you sure they haven’t just wandered off?’.

When you have spent your hard-earned money, time, and effort on investing in vehicle immobilizers, the latest CCTV technology, remote tracking, five-lever mortice locks, secure compounds for fuel and remote tracking and cyber tech, only be assumed to be careless when you first ring the police, how can you help but feel anything but disenfranchised and defeated. It’s frankly galling.

Our Conservative Government is making record investments in police capacity, but this must be used to tackle rural crime properly too. We can’t afford not to. We are living in a pandemic, where farmers and businesses have already been clobbered by the drop in food prices and in consumer demand. The costs of crime, the burglary of the very tools that farmers and rural businesses need to survive, will hurt our communities harder than ever and hamper our recovery.

We can’t allow the gangs and organised criminals any more leeway. This will take investment, yes, but it also takes planning from every level of Government to fight this issue.

We need to learn from how we tackle serious organised crime, and county lines and adapt it for rural crime. What would this look like?

  • We need to incorporate the Plant and Agriculture National Intelligence Unit into our policing efforts so that the latest tracking data can be brought to bear.
  • We need to level up and standardise our approaches to rural crime across the UK so that every part of the country gets a comparable level of service.
  • We should invest to make sure that the UK Border Agency can play a more active role in rural crime. When the proceeds of crime can end up in mainland Europe, co-ordination is essential. We must ensure that large machinery stolen on a Monday doesn’t end up across the Channel on a Tuesday.
  • We need to invest in 111 operator training so that complaints about serious rural crime are taken seriously. This training should also include updated Home Office and police guidance on how to best respond to rural threats. I am strongly encouraging the Government to also consider how the review into Police and Crime Commissioner powers can better serve rural communities.
  • We need to invest heavily in mental health in rural areas and think seriously about how we can best support victims. The NHS Long-Term Plan’s £2.3 billion for mental health is an excellent start, and some must go to improving services in rural areas.

The Government has already made landmark commitments to tackle crime, with 20,000 more police officers, a 2.5 per cent pay-rise, and targeted local investments. We have the momentum to truly transform rural policing, and rural lives, for the better. As we level up the nation, we must also level up on our approach to policing and protecting rural communities. I look forward to working with our strong Home Office and Justice Ministerial Teams, as well as our strong contingent of rural MPs to get justice for our communities and stamp out serious organised crime in our countryside.

Henry Hill: With less than a year to go, Ross sets out his vision for the Scottish Tories

6 Aug

Ross is unopposed as new leader of the Scottish Conservatives

Douglas Ross has said he “won’t be pushed around” by the Government has he takes the helm of the Scottish Conservatives, according to the Times, as he says its time to “turn the page on over a decade of division“.

The Moray MP has been returned unopposed to succeed Jackson Carlaw, who stepped down last week. His is expected to seek a seat in the Scottish Parliament at next year’s devolved elections, until which time Ruth Davidson will deputise for him at First Minister’s Questions.

He has already given an indication of his priorities, promising a ‘jobs plan’ within 30 days of taking up his new position. Ross has also pledged to “strip powers from Holyrood” and pass them to “regions, cities, and towns”, an interesting echo of the Welsh Conservatives’ changing rhetoric on devolution.

Ross has been endorsed by Murdo Fraser, one of the only MSPs viewed as a realistic challenger, and profiled in the Courier, as well as speaking to Michael Crick.

Meanwhile opponents are suggesting that he and Davidson ‘plotted’ to oust Carlaw, pointing to a ‘secret’ meeting between the two of them in his constituency days before the latter’s resignation. Davidson insists Ross only asked her to join his team after he had announced his decision to run.

The change in leadership has clearly got some in the SNP rattled: the usually-slick Nationalist media operation tweeted out a claim that Ross had a “history of racist views” before hurriedly deleting it.

SNP under ‘mounting pressure’ over exam debacle…

The Scottish Government is facing a furious backlash over exam results, with opponents suggesting that John Swinney, the Education Secretary, should have his career on the line.

With Covid-19 rendering exams unsafe, teachers were instead asked to submit predicted grades for their pupils. But the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) believed a lot of the grades to be over-estimates, and ended up downgrading results in 124,000 cases.

Controversially, the SQA measured the predictions against the past performance of the area in question – meaning that bright pupils in poorly performing schools risked being effectively assessed on their postcode, and resulting in sharper reductions in disadvantaged areas.

For her part, Nicola Sturgeon has said that teachers’ assessments were “not credible” – and as Tom Harris has pointed out, she may have a point. But whilst statistical moderation may be fair in aggregate, it doesn’t feel like it when you’re on the receiving end.

A “deluge of appeals” is anticipated – and there are already warnings that even this stopgap might not be available if the same thing happens in England and Wales. The Scottish Government has also been accused of imposing a ‘whack-a-mole’ lockdown on Aberdeen in part to distract from the row.

On the subject of statistics, Sturgeon has also been criticised by the statistics authority for misleading comparisons between England and Scotland – see this report from These Islands for more.

…as Salmond and Sturgeon set for showdown

The current and former leaders of the SNP are set for a furious clash which, Alex Massie argues, yet provide a get-out clause for the Union ahead of next year’s Holyrood elections.

Alex Salmond has reportedly compiled a cache of documents evidencing a ‘conspiracy’ against him by the current Nationalist leadership, according to the Times. This comes as Sturgeon, his successor and one-time close ally, prepares to testify under oath about her administration’s botched investigation into allegations against him.

Salmond’s supporters are already angry that the Scottish Government has missed a deadline for handing over its own documents to the inquiry, as we mentioned last week. And the Herald reports that it has also confirmed that Sturgeon had a meeting with Salmond which she had not previously declared to MSPs.

The battle between these two camps is being waged on multiple fronts. Elsewhere this week, Joanna Cherry MP – a prominent Salmondite – attacked Sturgeon’s fixation on Brexit.

For their part the SNP changed the party’s rules to make it effectively impossible for her to contest Edinburgh Central at Holyrood next year, clearing the way for Sturgeon ally Angus Robertson – not the only controversy over Nationalist selections this week.

Op-eds and Reports:

  • Mystery and suspicion on one question: why did Arlene Foster do it? – Sam McBride, News Letter
  • Is the end for Arlene Foster? – Owen Polley, The Article
  • Hume’s legitimisation of Sinn Fein was an appalling misjudgement – Ruth Dudley Edwards, Website
  • Embracing the compromises of political giants – Tom McTague, The Atlantic
  • London must act to protect the Union, and fast – Ben Lowry, News Letter
  • The mirage of progressive Scotland – David Jamieson, Tribune
  • Presentation is key to beating the SNP – Adam Tomkins MSP, The Scotsman
  • A new Act of Union is needed to save the United Kingdom – Stephen Daisley, Scottish Daily Mail
  • Footnoting the Belfast Agreement’s invisible annex – Owen Polley, The Critic

Ben Southwood: Yes, the current planning system really is at the root of Britain’s housing crisis

6 Aug

Ben Southwood is an independent researcher.

The Government means to reform planning in order to allow more houses to be built. The Local Government Association tells us the Government is wrong.

Changes to the planning system are unnecessary, they argue, for it is developers who hold back housing delivery, not planners.

They tell us that around 90 per cent of planning applications are being approved – far from being in thrall to NIMBYs, planners seem to say yes to virtually every application they receive. The real problem, the LGA says, is that once developers have got permission to build, they frequently fail to do so: permission for hundreds of thousands of houses has been given without those houses ever having been built.

But while these arguments are superficially persuasive, they are fundamentally mistaken. Planning as it currently operates is clearly an obstacle to development, and land banking is a consequence of the existing system.

In the Planning White Paper released today, the Government announces its intention to bring in a zoning system which increases the amount of development that can be done without a planning application, similar to the system proposed by Jack Airey (then PX, now No10) in Rethinking the Planning System for the 21st Century.

Under such a system, households automatically have the right to develop land they own, assuming that it is within various basic rules (e.g. about height, overshadowing, safety, and aesthetics). This would be the biggest change to the system in seventy years.

As things stand, there are very significant restrictions on development. We can see this in two main ways: firstly, land with planning permission is worth dramatically more than land without planning permission. Secondly, the cost of building houses in places like London is far less than the price those houses fetch on the market – typically around a quarter – suggesting that something beyond build costs is preventing developers from building more homes.

This argument would be uncontroversial among most economists. However one popular response, most recently made by the Local Government Association, is that the shortfall in new homes is mostly not due to the planning system in general, and specifically not due to planning departments at local planning authorities, but due to the behaviour of property developers. They give two arguments on this point: the percentage of applications approved, and the problem of ‘land banking’.

With nine in ten planning applications approved by councils, and more than a million homes given planning permission in the last decade not yet built, planning is not the problem.

While planning officials do the job they are given as well as possible, and the LGA is correct that they have faced tough budgetary constraints, these facts do not exonerate the planning system as a whole in leading to the undersupply of housing we experience.

It is true that somewhere between eight and nine in every ten planning applications that get to the final stage are approved. But this statistic is misleading, because the cost and restrictiveness of the system means that applications are only made if the applicant expects them to be approved. This cannot tell us about the overall restrictiveness of the system, since it leaves out all the applications that people might want to make but do not because they expect them to be rejected.

If 95 per cent of criminal cases brought to trial got a conviction, that does not tell us much about whether a high percentage of people who actually committed crimes were being convicted – since it doesn’t include those cases that never see trial due to a lack of sufficient evidence.

Most potential planning applications never make it to that final stage, or indeed any stage. Were there no planning system at all, housing starts would be dramatically higher. A more relevant statistic is the percent of potential housing starts that are allowed by the planning system. One estimate, based on Ian Mulheirn’s estimates for the elasticity of prices to supply, would suggest that in London alone we would build 1.5 million more houses to meet pent-up demand, on top of the 600,000-700,000 we are likely to build in the next ten years under the current system.

In other words, the system is building around 30 per cent of the housing that would be demanded in a system where only supply and demand determined what was built.

The true figure demanded would be more like five million, if London was to grow to home a similar share of the national population as cities like Copenhagen and Dublin do. This suggests that planning is allowing just ten per cent of the housing that would be demanded in a freer system.

The most recent review found that around six per cent of annually granted permissions had not been started within 12 months of being granted. Over time, these six per cents build up. But why is land banking a feature of planning systems like ours?

The reason is that ‘banking’ makes sense for assets whose supply is scarce and uncertain. Property developers have a number of different factors of production that they combine to build houses: things like building equipment, workers, and land to build on. All are needed to build houses, but while the supply of things like equipment and workers is relatively guaranteed for the near future (because they own or lease the equipment, and have employment contracts with the workers or know they can hire them if they need them), the supply of land you can build on is less guaranteed – unless they “bank” it.

The alternative to “banking” developable land would be to risk being in a situation where they have paid for equipment and workers in advance but have no land on which to use them.

As the risk, cost, and time invested in getting hold of land and planning permissions rises, the amount of land that it’s rational to bank rises too.

This difficulty, complexity, and cost also leads to a situation where there is no alternative to big housebuilder development. Britain has one of the lowest self-build rates in the developed world: under ten per cent, compared to over 50 per cent in Germany, over 40 per cent in Japan, and nearly 30 per cent in France. SME builders and self builders have little incentive or need to land bank, but cannot negotiate a system where it is essential.

Thus while the statistic around permissions is misleading, the LGA’s concerns about land banking are understandable. But land banking is an entirely rational, and in itself reasonable, response to a system that makes land banking necessary. If the LGA is worried about land banking, they might be pleased with what these reforms deliver.

Newslinks for Thursday 6th August 2020

6 Aug

Johnson to slash red tape in ‘planning revolution’

“Boris Johnson is to limit the power of local politicians to block building developments in the biggest reform of the planning system for 70 years. The proposals, to be published today, aim to trigger a construction boom that would swiftly provide homes, hospitals and schools. The prime minister has promised to rejuvenate the economy with a “build, build, build” strategy. Councils are to be given up to three and half years to designate areas for growth, renewal or protection. Once agreed, however, local politicians will have little or no say over specific applications that fit the rules. Ministers insist that residents will be consulted over how land is designated and on “design codes” to ensure that new buildings fit in. They are braced, however, for opposition from councils, especially Tory-controlled local authorities.” – The Times

  • Planning reforms will create ‘generation of slums’ – The Guardian

More:

  • Jenrick to unveil new plans to help get Britain’s builders and brickies back to work – The Sun
  • Aide who helped build red tape bonfire for England’s planning policy – The Guardian

Ministers ‘waste £150m’ buying unusable masks from banker

“Ministers wasted at least £150 million buying masks with the wrong kind of straps from a little-known family investment company, The Times can reveal. Health officials signed a £252 million contract to buy masks for frontline healthcare staff from Ayanda Capital in April in a deal brokered by a government adviser who also advises the company’s board. The contract included 50 million high-strength “FFP2” medical masks costing an estimated £150 million to £180 million and amounting to the entire health system’s expected consumption for a year, as well as 150 million cheaper “IIR” masks. Officials have admitted that the 43.5 million Chinese-made FFP2 masks delivered so far did not meet standards and could not be used in the NHS, legal documents reveal.” – The Times

  • West Lothian factory will be ‘ready to produce millions of Covid vaccines’ – Daily Telegraph
  • Thousands of coronavirus deaths set to be wiped off official records – The Sun

‘Nine out of ten parents’ back full reopening of schools next month

“Nine out of ten parents back the full reopening of schools next month – a dramatic change of heart from earlier polls. The big turnaround comes as ministers extend a pilot scheme so thousands more teachers and pupils can be spot-tested for Covid. The Office for National Statistics found 88 per cent of parents were “very” or “fairly likely” to return their child to class. Though 56 per cent are still worried about their kids catching the virus. A May poll by Parentkind found just ten per cent would send a child back after lockdown. And a University of Oxford study in June said half were uncomfortable about a return… New 90-minute tests announced by Health Secretary Matt Hancock earlier this week will also help – although they will not be ready by the time gates open in September.” – The Sun

  • Schools reopening in England risks sharp rise in Covid cases, says expert – The Guardian

More:

  • Surge in services raises hopes of a ‘V-shaped recovery’… – Daily Telegraph
  • …but 135,000 Britons now face the axe amid fear of ‘economic Armageddon’ – Daily Mail
  • British workers lag behind Europeans in returning to the office – The Times

Comment:

  • Stop scaremongering: cases are going up because we are testing millions – Karol Sikora, The Sun
  • A Covid jobs crisis is on the way – Aditya Chakrabortty, The Guardian
  • Voters will turn on Johnson if there is a second lockdown – Sherelle Jacobs, Daily Telegraph

>Today: ToryDiary: Waves of media foreboding

>Yesterday: ToryDiary: A battle with teaching unions looks inevitable next month. Who will win?

Wallace authorises British warship to assist in aftermath of Beirut explosion

“Ben Wallace has authorised a British warship to assist in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion as the UK Government pledged to send £5million in humanitarian aid to Lebanon. The Defence Secretary confirmed that the Royal Navy will send HMS Enterprise, a survey vessel currently based in Cyprus, to help Beirut prepare to rebuild its port following the catastrophic blast which left thousands injured and more than 100 dead. Mr Wallace added that the ship will assess the damage and support “the Lebanese government and people rebuild this vital piece of national infrastructure”. The Daily Telegraph understands that HMS Enterprise, which carries survey launches to conduct in-shore work, will not deploy immediately.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Raab pledged £5m aid to help stricken city – Daily Mail

More:

  • Lebanon orders house arrest of some port officials – FT
  • 300,000 people are left homeless – Daily Mail

I won’t be pushed around, says Scottish Tories’ new leader

“The new Scottish Tory leader said yesterday that he would stand up to the UK government in Westminster and failed to endorse Boris Johnson as being a “great asset” for the party in Scotland. Douglas Ross was appointed Scottish Conservative leader uncontested yesterday after Jackson Carlaw resigned on Thursday amid dire internal polling, six months after his election as leader. Mr Ross, a former junior minister in the Scotland Office, became the first ministerial resignation over Dominic Cummings’s trip to Co Durham during the coronavirus lockdown. He told Times Radio yesterday that he had chosen to leave in May because he could not defend the action of the prime minister’s chief strategist.” – The Times

  • Party turbocharges efforts to destroy Sturgeon’s SNP – Daily Express
  • Moray MP will face test over growing support for independence in Scotland – FT

>Yesterday: Dr Graham Gudgin in Comment: Now is the time to combat Scottish Nationalism

UK-Japan trade deal talks ‘hit impasse’ over crucial negotiation

“Japan has flown its foreign minister to the UK to strike a last-minute free trade deal, as the deadline looms this weekend. Toshimitsu Motegi, the Japanese foreign minister, flew into London to finish a Free Trade Agreement with the UK. He is due to meet trade secretary Liz Truss for the rushed talks, who also flew back to London last night. Britain left the European Union on January 1, and is holding a series of free trade talks with allies to boost the post-Brexit economy. Mr Motegi told reporters that the “difficult” and rapid talks are essential for a post-Brexit trade deal… Both Ms Truss and Mr Motegi have shared their hopes that they can strike a deal before the foreign minister leaves on Friday.” – Daily Express

  • Both sides see agreement as key although it will largely replicate existing EU-Tokyo accord – FT

More trade:

  • Johnson building ‘White House centre of power’ to help get Brexit trade deal sorted – Daily Express

>Today: Stephen Booth’s column: The UK’s parallel trade negotiations are of unprecedented ambition

David Aaronovitch: Johnson’s peers disgrace the House of Lords

“But the Lebedev peerage, and its contribution to inflating the second chamber, is a relatively minor hypocrisy compared with ennoblement of Claire Fox. You may recall that back in December Mr Johnson was facing the feeble electoral challenge of Mr Corbyn. One of the prime minister’s most effective lines of attack was the Labour leader’s history of support for unpleasant causes. In Maidstone, for example, Johnson described Corbyn as “a man who all his political life has campaigned to break up that Union and who supported for four decades the IRA in their campaign violently to destroy it”. Support for the Provisionals, even the tacit kind offered by Mr Corbyn, was a disqualifier for high office. But Mr Corbyn was a mild-mannered peacenik compared with Claire Fox.” – The Times

  • Why isn’t there outrage about Boris’s own Lavender List of Lords? – Stephen Glover, Daily Mail
  • How Johnson lost control – Philip Stephens, FT

>Yesterday: ToryDiary: The Prime Minister being ‘frustrated, angry and upset’ is no basis for Lords reform

Welby defends MP accused of transphobia over cervix tweet

“The Archbishop of Canterbury has given his backing to an MP facing accusations of transphobia and called some of those who led the attacks “cruel and wrong”. The Most Rev Justin Welby used a social media post to support Rosie Duffield, a Labour MP who faced calls for disciplinary action by her party last week over her stance on a reference to transgender women. It began with a message posted online by CNN, the American broadcaster, about cancer screening in the United States, which used the term “individuals with a cervix”. CNN’s use of language was mocked on Twitter by Piers Morgan, the breakfast television presenter, who wrote “Do you mean women?” His post was “liked” by the MP.” – The Times

Swinney under mounting pressure after exams day ‘debacle’

“John Swinney must fix an exam day “debacle” or his position as Education Secretary will become “untenable”, his critics have said. There has been widespread anger after the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) downgraded marks in 124,000 cases, after normal exams were axed due to coronavirus. The “moderation” process was applied to estimates for pupil grades which were provided by teachers to the exam board, using a controversial formula which relied heavily on a school’s past performance. There have been claims, rejected by the Scottish Government, that this disadvantaged children in poorer areas where results are typically lower. Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman, said that Mr Swinney’s credibility had been “shot to pieces”.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Scots pupils stuck with wrong exam grades and ‘no right of appeal’ – The Times

More SNP:

  • SNP leader exposed for ‘failing to visit Scottish voters’ in two years – Daily Express
  • Emergency lockdown in Aberdeen could extend to other towns – The Guardian

BBC could send in the bailiffs to ‘seize pensioners’ possessions’

“Bailiffs could be sent into the homes of over-75s to seize and sell their possessions if ministers push ahead with proposals to decriminalise non-payment of the licence fee. The government has acknowledged that its plans to replace the criminal sanction for licence-fee evasion with a civil penalty could cause additional anxiety to vulnerable people, as private bailiffs would have a greater role in collecting the money. Age campaigners said the prospect of debt collectors turning up at pensioners’ doors was “distressing and frightening”. The warning comes as millions of over-75s begin receiving letters billing them for the £157.50 charge unless they can provide evidence that they receive pension credit and so are exempt.” – The Times

News in Brief:

  • The worrying slide towards self-censorship in our universities – Dr David Jeffery, CapX
  • Scotland’s exams fiasco exposes its bitter educational divide – Oliver Rhodes, Reaction
  • The drawbacks of Japan’s cult of peace – Eri Hotta, UnHerd
  • London in limbo: can the capital survive this crisis? – Gerard Lyons, The Spectator
  • Advertising bans are a threat to free speech – Len Shackleton, 1828

Waves of media foreboding

6 Aug

Turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper, and it seems that almost everyone is talking about the dreaded “second wave”. Two days ago Keir Starmer could be found pontificating on the subject in an article for The Guardian. He warned that the “government must up its game” to prepare for one.

At the same time The Lancet published a study which modelled a worst case scenario of what might happen following the re-opening of schools given the capabilities of the UK’s current track and trace regime. “School children returning to class in September risks triggering a devastating second wave of Covid-19 unless test and trace improves”, read The Sun. Hardly reassuring stuff.

Much of the other newspaper coverage also focussed on doom and gloom, never mind the fact that many schools in Europe have reopened successfully (the media only ever compares us when it undermines the Government, of course), and that even the ever-cautious World Health Organization says that “[t]o date, few outbreaks involving children or schools have been reported”.

No one can be certain about anything in this crisis, and clearly the Government has to prepare for the worst. But the expectation of a second wave around the corner has become almost gospel, so much so that more promising data about the UK’s Covid-19 situation now seems to be ignored. Question the imminent arrival of the second wave and people stare as if you’ve blasphemed or forgotten your own name.

Forecasts around a second wave arriving have been first, spurred by spikes in Leicester and elsewhere (even though spikes are much smaller than waves), as well as based on new figures from the Office for National Statistics. These showed that daily cases had gone up. “Coronavirus infections rising in England”, ran one BBC headline. Time to raise the alarm, one might think, but the data was based on just 24 positive cases among nearly 30,000 people over two weeks.

Today there is already coverage about the fact that France has reached a “two-month high in virus cases”. And yet, it is rarely explained that some of statistics are a result of increased testing, not a worsening situation. If a country boosts the amount of tests it has for something by hundreds of thousands, don’t be surprised when it finds more of that something.

The media likes to focus on cases as a metric of the Covid-19 outlook, as this is the main statistic going up (perfect for dramatic headlines), whereas other data presents a more hopeful outlook.

In the UK, hospitalisations continue to decline dramatically even after lockdown easing. The daily number of admissions reported yesterday was 183 – a big fall from 3,483 on March 31. Deaths also appear to continue on a downward trend, something which seems to be the case even with the very old, according to the latest review of ONS data by Professor Heneghan of Oxford University.

That the UK can detect more cases is a testament to enormous improvements in its testing regime, which is now one of the best in the world, with a total of 12,571,991 tests processed. We should be feeling reassured about this, especially as the more sophisticated the system becomes, the more nuanced any lockdowns will be – meaning that less people have to stay at home. Sure, there have been hiccups in putting it all in place (a massively complex project to roll out, incidentally) but our Covid response tools are undoubtedly getting much better.

One would never get this impression, though, from reading all the news. Some papers seem to constantly examine what’s happening through a pessimistic lens, as if stuck a “worst case scenario” algorithm from the Lancet study.

Yes this crisis has been extremely bleak; people have died in terrible, painful ways, and there are elements that the Government could have done better. Yes, we have to be as ready as possible in case there is a second wave. A winter one would be dreadful, and so forth. Even so, there is reason to be positive about our situation.

Boris Johnson hit the nail on the head when he said the Government was “hoping for the best, but planning for the worst”. “Assume the worst is inevitable and panic”, is what many commentators would rather have us do, and that will never get us anywhere.

Waves of media foreboding

6 Aug

Turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper, and it seems that almost everyone is talking about the dreaded “second wave”. Two days ago Keir Starmer could be found pontificating on the subject in an article for The Guardian. He warned that the “government must up its game” to prepare for one.

At the same time The Lancet published a study which modelled a worst case scenario of what might happen following the re-opening of schools given the capabilities of the UK’s current track and trace regime. “School children returning to class in September risks triggering a devastating second wave of Covid-19 unless test and trace improves”, read The Sun. Hardly reassuring stuff.

Much of the other newspaper coverage also focussed on doom and gloom, never mind the fact that many schools in Europe have reopened successfully (the media only ever compares us when it undermines the Government, of course), and that even the ever-cautious World Health Organization says that “[t]o date, few outbreaks involving children or schools have been reported”.

No one can be certain about anything in this crisis, and clearly the Government has to prepare for the worst. But the expectation of a second wave around the corner has become almost gospel, so much so that more promising data about the UK’s Covid-19 situation now seems to be ignored. Question the imminent arrival of the second wave and people stare as if you’ve blasphemed or forgotten your own name.

Forecasts around a second wave arriving have been first, spurred by spikes in Leicester and elsewhere (even though spikes are much smaller than waves), as well as based on new figures from the Office for National Statistics. These showed that daily cases had gone up. “Coronavirus infections rising in England”, ran one BBC headline. Time to raise the alarm, one might think, but the data was based on just 24 positive cases among nearly 30,000 people over two weeks.

Today there is already coverage about the fact that France has reached a “two-month high in virus cases”. And yet, it is rarely explained that some of statistics are a result of increased testing, not a worsening situation. If a country boosts the amount of tests it has for something by hundreds of thousands, don’t be surprised when it finds more of that something.

The media likes to focus on cases as a metric of the Covid-19 outlook, as this is the main statistic going up (perfect for dramatic headlines), whereas other data presents a more hopeful outlook.

In the UK, hospitalisations continue to decline dramatically even after lockdown easing. The daily number of admissions reported yesterday was 183 – a big fall from 3,483 on March 31. Deaths also appear to continue on a downward trend, something which seems to be the case even with the very old, according to the latest review of ONS data by Professor Heneghan of Oxford University.

That the UK can detect more cases is a testament to enormous improvements in its testing regime, which is now one of the best in the world, with a total of 12,571,991 tests processed. We should be feeling reassured about this, especially as the more sophisticated the system becomes, the more nuanced any lockdowns will be – meaning that less people have to stay at home. Sure, there have been hiccups in putting it all in place (a massively complex project to roll out, incidentally) but our Covid response tools are undoubtedly getting much better.

One would never get this impression, though, from reading all the news. Some papers seem to constantly examine what’s happening through a pessimistic lens, as if stuck a “worst case scenario” algorithm from the Lancet study.

Yes this crisis has been extremely bleak; people have died in terrible, painful ways, and there are elements that the Government could have done better. Yes, we have to be as ready as possible in case there is a second wave. A winter one would be dreadful, and so forth. Even so, there is reason to be positive about our situation.

Boris Johnson hit the nail on the head when he said the Government was “hoping for the best, but planning for the worst”. “Assume the worst is inevitable and panic”, is what many commentators would rather have us do, and that will never get us anywhere.

Asset Purchase Facility: Gilt Purchases – Market Notice 6 August 2020

6 Aug
On 17 June the MPC voted for the Bank of England to continue with its existing programme of £200bn of UK government bond and sterling non-financial investment-grade corporate bond purchases, and to increase the stock of purchases of UK government bonds, financed by central bank reserves, by an additional £100bn.

Stephen Booth: The UK’s parallel trade negotiations are of unprecedented ambition

6 Aug

Stephen Booth is Head of the Britain in the World Project at Policy Exchange.

Brexit is necessarily reshaping Britain’s trade relationship with the EU. Meanwhile, the UK is simultaneously trying to ensure continuity of, or build upon, existing trade agreements with non-EU countries, such as Japan, and reach entirely new deals with partners including the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

The UK also intends to accede to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which currently includes 11 countries on the Pacific rim including Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Predictably, the EU negotiations are set to go down to the wire. Since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister all signs have pointed to a so-called “skinny” free trade agreement (FTA) or none at all. For this Government, Brexit is primarily about establishing sovereign independence, while the EU has sought to underline and assert its role as the dominant regulatory and economic power.

It is no wonder that politics has trumped economics throughout the Brexit process. The EU is a political endeavour pursued by economic means. The €750bn economic recovery plan agreed by EU leaders last month illustrates the extent to which the UK’s preference for confining deeper political and economic integration to the Eurozone faced an uphill struggle had it remained in the bloc. It is impossible to imagine any British government agreeing to such a dramatic expansion of the EU’s financial firepower or the precedent it has set for further moves towards a common EU fiscal policy.

Nevertheless, there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic about a UK-EU deal being reached. The latest negotiating round appeared to mark a breakthrough on governance issues. David Frost’s statement welcomed the EU’s “more pragmatic approach” on the Court of Justice and suggested the UK was ready to consider the EU’s preference for one set of governance arrangements, rather than a suite of separate arrangements.

The remaining sticking points are fishing and state aid. Fishing is not significant in terms of GDP but is politically totemic in the UK and certain EU member states. Therefore, a deal must be left to the last minute. Establishing a “level-playing field” on state aid is proving to be the biggest substantive issue to resolve. The EU is moving away from its request for dynamic alignment and the issue now is what domestic regime the UK will propose.

Negotiations with the US appear to have got off to a good start. However, both sides accept that a deal cannot now be reached until after the US elections in November. Therefore, the most difficult areas, such as agriculture, will not be addressed until later in the year at the earliest.

The most pressing issue Liz Truss, the Trade Secretary, discussed on her trip to Washington earlier this week is the removal of US retaliatory tariffs as part of the ongoing Airbus/Boeing dispute, which sits outside the FTA negotiations. The US has levied tariffs on whisky and further tariffs could be extended to gin and other products if the dispute is not resolved.

The prospect of delay with the US has made UK engagement with the Asia-Pacific countries all the more important and pushed accession to the CPTPP up the agenda. Toshimitsu Motegi, the Japanese Foreign Minister, is in London this week in an attempt to finalise talks on the UK-Japan FTA.

The Japan deal is an important stepping stone towards CPTPP accession, since Japan is the biggest economy within the agreement. The Japan negotiations are working to a condensed timetable because the parties are aiming to ensure a successor to the EU-Japan FTA is in place before the end of the Brexit transition period on January 1, 2021.

The time constraints mean that a UK-Japan deal will be largely modelled on the EU precedent. However, media reports have suggested Japan might be prepared to accelerate tariff cuts for British pork, and Japan is seeking the immediate elimination of car tariffs. The major opportunities for innovation in UK-Japan trade relations is on regulatory cooperation in the services and digital sectors. The FTA can provide the architecture but domestic regulators will need to work together to realise long-term gains.

Another reason why the CPTPP may become increasingly important is that Joe Biden has indicated that he might be prepared to (re-)join the CPTPP if his presidential bid is successful. President Trump pulled out of its previous iteration, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, spearheaded by President Obama. However, this could be a slow process, since Biden’s campaign has also emphasised that his primary focus will be on domestic investment and he has previously suggested he would seek to renegotiate CPTPP if the US were to re-join.

Some have suggested that engaging with the US via the CPTPP rather than bilaterally would defuse some of the thorniest issues, such as agricultural standards on chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-treated beef. However, the reality is that while the optics might be different, the UK will face many of the same substantive trade-offs whoever is president.

The CPTPP rulebook is much closer to the US approach – indeed the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) approach – to regulating agriculture than we have inherited from the EU. Blanket bans on agricultural imports, not supported by scientific evidence, will not only be viewed as a protectionist move by the US but potentially by other members of the CPTPP.

The question of agricultural liberalisation cannot be ducked for much longer. Equally, as we noted in the recent Policy Exchange paper, The art of the UK-US trade deal, the issue need not be as stark as some of the hyperbole has suggested. The starting points should be to promote consumer choice, while ensuring consumer safety. The UK already has the right, under WTO rules, to prohibit the import of unsafe food. Labelling, either via domestic legislation or voluntary certifications, can be used to inform consumers of food production methods.

The UK’s domestic and international policies must also work in tandem. UK tariff liberalisation can be phased in gradually, giving UK producers time to adjust to new trading conditions. This would reflect the gradual introduction of the UK’s Environmental Land Management scheme, replacing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Meanwhile, it should also be remembered that agricultural liberalisation is an export opportunity for high quality UK products, particularly beef and lamb.

In today’s world, trade agreements do not merely set tariffs or regulate cross-border investment. For medium-sized powers in particular, they are important building blocks for wider political relationships and alliances. However, in order to unlock these relationships, the UK must be willing to live up to its rhetoric on free trade.