Ed McGuinness: A state-of-the-art internet infrastructure network is the key to ‘levelling up’

25 Mar

Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation, founder of Conservatives in the City, and contested Hornsey & Wood Green during last year’s General Election.

The 2019 Conservative Party Conference seems like a long time ago: Manchester thronging with crowds, ministerial drop-ins to fringe events, warm wine on a terrace somewhere, enjoying the last sparkle of summer sunshine.

Amongst the policy and pints there was one that stood out to me. Not unique in the pantheon of the Prime Minister’s ambitious vision was to have, “gigabit broadband sprouting in every home.” However, what is unique is the effect this particular ambition can have on everyone in the country.

So often politics, particularly Westminster politics, can seem distant; billions of pounds spent on a scheme that is nowhere near where you live, and the effects of which will be imperceptible to you. But, there are certain times when Westminster does touch people directly, and quickly.

An obvious example is taxation. For me, genuinely overnight, the stamp duty freeze allowed us to finally think about purchasing our first home. Internet connectivity, though, is perhaps one of the most ambitious and immediate reforms this government could have, and certainly a potential lasting legacy for the Prime Minister himself.

When you look at the high level statistics for the UK on broadband connectivity you could be forgiven for thinking we are not doing too badly. According to the ONS 96 per cent of households have internet access, and within Europe, the UK is ranked 8th for internet access according to a study by the EU Commission last year (pre-Brexit). Notably this was a steady decline from 6th and 7th in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Nonetheless, these top-level statistics belie the actual experience of internet usage.

At this stage, and bear with me, it is worth talking, a little, about internet infrastructure. The Commons Library has an excellent report on this but to summarise: superfast broadband is defined as download speeds of 30 megabits per second and is available to 95 per cent of UK properties. This type of broadband has been mainly delivered by Fibre-to-the-Cabinet technology (part-fibre, part-copper). During the coronavirus pandemic this broadband, which was thought to be sufficient for fairly data intensive use, such as streaming videos, was pushed to the limit as our entire lives moved online.

The UK needs to increase its capacity and gigabit broadband (1000Mbps) is the way to do it. As an indication, a one-gigabit-per-second download speed would allow a high-definition film to be downloaded in less than a minute. There are plenty of technologies that can be used to deliver this service including full-fibre connections, high-speed cable broadband, and potentially future 5G networks, as well as emerging satellite internet technology.

However, only 27 per cent of British premises had access to a gigabit-broadband connection in September 2020. (The Library’s dashboard is a fascinating tool to work out where the most affected areas are, should you have a few spare minutes in-between Zoom calls.)

So the problem really is twofold. How do we reach those areas that are still left without adequate internet connection, which is around 100,000 premises, and how do we eventually provide gigabit capable service to the whole country?

The Government’s plan, published on March 19, is welcome. It looks at innovative ways to supply that 0.3 per cent of the country without adequate service. Whilst this may seem like a small number, or a disproportionate level of focus, let us remember that these communities are, by definition, the most isolated and potentially vulnerable in terms of mental health and educational needs, and therefore deserving of focus and attention in improving their connectivity to the rest of the country – at true One Nation idea if I ever have seen one.

The second problem is more ambitious and effectual. With 74 per cent of the country still operating on outdated and inadequate internet infrastructure the return on investment of such upgrades, for the economy and productivity, would be profound. This falls squarely into the Government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda and is a true nationwide issue.

For example, London only has 21 per cent gigabit connectivity (Westminster itself is barely above 55 per cent), the South-East is at 20 per cent, and the North-West sits at 37 per cent. This is a policy area much aligned with the Prime Minister’s pledge to level up the whole country.

The £5 billion scheme announced today, by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, to boost internet connectivity is really welcome news and part of a broader strategy, but I urge the Government not to lose any ambition on this. So rare is the opportunity to transform a part of the nation’s infrastructure that would mean so much to people. It would allow grandparents in Banff to speak to grandchildren in Bristol, help a sole trader in Milton Keynes to sell to customers in Mevagissey and even, dare I say, a Prime Minister in Westminster to speak to colleagues in Workington.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that this project is, and should be, as significant as the creation of the National Grid in the late 1920s. We urge the Government not be swayed by the many competing issues in its inbox, and.throw its energies behind this ambitious and potentially transformative project.

Ed McGuinness: Cities are still the most viable locations for new housing

19 Dec

Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation, founder of Conservatives in the City, and contested Hornsey & Wood Green during last year’s General Election.

As someone who grew up in Belfast, the “city in the countryside”, I attest to what it is like to walk less than five miles and go from the dense central business district, through suburbia to the leafy hills and fields surrounding. I understand, from a personal perspective, the importance of the relationship, geographically and demographically between urban and green field development and so I welcome the Government’s shift towards prioritizing more urban home building than initially proposed in the summer. Not only that but it makes practical sense for three reasons: existing urban centres have infrastructure in place; cities are where the demand and supply imbalance is most prevalent; and regional economic development will be driven from urban centres tying in neatly with the Government’s levelling up strategy.

Existing infrastructure

Using the OECD definition of core cities we have 11. Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield. Altogether they accounted for 25 per cent of the UK population, 24 per cent employment and 22 per cent gross value added in 2017. The UK’s major urban centres, outside of London, are in a better position, than blank canvas rural areas, to use existing infrastructure to support further home growth. Of the 11 cities included in the definition, nine have metro or light rail links however most, admittedly, still do remain highly reliant on cars. Shifting the focus from Greenfield sites to developing existing urban centres therefore yields two benefits.

The first presents a needs driven opportunity for investment in core infrastructure services that has been neglected in favour of public capital investment in cars, driving advancement towards climate and lifestyle benefits. Secondly, infrastructure development leads to an increase in general productivity, and, if applied to the urban centres in core cities outside of London, that relative increase in productivity per pound spent will drive recovery in the regions and place urban centres on a more sustainable footing to have a positive impact on their surrounding areas.

Supply and demand

Conservatism has traditionally been a values based political philosophy whereby our values remain constant, but the practical implementation of these values adapts over time – a key aspect of our success as a Party in navigating changing national landscapes over the last 100 years. A rare sustaining policy goal, of home ownership, has remained and for good reason; just like when someone owns a share of a company, owning a small share of the Nation, through homeownership, gives people a real sense of stake in their country and encourages a sense of care about what happens to that nation (back to values). House prices in core cities, whilst cheaper than the rest of the UK, are still high by international standards. To attract younger people to take a stake in society through homeownership, the supply and demand balance must be addressed. COVID has seen a temporary imbalance away from exiting urban sprawls in favour of the countryside. But throughout human history the trend has been to consolidate economic output in key areas and this is unlikely to be upended by the pandemic.

Cities drive regions

A process known as agglomeration makes a given worker or firm more productive in larger cities than in smaller cities. This relationship is robust in many countries but when comparing the core cities of the UK to other comparable cities across the world, the UK lags behind on the agglomeration effect by around three times. This presents a huge opportunity, with data suggesting that if core cities grew by ten per cent, and had comparable productivity improvements as those seen in France and Germany, the average productivity, relative to the national average, would increase by over four per cent. This is a lot of numbers but, bigger picture, when elevated to the national level such growth could see aggregate productivity increase by one per cent or £20 billion of GDP.

So-called Northern Powerhouse cities like Manchester, Leeds, and Newcastle could see improvements of between four and six per cent. Developing urban centres helps the surrounding region. Data from the OECD suggests that urban areas that are within 90 minutes travel time of London have on average a 3.5 per cent higher productivity than would be expected given the characteristics of their workforce, sector mix and population size. It therefore makes sense to prioritise housing development in urban centres as a centrepiece of the levelling up strategy.

Intercity links

Whilst prioritizing home building in urban centres now seems logical and beneficial, there is still the question of intercity and regional transportation. Given the complexities of devolved government – regional mayors, district councils, county councils and nationally devolved administrations, to name a handful – any home building, even inside existing urban boundaries, will need to be at least coordinated centrally, so as links between areas are built and sustained allowing economic development to be transmitted across and amongst regions. This ought to form a cornerstone of any development, should be factored into tendering processes from the outset, and will be a drag on development if not included properly.

Conclusion

Housing policy surely is the driver of the levelling up strategy. What is more significant to a person’s life than where they live? It determines where they shop, how they travel, where they send their children to school, where they work, who they are friends with, and what they believe about our country. To truly level up housing can have real positive effects as it will create an imperative for joined-up infrastructure. If supplied in quality and quantity, it will become affordable and attractive for young people, and as it does so, it will bring jobs and industry which will spread wealth like an ink spot across the region.

Ed McGuinness: A lesson for democracy in Europe from an abandoned airport in Cyprus

13 Oct

Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation, founder of Conservatives in the City and contested Hornsey & Wood Green during last year’s general election.

In the middle of the Mediterranean atop the Mesaoria plain lies a major European international airport. There is a terminal, a runway, baggage machines and even a first class lounge as you would expect.

What is missing are passengers and the passage of time. The Nicosia International Airport is abandoned in the Cypriot Neutral Buffer Zone between the Greek-Cypriot part of the Island in the South and the Turkish occupied territory in the North.

This no man’s land (though it actually contains several populated villages) was said to have been drawn on a military map in 1963, with a wax pencil, by a British general commanding the peacekeeping force on the island in the wake of the Turkish invasion. In recent times, it has become one of many explanatory points in the EU’s ever increasing complex foreign policy proposals.

Almost two and a half thousand miles away on an brisk autumn day in Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen was delivering her first State of the Union address, amidst the backdrop of a huge coronavirus stimulus package, on-going migration crises and foreign policy dilemmas over Belarus and China.

As it stands at the moment, essentially in order to enact lasting change, the EU requires every member state to agree on such significant issues as economic sanctions. When effective, the result is the world’s second largest economic bloc exerting a hefty punch.

But more often than not, this bureaucratic behemoth ends up in months off stalemate, compromise and early morning solutions – not very conducive to effective law-making. Von der Leyen, frustrated with this, suggested that, for human rights and sanctions implementation, the bloc should move to a “qualified majority voting” whereby 55 per cent of member states (15) comprising 65 per cent of the population can vote for such measures.

The reason why this issue has come to the fore is the failure of the bloc to come up with unanimous sanctions against Belarus and its despotic leader, Alexander Lukashenko, following his blatant rigging of national elections and violent suppression of pro-democracy protests as a result.

The EU is seemingly united on the issue: indeed, all member states agreed to impose sanctions on their immediate eastern neighbour – all, that is, except Cyprus.

Cyprus, that small country in the middle of the Mediterranean amongst other forgotten Southern European countries, is still in a “cold” war against the Turkish invaders to the North. Their air forces engage in mock dogfights, and even their navies have quite literally run into each other.

Cyprus however, has less than two per cent of the population of Germany and just 0.25 per cent of the EU population.  So it has, whilst in an on-going state of conflict with Turkey, to stand by and watch Germany lead on negotiations with its rival over a migration crisis that is, in relative terms, more important to Angela Merkel than it is to the Cypriot people.

As a result, Nicosia has exercised its only real influence over Brussels to allow its people to be heard over what is its most important foreign policy dilemma – a mechanism that would much less effective under the changes proposed by vvon don der Leyen.

Ironically, von der Leyen is indeed correct. The only way to prevent endless vetoes, continuously circling the issue and ending up with watered down solutions is to adopt a voting system based on a simpler majority, but in doing so she fundamentally breaches the “universal value of democracy and the rights of the individual” within the Union – a phrase she uttered in the same breath as her comments on voting reform.

The confusion at the heart of the matter is this: the operative aspect of the EU is in persistent conflict with its aspiration – in short, it is suffering from an identity crisis with limited escape routes. It is trying, and failing, to be both an economic union and at the same time, seemingly whenever it choses, a political union, with both aims simultaneously mutually exclusive and co-dependant.

An example of which may be advocating for voting reform and lowering representation in one sentence, and espousing the democratic rights of its citizenry in another. Stating it stands up for the rights of its smaller nations, whilst its bigger nations club together to secure powers and influence over their own interests.

The EU is now attempting a slow death of democracy which will concentrate power and wealth in the north-western countries to the detriment and federalisation of the southern nations. It is no wonder that pro-sovereignty movements have taken hold there.

The EU faces a stark choice, which will upset a significant bloc either way.

The first course is to follow their stated aim of continual political integration, which is clearly the option favoured by the President and larger countries who will benefit given their scale.

The second is to recognise the value of devolution, and endeavour to support those countries on the periphery of the Union.

A final option is to simply do nothing…and allow these problems to continue to build in a state of perpetual crisis. As with much in the EU, some mixture of choices two and three is most likely followed by an undemocratic push into option one, sometime many years from now.

The result may well be a smoother machine, but will be a further drain on the power, influence and already low democratic representation in the smaller capitals of the Union who are trapped by economic shackles to the centre.

The UK, and Canada, at the time of writing, have enacted sanctions on Belarus, Lukashenko and his senior lieutenants, and have worked swiftly with the US on multiple occasions this year to act on aggression from Chinese and Russian abuses of the rules based international order.

The “take back control narrative” which prevailed in the UK in 2016 has begun to deliver on those promises. The EU, on the other hand, remains confused about its own democratic values and whether it actually works for all its member states, or only does so when it wants to, or when it benefits its larger members.

Ultimately, the smaller countries in the EU will be the losers in the reforms proposed by von der Leyen, echoed in a recent tweet on by Guy Verholfstadt suggesting “unanimity was killing the EU”.

Well, Guy, it will continue to hold back the EU – or else the EU will end up killing its smaller members. The President of the European Commission ought to visit the abandoned airport in Nicosia. There she would see the land that time forgot which would perhaps spur her, and her colleagues, to remember how easily democracy can die.

Ed McGuinness: Getting everyone back to work will save the economy

27 Jul

Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation, founder of Conservatives in the City and stood for Hornsey & Wood Green at the general election.

Growth in GDP, from an economic perspective relies on three key areas. The first is labour; both population growth affecting its size and the participation rate. The latter of which will surely take a hit from this crisis. The second factor is capital investment in the economy and with the Government’s long-term investment plan this may very well be somewhat addressed. The third factor is known as Total Factor Productivity, productivity improvement or technological advancement. Normally in economics it is addressed residually (as capital and labour are fairly quantifiable), but generally, whilst we are holed up in our houses, especially the younger generations, the ability to be productive, to innovate as part of a social group, is limited. The bottom line is economic growth may jump around for a few months, but longer term will flat-line.

Boris Johnson’s rallying call of “build, build, build” follows well known and tried Keynesian economic principles, but putting aside that a British New Deal package comparable to that in the 1930s would actually cost north of  £700 billion, “shovel ready” infrastructure projects are rarely so in the United Kingdom. One can only look at the High Speed 2 rail link project which has been ongoing since 2009, the Heathrow expansion project, ongoing since the same year, and even the Channel Tunnel, arguably a huge success, took 18 years from agreement to completion. It would likely take a herculean effort, much like that seen in the early weeks of the Covid-19 response to expedite even the most minor infrastructure projects. Whilst this will be necessary for medium to longer term growth, a short-term booster shot is necessary to mitigate the risks of a permanently smaller economy.

Whilst the levelling-up agenda could perhaps see a step-change in the national economy, the wealth generating ability of London’s financial and multinational corporations is a capability that needs to be protected and nurtured if there is to be any economic recovery at all. London contributes between one quarter and one third of the entire economic output of the country, a population greater than the next 13 largest cities combined, and 11% of the UK’s tax revenue – a considerable and much needed source of cash as we emerge from this crisis. We have already seen some positive news with regards to the future of financial services in the post Brexit City which offers some security, but to get London’s economy firing again, benefitting not just the South East but the rest of the country. We must either adapt very quickly or risk a lasting hit to one of the world’s global economic command centres.

To do this people must get back to work – a simple aim, but complex in execution. The challenges are overarching twofold. First psychological and personal, people are genuinely concerned that they might get ill and naturally do not want to travel in close proximity (as is almost inevitable) in London and other city transport networks. The second, whilst fed and influenced by the first is separate, and is practical and organisational. In order to comply with new social distancing office space and transport has had to readapt to the point where it is impossible at the moment to have 100% capacity. Some offices in Canary Wharf have indicated a 50% capacity cap on open plan offices which seen have seen desks normally fit for six now only fit for one or two.  We must address both these issues when it comes to returning to work. By addressing the latter, a proof of concept is deliverable which will go a long way to alleviating the former, psychological concerns.

It is clear that accepting the current situation as the ‘new normal’ is not a solution. It would see not only resilient industries face collapse, but also highly operationally levered sectors like hospitality; fast food and tourism fall away alongside second order effects of rental and credit defaults. Therefore, the risks must be managed and mitigated. Practically those travelling should be encouraged to wear facemasks, wash their hands and observe social distancing, but we must change our working habits fundamentally, in the short term if we are to succeed.

Younger workers should be encouraged to return to the office more quickly than the manager class. The damage to younger people’s careers from Covid-19 has been highlighted in the potential loss of hospitality, retail and other feeder professions, but younger people who work in an office environment need social interaction and personal networking with colleagues, which is of huge importance to younger staff. Development through social interaction is not just a theory isolated to infants, but extends throughout all growth phases of life. Not only that, but younger people are generally less well paid and as such live in accommodation ill equipped for a healthy working environment lacking the space for a home office or a separate room for working. The active psychological damage of an absence of delineation between work and personal life, alongside the passive damage caused by separation from peers, will have a damaging effect on younger people if they do not return to work imminently.

There also needs to be a reform of the working day. If, as it is at the moment a 9-to-5 day, it is natural that rush hour falls either side of these, considerably so in London and other cities where commuter towns exacerbate the effect. London transport should run a rush hour service, therefore increasing capacity across the system, throughout the day, Companies, particularly those who work in close proximity to one another and are served by a limited number of transport links, for example in Canary Wharf, should collaborate to reassign their working day and stagger start and stop times and more importantly enforce them. An additional point of assistance would be to alter market opening hours from 9.30-4.30 as advocated by the Association for Financial Markets in Europe and the Investment Association, but not accepted by the LSE in the most recent review. This would lose the overlap with Asia, which is arguably not statistically significant, but would retain the lucrative overlap with US market whilst allowing more time, particularly in the morning, for commuter travel.

The Government must remember the importance of London and other cities’ regional influence on productivity – a problem in the UK even before Covid-19 – without which the entire country could level-down. By focussing on only the short-term operational aspect, large office-based London businesses may see a slight recovery, but support industries around them may collapse which will lead to longer term pain. On this occasion, working together to protect the centre is protecting the rest.

Ed McGuinness: We need more innovation to reopen schools

24 Jun

Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation and stood for Hornsey & Wood Green at the general election.

Education is the silver bullet. In the formative years it gives children the skills to interact properly with their peers; as adolescents it delivers the abilities to contribute meaningfully to society; and as young adults it can deliver advanced knowledge to bring about innovation and societal progression. Education is progressive by its very nature; you cannot build the space shuttle before learning your times tables or even learning how to interact socially; the reason why the formative years are so aptly named.

The Government has set criteria for schooling following the much publicised “bubble” principle. Whereby, guided by the science, school class sizes are reduced to a maximum of 15. With average class sizes in England being at 27 this means, on the face of it, there would not be enough teachers or real estate to educate children. But we should not accept this as fait accompli.

For the individual, a Swedish study, found that absence does have a significant effect on average grades in the short term. Whilst studies have yet to prove long term effects conclusively, the penalty, in the labour market, for absences is most profound in those aged 25-30 – precisely the age that most young adults in the UK are beginning the high growth phase of their career.

For society, education not only produces skilled individuals, but also has secondary effects. Education provides a safe environment for children to learn how to interact successfully. Crucially it allows parents of children to be as economically active as possible, whilst school provides a form of secondary childcare. Caring for children at home, whilst attempting to tutor them and be productive at work must lead to a trade-off, most likely in the latter.

With social injustice also so prevalent in the recent news it would also be amiss to ignore the impact that an education vacuum has on the disadvantage gap in England which closed by around ten per cent between 2011 and 2019 – a phenomenal effort from Government and teaching staff. We are now in danger of undoing all that good work. 60 per cent of private schools and 37 per cent of state schools in the most affluent areas versus only 23 per cent of state schools in more deprived areas had the advantage of extra resources beforehand, including online learning portals, which gave them a structural head start. Whilst data is still scarce, in the first week of home schooling (beginning 23 March) pupils from middle class homes were twice as likely to be taking part in daily live or recorded lessons as those from working class households (30 per cent compared to 16 per cent) and with around 50 per cent participation from private schools. The bottom line is that the loss of in-person learning or, at least, supervision could lead to a significant widening of the disadvantage gap once again.

However, we remain fixed by the “bubble” principle. Whilst the Department of Education provides the grand strategy, there are ways councils can step up and take the initiative. A shining example is Wandsworth. Consistently able to deliver value for money for residents, Wandsworth Council has continued its impressive, pragmatic approach to education in its nine-point plan. Three points stand out as innovative.

Firstly, making parks and outside spaces free of charge for schools to use will encourage outdoor learning during the most appropriate months of the year. This new environment also lowers the already low risk to children and teachers of the virus. Making unused council building space available to schools will allow those whose real estate is already tight to expand into a greater space further enhancing safety and allowing greater flexibility to staff and students. Finally, by providing free mental health services to teachers during this period, the council can promote a happier and healthier educational environment. We should remember it is our teachers, heroic even in normal times, who will be facing the additional pressure of explaining complex issues to children, having to enforce unnatural social distancing at times and who genuinely care about the educational welfare of their pupils not being fulfilled to the highest extent.

Whilst not all councils will have the resources of Wandsworth, or necessarily the same micro issues as a London Borough, the broader point is that innovative solutions are needed from all local authorities who are empowered to provide a conducive educational environment.

At the beginning of this crisis, the Government, both centrally and locally, was rightly focussed on its impact on the lives of the public. We saw the huge national effort which has led to a significant increase in NHS capacity, the procurement of much needed ventilators, economic measures which have run into the hundreds of billions of pounds, and a relentless focus on trying to control the spread of the virus. Now it is time to think of the longer term impact. The economic recovery will take many months to get back to pre-crisis levels and years to realign into a more immune position. The educational impact on this nation will last quite possibly for almost a century.

Previous monikers for generations have included “the greatest” and “the silent”. We must innovate if we are to prevent “the lost generation” entering the lexicon of the future.