Robert Halfon: Reshuffles. The soreness of being sacked. And how to bounce back.

22 Sep

The Guillotine

I remember well, when just a few days after the election in 2017, I was called to the Commons Office of the then Prime Minister, Theresa May. I was told by her and Gavin Barwell that I had reached the end of the road in my role as Skills Minister.

She said I should go back to campaigning on the backbenches, where I guess she felt my abilities best lay. By the time I had got back to my own Commons Office, the Department for Education Civil Servants had returned my belongings, taken back the DfE laptop and changed the nameplates on the office door to make way for the new incumbent.

When you are called to the Commons Office of the Prime Minister you know it is over. Just like the condemned man walking to the guillotine waiting for his head to be defenestrated. Instead of the crowds baying for blood watching Robespierre’s latest victim, you have the reporters in the Commons corridors and on social media salivating at the latest beheading.

During last week’s reshuffle, journalists were waiting around a set of lifts located near the Prime Minister’s Commons Office. As I was pressing the button for the elevator, one reporter asked me courteously if I would mind standing at the back of the Speaker’s Chair (also located by the Prime Minister’s Commons rooms) and text over the names of any Ministers who were walking through to see him. I, also politely, declined. I explained saying I had better things I could do with my life!

Initially, getting the heave-ho is a pretty bruising experience. You feel sore and ask yourself: why? You have to explain to all of your family, friends and constituents that you are not really useless, and that it is simply the nature of politics. In truth, I was initially incredibly dispirited. I loved the job and I had wanted to be Skills Minister for a long time before my appointment. I had worked especially hard to bring the FE and Technical Education Bill successfully through Parliament in the nine months in the run-up to the election.

But, after a few days, I just dusted myself down and I thought, well, I’ve had a good innings. I had previously attended Cabinet, been Party Deputy Chairman, been made a Privy Councillor and I had just been re-elected MP for the best town in England. Que sera, sera.

I made the decision to stand for election to chair the House of the Commons Education Select Committee, so I could continue to work on education and skills – my passion in politics. Being elected in 2017, against five other candidates and having to canvas votes across all parties, was a special moment in my political life.

As a Committee Chair, you can campaign for the things you believe in, speak to the media more freely and still get things done, albeit in a poacher rather than a gamekeeper kind of way. You are also freed from the tyranny of the phone call from the Number 10 switchboard, which says the Prime Minister would like to see you in his Commons Office…

The ex-Ministers Roll of Honour

I recount all this because I have huge sympathy for those who got the chop last week. Nick Gibb for example, who, whatever my disagreements with him about technical and vocational education (sometimes played out and debated on the pages of Conservative Home), is a man of authenticity and conviction.

He did much to improve standards across our schools, especially literacy. Gavin Williamson, who pushed FE, skills and apprenticeships higher up the political agenda, culminating in the Skills Bill, currently before Parliament.

Robert Jenrick, who understood that our country desperately needed more houses and tried to face off the Nimbys.

Robert Buckland, who did much to strengthen the justice system and toughen legislation for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Yes, politics is a blood sport, but these few examples show, whatever had gone wrong in these Departments, much good was done as well.

Mangoes in the Antarctic, Brussels Sprouts in the Desert.

As far as education goes, the appointment of Nadhim Zahawi as Education Secretary is good news. When asked, I once said to Andrew Gimson (of this Parish) that Zahawi is such a brilliant organiser, that he could find mangoes in the Antarctic and Brussels sprouts in the desert. His previous and extraordinary work as Vaccines Minister is a testament to that.

I am sure Nadhim will shake a few trees (much needed) in the DfE and bring both passion and policy to his new brief – especially when it comes to Apprenticeships and Vocational Education. He was previously not just Children’s Minister, but Apprenticeships Ambassador for the Government and did much to improve Apprenticeship take up from big business. All power to his elbow.

Ryan Bourne: Housing. Gove is poised to dump radical supply side reform. And subsidise younger peoples’ mortgages instead.

22 Sep

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Michael Gove’s appointment to what was the Housing, Communities and Local Government Department last week received an uncertain reaction among Wesminster’s free-marketeers. The optimistic case is that the former Education Secretary’s record of ministerial effectiveness, if channelled into the much-needed cause of land-use planning reform, could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Sadly, I find the pessimistic case more convincing: that his appointment further reflects the Government’s backtracking on the issue.

Renaming the Ministry the “Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities” already seems to reveal a shift in emphasis away from housebuilding. Gove has reportedly gone out of his way to play down the role of a constrained housing supply in driving recent house price inflation. It has been claimed that he will abandon the government’s “do or die” approach to watered-down planning reforms too – instead meeting backbenchers concerned about “over-development.”

Westminster’s mood changed with the Chesham & Amersham by-election, which crystallised the political risks of a planning reform overhaul. In the wake of that shock, spooked Conservatives began scrambling for fashionable theories to explain away the economic dysfunction caused by our archaic planning laws and so the need for reform. Now even Gove, it seems, echoes the talking points of the Tony Blair Institute’s Ian Mulheirn. The prospects for meaningful liberalisation are increasingly grim.

We all know the anti-planning reform lines by now: that the housing supply has kept pace with household growth since the 1990s, implying a housebuilding drive today would produce socially wasteful “surplus” stock; that planning can’t be the problem because permissions granted regularly exceed net additions to the housing stock; that new supply would take time to dent prices significantly, so wouldn’t do much for home ownership in the near-term.

These are alluring for Conservatives worried about the politics of land use liberalisation, because the conclusion is that mortgage affordability, not planning reform, is key for the Tory goal of a nation of homeowners. If planning genuinely doesn’t constrain how much and where housing occurs, then it’s difficult to see what anyone really fears by liberalisation.

But when has consistency mattered in politics? The convenient conclusion instead is that planning reform can be shelved, replaced with the tried-and-tested method of demand-side subsidies to first-time buyers from the Treasury. What could go wrong?

These planning-sceptic arguments are mostly non-sequiturs, of course. A functioning market doesn’t allocate by “need,” but by matching what people want and are willing to pay for with what suppliers are able and willing to provide. In that sense, the number of households is not synonymous with demand. As Paul Cheshire, a housing expert, has explained, as we get richer we tend to want more housing and more living space, often including gardens. A planning system using household numbers as a determinant of how much land to allocate for housing therefore systematically supplies too little and in the wrong places.

A well-functioning market, in fact, would see supply responsive to demand, not just in terms of the number of dwellings, but their type and location too. If half-a-million people really want to live in apartments in a commuter-friendly South Eastern town, then it would be densified, just as Kensington and Knightsbridge reached six or eight storeys in the Victorian era. That there’s new bungalows in Carlisle is hardly relevant.

Indeed, one would hope “market friendly” Conservatives would understand price signals. Today they scream that people want more land for residential use in London, the South East, Cambridge, and Oxford. Yet our planning system is tone deaf. Not only does it generally restrict land availability or prevent potential densification, but it does so more stringently where people actually want to live. Cheshire, again, has shown house completions have been much lower in Oxford and Cambridge over the last 40 years than in Barnsley and Doncaster, despite much larger population growth in the richer university towns.

The landbanking bemoaned by many is a consequence of the uncertainty of our very discretionary regime. As Ant Breach of the Centre for Cities told me, developers are plagued with the risks associated with not knowing whether developments will actually be approved given the blocking potential at local level. With the supply of land slow and unreliable, it makes sense for them to keep a buffer – a point made way back in 1988 in the IEA’s No Room.

The date of that publication indicates that Britain’s land use and planning policies have had badly damaging consequences for decades, leading to structurally high rents and house prices, irrespective of what drives more recent trends. So yes, house prices are now highly responsive to falls in interest rates, with housing demanded as an asset in itself.

But history shows if interest rates fall and the housing supply is elastic, we get a building boom, like in the 1930s with ‘cheap money.’  If housing supply is restrictive, we get the price boom. We today reap what our planning system sows.

The case for fundamental reform of land use and planning in a liberalising direction therefore remains overwhelming. Peer-reviewed academic literature has repeatedly confirmed that tight supply restrictions on housing reduce affordability, constrain the growth of productive regions, create macroeconomic instability, and a host of other economic problems.

It’s not as if the Government’s controversial reforms took aim at all of this, either. They were mainly about replacing the discretionary approach with a more explicit rules-based system to remove uncertainty, with developments automatically green-lighted if they met locally-determined, democratically approved requirements under the designation of the land (a form of zoning).

Were those proposals perfect? Of course not. Plenty of U.S. cities have zoning, but still suffer from a horribly inadequate supply of housing, as the rules are too restrictive. This meant whether the reforms produced new housing in reality was largely dependent on the “market socialism” of affordability signals creating centrally-determined housing targets in the style of the old Yugoslovia. This algorithm driven-process naturally raised question marks over how the very real bargaining needed about the impacts of development on local communities would occur.

What we are hearing today though are not critiques of the mechanisms that might produce more housing, but outright denials that the planning system is even a bottleneck to it. Faced with political resistance, the Conservative party seems to be abandoning not just the policy but its understanding of the problem.

And this backsliding has a self-reinforcing dynamic. The more that reform gets watered down, Breach tells me, the more even reforming Conservatives will regard the lesser economic reward of what’s left to defend as unworthy of the inevitable political grief. And so the Government will reach for the comfort blanket, once again, of fiddling with mortgages.

Fabiano Farias: I’m a long-term UK resident. So why shouldn’t I have a vote?

22 Sep

Fabiano Farias is a Brazilian national, and has worked in cleaning, delivery, and private transport.

In April this year, a Brazilian friend living in Scotland told me they had just registered to vote for the upcoming elections. Excited, I rushed online to register for the London Mayoral elections only to discover I didn’t have the right.

During the 14 years I have lived in the UK, I have worked in a variety of jobs: cleaner, waiter, Uber driver, Amazon delivery, and Deliveroo, Uber Eats, and Stuart rider. I have always followed politics closely: hours driving gives you plenty of time to pay attention to the news. I also believe that as a resident, it’s my responsibility to know what the key issues are, new policies I should follow, and what I can do to support my community. This is key for me to be a full part of the place I choose to call home.

I have no intention of returning to Brazil. My life, my family members, my partner, and my closest friends are in the UK. At every opportunity, I like to travel within the UK, visiting museums, castles, and learning about the history.

There is, however, one thing I have not been able to do yet, and that is vote in elections. I do look forward to saving and applying to become a naturalised British citizen in the future. This, however, is a complex, long, and expensive process. There are more local elections happening next year, and I would like to have a say now.

As a courier, I have been affected by the implementation of the Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs). Delivery and taxi drivers working to tight deadlines were not consulted about these, and yet are the ones most affected. Similarly, the congestion charge increase to £15 is another blow to those like us who are out on the streets day in day out. If that wasn’t enough, the extended Ultra Low Emission Zone affects those who have no option but to gain their livelihoods in private transport. Before the day starts, many of us are already £27 in debt.

Housing is another issue Londoners face. Prices keep going up unmatched by housebuilding.

I was excited by Shaun Bailey’s manifesto before the London Mayoral elections, and equally upset that I do not have the vote. As someone who works hard, I believe in the Conservative Party and its goal to reward those who put the time and effort into what they do.

I believe, as a long term resident who cares about London and the community where I live, I should have the right to vote in local elections where the impact of policies can often be so directly and visibly felt. I was happy to see that residents were given the right to vote in the Senedd and Holyrood elections and thought the rest of the UK would soon follow, especially now that the UK is out of the European Union.

Many other countries across the world also offer residents, and not just citizens, the right to vote in local elections. New Zealand goes as far as giving all residents the right to vote in national elections. I believe residence-based voting rights, at least in local elections, is an inevitable development considering places like London and the whole of the UK are so globalised.

As a Brazilian migrant in the UK, I often felt it was unfair that EU citizens had so many privileges over other migrants, including having the right to vote in local elections. With the Government’s promises of a future Global Britain, all residents, no matter where they were born, should be given a chance to have their say in their communities and how the public services they pay for through council tax are run. This is not necessarily about giving migrants the vote. It’s about giving residents, neighbours, workers, and service users, equal rights, as well as responsibilities.

I know the administration of elections in the UK is being reviewed with the Elections Bill and there are calls for all residents to have the right to vote in local elections. I hope these are adopted by the Government so people like me have the right to vote in local elections. It would certainly increase my sense of belonging in the UK. Integration is rightly encouraged by politicians. The right to vote would help develop that sense of active participation.

Often, it is assumed that migrants will not vote Conservative. It’s unwise to assume. Migrants are a diverse community with different realities and experiences. It’s only fair we are given the chance to make our different voices heard.

Chris Newton: The Government’s Free Speech Bill won’t fix universities if viewpoint diversity isn’t addressed too

21 Sep

Dr Chris Newton is a military historian and a former defence policy adviser in the Conservative Research Department.

As universities start a new academic year, the Government’s Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill is going through Parliament. The bill strengthens and protects university freedom of speech and is desperately needed.

University cancel culture” is not just an American phenomenon (and Peter Boghossian’s recent resignation letter to Portland State University indicates it’s still a major problem there). One needn’t go back far to find examples of academics and students in the UK having their freedom of speech threatened as well.

Just this month, the media reported that the University of Bristol dropped Professor Steven Greer’s module on Islam and the Far East. This is despite Greer being cleared by a five-month investigation into complaints about his alleged views on Islam.

In Scotland, where the bill will not unfortunately apply, Neil Thin, a senior lecturer Edinburgh University who criticised the renaming of David Hume Tower, faced an investigation after students made unsubstantiated accusations against him. While the university dismissed the complaints, Thin has spoken about the “severe psychological and social damage that can be caused by…unnecessary punitive investigations”.

These are just a couple out of a whole litany of cases where academics have been subjected to event cancellations, petitions calling for their dismissal, or witch trial style disciplinary procedures.

Their views aren’t, on the whole, regarded as particularly controversial in the real world. Academics have been denounced for defending Brexit, arguing that British history contains good as well as bad aspects, and for saying that biological sex is scientific fact. These views have been met with cries of “xenophobe”, “racist“, or “transphobe, among other slurs.

Recent research indicates that there is a deeper cultural problem. A 2020 report from Policy Exchange found that 44 per cent of academics surveyed who identified as “fairly right” and 63 per cent of those who were “very right” stated that they worked in a hostile working climate. These concerns seem to be justified as only 54 per cent of academics indicated that they would feel comfortable sitting next to a Leave supporter at lunch.

The Free Speech Bill should at the very least prevent further noplatformings. Some have argued that universities will also have to create bureaucratic structures that will ensure legal compliance. The Free Speech Union will also keep defending its members and reminding universities of their legal obligations.

These are important developments, but Nadhim Zahawi, the new Education Secretary, should consider whether the bill as it stands is still a sticking plaster that only deals with the symptoms and not the root causes of the problem.

As has been pointed out by Policy Exchange and others, universities have been able to enforce an ideological orthodoxy because they are dominated by one side of the political spectrum. The Policy Exchange report found that under 20 per cent of academics voted for right-leaning parties in 2017 and 2019, while 75 per cent voted for either Labour, the Liberal Democrats, or the Greens. For all the preaching about “diversity and inclusion” that goes on in universities, political diversity is very much forgotten.

Fuelling the intolerance is also the growing influence of radicals. The past few years have witnessed the emergence of “critical theories” or “critical social justice”, once a fringe element, as a powerful force on campus, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.

Critical theories” include postcolonialism, critical race theory, and critical gender studies, and are descendants of Marxism and Postmodernism. They believe that Western societies are structurally unequal, and ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals, and transgender people are systemically oppressed.

There is no room for individual agency; power dynamics are structural and pre-determined by group identity. An ideology that believes that those who question their claims regarding systemic oppression are “complicit” in the discrimination is not exactly going to be open to alternative views.

There has been an increasing expectation from university diversity officers that the whole institution should reflect this new orthodoxy. This is reflected in initiatives such as “decolonising the curriculum”, which seems to be more interested in deleting fundamental content than genuinely making courses more diverse.

Leicester University proposed to ditch Geoffrey Chaucer and Beowulf from the English curriculum in favour of more modules about race and sexuality. Exeter University’s library requested that lecturers decolonise their reading lists, “look beyond traditional textbooks”, and embrace “grey literature” such as tweets. Musicologist Professor Paul Harper-Scott has just resigned from Royal Holloway in London due to the “dogmatic” nature of the decolonising agenda.

The new government guidance does prohibit the imposition of political agendas like “decolonising the curriculum” on staff, but there are potential ways around it. One way is to simply hire believers. Many lecturing job adverts now ask for specialists in critical theories, or for a commitment to the “decolonisingagenda.

The Policy Exchange report also indicates that there is potentially some political discrimination in hiring. 37 per cent of academics who voted Remain said they are likely to discriminate against a Brexiteer in job applications. Leavers face an 80 per cent chance of being discriminated against on a four-person panel.

Moreover, half would rank a grant application lower if it came from a right-wing perspective. There is little use of a Free Speech Bill if almost everyone already believes in the same set of ideas. What is needed are measures that will restore viewpoint diversity.

What can be done? Potential options include, first, the Office for Students monitoring recruitment and grant approval practices, as well as providing incentives to ensure fair play and a degree of balance. However, some may be uncomfortable with such a degree of state intervention.

A second approach is to create new higher education institutions explicitly committed to philosophical pluralism. A key problem, however, is that the barriers to entry are exorbitant. The Government could remove some of these barriers, for example allowing small start-up organisations to offer masters courses initially to get themselves established, before offering other degrees later on. It could also, as the Cieo think tank suggested, help set up new “free universities”.

The Free Speech Bill is a positive step in moving universities back in the right direction, but it is only a first step. What we really need is not just a Free Speech Bill, but a Free Speech and Viewpoint Diversity Bill.

Andrew Dixon: If left unfixed, the divide between the generations will doom ‘levelling up’ to fail

21 Sep

Andrew Dixon is Founder of Fairer Share.

Levelling up has repeatedly been framed as a means of making the UK fairer, but ministers have a problem. While a significant amount of time and effort is clearly being spent on place there has, to date, been very little focus on people – especially young people.

Unless this changes, and quickly, the whole agenda is doomed to fail before it has even started.

Over the past fortnight the Government has taken a step backwards in its attempt to bridge the generational divide. Increasing the tax burden on working age people to pay for the social care of older generations will put a further dent in the pockets of younger people.

The idea of taking from younger workers looks even more unfair if we consider how many older people have accumulated vast amounts of unearned and untaxed wealth through property ownership over the past thirty years.

Pitting grandchildren against their grandparents – which is effectively what the National Insurance policy does – is counterproductive. Show me a grandparent who doesn’t want a better life for their grandchildren. The Government is misjudging the public mood and the deep ties that bind generations.

The row over social care funding highlights the need for renewed effort from ministers to tackle the inter-generational unfairness that exists across the UK, of which the starkest indicator is surely a housing system that has led to younger generations increasingly being shut out of owning their own home.

Ten years ago, the average age of first-time buyers in the UK was 30. The latest English Housing Survey shows that average age of today’s homeowner is now 32, rising to 34 in London. But not only are young people today far more likely to have to rent privately than their parents did at the same age, more than one in five 25-34 years old now live with parents or other relatives in so-called “concealed households”.

Part of the problem with the housing market is that the property tax system in England is not fit for purpose, ensuring that people who live in modest homes suffer a worse deal than those living in the wealthiest areas, while struggling renters are hit just as hard as their, often older, counterparts who have made it on to the property ladder. Earlier this year academics and think tanks from across the political divide united to state that the current council tax system is a “wealth tax” on poorer parts of Britain and is in urgent need of a comprehensive overhaul.

The reality is that the Government’s social care funding plan and our unfair property tax system amount to a double whammy against young people.

A simpler and fairer system would replace both council tax and stamp duty with a proportional property tax set at a flat rate of 0.48 per cent of a home’s value. A proportional property tax would be revenue-neutral for the Treasury and would mean cash savings for the vast majority of people. There is growing agreement that the time has come to open the door to a proportional property tax with David Willetts the latest high-profile figure backing the policy.

Previous analysis has shown that three quarters of households across England would gain from lower monthly bills under a proportional property tax, with some of the most deprived parts of the country benefiting the most.

Now a new report from Fairer Share also shows how a proportional property tax would also increase the number of transactions in the market, while freeing up vacant homes and releasing many thousands of second homes though a surcharge rate on these properties. The combined effect would be many more homes for young people and families who need them.

Around 600,000 homes could be released throughout England. This could mean up to a quarter of a million one- and two-bedroom homes freed up for young people who most need them, along with many more family homes. In London, up to 47,000 one and two-bed starter homes could be released – more than any other part of the country. Meanwhile under the proportional property tax 8.7 million renting households would be removed from property tax.

The Government has rightly strengthened its team of ministers within the newly created Levelling Up Department. The intellectual heft of Michael Gove, Kemi Badenoch and Neil O’Brien – combined with Andy Haldane at the Cabinet Office  –  will add much needed clout to levelling up agenda. But unless it adapts quickly on hugely regressive areas of policy such as council tax, then the whole project will be stalled before it even gets going.

Ultimately, if levelling up is to have fairness at its heart then it cannot just be about geography, with action only focused on a handful of so-called priority areas and young people across the country losing out. Instead, real levelling up will require policies such as a fairer property tax system to help reduce the intergenerational inequalities which exist across the country.

Newslinks for Tuesday 21st September 2021

21 Sep

Dozens of energy firms ‘will be left to collapse’

“Millions of households face higher gas and electricity prices after the government said that it would not bail out energy companies on the brink of going into administration. Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, said that there was “absolutely no question of the lights going out” but insisted that there would be “no rewards for failure or mismanagement”. Ministers are instead considering underwriting billions of pounds in loans to cover the cost of companies taking customers from those that go bust. Suppliers that take these customers are expected to charge them the maximum allowed under the energy price cap at £1,277 a year for a typical household.” – The Times

  • Brits ‘may face multi-billion pound bill to bail out energy firms’ – The Sun
  • Deal to resolve ‘critical’ CO2 shortage ‘imminent’, says minister – Daily Telegraph
  • Kwarteng insists UK will avoid power shortages – FT
  • Government plans gas rescue package – Daily Telegraph
  • No10 dismisses pleas from Tory MPs and energy firms to scrap ‘green levies’… – Daily Mail
  • …and ‘stands firm’ on price cap – Daily Telegraph
  • Senior Tories say thousands face ‘very, very difficult’ winter – The Guardian
  • Fears mounting about the consequences for food supplies and even the NHS – Daily Mail
  • British Steel warns power prices are ‘spiralling out of control’ – FT
  • Less storage and no wind means we’re now out in the cold – The Times

>Today: Andrea Leadsom MP in Comment: A short and medium term plan for energy costs. First, protection from price rises. Then action on lower bills.

>Yesterday: John Redwood MP in Comment: Our energy policy should start with keeping the lights on and the factories powered up

Foreign Policy 1) Prime Minister would ‘rather wait for a ‘great’ UK-US free trade deal’

“Boris Johnson appears to have given up hope of securing a UK-US free trade deal any time soon, saying that Joe Biden, the US president, has other “fish to fry”. In comments underscoring how many steps remain until a final agreement is struck, Mr Johnson said he would rather wait for a “great” deal than hurry talks. His official spokesman declined to say he believed a deal could be done and got through Congress before the US midterm elections next November. It means that, more than five years after the Brexit vote, it remains unclear how, when and in what form a UK-US deal – much touted in by eurosceptics – will happen. Mr Johnson will on Tuesday visit the White House for the first time since becoming Prime Minister more than two years ago, holding face-to-face talks with Mr Biden in the Oval Office.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Biden ‘too busy’ to draw trade agreement, Johnson admits – The Times
  • He hails lifting of US travel ban – The Guardian
  • Johnson ready to challenge Bezos on Amazon’s low UK tax payments – Daily Telegraph

Foreign Policy 2) Johnson claims Rutte offered to mediate over NI protocol

“Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte offered to mediate in EU-UK talks on the contentious Irish protocol of the Brexit agreement, Boris Johnson has claimed.  The UK prime minister said Rutte had made the offer during a meeting in Downing Street last Friday, although Dutch diplomats briefed on the meeting have contested the claim. Johnson has raised alarm bells in Europe, warning in recent months that the UK will not hesitate to trigger Article 16 — the override mechanism that suspends parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of Britain’s 2019 Brexit withdrawal agreement that covers trade with the region.” – FT

  • Insiders reject inference of division among EU members – The Guardian
  • Prime Minister warns the stand-off ‘can’t go on forever’ – Daily Mail

Foreign Policy 3) Britain’s nuclear submarines to use Australia as base for Indo-Pacific presence

“Britain’s nuclear-powered submarines are to use Australia as a base so that they can have a more permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific region under plans discussed by ministers. Senior government sources said that the AUKUS pact could lead to the Royal Navy’s £1.4 billion Astute-class attack submarines undergoing deep maintenance in the region so they can stay deployed for longer rather than returning to the Faslane naval base in Scotland. The plans would materialise once the Australians start building their own fleet of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines over the coming years with the help of the British and Americans.” – The Times

  • Top EU official warns ‘something broken’ in transatlantic relations – FT
  • France calls off EU trade talks with Australia over bitter Aukus submarine row – Daily Telegraph
  • Johnson ‘tells Macron to chill out’ – The Sun
  • BBC producers hired SNP councillor and anti-nuclear campaigner to help make submarine drama – Daily Mail

Comment:

  • Proof Remainers were wrong when they said we’d have no friends post-Brexit – Dominic Lawson, Daily Mail

>Today: Audio: The Moggcast: AUKUS and French outrage. “We should accept a little bit of garlic eating”.

>Yesterday:

Johnson slams M25 protesters as damaging ‘their own cause’ and backs tough police action

“Boris Johnson today hit out at M25 eco-protesters, saying they were damaging their own cause. And the PM threw his weight behind tough police action to deal with their chaos and disruption. Speaking out for the first time on the environmentalist extremists who have spent several days blocking key motorways around the capital, he said they “detract” from the very important “moral mission” he’s pushing. He told reporters today that cops were “able to move protesters when they are threatening critical national infrastructure, when they are threatening to do serious economic damage… I think that is entirely right”.” – The Sun

  • Protesters ‘distract from mission to fight climate change’ – The Times

More:

  • Prime Minister slams major countries for doing ‘nowhere near enough’ to tackle climate change – Daily Mail
  • Johnson defends trade secretary after climate crisis denial tweets – The Guardian

Developers who sit on land face new tax to fix cladding

“Developers who hoard land face a new tax to help pay for the cost of the cladding crisis. Rishi Sunak is to announce a levy on housebuilders with profits over £25 million in his autumn budget. The chancellor’s tax is expected to raise at least £2 billion over the next decade to pay for the removal of flammable cladding from high-rise buildings. MPs have estimated that the cost of fixing the crisis could total £15 billion. Yesterday the government published draft legislation for the Residential Property Developer Tax. It shows that ministers want to tax profits made on land that has secured planning permission even if no homes have actually been built. There are 1.1 million homes awarded planning permission that have not been built, according to the Local Government Association.” – The Times

Pupils offered coronavirus jabs as consent letters go out to parents

“Routine vaccination of children is under way in England with the first jabs given in schools yesterday morning. Hundreds of schools are due to begin offering Covid vaccination to pupils aged 12-15. Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, explained in The Times on Saturday that concerns relate to very rare cases of damage seen in children’s hearts as a result of the vaccine. He said that in normal times vaccination would not yet have been recommended and said parents should feel justified in opting to wait six months if unsure. Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary and former vaccines minister, said: “Whatever decision teenagers and parents take, they must be supported and not stigmatised in any way. We must continue to respect individual choice.”” – The Times

  • Johnson rules out sending more coronavirus jabs to the developing world until the UK has finished its booster programme – Daily Mail
  • He urges GPs to offer more in-person consultations with patients – Daily Mail

More:

  • Johnson must pump billions into ‘new deal for kids’ after Covid, warns children’s commissioner – The Sun
  • Schools must never shut down again in future Covid lockdowns, watchdog warns – Daily Mail

>Yesterday:

Thousands of criminals to ‘have records wiped clean’ to help them get jobs

“Thousands of criminals are to have their records wiped clean to try to help them get jobs. Felons who have served more than four years in jail will no longer have to inform future bosses about past offences under Government plans. Currently, anyone caged for longer than that term must tell employers. But in future crimes will be spent seven years after the sentence is completed. The change will not apply to violent, sexual and terror offences… Only employers recruiting for jobs involving children or vulnerable people will now be told of offenders’ records.” – The Sun

  • Many workers found to lack job options despite labour shortage – FT

More:

  • Half of workers ‘would quit if they had to go back to the office five days a week’ – Daily Mail
  • Request home working from day one in job – The Times

Pensions:

  • Triple lock scrap confirmed: Tories break promise with vote to change law – Daily Express

Jarvis to step down as mayor of South Yorkshire after first term

“Dan Jarvis, who has spent the last three years as a Labour MP and the mayor of South Yorkshire, will not seek another term in the latter job, he has announced, saying he had never planned to carry out the dual role in the long term. The Barnsley Central MP had to battle initial Labour party opposition to his staying on in parliament when he was selected in 2018 to fight for the mayoralty, which at the time had no powers or funding due to a dispute about devolution arrangements. But in a video statement on Monday, Jarvis said he would not seek re-election as mayor in May next year, and that he wanted to give enough time for Labour to select a new candidate. He will remain as an MP.” – The Guardian

Duffield calls for talks with Starmer on Labour’s trans rights stance

“Rosie Duffield has called for Keir Starmer to meet her and other female Labour MPs to discuss the party’s policy on transgender issues, confirming she will not attend Labour’s annual conference over worries she could face abuse because of her views on the subject. “I took the decision a few weeks ago not to go,” the Canterbury MP told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme… Saying she had received some “pretty unpleasant” threats online, and was in contact with the police, Duffield said her worry was mainly about being targeted at the party conference in Brighton, which begins on Sunday. “It’s hard to know how serious to take threats by people who post them online. But they’re pretty awful, and I did not want to subject myself and other people to that kind of abuse,” she said.” – The Guardian

  • She  reveals she and ‘lots of women asked to meet’ leader over threats of violence – Daily Mail

>Yesterday: Gary Powell in Local Government: No Conservative council leader should lambast a female Labour MP for defending women’s sex-based rights.

Davey insists party ‘absolutely’ believes in free speech amid trans rights row

“Ed Davey insisted the Liberal Democrats believed in free speech today as he was grilled over the party’s decision to bar a member from running for Parliament over her views on transgender women. Ahead of his party conference speech this afternoon the party leader was quizzed over the action taken against mother-of-two Natalie Bird earlier this year. The 40-year-old was blocked from standing in Wakefield, Yorkshire, and  banned from the party office for 10 years after a complaint about her wearing a T-shirt reading, ‘Woman: Adult, Human, Female’. She is now taking legal action under the Equalities Act against the Lib Dems, claiming she was ‘hounded’ by trans activists who accused her of ‘disseminating transphobic material over a prolonged time’.” – Daily Mail

  • Sturgeon under fire after ‘not valid’ women’s concerns comments – Daily Express
  • Fears that First Minister’s plan to let 16-year-olds legally change their genders will ‘open the floodgates’ – Daily Mail

News in Brief:

  • The Government must revisit its shale moratorium – Harry Phibbs, CapX
  • Memo to Gove: serfs don’t vote Tory – Peter Franklin, UnHerd
  • Farewell to Cambridge’s disastrous Vice-Chancellor – Douglas Murray, The Spectator
  • Sinn Fein has gained the top spot in Irish politics despite its violent past – Lee Reynolds, The Critic

An open letter to Oliver Dowden

21 Sep

Dear Oliver,

Congratulations on your appointment as the co-Chairman of the Party.  Though you may not have greeted the move by whooping with joy and punching the air.  If so, the explanation may lie in that two-letter qualifier before “Chairman: “co”.

Under David Cameron, and then again under Boris Johnson, the Party leader appointed as co-Chairman a trusted ally from outside elected politics.  During the Cameron era, this was Andrew Feldman (who at one point was Chairman solely); under Johnson, it is Ben Eliot.  And the non-politician is the one who is really in charge, given his closeness to the Leader, chairing the Party Board.  At least to date.

But if you are disappointed not to have stayed in your own department, at Culture, or to make the move to Education that some of us expected, you’ll be too professional to show it.  Nonetheless, you’ll be apprehensive.  And no wonder.

ConservativeHome’s monthly survey of Party members may help to explain why.  It held up well during 2019’s leadership election as a guide to events and, coincidentally or otherwise, the former Cabinet members dismissed during last week’s shuffle tended to be those lingering at the bottom of our Cabinet League Table.

We’ve had a look back at past results, which show that two out of the last three elected politicians who served as Chairman or co-Chairmen fell at some point into negative ratings: Patrick McLoughlin and Brandon Lewis.

Feldman himself did too during his period as sole Chairman.  A third MP, Grant Shapps, hovered near the bottom of the table during his co-Chairman spell.  And there is more to why than bad general election results.  After all, Lewis wasn’t in place for an election, and Feldman was one of the architects of David Cameron’s surprise win in 2015.

CCHQ seems somehow to mean trouble.  The Mark Clarke imbroglio was the case of Feldman’s table fall (then a record drop – though it has nothing on some that have happened since).  Brandon Lewis’ plunge was triggered by the Boris Johnson burka row.

James Cleverly indeed co-presided over a successful election, and was the exception to the Curse of CCHQ, moving about in the top ten with a emphatic approval rating.  We believe there was more to his rating than the 2019 win.  In a nutshell, the exigencies of delivering Brexit rallied the pro-Leave Tory activists, pre and immediately post December 2019, behind Johnson in a way not seen since.

Amanda Milling’s cause wasn’t helped by having no local elections last year, and the successful ones this year then made next to no difference.  Then came the by-elections: one good (Hartlepool), one bad (Chesham & Amersham and one ugly (Batley & Span).

In short, your arrival at CCHQ concides with the end of the pandemic, fingers crossed, and a return to something like normal.  The week before last, that meant the incoherent health and social care plan.  Last week, a savagely effective reshuffle.  This week, Ministers denying that the lights will go out this winter, and millions of people facing higher electricity bills.  Events, dear Oliver, events.

It’s tempting at this point to chunder out reams of variable advice – about cheaper conference venues; more transparent candidate selection; greater democratic accountability – and so on.  All this site’s greatest hits, or at least favourite tunes.

Or else to reproduce the ideas that Cleverly floated on this site before he became co-Chairman, when he suggested that the Party could learn from Candy Crush.  Ditto our columnist Robert Halfon, later a Party Deputy Chairman himself, who wrote that the Conservatives should be “more like a modern trade union than just another branch of a Nectar Card” (in the sense of offering services to members).

But you will be seized by the possibility of the next general election coming within two years – and appreciate, none better, that Boris Johnson has sent you, with your technocratic skills and organisational experience, to deliver a second big win.

To this end, you will, if you’re as smart as we think you are, turn first not to that election (crucial to Britain, the Party and you though it is) than polls which could happen in the meantime.  Yes, we mean by-elections.  Our look at the three listed above found that they had in common an absence of inherited data and a shortage of voluntary workers.

So you will doubtless have been on WhatsApp to the Chief Whip to push him about where he thinks future by-elections might be, and be planning to put your best teams in early in the event of any being called.

Hartlepool worked partly because of the Ben Houchen effect: local voters thought they’d like a bit of that.  It will tax your ingenuity to conjure up equivalents elsewhere.  Parliamentary candidate selection must take into the possibility of a 2023 poll.  Then there is the question of personnel.

When the Conservatives are in office, the best media and policy staff tend to move into government as SpAds.  You will be thinking about upping its social media game (and perhaps your own) and getting the best available team in early.

Lynton Crosby was in CCHQ before the 2015 election long enough to ensure that the pig didn’t have to be fattened on market day, as he likes to put it, leaving plenty of time for him to throw dead cats on tables.  Whoever’s in charge – Crosby or Isaac Levido or someone else – needs to start coming in regularly soon, if cats are not to be fattened and pigs thrown on tables by mistake.

Penultimately, a word about the members.  This site is not, repeat not, “the voice of the grassroots” – ConHome speaks for no-one except itself.  But our members’ panel and its returns are suggestive.

Six years ago, it found that 86 per cent of members wanted the power to directly elect at least some of the Party Board; that 61 per cent wanted to elect the Chairman of the Board, and that 54 per cent believed the post of Party Chairman should elected by the membership.  We will re-run the questions soon.

Not least because there may have been a shift of perspective.  No less than a third of the panel recently declared that members have about the right amount of control over how Party money is spent (i.e: almost none).

To be sure, half of it said that members don’t have enough control, but may well be that a substantial slice of the membership is happy with its lot.  Though our sense is that the wider membership, like our panel, is far less deferential to the leadership than it was.  (Johnson’s own rating in our survey isn’t anything to write home about.)

One last thing.  You won’t make a habit of rubbing Ben Elliot up the wrong way. All the same, you should push to co-chair the Board.  To make an impact, you must wield authority.

Ever,

Paul

Andrea Leadsom: A short and medium term plan for energy costs. First, protection from price rises. Then action on lower bills.

21 Sep

Andrea Leadsom is a former Business Secretary and Energy Minister, and is MP for South Northamptonshire.

Rocketing gas and electricity prices this year are putting the cost of energy back on the political agenda. As suppliers raise their prices, there will be more financial pressure on households and businesses, many of whom already struggle to afford their energy bills.

Rising prices are mainly due to higher gas prices as economies recover after the pandemic. But there are also other factors driving them up, including the rising cost of managing an electricity system with less reliable generation from offshore wind farms.

This winter, the Government and the regulator Ofgem will be closely monitoring energy bills to avoid customers being hit with excessive price increases next spring when the energy price cap is updated.

In the medium term, the Government must reform our energy system to reduce bills once and for all. The UK’s Electricity Market Reform was forward-thinking when it was introduced in the early-2010s, but it is increasingly clear that further reform is needed to allow customers to take advantage of the falling cost of renewables.

This summer, we have seen the challenges inherent in our current energy system, with high gas prices making gas power stations look expensive, persistently low wind speeds reducing output from wind farms, and a number of the UK’s ageing nuclear power stations offline for maintenance.

Last summer, we faced almost the opposite problem, with long periods of excess electricity generation as demand fell during the first coronavirus lockdown.

With offshore wind capacity set to quadruple by 2030, we will have more frequent periods of too much power or too little power, with these conditions perhaps just a few hours or a few days apart.

There are solutions to balance the intermittency of wind power, but they will only be developed if the Government provides incentives for the private sector to develop new and affordable technology, as it did with larger, more productive and cheaper offshore wind turbines.

As many have argued over a number of years, the market must lead our choices when it comes to the energy sector. Government made great strides through the Electricity Market Reform programme, establishing competitive auctions for offshore wind and setting up the Capacity Market to ensure reliable electricity supplies as we reduce our emissions.

To a great extent we have been victims of our own success, and the rapid deployment of new renewable technologies now requires a much more local approach, with new sources of green industrial activity concentrated in coastal hubs such as Teesside and Humberside to take advantage of cheap offshore wind and electrolysers producing hydrogen at times of high wind that can be used to provide back up when the wind doesn’t blow. The UK’s best wind resources are concentrated in many of our industrial hubs, reinforcing the fact that offshore wind is central to the Levelling Up agenda.

Households are a crucial part of our drive to decarbonise our energy system, so they should get new incentives, depending on where they are in the country. For example, a new pricing system might reward drivers in Cornwall for charging during sunny weather to take advantage of local solar farms, and reward drivers in Scotland for charging during windy weather to take advantage of local wind farms.

Of course, for smart charging to be appealing for customers, it will most likely have to be automated.

The good news is that much of this technology already exists, with innovative energy suppliers already taking advantage of smart meters to offer new types of tariffs to customers. The bad news is that the current design of our electricity market doesn’t fully reward customers for using energy at different times of day.

Today, we have a national price for electricity across all parts of Great Britain in each trading period, which dampens incentives to match supply and demand locally. Other markets are designed differently, including many US markets that use ‘local electricity pricing’.

With local pricing, prices reflect local supply and demand, which increasingly varies by time of day in different parts of the country depending on how windy or how sunny it is.

These changing demands on our energy system all point to the need for a second phase of electricity market reform, “EMR 2.0”, as argued for by organisations including Policy Exchange and the Energy Systems Catapult.

Local electricity pricing should be at heart of these reforms, alongside a review to ensure that subsidy auctions for offshore wind farms and the Capacity Market are fit for a Net Zero electricity system. Energy reforms must be supported by changes to the institutions governing the electricity system, including an Independent System Operator that is fully separate from the National Grid, something that has been long argued for and I am delighted to see the Government taking forward.

There’s much to be proud of and there is no doubt that with attention to the system itself, government can lead the way in not only decarbonising but keeping the costs to consumers down.

Hilary Carrick: There’s agreement that unitary local government is needed in Cumbria. But not on the form it should take.

21 Sep

Cllr Hilary Carrick is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Cumbria County Council.

Cumbria has been striving to achieve unitary local government status for nearly two decades. The first real opportunity came in 2006 when a White Paper on local communities aimed to initiate a rebalancing of the relationship between central and local government, and local people, by giving “more power to citizens and communities to have a bigger say in the services they receive and the places where they live”. In explaining its ambitions for the future, the document made specific reference to two-tier Cumbria as a county with a disproportionately high number of council leaders and other elected executive members for the size of its population.

The White Paper was accompanied by an invitation to councils in two-tier areas to submit bids for either unitary status or a system of “enhanced two-tier working” which would involve greater integration between the tiers. In response to both this, as well as the recent findings of an independent commission on democracy in the county which had concluded that “Cumbria is over-governed and under led”, a bid for unitary status was duly lodged by the County Council in January 2007.

Despite the proposal appearing to demonstrate widespread backing, with a broad cross-section of support across the public, private, and third sector in Cumbria, the bid faced outright opposition from all six District Councils and the cross-party group of six Cumbrian MPs. It was formally rejected by Government several months after its submission.

John Healey, the then Minister for Local Government reflected that the bid “had failed because the county was too geographically unique and diverse to be able to provide effective leadership from a single level of power”.

However, once the bottle had been opened, the genie of unitary status could never be returned.

Cumbria is the second largest and most rural county in England and one of the most sparsely populated, housing a resident population of approximately 500,000 in an area of approximately 2,613 square miles, a landmass equivalent to that of half of the North West of England.

The county of Cumbria was created in 1974 through a process of local government reorganisation that merged the former counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, the Cumberland County Borough of Carlisle, and the North Lonsdale or Furness part of Lancashire. But although Cumbria has only been in existence for 47 years, the component parts of the county have a long history and consequently a real sense of place, albeit at a relatively local level.

So, it is probably not surprising that when the councils in Cumbria received a formal invitation from Government last October to submit “locally led proposals for unitary government”, the six District Councils and the County Council between them submitted four different bids. By comparison, North Yorkshire and Somerset, which were also included in this round of Local Government Reform, produced two bids each. One of the Cumbria bids was for a single unitary authority and the other three were for two unitary authorities in a range of varied and interesting combinations.

  • The bid from the County Council involved a single unitary covering the whole of the county – ‘One Cumbria’ with continuing authority status for the County Council.
  • Allerdale and Copeland jointly proposed a two unitary ‘East-West’ model: ‘West Cumbria’ comprising the area covered by Allerdale Borough, Carlisle City and Copeland Borough Councils and ‘East Cumbria’ comprising the area covered by Barrow Borough, Eden District and South Lakeland District Councils.
  • Carlisle and Eden jointly proposed a two unitary ‘North-South’ model: ‘North Cumbria’ comprising the area covered by Allerdale Borough, Carlisle City and Eden District Councils and ‘South Cumbria’ comprising the area covered by Barrow Borough, Copeland Borough and South Lakeland District Councils.
  • Barrow, South Lakeland and Lancaster also jointly proposed a two unitary model: ‘The Bay’ comprising the area covered by Barrow Borough, South Lakeland District and Lancaster City Councils and ‘North Cumbria’ comprising the area covered by Allerdale and Copeland Borough, Carlisle City and Eden District Councils.

A widespread consultation was undertaken in respect of all four proposals for a period of eight weeks. Unsurprisingly, the responses were apparently inconsistent, but very accurately reflected the wide range of views that exist countywide.

My personal preference was for the single unitary authority, despite the comments made previously by John Healey. I consider that this option would have provided the best outcome for residents. It offers the most compelling case for achieving economies of scale, maximising the reduction of duplication, reducing artificial boundaries and levels of bureaucracy, and delivering significant financial savings. Health in the county is currently organised in a different geographic way from other important public services such as the Police, Fire and Rescue, and social services. It is essential, therefore, that the future footprint for the local authority avoids increasing the complexity and challenges associated with the delivery of those key services.

So, despite the widespread level of political support expressed in favour of some form of local government reform in Cumbria over the last few years, the announcement by the Secretary of State on July 21st offering the county exactly that opportunity through his preferred East-West option, was greeted with a very mixed response. On reflection, the rationale for this apparently obtuse reaction is probably because, in reality, the extent of the consensus that existed was limited to support for the notion of reform.

But Cumbria is not alone. Although one of the latest in a series of major reorganisations across the country, it is notable that none of them have passed without the sort of tensions that we have experienced.

The timetable for the delivery of the actions needed within the county is extremely challenging; and a real risk to our not being able to maximise the opportunity the county has been given would be the inability to keep up with the required pace of change.

What is essential at this crucial time is strong, consistent, political leadership to drive our county forwards for the benefit of everyone. We need to use this time wisely to “build the houses we wish to live in”.