Eamonn Butler: The Government wants to build back better. It might want to sort out its enormous tax burden first.

31 May

Dr Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute.

Rejoice! It’s Tax Freedom Day. That’s the point in the year when the average UK citizen has earned enough to pay off all the taxes that the government dumps on them. Finally, from today, May 31, after 150 days of working for the tax collectors, we are free. At last, we are actually working for ourselves.

Take a deep breath, because what follows is shocking. The UK government — a Conservative government — plans to extort £730 billion from us this year. Yes, that’s £730,000,000,000 — an amazing £10,953 each, including every child and infant, or £43,811 for a family of four. And are not just taxes on other people, not just taxes on “the rich” but taxes on all of us.

That £730 billion amounts to two-fifths of every pound we earn, every iota of value that we in the UK produce. And here we are, two-fifths of the way through the year. That is the amount we pay, and the effort we have to put in, to feed the bureaucratic beast.

Hard to believe? Well, think about it. Taxes are everywhere. There’s Income Tax on what we earn. National Insurance Contributions and company taxes on the businesses, large and small, that give us our jobs. Value Added Tax on pretty much everything we buy. Additional duties on the beer, wine and spirits we drink, and on the petrol and diesel we use getting to work. Taxes on the gas and electricity we use to keep warm and cook our food. Taxes on travel when we board an aeroplane and taxes on our homes when we stay put. Stealth taxes on our savings and retirement pensions. Taxes on… well, you name, it there’s almost certainly a tax on it.

The Adam Smith Institute has been calculating Tax Freedom Day in the UK since the early 1990s and has figures on it going back to the 1960s, when Tax Freedom Day fell in mid-April — a full six weeks’ less servitude than the government forces out of us today.  Even in 1996 the date was a month earlier, May 1, but since then, under governments of all descriptions — Tory, Labour, Coalition and Tory again — the tax burden has got heavier and heavier, and our freedom has arrived later and later. That is less money going into our pockets to spend on what we want, and more going into projects that politicians and bureaucrats think we should be given.

Even this, though, is only half the story. Not only does the Government grab £2 of every £5 we earn — it borrows even more on top of that. At some point, we and our children and grandchildren will have to pay off that debt. So the real burden of the government bureaucracy on ourselves and our families is even higher than Tax Freedom Day suggests. At this rate, we will be working off the burden of government until November!

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are keen to extol post-Brexit UK a competitive world player. But then we are working longer for Johnson and Sunak than we did even under Theresa May — in fact, even longer than under the Arch-Stealth-Taxer Gordon Brown. It is hard to see how we can compete when so much of our product is consumed by a bloated bureaucracy. In Joe Biden’s America (and he’s no champion of smaller government), workers started earning for themselves on April 16. And there are plenty of other hungry countries who burden their workers far less than we do.

What’s really dispiriting is that Johnson, Sunak & Co show no sign of setting their sights on getting the burden down. No sign of reducing their spending or getting the monthly deficit under control. Quite the opposite: the Government seems to be committing us to one high-spending project after another. No wonder that there is concern among the ranks of battered but loyal Conservatives about what their Party and their government is becoming. People talk of Keir Starmer’s Labour as “Tory Light” but it looks more that Boris is turning into “Starmer Heavy”.

If there is such a thing as government strategy, there is a big disconnect between it and the voting public. Voters have been pummeled by the lockdowns and want to rebuild their incomes and their lives. They are not as in favour of big-spend bureaucratic projects as Downing Street seems to believe. For small businesses in particular, high taxes are a killer — running a business is risky enough, and if you have to face higher and higher taxes, the risk becomes unendurable. But it is small businesses, not big ones, that create jobs — the jobs we need to get ourselves out of the present hole.

Maybe there isn’t a strategy. Maybe it’s just drift. It’s easy to spend other people’s money. But if we are to recover and “build back” (never mind “better”, just “at all”), we need a farsighted tax and spend reduction strategy. We need a plan to reduce the burdens on working people. To allow people to keep more of their own money to spend and invest on their own plans — not Whitehall’s — to grow their own businesses, boost jobs and revive economic life. Is that too much to ask of a Conservative government?

Neil Stock: The planning system is a socialist construct. It desperately needs updating for the modern age.

31 May

Neil Stock OBE is Leader of Tendring District Council and Chairman of the Essex Leaders and Chief Executives Group. He is a peer mentor for the Local Government Association (LGA).

The planning system, as it currently exists in this country, is a socialist construct, borne of a different time when the government of the day sought to own or control every aspect of life, right down to what a landowner could do with their own property.

History records that in the aftermath of the Second World War, a new Labour government swept into power and delivered a radical agenda of nationalisation and state control. The Bank of England, the railways and aviation, coal, gas and electricity, the steel industry, the car industry, even Thomas Cook the travel firm, were all nationalised. Healthcare was nationalised. And so was the right of a landowner to develop their land.

Planning as an ideology was very on-trend in post-war politics; socialist republics and Soviet-style planned economies were popping up all over the place. What planning aimed to achieve was to ensure that the state dictated and controlled every aspect of its citizens’ lives. Not just the type and style of housing and where it was built but also the infrastructure such as roads and transport, healthcare and education, and the mix of retail and commercial premises.

But Britain has changed fundamentally and profoundly since the war ended almost 80 years ago; the past almost literally is a foreign country. Margaret Thatcher famously swept away most of the remaining vestiges of socialism back in the 1980s. Industries were re-privatised; nationalisation was reversed, and no serious political party is advocating its return. It is not even controversial to assert that socialism has been proven to be a failure in every single administration that has ever tried it.

But state control of what can be built and where development is allowed is still with us, and the legislation introduced by the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 is still remarkably unchanged to this day.

Planning policy, what can be built and where, is determined by local plans drawn up by local planning authorities (the local council). The process of creating a new local plan takes many years and involves endless and repeated consultation exercises. This is supposedly a democratic exercise, since local councillors have the final say on the draft plan that is submitted to one of Her Majesty’s planning inspectors. They will then carry out an exhaustive public enquiry before dictating the final wording of the plan, which may or may not bear any resemblance to what the councillors had previously agreed.

With the local plan now in place a developer lucky enough to be in possession of a piece of land deemed suitable for development then submits a planning application. Again, this is ultimately supposed to be a democratic decision, as although typically 90 – 95 per cent of all applications are determined by council planning officers, the big ones and the controversial ones will go to the planning committee where elected councillors will make the decision.

But if the applicant does not like the decision they can appeal, and another of HM planning inspectors will make another independent but wholly undemocratic decision. The right of appeal, it should be noted, is reserved only for applicants who have been refused. Objectors who are opposing an application have no such right of appeal, which all helps to undermine the credibility of the system.

The artificial nature of the planning system means that distorted market forces take effect. House prices in the UK are among the highest anywhere in the world as the amount of land that can be built on is dictated entirely by the planning system. That restriction of supply has naturally led to a gross over-inflation of land values, and the exclusion from the dream of home ownership for large swathes of society.

The restricted supply of land has also led to developers trying to squeeze as many dwellings as they can onto the only available plots with results that, to be frank, have not always been pretty.

Ask anyone to identify buildings that inspire them or houses they would love to own, and the chances are the overwhelming majority of the properties they name will have been built pre 1948 and hence before planning laws were introduced. This country has one of the proudest histories of architectural design, constructional heritage and truly outstanding buildings, but it all seemed to come to a crashing halt with the introduction of planning permission.

Planning, to be blunt about it, has simply not worked; it has not facilitated good design, nor has it created vibrant, prosperous communities. Planning inspectors routinely overturn the decisions of democratically-mandated councillors, objectors have no right of appeal, and developers have to scratch around trying to develop the tiny amount of land that does eventually get permission. And of course, the end user, those many people seeking decent affordable housing have been let down most of all.

Before the 1947 act developers could pretty much build anything they wanted on any piece of land they owned. But they did not; they built, on the whole, thoughtfully and with great care. Mindful of the asset they were hoping to create and the end-user they wanted to want it. They certainly did not concrete over every field and green open space; it would have been economically suicidal to do so and entirely counter-productive. Too much development is just as bad for the market as too little.

Almost 80 years on we are long overdue for a radical new approach, and that is why one sentence in this year’s Queen’s Speech shone out like a beacon of hope and salvation: “Laws to modernise the planning system, so that more homes can be built, will be brought forward.” Upon that one short set of words rest the hopes of anyone who really cares about decent homes and about building a better Britain, fit for the future.

It is interesting to note that only 1.1 per cent of England is currently residential; we often think that this country is hugely overcrowded but that is only because the planning system has led to intensive urbanisation and forced the concentration of housing into tiny bits of land within or adjacent to existing development. All the land identified in local plans for new development is a miniscule amount of the actual undeveloped land in this country.

Of course, we do not want all our rolling fields and wide-open spaces to be built on, but we all recognise the need for new homes, and we want them to be decent homes, well designed and well built, that fit nicely into their environment, and supported by appropriate infrastructure. Housing will always be expensive, but it should not be unattainable. We want people to be motivated to strive to work hard and succeed in pursuit of their dream of owning their own home.

We need a new planning system. We need to clearly identify areas that are wholly inappropriate for new development; national parks, flood risk areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty, and so on. We need to identify areas where any new development would need to be subject to extremely sensitive design criteria such as conservation areas or historic town centres.

And we also need to identify broad areas where the presumption is that development will happen. Local design codes should be drawn up to ensure that the new buildings fit appropriately into the environment. And we also need a meaningful system whereby local objectors – yes, even the NIMBYs – can make their case and be properly heard.

I am very much looking forward to the publication of the new white paper!

Newslinks for Monday 31st May 2021

31 May

Coronavirus 1) Exclusive: ‘UK vaccine passport plans to be scrapped’

“Plans to make Covid-19 passports a legal requirement for large events are set to be dropped, The Telegraph understands. Officials working on the review into Covid-19 status certification believe there is no chance the law will be changed to mandate their use within the UK. “It’s not a case of ‘it’s finely balanced’. It’s not going to happen,” said one well-placed government source close to the review. “Everyone says it’s dead.” It comes as ministers examine data to determine whether the lifting of restrictions can continue as planned from June 21 in England, when it was hoped that the public would be able to return in greater numbers to mass events such as football matches and concerts. The Government first expressed interest in Covid passports in February, when a review into their use domestically was launched as part of Boris Johnson’s reopening roadmap for England.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Over-50s to have second vaccine in race to save June 21 – The Times
  • Struggling hospitals warn of a ‘perfect storm’ on June 21 – The Times
  • France locks the doors: British travellers must show ‘compelling reason’ to enter the country from today as Macron battles to keep Indian variant at bay – Daily Mail



Coronavirus 2) Health workers may have compulsory Covid jabs to protect patients…

“The government is considering making coronavirus jabs compulsory for NHS staff, the vaccines minister said yesterday, and would be prepared to give them to children once approved. Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News that it was considering compulsory vaccination for healthcare workers. The government has opened a consultation on making vaccinations a condition of employment for social care workers. He said: “It would be incumbent on any responsible government to have the debate, to do the thinking as to how we go about protecting the most vulnerable by making sure that those who look after them are vaccinated.” He said there was a precedent because surgeons get vaccinated for hepatitis B. The Times understands that NHS bosses favour persuasion over compulsion. Statistics suggest that across England 88 per cent of hospital staff have had at least one dose of vaccine.” – The Times

Coronavirus 3) …But ministers are urged not to ‘threaten’ NHS staff over mandatory jab

“Ministers have been urged not to “threaten” NHS staff by forcing them to get vaccinated against coronavirus under plans being considered by the government. The shadow Commons leader, Thangam Debbonaire, said it was not a “good idea” after the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, said the proposal was being investigated alongside the existing consultation on making jabs mandatory for social care workers. There is nervousness in Whitehall about doing anything to destabilise the vaccine rollout by requiring that people get the jab instead of keeping it voluntary – something that several behavioural scientists have warned could dampen take-up among already vaccine-hesitant groups. But after concerns that a sizeable number of health and social care staff, who were among the first to be offered the vaccine, are reluctant to get jabbed, the government has been consulting on making vaccines mandatory for care workers, and is now expanding that to include all those working in the NHS.” – The Guardian

Boris and his barefoot bride: inside the bohemian wedding party that no one saw coming

“Standing barefoot in a floral headband and staring into the eyes of her new husband, Carrie Symonds defied the traditional trappings one might associate with the wife of a Prime Minister. Surrounded by hay bales, colourful bunting and with lanterns hanging in the garden of Number 10 Downing Street, the couple opted for a bohemian, festival-style celebration after tying the knot in secret on Saturday. But as the first unmarried couple to live together in Downing Street, and the first prime minister to wed whilst in office in almost 200 years, the Johnsons are not shy of breaking with tradition. After much speculation about their nuptials, and a save-the-date for July 30, 2022 card sent just six days before they married, people were expecting an elaborate affair. But in the end Mr Johnson’s third marriage was a low-key celebration which saw guests dancing to Don McLean’s American Pie played by a wandering acoustic fiddle band.” – Daily Telegraph



Sunak 1) Restaurant and pub bosses blame furlough for lack of staff as they struggle to fill 190,000 vacancies amid fears many people will lose the will to work

“Pub and restaurant bosses have called for an end to the furlough scheme as they desperately struggle to fill 190,000 job vacancies. Several businesses say they cannot get the staff needed to kickstart their recovery while millions remain on furlough. There are fears that workers languishing on the job retention scheme, which runs until September, will lose the will to work. The Office for National Statistics reported that a tenth of businesses’ workforce was on furlough in mid-April, or 2.7 million people. Across the UK there are 700,000 job vacancies, including 188,000 in hospitality, where a million remained on furlough before the May 17 reopening. Bosses say some staff would rather stay at home on 80 per cent of their full salary than get a new job. But the industry said the scheme is needed to protect jobs because many businesses will operate below full capacity until restrictions are lifted.” – Daily Mail

  • End of eviction ban leaves tenants in Britain at risk – FT

Sunak 2) Chancellor urges Biden to strike deal on tech giant taxes

“Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has urged Joe Biden to do a deal on the taxation of tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon as part of a global shake-up of business levies. Finance ministers from the G7 group of leading industrialised nations, including the UK and US, will meet in London on Friday, a week before Biden flies in for the leaders’ summit in Cornwall. The US president has called for a minimum global corporation tax level, with 15 per cent proposed as a base rate, to stop companies using offshore strategies. Following years of criticism of the way that Silicon Valley giants handle their tax affairs, the UK wants to ensure that US tech firms pay their fair share of tax for their activities in Britain. Sunak told The Mail on Sunday: “I want to make sure we get the right deal for British taxpayers, that we level the playing field for British high streets and that’s what I’m doing.”” – The Times

Nick Timothy: We’re not drifting into segregation, we’re hurtling perilously towards it

“After the 7/7 terror attacks, Trevor Phillips, then the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, issued a stark warning. “We are sleepwalking our way to segregation,” he declared. “We’ve emphasised what divides us over what unites us. We have allowed tolerance of diversity to harden into effective isolation of communities, in which some people think special separate values ought to apply.” Sixteen years later, optimists will point to the minorities reaching the top of UK business and government. The Business Secretary is black, the Chancellor and Home Secretary have Indian heritage, the Foreign Secretary is the son of a Jewish refugee, and the recent London election saw a black Tory challenge a Muslim Labour mayor. Many minorities are thriving at school, building successful careers, and raising confident and happy families, secure in their identities.” – Daily Telegraph

More comment:

Truss urges official withdrawal from Stonewall diversity scheme

“Liz Truss, the equalities minister, is pushing for all government departments to withdraw from Stonewall’s employment scheme following a row over transgender rights. Truss, also the international trade secretary, has told officials that she believes that government bodies should withdraw from the diversity champions scheme run by the equality group. Several organisations and bodies, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the employment dispute service Acas, have both withdrawn “for cost reasons”. A source close to Truss said she shared the concerns raised by the EHRC over the scheme’s value for money, particularly as the civil service has its own in-house workplace diversity programme. The Times understands that responsibility for co-ordinating participation in the scheme rests with the Cabinet Office. The scheme counts 250 government departments and public bodies among its 850 members, which pay for guidance on issues such as pronouns and gender-neutral spaces.” – The Times

Criminal case warning for Post Office scandal bosses

“Post Office executives “should be very worried” about possible criminal prosecutions after the accounting scandal that triggered the UK’s biggest miscarriage of justice, one of its former lawyers has said. Speaking to a Radio 4 documentary that will be broadcast this evening, an unnamed former lawyer at the government-owned company said that several senior figures could be charged with perverting the course of justice over the Horizon computer system scandal. The lawyer’s comments in the last instalment of the radio series The Great Post Office Trial: The Reckoning came after the Court of Appeal last month quashed 39 convictions of subpostmasters for fraud after it was found that the system, made by the Japanese company Fujitsu, had been faulty.” – The Times

  • Six Post Office bosses ‘could face charges for possible criminal offences’ in handling of IT scandal that saw postmasters hounded, bullied and wrongly prosecuted for fraud, lawyer says – Daily Mail

Child abusers in Rotherham ‘still avoiding justice’ as few crimes end in charges

“The police force at the centre of the Rotherham abuse scandal secured a charge for just one in 34 crimes linked to child sexual exploitation last year. South Yorkshire police made 16 charges from 540 crimes that its officers had flagged as related to children being exploited for sex, according to records disclosed in freedom of information act requests. The findings come after an investigation by The Times a decade ago revealed hundreds of young girls had been exploited in northern towns by predominantly Asian criminal gangs. In 2014 a subsequent independent inquiry found that between 1997 and 2013 more than 1,400 children in Rotherham were exposed to severe levels of violence and sexual abuse by groups of men. Sarah Champion, the Labour MP for Rotherham who has campaigned for grooming victims, said she feared child abusers in the area were getting away with offences.” – The Times

UK government to ask citizens if it should ban fur trade

“The public is being asked to weigh in on the fur trade, as the government considers a potential ban on sales across the UK. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has launched a call for evidence amid plans for tighter animal welfare standards following Brexit. The consultation will consider the social and economic impacts of fur sales, both in the UK and overseas. It is understood that the UK could introduce an outright ban depending on the feedback it receives. The UK was the first country in Europe to ban fur farming in 2000, and has introduced strict rules prohibiting the import of skin and fur products from commercial seal hunting and domestic cats and dogs. However, the sale of other furs are still legal in the UK. Carrie Symonds, Boris Johnson’s wife, has described anyone who buys fur as “really sick”. The government has been been mulling tougher rules after Brexit, given the UK is no longer bound by the EU’s single market rules that blocked any individual country from taking a unilateral stance on fur trading.” – The Guardian

Schools are still allowed to use cladding banned after Grenfell

“An estimated 70 schools may have been built with combustible insulation since it was banned on tall buildings to prevent a repeat of the Grenfell Tower fire. Plastic foam insulation was outlawed on towers more than 18m tall in December 2018 but can still be used on low buildings. The Construction Industry Council, firefighters and the mayor of London want the ban extended to schools. Rockwool, which makes non-flammable insulation, used construction industry data to find out how many buildings were built with rain-screen cladding since the ban. It applied its estimate that combustible insulation has a 75 per cent share of the market to produce its totals. The tally was published by The Guardian last night. About 25 new hospitals, care homes and sheltered housing complexes were also thought likely to have been constructed using flammable insulation.” – The Times

EU Commission calls on UK to ditch ideology over Northern Ireland protocol

“A senior European Commission figure has defended the Northern Ireland protocol, calling on the UK government to ditch ideology in favour of pragmatism in order to transform problems arising from the Brexit deal. Maroš Šefčovič said he was looking at “solutions” to iron out disruption to businesses caused by the protocol, a key part of the Brexit agreement designed to protect the bloc’s single market at its frontier with the UK on the island of Ireland, without a return to a hard border. It means Northern Ireland has in effect stayed within the EU’s single market for goods, and a customs border was enforced on goods crossing the Irish sea. The resulting checks at the ports of Belfast and Larne have angered unionists and loyalists, who feel the region is being separated from the rest of the UK, and this anger has escalated into threats, violence and rioting.” – The Guardian

Have we got cheese for you, Johnson tells Canada

“Britain is eager to clinch a deal that will send more “affordable, high-quality British cheese” to Canada, Boris Johnson has said. The prime minister urged the Canadians to commit themselves to dropping their reservations about the import of British dairy products, which he said had delayed progress on an agreement. Speaking to the Canadian broadcaster CBC, he said that progress had been “slightly held up by the Canadian reluctance to allow too much British cheese to tempt the palates of Canadians”. He added: “I think what’s really needed now is more affordable, high-quality British cheese in Canada and I hope that we can do a deal to allow that. We’re very hopeful that we can do a great deal. There are big opportunities for Canadian business here in the UK: we’re a giant market.”” – The Times

Netanyahu on cusp of being replaced by far-Right leader Naftali Bennett

“Benjamin Netanyahu’s rivals were on the brink of removing him from power on Sunday after Naftali Bennett, a right-wing firebrand, threw his support behind a coalition government with centrist leader Yair Lapid. In a major step towards unseating Israel’s longest serving prime minister, Mr Bennett said his Yamina party would back a “unity” coalition that would draw support from across the Israeli political spectrum. “It’s either a fifth election, or a unity government,” Mr Bennett said in a televised speech.  He vowed to end the “madness” of Israel’s worst political crisis in its history, which has seen four inconclusive election results since 2019. According to Israeli media reports, Mr Bennett is finalising a power-sharing deal where he will serve as prime minister for two years before handing the reins to Mr Lapid.”- Daily Telegraph

News in brief:

Johnson’s marriage shows he is more normal, prudent and pragmatic than his critics can begin to imagine

31 May

Many congratulations to Carrie Symonds and Boris Johnson on their marriage. All but the most curmudgeonly of the Prime Minister’s critics will wish them happiness, as one would any couple who have just got married.

That is one of the good things about a wedding. It links bride and groom, whether famous or obscure, not only with each other, but with millions of other people who have gone through the same rituals and made the same vows.

There is something normal about getting married. It is not a state reserved for perfect couples.

One caught a hint of this when Westminster Cathedral issued a statement which included the words, “The bride and groom are both parishioners.” The Church is there for everyone.

We do not enter here into the dispute about the correct interpretation of the Roman Catholic Church’s rules on remarriage.

Our point is a broader one. Johnson and Symonds have done what many people nowadays do. They lived openly and unashamedly together, and had a child, before they got married.

No previous Prime Minister had behaved quite like that, but by contemporary standards, what they did is conventional.

Johnson’s critics find themselves in a predicament comparable to that of hunters who complain that their quarry will not keep still.

They would like the Prime Minister to oblige them by adopting some fixed position, in which they could riddle him with bullets. He instead moves about, sometimes with extraordinary fleetness of foot.

Saturday’s wedding came as so great a surprise to the media that news of it only broke about six hours after it had taken place. When one considers how much attention the fourth estate devotes to Johnson, and how predictable it was that he and Symonds would get married, it is fairly astonishing that he managed to spring such a surprise.

How to interpret his behaviour? Should one call him a moderniser, for living out of wedlock with Symonds, or old-fashioned, for getting married in church?

Is he at heart a Conservative, a Liberal or a Social Democrat?

And is he or is he not a Roman Catholic? Here too it is hard to be sure.

His critics protest with great bitterness that he keeps breaking the rules.

They yearn to place him in an ideological box, and smash him to pieces for having the wrong opinions.

Johnson prefers to work out what is the best thing to do, and to do it. In other words, he is a Tory pragmatist.

Which is not a very romantic conclusion to arrive at in a piece which began with his marriage. But here is another surprise about Johnson which ought not to be a surprise.

If one looks at what he does, as opposed to what the press thinks he is doing, he is often unscrupulous enough to choose the most prudent option, while pretending to be utterly reckless.

Ben Bradley: My constituents aren’t interested in No 10’s curtains and Cummings’ leaks. Potholes and parking, though…

31 May

Ben Bradley is the MP for Mansfield and Leader of Nottinghamshire County Council.

Recently the Westminster bubble and the media have, predictably, been obsessing over personalities and slanging matches in SW1. While it may make interesting reading for the political obsessives, the things that really impact my constituents’ lives rarely ever make the front pages. This week I’ve formally taken on the new role of leading Nottinghamshire County Council, where I’ve chosen to spend my time on those local issues rather than climbing the ministerial ladder. For some reason, can’t think why, the Whitehall melodrama just doesn’t appeal.

If you’ve ever worked in an MP’s office, or in politics generally, you know that most of what comes across an MP’s desk is the hyper-local. Potholes, crime, a neighbour’s unhelpful parking habits… These are the day to day things that most impact on many lives. Focusing on local challenges, from sorting out the roads to supporting new jobs or training, is the stuff that matters. You don’t make that difference while shouting at the Prime Minister about Palestine or obsessing over his, I’m sure thoroughly interesting, book on Shakespeare.

The key issues that were raised with us on doorsteps in the recent local elections weren’t about No 10’s wallpaper choices; they were about our highways, the town centre and green spaces. Residents wanted to talk about their street and job, not about politicians. In my first weeks in charge at NCC we’ve set about working on those priorities, not binge-watching the Westminster gossip.

I’ve been through hours of discussion and briefings in the last few weeks, along with my colleagues at County Hall, as we seek to decide and set out our plans. We want to be more innovative in how we deliver services. Too often help is distant from people who need it, and too often – all over the country – we only offer support when things have already gone wrong.

To make an impact in people’s lives (and in their wallets through council tax) we can focus on preventative services, which will improve outcomes and cut costs when fewer people need that acute care later one. It might be youth services, family hubs, addiction services, supported accommodation – none of it makes the 10 o’clock news, but it can have a huge impact. It’s what most of us get in to politics for.

The first full meeting of the new Conservative-led NCC took place on Thursday. I’m very grateful to colleagues for confirming my appointment as the leader and pleased to see the motions we put forward were approved unanimously. Day one, we’ve established a cross-party panel to review how we repair and maintain our roads in Nottinghamshire, with a view to doing things better. Anybody, of any party, who was out on the doorstep during the local elections can tell you just how many times potholes and the poor state of roads were mentioned and how important this issue is to people.

The big picture – the macro-economics and the flagship Westminster capital projects – do make a difference, don’t get me wrong. We need job creation, improvements in skills and training and better infrastructure. For residents it’s important because of the individual local impacts; their ability to find better work or to upskill, the better transport links, a town centre that is reviving itself.

I think very often in Westminster we talk on our grandiose national scale and don’t realise that things go right over many people’s heads. Really, part of our job should be to explain why things like our East Midlands Freeport, our Development Corporation, or HS2 are not just words, and not just some fancy national projects, but will directly impact the life chances of local people.

We have huge potential in the East Midlands to change the game for our local economy, through the projects I’ve mentioned and more. With huge growth around a Toton HS2 hub, tied in to our global trading links and business incentives at East Midlands Airport, and a new set of local planning powers at key sites for development, we can join together three cities to create a new economic epicentre with the clout to rival Birmingham in the West.

Sounds dreamy to Westminster geeks like me, probably meaningless to most people going about their day to day lives, until you explain that this means better roads, rail, more jobs (and better ones), housing and new investment for our communities.

It’s the local bit that matters. How does that impact my life? How will that help my friends and my family to do better? How will it make my street safer, or look nicer, or make my commute easier? As we all bang on about select committee inquiries, and whether the decor in Downing Street came from John Lewis, residents roll their eyes, turn off the TV or the radio, close their newspapers and instead focus on the things that matter.

We should do the same (journalists, take note!) and all be focused on delivering on the issues we’ve heard direct from our constituents in recent weeks. Potholes over posturing, service delivery over slanging matches.

George Pender: Council meetings should be in person

31 May

Cllr George Pender represents Ash and New Ash Green Ward on Sevenoaks District Council.

It is very welcome that all local council meetings will be resuming as in-person meetings, following the local elections this May. It is sad that some who seek to represent local Government as a whole (such as the Local Government Association) have decided to object to this. Both in theory and in practice, the level of influence a backbench councillor is able to exert over council policy, when meetings are online, is far less than when councillors are meeting in person.

This is for a variety of reasons, chiefly the fact that pressure / influence on any issue builds by increments, including in the conversations before and after formal meetings. Additionally, technical issues (internet connections etc) mean that full participation in online meetings is often haphazard.

For example, at a recent meeting of the Community Infrastructure Levy Spending Board I was having to flit between a computer screen and a telephone connection each with their own drawbacks. (On the telephone it was impossible to see visually presented information, as well as being difficult to indicate a desire to speak – on the computer, the connection would, intermittently, simply drop out). It was just about possible to get this meeting done, but it was certainly not a proper way to run meetings to decide millions of pounds of public spending, in the long term.

Furthermore, there were at least two significant misunderstandings during this meeting, neither of which would have occurred if the meeting had been conducted in person; these probably didn’t effect the decisions made, but they did lead to needless rancor. This meeting was, if anything, one of the better examples of an online meeting. In every single online council meeting, committee meeting, or working group which I have attended over the last year, there have been significant technical issues affecting more than one participant.

The other problem with online meetings is that those chairing or controlling such meetings have hugely more power to silence dissent, when they have the mute button (or worse) at their disposal.

Sevenoaks’ District Council has a tenth as many members as Parliament, and every member must either live or work within the district of Sevenoaks. On the other hand, Parliamentarians naturally live all over the country.

Can we be sure that no councillors will face a barrier to participation if in-person meetings return? Answer: no more than we could before the pandemic!

Can we be sure that the numbers facing significant barriers will be less than the numbers rendered intermittently blind, deaf or dumb by internet connection issues under current arrangements? Answer: undoubtedly yes, but, more importantly, a return to in-person meetings means that backbench councillors actually have half a chance of doing the job for which we were elected (i.e. to scrutinise and influence council policy) a job which, if we are brutally honest, we have hardly been able to perform during the last year.

Another person who seems to be opposing the return of in-person meetings is the notorious Jackie Weaver, of Handforth Parish council fame. As you may remember from the national media, a widely reported dispute arose in January, centred on whether Mrs Weaver did, or did not, have the authority to preside over a meeting of this Cheshire Parish council. Online opinion seemed to split between those opposed to Mrs Walker’s disregard for democratic procedures, and those who felt the discourtesy of others meant she was entitled to eject members from the (virtual) meeting. Whatever view one takes on this, it was clear that the only “authority” that really mattered was the fact she was in control of the digital meeting room. If you watched or read about any element of this, I invite you to consider what would have happened if this had been an offline meeting.

Even if we assume the dispute would still have arisen (which itself is doubtful) it’s likely that those who objected would have simply been allowed to say their piece, rulebooks/standing orders would then have been consulted and, after a pause, either the meeting would have continued with all participants (perhaps with a certain amount of bad temper) or it would have ceased as unconstitutional. At the worst, some members might have walked out in protest. Mrs. Weaver would never have done the offline equivalent of what she felt able to do online. She would certainly not have detailed a couple of burly associates to physically eject three relatively elderly members of the parish council (including the council chairman) from a meeting room. And yet, online, she felt perfectly within her rights to do so, without even a prior vote.

In the unlikely event that she HAD taken leave of her senses and instructed some compliant lackeys to physically eject people from the meeting, she would certainly not have been praised by Nick Robinson on the Today programme the next morning, nor would she have received plaudits from left-leaning national newspapers. If such a dispute had made the national press at all it would have been either to draw comparisons with officially sanctioned violence in ejecting people from other political meetings (e.g. the Walter Wolfgang – 2006 Labour Party Conference) or simply to report that a Parish Clark and a number of others had been charged with various offenses against the person, for the violent behaviour which this action would necessarily have required.

In other words, the practice of online meeting allowed Mrs. Weaver to achieve a level of control which would normally only be possible through organised violence, but it allowed her to achieve this without the social, legal, or physical consequences which normally attach to perpetrators of violent acts.

Perhaps that is why Mrs Weaver has lined up with those objecting to the return to in-person working.

Calling Conservatives: New public appointments announced. Chair of HS2 Ltd – and more

31 May

Eight years ago, the TaxPayers’ Alliance reported that “in the last year, five times more Labour people were appointed to public bodies than Tories”.

It currently reports that almost half of avowedly political appointees last year owed their allegiance to Labour Party, compared to less than a third for the Conservatives.

Despite the selection of some Party members or supporters to fill important posts, over time, the Conservatives have punched beneath their weight when it comes to public appointments.  One of the reasons seems to be that Tories simply don’t apply in the same number as Labour supporters.

To help remedy this, each week we put up links to some of the main public appointments vacancies, so that qualified Conservatives can be aware of the opportunities presented.

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Civil Nuclear Police Authority – Independent Member

“Based in Culham, Oxfordshire the CNC is the specialist, armed police force responsible for protecting the UK’s 10 licenced nuclear facilities, and civil nuclear material in transit in the UK and internationally. The constabulary employs over 1,500 police officers and police support staff and plays an important role in supporting the UK’s wider response to national emergencies. The CNC’s gross budget for 2020/21 is over £100 million, funded primarily through income from nuclear operators… The CNPA oversees the CNC and must ensure that their policing meets the needs of our nuclear operating companies. In close collaboration with BEIS, the CNPA has a critical role to play in leading and supporting the CNC in the delivery of its strategy and changing function.”

Time: 35 days per annum.

Remuneration: £17,500 per annum.

Closes: 06 June

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HS2 Ltd – Chair

“HS2 is a once-in-a-generation investment in the UK’s transport infrastructure. As Chair of HS2 Ltd, exceptional leadership and brilliant communication must go hand in hand with a proven track record in delivery, to help unlock the multiple benefits of HS2 and the great potential of the many people working on this project. The right candidate will have the opportunity to not only lead a project of unprecedented size – but to inspire others as we embrace lasting change for this country. From boosting productivity to driving decarbonisation, HS2 remains at the forefront of the Government’s plans to fire up economic growth. Indeed, the transformational potential of the project is unparalleled. By creating thousands of apprenticeships and tens of thousands of skilled jobs, HS2 is at the heart of our plans to build back better from the pandemic, providing certainty at a time when people need it the most.”

Time: 3 days per week.

Remuneration: £200,000 per annum.

Closes: 07 June

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Port of London Authority – Chair

“The Port of London Authority (PLA) is the Custodian of 95 Miles of the tidal Thames, home to the UK’s biggest port and busiest inland waterway. The Port of London Authority’s 400 strong workforce delivers a range of essential services for port and river users to facilitate freight movement, passenger services and recreational use of the river. Its key workers have kept the Port of London fully operational throughout the pandemic ensuring a continuing supply of food, fuel and other essentials into London and the wider UK. Over 45,000 jobs depend on the port, which generates more than £4.5 billion per annum in economic value added annually. In addition, there are over 100,000 jobs related to the river as an amenity generating a further value added of over £2 billion per annum.”

Time: One day per week.

Remuneration: £85,000 per annum.

Closes: 08 June

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Great Britain China Centre – Director

“The Great Britain-China Centre is a public body under the auspices of, but independent from, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). GBCC works to support the government’s strategic relationship with China by broadening access and channels of engagement through   political dialogues, legal exchanges and capability building. Working in close partnership with HMG and other UK institutions including parliament, the political parties, the judiciary and the legal profession, academia and business, GBCC occupies a niche role creating diverse entry points for UK-China dialogue especially on global governance, rule of law and justice issues. An ambitious new strategy for 2021-2025 has recently been approved and is in its first phase of implementation.”

Time: Quarterly meetings.

Remuneration: None.

Closes: 10 June

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Social Mobility Commission – Chair

“The Minister for Women and Equalities is seeking a new Chair for the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) to make the case for social mobility in England and hold Government and other leaders in the public sphere to account. The Chair will lead the Social Mobility Commission in promoting social mobility both within and outside Government, oversee work to strengthen the evidence base and improve public understanding of how opportunity is created and made accessible to all. Importantly, the Chair will lead the Commission in realising a more defined role in national life and launching a more clearly defined framework for assessing the impact of public policy on social mobility.”

Time: Up to six days per month.

Remuneration: £350 per diem

Closes: 11 June