Council by-election result from yesterday and forthcoming contests

16 Jul

Sandwell – Tividale

Conservatives 986 (52.6 per cent, +5.6 on May) Labour 810 (43.2 per cent, – 9.8) Independent 40 (2.1 per cent, +2.1) Lib Dems 30 (1.6 per cent, +1.6) Trade Union and Socialist Coalition 9 (0.5 per cent, +0.5)

Conservatives gain from Labour 

Forthcoming contests

July 22nd

  • Camden – Fortune Green Ward. (Lib Dem held.)
  • Dover – Alkham and Capel-le-Ferne Ward. (Conservative held.)
  • Leicester – Humberstone and Hamilton Ward (Labour held.)
  • North Somerset – Congresbury and Puxton Ward. (Lib Dem held.)
  • Rhondda Cynon Taf – Tyn-y-Nant division. (Labour held.)
  • Spelthorne – Staines Ward. (Green Party held.)
  • Thanet – Cliftonville East Ward. (Conservative held.)
  • Wirral 0 Liscard Ward. (Labour held.)

July 29th

  • Basildon – Pitsea North West Ward. (Labour held.)
  • Bassetlaw – East Retford South Ward. (Labour held.)
  • Harrogate – Knaresborough Scriven Park ward. (Conservative held.)
  • Norfolk – Gaywood South Division. (Conservative held.)
  • South Tyneside – Fellgate and Hedworth Ward. (Independent held.)

August 5th

  • West Lothian – East Livingston and East Calder Ward. (Labour held.)

August 12th

  • East Suffolk – Orwell and Villages ward. Conservative held.)
  • Highland – Inverness West Ward. (Independent held.)
  • Highland – Wick and East Caithness Ward. (Independent held.)
  • North Ayrshire – Dalry and West Kilbride Ward. (SNP held.)
  • South Lakeland – Grange Ward (Lib Dem held)

August 19th

  • Aberdeenshire – Mid Formartine. (SNP held.)
  • East Riding of Yorkshire – East Wolds and Coastal ward
  • Ribble Valley – Littlemoor Ward  (Lib Dem held)
  • Ribble Valley – Primrose Ward  (Lib Dem held)

Leading Conservative councils are withdrawing their support for Stonewall

12 Jul

In recent weeks I have been undertaking extensive investigations into the funding for Stonewall from local authorities. This has been done via Freedom of Information requests and via contact with council leaders and other councillors. Last week I reported that Surrey County Council had decided to continue with funding. I suggested that the decision was a serious mistake for various reasons. One is “value for money” – sending Council Taxpayers money to political lobbying groups is unjustified, regardless of the particular causes they espouse. Also freedom of conscience. Council staff should not be sent on “training” sessions to be told what to think. Provided they carry out their work to a high professional standard, their personal views on political and social issues are their own affair. Finally, Stonewall has become a highly controversial outfit. From its beginnings in championing equal rights for gay people, it has adopted an extremist agenda that is hostile to free speech, damages the mental health of children, and undermines women’s rights. Stonewall declares that ‘trans women are women’ despite the phrase’s potential to ride roughshod over elementary science, established language, and women’s rights to single sex spaces and services.

The good news is that Surrey County Council is very much the exception. The great majority of councils have not given money to Stonewall in recent years. Of those that have, many indicated that they would not be doing so again. Conservative councils withdrawing backing include Conwy, Derbyshire, Hampshire, Nottinghamshire, Northumberland, and Wiltshire.

Some Labour councils (or Labour-led councils) have also ceased their funding. These include Blackpool, Cheshire East, Hounslow, Islington, Merton, Redbridge, Southend and Warrington.

The following councils are currently still funding Stonewall and have not given any clear indication they will stop doing so:

  • Anglesey
  • Argyll and Bute
  • Barking and Dagenham
  • Brent Council
  • Bridgend
  • Brighton and Hove
  • Calderdale
  • Camden Council
  • Cardiff
  • Ceredigion
  • Dorset
  • East Ayrshire
  • Fife
  • Glasgow
  • Gloucestershire
  • Greenwich
  • Greater London Authority
  • Gwynedd
  • Hackney
  • Haringey
  • Kirklees
  • Lambeth
  • Leeds
  • Leicester
  • Leicestershire
  • Midlothian
  • North Lincolnshire
  • Nottingham
  • Oxfordshire
  • Portsmouth
  • Rhondda-Cynon-Taf
  • Slough
  • Southwark
  • Stirling
  • Stockport
  • Sandwell
  • Sunderland
  • Surrey
  • Telford and Wrekin
  • Torfaen
  • Waltham Forest
  • Westminster.

Typically the sum involved is £3,000 a year for membership of the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme. Some have paid for extra, for example, additional training sessions on top of this.

Though I have included Slough Borough Council, there must be some doubt about that particular revenue stream. The Council has issued a Section 114 notice which restricts its spending to essential services.

Among those Conservative councils on the list, some have indicated that the issue is under review. The message from Gloucestershire is:

“We are taking the opportunity to raise questions with them”.  

Westminister Council states:

“We are reviewing all of our memberships to ensure value for money”.

Cllr Rob Waltham, the leader of North Lincolnshire Council, tells me:

“We have over the past few years sought to improve the councils standing and position on LGBT+ issues. It was well established back then that Stonewall were the  leading body for accreditation on such matters.  Clearly recent events and our progressive approach as an organisation has provided us an opportunity to review and think if this relationship is best suited to deliver our aims. I have triggered that review and will happily report back once it is completed.”

Dorset Council has also put the matter “under review”. But what was especially weak in this case was that elected councillors responded that it was not a matter for them and was for their officials to decide.

I have also made enquiries about police constabularies. Most have not provided recent funding. Greater Manchester Police has, but has stopped doing so. Police forces still providing funding are:

  • Derbyshire
  • Durham
  • Dyfed-Powys
  • Gwent
  • Hertfordshire
  • Humberside.

Again the spending is usually £3,000 a year each.

Jonathan Evison, the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Humberside, arranged for his assistant to write to me to say that it was an “operational” matter for the Chief Constable. This seems to me to stretch the definition of operational policing to an absurd degree. The PCC is supposed to be responsible for setting the policies, priorities, and the budget. If they are abdicating responsibility on a decision about handing over money from the police budget to Stonewall, it is hard to see what the point is of electing a PCC is.

When it comes to the NHS Trusts there is not even the potential of democratic accountability – though some local councillors may sit on the board of governors as appointees. Some of these Trusts give funds to Stonewall, most do not. It really seems to depend on the ideological whims of the senior officials. Those that have withdrawn funding include the East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, the Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, the Norfolk Community Health and Care NHS Trust, the Bristol, North Somerset & South Gloucestershire Clinical Commissioning Group and the Brighton and Hove Clinical Commissioning Group. The following are presently due to continue making payments –  though the Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust did add it was “under review”:

  • Aneurin Bevan University Health Board
  • Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
  • Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust
  • Cardiff and Vale University Local Health Board
  • Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust
  • Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust
  • Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust
  • Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust
  • Derbyshire Community Health Services NHS Foundation Trust
  • Hywel Dda University Health Board
  • Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group
  • Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust
  • Midlands Partnership Foundation Trust
  • Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust
  • North East London NHS Foundation Trust
  • North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust
  • Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
  • Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust
  • Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust
  • Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust
  • The Royal Orthopaedic NHS Foundation Trust
  • Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Solent NHS Trust
  • South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust
  • Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust
  • Swansea Bay University Health Board
  • University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust
  • University Hospitals Birmingham
  • West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust
  • Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust

While I am encouraged that the overall trend is for payments to be ended or reviewed, it does seem extraordinary that any payment of public funds to Stonewall should remain legal. Public sector bodies should not make payments from taxpayer funds to lobbying organisations, who in turn use that funding to lobby public sector bodies.  The rules on this should be tightened.

Council by-election results from yesterday and forthcoming contests

9 Jul

East Devon – Feniton  

Conservatives 239 (53.5 per cent, +40.9 on 2019) Labour 126 (28.2 per cent, +23.4) Lib Dems 82 (18.3 per cent, +18.3)

Conservatives gain from an independent

East Devon – Honiton St Michaels  

Labour 807 (58.0 per cent, +58.0 on 2019) Conservatives 522 (37.5 per cent, -15.5) Lib Dems 63 (4.5 per cent, -42.5)

Labour gain from Lib Dems

East Suffolk – Aldeburgh and Leiston (Two vacancies. Both Conservative held last time.)

Green Party 1,110 and 1,101 (43.8 per cent, =27.5 on 2019) Conservatives 1,103 and 1,006 (41.8 per cent, +13.0) Labour Party 355 and 311 (13.2 per cent, -5.8) Communist Party of Britain 61 (1.2 per cent, +1.2)

One Conservative hold. One Green Party gain from Conservatives.

Harlow – Mark Hall  

Conservatives 549 (46.4 per cent, +23.2 on 2019) Labour 493 (41.7 per cent, -0.9) Green Party 86 (7.3 per cent, +7.3) Lib Dems 55 (4.6 per cent, -5.0)

Conservatives gain from Labour

Huntingdonshire – St Neots East  

Independent 249 (42.5 per cent, +42.5 on 2018) Green Party 196 (33.4 per cent, +33.4) Lib Dems 68 (11.6 per cent, -15.9) Conservatives 47 (8.0 per cent, -24.0) Labour 26 (4.4 per cent, -36.0)

Independent gain from Labour

Mid Sussex – Ardingly and Balcombe 

Green Party 452 (36.9 per cent, +13.6 on 2019) Conservatives 409 (33.4 per cent, -5.6) Lib Dems 340 (27.8 per cent, +1.0) Independent 23 (1.9 per cent, +1.9)

Green Party gain from Conservatives.

Forthcoming contests

July 15th

  • Sandwell – Tividale Ward. (Labour held.)

July 22nd

  • Camden – Fortune Green Ward. (Lib Dem held.)
  • Dover – Alkham and Capel-le-Ferne Ward. (Conservative held.)
  • Leicester: Humberstone and Hamilton Ward (Labour held.)
  • North Somerset – Congresbury and Puxton Ward. (Lib Dem held.)
  • Rhondda Cynon Taf –  Tyn-y-Nant division. (Labour held.)
  • Spelthorne:  Staines Ward. (Green Party held.)
  • Thanet: Cliftonville East Ward. (Conservative held.)
  • Wirral:  Liscard Ward. (Labour held.)

July 29th

  • Basildon:  Pitsea North West Ward. (Labour held.)
  • Bassetlaw:  East Retford South Ward. (Labour held.)
  • Harrogate:  Knaresborough Scriven Park ward. (Conservative held.)
  • Norfolk:  Gaywood South Division. (Conservative held.)
  • South Tyneside: Fellgate and Hedworth Ward. (Independent held.)

August 5th

  • West Lothian – East Livingston and East Calder Ward. (Labour held.)

August 12th

  • Highland: Inverness West Ward. (Independent held.)
  • Highland: Wick and East Caithness Ward. (Independent held.)
  • North Ayrshire – Dalry and West Kilbride Ward. (SNP held.)

August 19th

  • Aberdeenshire – Mid Formartine. (SNP held.)

Local elections in depth: Tunbridge Wells illustrates the challenge of overcoming distrust of new developments

8 Jul

Source: Election Maps.

Case study: Tunbridge Wells

Control: No Overall Control.

Numbers: Conservatives 24, Lib Dems 13, Independents 6, Labour 5.

Change since last local elections:  Conservatives -6, Lib Dems +4, Independents +1, Labour +1

All out or thirds: Thirds

Background:  This local authority is in Kent and was founded in 1974. It covers Royal Tunbridge Wells, another town, Southborough, as well as some surrounding rural areas. By reputation, Tunbridge Wells encompasses Conservative values to the extent of parody. 1944 BBC radio programme, Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, created a character called “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” who would write indignant letters to newspapers. E.M. Forster had earlier nurtured a similar caricature about the allegiances of the town’s residents. The reality has been a little more complicated – the Lib Dems ran the Council from 1996–1998 and it was the only district in Kent to vote Remain in the 2016 EU referendum. But the constituency has always been Conservative. It was represented for many years by Patrick Mayhew, who served as Northern Ireland Secretary – and since 2005 by Greg Clark, a cabinet minister under David Cameron and Theresa May. There would certainly be an expectation that if the Conservatives are doing well nationally, they should have little difficulty here.

Results: Although technically under No Overall Control, the Conservatives are still running the Council. There has been some speculation that the losses were due to resentment at public spending being directed to “Red Wall” constituencies in the north. There may have been a bit of this. Yet the elections the same day for the Kent County Council divisions covering Tunbridge Wells went rather better for the Conservatives. Some gardens would display two boars – one with a poster supporting Conservative candidates for the county council, another with a poster urging a vote for the Tunbridge Wells Alliance in the borough election.

The result in Capel Ward was instructive. The Lib Dems gained the seat by a huge margin. This was due to opposition to the Council’s plan for a new settlement at Tudeley with 2,100 new houses. It is at an early stage with little detail. This void of uncertainty is soon filled with emphatic pessimism. The people of Capel assume new development will mean bad development. Who can blame them? It usually does. They fear it will be ugly. That it will be poorly set out – as a giant housing estate, rather than thoughtful street patterns that engender a sense of community and calm. That it will mean worse traffic jams, more pressure on GPs surgeries and school places. That it will “go beyond anything Capel can cope with.” Thus the cry goes up: “Save Capel”. Such is the desperation – they vote for the Lib Dems.

What should the Conservative response be? One is defeatism – to blame central Government for requiring a target for new homes. Then point out that if the Council doesn’t offer a plan for this, then they would have less constraint on the developers over what got built and where. Objections could be overruled on appeal – on the grounds they were meeting an acknowledged need that would not otherwise be resolved. So the new homes have to go somewhere. A switch to a Lib Dem council or a Labour Government would be unlikely to change any of that. As it happens, the Lib Dems have backed the local plan saying that Tudeley is the best option.

No doubt it would be useful if those procedural realities were better understood. But the more inspiring approach would be to make the development at Tudeley so wonderful that it would be popular. It could be a village that, though new, was traditional. Beautiful homes of traditional material that blend in with the surroundings. It really should be financially viable for the infrastructure to be improved to more than compensate for the extra population. So that the existing residents of Capel would enjoy less congested roads, a new train station, a greater choice of good schools, less delay seeing a GP or getting a hospital appointment. Funding formulas could be tweaked to give an incentive for development. Perhaps for a year or two there could be an exemption from paying Council Tax –  to compensate for the dust and noise of lorries trundling past to carry out the building works.

Not that it would be quick or easy. The new residents are not due to move until 2038. Capel is made up of a collection of hamlets. For many of them the very attraction of living there is being isolated. If Tudeley had excellent new schools with lots of places, that might make matters worse from their perspective – in terms of all the coming and going. There have already been assurances from Harry Teacher of the Hadlow Estate, the landowners, that the development will be beautiful – the response was sceptical. Even if it all works out splendidly, suspicions may not be overcome until much before then. Universal acclaim may never be achieved. But the challenge for Conservatives in Tunbridge Wells, as elsewhere, is to offer development of a high enough standard that it is welcomed by most reasonable people.

Local elections in depth: Wirral’s unspectacular results still show Labour in decline

7 Jul

Source: Election Maps.

Coverage of local election results begins to gather pace on the evening of polling day, and peters out by roughly the close of the following weekend.

Unsurprisingly, it tends to focus on results from councils that change political control.  But to get a fuller picture of what’s happened, one needs also to look at those that don’t.  Hence this new fortnightly series on ConservativeHome.

Case study: Wirrall.

Control: No Overall Control.

Numbers: Labour 30, Conservatives 23, Liberal Democrats 6, Greens 5, Independent 2.

Change in last local elections: Labour -4, Greens +3, Conservatives +1.

All out or thirds: All out

Background: The local authority sits in Merseyside – in which the Conservatives hold a solitary set, Southport, and Labour the 14 others. It is a statement of the obvious that over time Labour has established a Parliamentary monopoly in Liverpool, the cultural effects of which have rippled out over time through the county.

However, conservatism is alive and well in much of Wirrall.  Of its four Parliamentary seats, one, Wirrall West, was held for a term by Esther McVey for the Conservatives after 2010. Both it and Wirrall South stayed blue from their creation during the mid-1980s until Labour’s 1987 landslide.  A third seat, Wallasey, was Tory from 1945 until 1992.  Birkenhead has been Labour since its 1950 recreation.

The Conservative base is in the west and south of the local authority area. The council itself was created in 1973, and has been controlled by the Party for only eleven of those years – between 1975 and 1986. It has otherwise oscillated between Labour and No Overall Control, and has been in the latter state since 2012.

Results: The big takeway is that while in the east of the country, Labour tended to lose seats to the Conservatives, four of their five losses here were to the Greens. The latter won Bebington in Wirral South, plus Prenton and Birkenhead & Tranmere (in Birkenhead).  The Conservatives took the fourth ward – Pensby & Thingwall in Wirrall West.

The Wirrall results show the value of putting a council whose recent election result was unspectacular under the magnifying glass. In opposition, and in one of its heartland areas, Labour actually lost wards – and to a new challenger party at that.  It doesn’t bode well for Keir Starmer as the next election draws nearer.

Why is Surrey County Council still funding Stonewall?

5 Jul

I have been investigating which councils have been funding the controversial campaign group Stonewall and, if so, whether they intend to continue doing so. I will present a full account in due course. It is taking some time to obtain definitive responses – some councils have been, er, stonewalling.

Liz Truss, who, as well as being the International Trade Secretary is also the Women and Equalities Minister, has made her view clear that Government Departments should not be providing funding.

From the Freedom of Information responses I have been sent so far, the evidence is that the majority of local authorities have sent no money to Stonewall in recent years. Of those that have, several have decided to end the arrangement or have it under review. Those that have indicated they will continue funding tend to be Labour councils. But there has been a notable exception. Surrey County Council, which has a solid Conservative majority, informs me that it will be paying £3,000 to Stonewall in the current financial year.

Cllr Tim Oliver, the council leader, says:

“Earlier this year, Surrey County Council joined the Stonewall Champion programme, and the money identified in the FOI response paid for membership of the programme and the benefits associated with that membership. The Council’s decision to engage with the programme was based on the value of the tools and the access to advice and expertise that this membership provides. This decision was taken in the context of the work the authority is now doing to create a step change in its approach to being a fairer, more inclusive organisation as set out in the Council’s EDI strategy, which was approved in November 2020.”  

I believe the decision is misguided for various reasons.

First of all, it is an improper use of Council Taxpayers’ money to be sent to political campaigning bodies, regardless of whether one might happen to agree or disagree with the views of such a body. That is not only poor value for money but a distortion of the democratic process. The rules for local authority already state:

“Local authorities should not incur any expenditure in retaining the services of lobbyists for the purpose of the publication of any material designed to influence public officials, Members of Parliament, political parties or the Government to take a particular view on any issue”

It would be welcome if these rules were tightened and applied more stringently.

Secondly, the staff of a council should be entitled to their own opinions. Certainly, there should be a general professional requirement to treat each other and members of the public with courtesy and without discrimination. But it should be irrelevant which party they vote for, or which church they attend, or their views on sexual morality. They just need to be good at filling potholes, or emptying dustbins, or cutting grass, or managing libraries, or caring for the elderly, or whatever their job happens to be. Of course, they need to accept the policies decided by the elected councillors. This is quite different to sending staff off to a Conference to be told what to think – or, still worse, punishing them for uttering dissent. Imagine if a Conservative council, at great expense, packed its staff off to a Legatum Institute conference extolling the merits of free enterprise, or a Migration Watch seminar on the strain immigration was imposing on public services, or Right To Life UK on how abortion constituted the murder of unborn children. There would be great indignation and rightly so.

Thirdly, in the particular case of Stonewall, such funding is especially ill-judged. Founded in 1989 – by Matthew Parris among others – it had the worthy aim of a society where homosexuals had equal rights with heterosexuals. Yet it has mutated into becoming an extreme and pernicious outfit that threatens freedom of speech, undermines protections for women, and is a danger to the mental health of children.

A recent leader in The Times stated:

“Stonewall’s thinly-disguised threats of ostracism have nothing to do with the ethos of serving the public, treating employees well, or promoting the welfare of gays, bisexuals and transgender people. It is odious to suppose that merely by querying the organisation’s objectives, critics are somehow guilty of “transphobic” prejudice. Those who have fallen foul of Stonewall’s edicts are insisting that a culture of open dissent is healthy and that one of enforced contrition is a hallmark of totalitarianism. Stonewall has long since lost its way as a campaigning organisation. Public and private sectors employers should withhold all cooperation with its demands for orthodoxy and have nothing to do with it.”

The zealotry on transgenderism is such to include demands that “trans-exclusionary” practices should be prohibited. Stonewall wants the law changed to end protection for single sex spaces. So biological men who “identify” as women could use women’s lavatories, demand to be sent to women’s prisons and women’s refuges, and compete in women’s sports. Especially damaging is Stonewall’s work in schools – primary and secondary – providing “toolkits” for teachers that introduce children as young as four to the concept of being ‘trans’, and say they should encourage pupils to question the gender identity that has been “assigned” to them at birth.

Those who challenge any of this face being labelled “transphobic” and may even face losing their jobs. In a way, to say free speech is threatened is to understate the matter. There is forced speech. There is a requirement for people to state things they believe to false. For example, if at a girls’ school, one of the pupils decides to identify as a boy, then a teacher can get into trouble for refusing to use the “correct pronouns”.

I would urge any local authority sending money to Stonewall to desist. But I am especially dismayed that any Conservative council should regard this as a right and proper way to dispense with the money of their Council Taxpayers.

Local elections in depth: Oxfordshire – a quiet warning of a crumbling wall?

23 Jun

Source: Election Maps.

Coverage of local election results begins to gather pace on the evening of polling day, and peters out by roughly the close of the following weekend.

Unsurprisingly, it tends to focus on results from councils that change political control.  But to get a fuller picture of what’s happened, one needs also to look at those that don’t.  Hence this new fortnightly series on ConservativeHome.

Case study: Oxfordshire.

Control: No Overall Control.

Numbers: Conservatives 22, Liberal Democrats 21, Labour 15, Greens 3, Independent 2.

Change at last local elections: Conservatives -9, Liberal Democrats +8, Labour +1, Greens +3, Independents -2.

All out or thirds: All out

Background: This is a local authority where the Conservatives would normally be expected to be the dominant force – even in electorally difficult times. The political divide is between the City of Oxford – where Labour and the Lib Dems are strongest – and the rest of the county with its “safe” Conservative territory.

The six Parliamentary seats have included some illustrious Conservative representatives. Henley was represented by Boris Johnson – who took over from Michael Heseltine. Witney did have a Labour MP at one stage – but that was a result of Shaun Woodward’s defection so does not really count in the context of electoral analysis. Woodward succeeded Douglas Hurd and was succeeded by David Cameron. At the last General Election, in December 2019, both those constituencies were won by the Conservatives with comfortable majorities well into five figures – as were Banbury and Wantage. Of the other two seats, Oxford East was won by Labour with a large majority. However, the Oxford West and Abingdon result might have been seen as a warning for the Conservatives. Layla Moran not merely held the seat for the Lib Dems – but saw her majority increase from 816 to 8943.  The Boundary Commission proposes an extra seat for the county – Bicester.

Another warning for the Conservatives came in the 2019 district council elections. The Lib Dems made big gains on South Oxfordshire and the Vale of the White Horse.

Oxfordshire County Council was created in 1973. During that time it has switched from being Conservative to long periods of No Overall Control – though even then usually still Conservative-led. There was a period in the 1980s when the political parties took it in turns to chair the different committees – in practice the bureaucrats being in charge without much political “interference.” The Conservatives have never been in opposition here before.

Results: Labour’s gain of Chipping Norton caught the attention of the media, as it seemed so incongruous – this is the wealthy area near where David Cameron lives (though the town has a Labour tradition). The Cotswold stone cottages with pretty gardens are “full of university professors”, the Labour councillor Geoff Saul declared adding: “That’s where I get lots of my votes.”

But the main story was of Conservative losses to the Liberal Democrats. Concerns over planning were the main factor. That is an issue for district councils rather than county councils. However, that was not a distinction that Lib Dem canvassers were entirely scrupulous about acknowledging during their doorstep conversations. The Lib Dems now lead the Council in a “progressive alliance” with the Labour Party and the Green Party. After decades as part of the establishment in the county, the Oxfordshire Conservatives must now adapt to becoming a resistance movement.

The voters of Chesham and Amersham remind the Prime Minister that he is mortal

18 Jun

The voters of Chesham and Amersham have given their message loud and clear. One of the safest Conservative seats has been lost to the Lib Dems. A Conservative majority of 16,223, only 18 months ago, was overturned yesterday to become a Lib Dem majority of 8,028.

But, er, just what was the message?

If it was to abandon HS2, why vote for the Lib Dems – a Party which supports the astonishingly expensive transport scheme?

Were voters protesting against “Freedom Day” being delayed on the grounds that continuing with restrictions is disproportionate? Or has Dominic Cummings alarmed them that the Government is too complacent and that lockdown should have been longer and more draconian?

Are the residents of beautiful villages in the Green Belt warning against “concreting over the countryside” with ugly planning developments? Or after a year where house prices have sharply risen, are aspirational younger voters showing their frustration that under a Conservative Government the dream of home ownership remains just that?

Amidst this array of grievances, the Yellow Army entered. The Lib Dems are very good at by-elections. The first “upset” was their victory in Orpington in 1962 – in their previous incarnation as the Liberal Party. In the decades that followed such “shock” triumphs have become a staple of the political diet.

The Lib Dems are shrewd at detecting where victory is viable and then in throwing everything at it. It is not just a question of manpower – though bussing in cheerful and dedicated activists has been important. It is more sophisticated than that. Protest votes are wooed with the soothing message that the Government will not be overturned. The Lib Dem vote harvesting machine of contradictory messages is carefully honed to suit the whims of each household. A pious tone is combined with shameless opportunism and base dishonesty.

This boost does come at an important time for the Lib Dems, however. The local elections were disappointing for them – partly because coronavirus restrictions thwarted their chance to gain an edge from targeted campaigning. Some recent opinion polls have had the Green Party ahead of the Lib Dems.

Against that background, the Prime Minister might be tempted to shrug off the result. That would be a mistake. The electorate of Chesham and Amersham is telling him something important:

“Remember you are mortal.”

Or, as the Prime Minister would be more likely to mutter to himself during his next jog around St James Park with Dilyn:

“Memento Mori.”

The G7 Summit went smoothly. Perhaps a little too smoothly. A bit too much of a smug mutual admiration society. All these world leaders flying in – Boris Johnson on a private jet from London to Newquay – to then lecture us about climate change and issue targets that (if taken remotely seriously) would mean very considerable costs and restrictions for ordinary families. At the Summit we would saw ostentatious elbow bumping by these international statesmen on arrival – but then we saw them putting arms around each other at the grand looking soirées. The numbers seemed to exceed the limit the rest of us are obliged to observe at our more humble gatherings. They know how to count in the Chilterns. All the swanking and swaggering might have seemed a bit much. Such irritations would be less likely to sway votes at a General Election.

Then there is the southern discomfort over “levelling up.” Ambiguity has been allowed over quite what the policy objective means. This has allowed resentment to fester in the South that it means money being taken from them to give to the North. As with the indignation at the assumption in Critical Race Theory of “white privilege”, it rankles that those in the South are assumed to be rich and thus undeserving of training schemes, or road improvements, or whatever other goodies are on offer.

Yet the whole point of “levelling up” was supposed to a retort to the socialist idea that we are in a “zero sum game” where resources are fixed and the only means to help the poor is to take from the rich. The term “levelling up” was not invented by Johnson.He took it from Margaret Thatcher. The Right Approach, published by the Conservative Party in 1976 stated:

“Conservatives are not egalitarians. We believe in levelling up, in enhancing opportunities, not in levelling down, which dries up the springs of enterprise and endeavour and ultimately means that there are fewer resources for helping the disadvantaged. Hostility to success, because success brings inequality, is often indistinguishable from envy and greed, especially when, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn has pointed out, it is dressed up in the language of the ‘class struggle’.”

That same clarity needs to be restored.

A final thought. The person who should be most relieved this morning is Sir Keir Starmer. That might seem perverse. Labour only got 622 votes in the by-election – that put them in fourth place coming in behind the Green Party. The Lib Dem campaign must have squeezed their vote very hard. As recently as the 2017 General Election, we had Labour coming in second place in Chesham and Amersham with 11,374 votes.

But what matters for Sir Keir is the Batley and Spen by-election in a couple of weeks. If Labour lose, as many expect, could it prove a tipping point? Could Labour descend into recriminations and division, forcing the resignation of Sir Keir? The Chesham and Amersham result makes that less likely. It will be easier to explain away…just one of those by-election “upsets.”

Councils are still collecting trade union membership subscriptions

17 Jun

Good employers value each member of staff as an individual. Each should have their concerns and ideas listened to. Each held responsible for failure, but rewarded for success. Each able to negotiate pay and conditions that suit both their needs and the organisation they work for. Lazy employers find such arrangements rather a nuisance. Much less effort to have collective bargaining with trade unions – where the interests of the individual workers can be brushed aside. Thus the “closed shop”, the arrangement where trade union membership was compulsory, was felt rather convenient by employers – especially in the public sector. While the formal arrangement was abolished over 30 years ago, the mentality continues with the “check off” system – where employees are encouraged to agree to their trade union subscriptions being deducted via their payroll.

In practice it means that trade unions don’t need to worry quite so much about recruiting and maintaining their membership by collecting their own subs – it is done for them “automatically”. That encourages extremism by allowing union leaders to be less accountable to their members. We see examples of this each day – the National Education Union, Unite the Union, the Fire Brigades Union. Ministers lament the damaging impact, while allowing it to be sustained via taxpayer subsidy and official connivance.

The arrangement is thoroughly objectionable. Free independent trade unions should operate independently of the state. It would be healthy for unions to be funded willingly by their members – due to providing good services and representation. The decision of whether or not to join should be an individual choice. The employer should be neutral – not get involved in collecting the subs. Yet that is what the vast majority of local authorities are still doing.

There is no statutory requirement for councils to collect these subs. Yet Freedom of Information requests I have put in identified only five local authorities that do not do so. Well done:

  • Barking and Dagenham
  • Broxbourne
  • Gateshead
  • Kensington and Chelsea
  • Worcester

Many councils do charge a fee for the service. Some quite a high sum – Barnsley charges the unions five per cent of the money raised. I am not surprised the unions agree to pay. They know that if the money is absorbed in the payroll many will just shrug it off as an unavoidable expense. If they had to ask for the money it would be more of a conscious decision.

What is even more outrageous is the following list of councils that collect subscriptions without charging for the service:

  • Allerdale
  • Ashfield
  • Babergh
  • Basildon
  • Bedford
  • Blaenau Gwent
  • Blaby
  • Bolsover
  • Bournemouth
  • Cannock Chase
  • Cardiff
  • Charnwood
  • Cherwell
  • Chichester
  • Corby
  • Daventry
  • Derbyshire Dales
  • Ealing
  • East Cambridgeshire.
  • East Sussex
  • Fenland
  • Forest of Dean
  • Gloucester
  • Guildford
  • Hackney
  • Halton
  • Harborough
  • Hastings
  • Herefordshire
  • Hounslow
  • King Lynn and West Norfolk
  • Kingston
  • Leeds
  • Mendip
  • Merton
  • Mid Devon
  • Mole Valley
  • Newcastle-under-Lyme
  • North East Derbyshire
  • North Warwickshire
  • Nottingham
  • Nuneaton and Bedworth
  • Oadby & Wigston
  • Pembrokeshire
  • Rossendale
  • Rother
  • Rutland
  • Ryedale
  • Salford
  • Selby
  • Slough
  • Somerset
  • Somerset West and Taunton
  • Southend
  • South Hams
  • South Kesteven
  • South Norfolk
  • South Staffordshire
  • Spelthorne
  • Stevenage
  • Stroud
  • Surrey Heath
  • Sutton
  • Swindon
  • Tandridge
  • Teignbridge
  • Tendring
  • Test Valley
  • Torbay
  • Uttlesford
  • Vale of Glamorgan
  • Watford
  • West Devon
  • West Lindsay
  • West Oxfordshire
  • Woking
  • York

The law should be changed. Employers should not be involved in this corporatist endeavour – certainly not in the public sector. The spirit of freedom of association should be respected. Subscriptions to private bodies should be a personal matter. The check off system also results in many workers unwittingly funding the Labour Party via the political levy. There should also be an end to “facility time” – the extraordinary arrangement where the salaries of trade union officials are funded by the taxpayer. Then there is the free office accommodation that is often provided.

Some of these abuses were due to be dealt with years ago but were put on hold to secure the support of the trade unions for the Remain campaign in the 2016 EU referendum.

The Government should crack on with the unfinished business. But Conservative councils should not need to wait for these abuses to be outlawed. There is no justification for them to continue.

Councils challenged to release surplus property to provide new homes

14 Jun

Regular readers will know of my concern with empty municipal garages. There are around 100,000 of them – many of which could be replaced with new homes. But while that is significant, it is merely an example of the potential if a serious effort was made to tackle “state land banking” – the vast amount of unused property being hoarded by the public sector. The Ministry of Defence owns over half a million acres.

The Times recently reported:

“Councils in Britain own commercial or retail buildings that have been empty for more than a year and could be converted into 19,500 homes. They also own 24,000 empty homes that could help ease the housing crisis, according to a report by Habitat for Humanity, a housing charity, and M&G investments…

“Derby was found to have the most vacant council-owned commercial properties, with 51 unused retail units and 73 empty office buildings. Other areas with a high number of empty council-owned commercial properties included Edinburgh, with 114, and Leeds with 101.

“The researchers found that Derby had 473 homeless or vulnerable people in urgent need of housing.

“The councils with the most disused council houses were Southwark in south London, which had 1,021, and Birmingham with 798. In Birmingham there are 2,340 homeless and priority needs people who could be housed in the 5,448 empty privately owned homes and 798 unused council houses.”

The research paper does also considers the private sector – for instance, whether the owners of privately owned empty shops face planning obstacles to obtaining a change of use to turn them into homes. But it does seem extraordinary that so many local authorities simultaneously struggle to cope with providing accommodation for the homeless, while themselves sitting on unused municipal property empires.

Council leaders are quick to blame “austerity” for their difficulties and demand extra funding from the Government. Yet selling these unused assets would raise funds for them – to allow them to reduce debt and thus the burden of their interest payments. They would be able to negotiate with developers a proportion of “social housing” among the new homes being built. But when we talk about “affordable” housing it is important to remember that increasing the supply of private housing is also of relevance.

This is not just in helping more onto the home ownership “ladder” but also in expanding the choice of private rented accommodation to reduce rents. That is also relevant to reducing homelessness. At present local authorities are placing around 100,000 households in temporary accommodation (typically low quality and unsuitable – including bed and breakfast hotels) at a cost of over a billion a year. Why is there such inertia about taking this opportunity to ease this pressure?

It comes as no surprise that the worst offenders are Labour councils. So far as council homes that have been empty for more than 12 months are concerned, those with the highest number are as follows:

  • Southwark 1,021
  • Birmingham 798
  • Camden 748
  • Sheffield 727
  • Gateshead 719
  • Ealing 611
  • Newcastle Upon Tyne 589
  • Newham 535
  • Dudley 528
  • Greenwich 520

The Conservatives gained Dudley from No Overall Control last month. Labour also lost overall control in Sheffield. Otherwise, those are all Labour councils. This is not to suggest that Conservative councils should escape criticism. The full list is here.

Then we have the league table for “the total number of business and/or commercial premises owned by your local authority, that have been empty or vacant for 12 months or more, and of that number, how many have their primary function as retail space, office space, leisure space or other.” The term “other” might include workshops, warehouses or community centres.

  • Derby 173
  • Leeds 101
  • Cheshire West 75
  • Gateshead 55
  • Greenwich 47
  • Sefton 45
  • Rotherham 43
  • Brent 42

Derby is no overall control – though it does have a Conservative leader who I hope might reflect on whether the asset management could be more rigorous. The other councils at the top of the league table are Labour. The full list is here.

According to the latest figures there are 10,510 “households” placed in bed and breakfast hotels. Southwark Council has 218 of them. Tower Hamlets has 432. Ealing 339. Newham 295. Croydon 255. Mostly these will be single people but sometimes families will be placed. With hotel prices in London at around £150 a night per room, putting up a family can cost thousands of pounds a week. The families are miserable and the Council Taxpayer picks up a huge bill. Councils could convert some of their surplus buildings into housing and sell to private landlords on condition that some is made avalaible to be let to the Council as temporary accommodation for an agreed number of years. Why do these councils instead place families in hotels as if there was no alternative?

Certain caveats apply. The report estimates 19,500 new homes could be made available, but that is an extrapolation as not all the councils responded to the Freedom of Information requests. Invariably when bureaucrats are challenged over a specific building they will offer detailed excuses – which may have some validity. For instance, there might be an awful tower block that has been vacated due to structural faults. It might have a hundred flats. But once demolished there could be a larger number of replacement homes on the site – lower rise but higher density. That would be welcome. Though why such tower blocks can stand empty for years – or even decades – before the work is undertaken is rather more questionable.

Congratulations to Habitat for Humanity for gathering his important evidence. I would like to say that it should shame councils into releasing these surplus properties to allow an increase in the housing supply which is desperately needed. I fear that will not happen. What is needed is a legal mechanism that would force the sales to go through. There could be a specified deadline, certain exceptions could apply. An appeal mechanism to the Secretary of State could be allowed. But we really need the auctioneer’s hammer to start coming down. We can not allow this terrible waste of resources to continue. It is not fair on the taxpayer – or on those trapped in overcrowded, overpriced housing.