Mark Jenkinson: Freedom day should mean personal responsibility replacing state control of our lives

13 Jul

Mark Jenkinson is the Conservative MP for Workington. This is a sponsored post by the Betting and Gaming Council.

This time next week, the UK is going to look very different. As Boris Johnson has confirmed, July 19 will be “Freedom Day”, when the remaining Covid-19 restrictions will finally be lifted.

After 18 months in which the Government has exerted unprecedented control over our day-to-day lives, we will finally be free to meet as many people as we want to indoors, attend mass gatherings and even use public transport without wearing a face mask, if we so choose.

Of course, with the virus still circulating – and cases are continuing to rise – we will still be expected to act sensibly and cautiously, which is as it should be. We Conservatives firmly believe in personal responsibility, after all. But thanks to the UK’s tremendous vaccination programme, the link between case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths appears to have been broken. It’s impossible to remove all risk from every facet of our lives, so now it’s time for us all to learn to live with the virus, not live in fear of it.

Having our freedoms restricted by politicians – even ones we voted for – is not a long-term solution to any problem. Put simply, I firmly believe people should be trusted to get on with their lives and act in a sensible way that does no harm to themselves or pose a danger to others.

That is why I have grave concerns about calls by some anti-gambling campaigners that limits should be placed on how much individuals should be allowed to bet. As the MP for Workington, I know for a fact that working class voters do not like being told what to do by Westminster. This was borne out by recent YouGov polling, which found that a majority of British voters believe politicians should not set arbitrary limits on how much they are able to bet.

Furthermore, focus groups mainly carried out in Red Wall seats like mine found that voters are wary of post-Covid mission creep, with the threat of the state seeking to impose more control on people’s lives. They thought things like so-called “affordability checks” on betting were part of a culture war on their way of life, with having the occasional flutter viewed as a normal leisure pastime. I consider myself an irregular, responsible gambler – with many of my constituents the same, whether it’s the football, racing or the dogs.

If you think that such opinions are over-the-top, just consider the fact that the Government is ploughing ahead with plans to ban TV junk food adverts before 9pm. To my mind, this is an example of the nanny state gone mad. Reports suggest that advisors are recommending the introduction of a “salt tax”, and environmental campaigners are looking for a “meat tax” – I fear that civil servants are listening to them.

As a father of young children, I of course don’t want them to be eating a non-stop diet of unhealthy food. But it should be my responsibility as a parent to ensure that they enjoy a varied and healthy diet – it shouldn’t require Government intervention to make sure they eat well. People have looked to the state for permission for everything for the last 16 months, and that is going to be difficult enough for Conservatives to roll back, if we put ourselves in loco parentis by default it will only end badly.

I fully support the Gambling Review currently being carried out by the Government. It’s 16 years since the passing of the 2005 Gambling Act, so a fresh look at how the regulated betting and gaming industry has evolved since then is long overdue.

However, it’s vital that ministers get the balance right between protecting the vulnerable while ensuring that the millions who enjoy a flutter safely and responsibly are able to do so without being forced into the hands of the unregulated and unsafe black market, which has none of the safer gambling measures found in the regulated industry.

As the country finally emerges from the pandemic, and the Treasury sets about repairing the financial damage done by Covid, it’s also vitally important the economic contribution made by the regulated betting and gaming should not be put at risk. According to a report by Ernst and Young, in 2019 that amounted to supporting 119,000 jobs, generating £4.5 billion in tax and contributing £7.7 billion in gross value added.

The post-pandemic world will, in many ways, look very different to what we knew before. But the importance of politicians giving people the freedom to behave as they see fit, within the parameters of the law – and doing nothing to stifle economic growth – should remain.

Mark Jenkinson: The case for coal

21 Sep

Mark Jenkinson is the Member of Parliament for Workington.

Earlier this week saw the publication of a decision by the Secretary of State to reject the application by Banks Mining for an opencast coal mine on the Northumberland coast, to which environmental campaigners have reacted with glee – with Friends of the Earth saying “Coal mines must be consigned to the history books if we are going to avoid climate breakdown”. It is this statement that I think is particularly damaging to our shared aim on net-zero by 2050.

It is worth remembering that the Highthorn development was a huge opencast on a site without previous activity, and that the planning inspector that gave the original permission made the point that the proposal would have an adverse impact on landscape character of substantial significance. Slight changes to the weight given to other elements by the Secretary of State tipped the sensitive planning balance. This decision should not be lead us to assumptions on other proposals, such as West Cumbria Mining’s Woodhouse Colliery in Copeland next door to my Workington constituency.

While we have rightly committed to eliminating thermal coal from our electricity production, coking (or metallurgical) coal is an entirely different matter. It is important that we understand the difference. The UK and Europe import 16.4Mt of coking coal every year, with the CO₂ emissions from its transport five to seven times higher than if it was produced closer to the point of use.

Economic growth and demand in growth for steel are undeniably linked. Our plan for growth will necessarily bring a demand for steel, and we should place much heavier weight on the use of UK produced steel. The low-carbon energy technologies that we will rely on in the future – without exception – are underpinned by steel. That steel production requires coking coal for the foreseeable future. Any increase in UK steel consumption without domestic production of that steel and its process components will result in increases in our offshored and domestic carbon footprints.

Electric Arc Furnaces (EAF) are often portrayed as the green saviour of steel production, but aside from the obvious questions around the high energy requirements and where that electricity will come from, EAFs are still not fossil-free – requiring the addition of coking coal, albeit in much reduced quantities.

The primary feedstock for EAF is recycled steel, and while crude figures suggest that the UK is almost self-sufficient in scrap steel, the EU and World markets are not. This fails to take account of the fact that the scrap steel has be of exactly the right composition to make the requisite end product, so most EAF produced steels are a mixture of scrap steel and Direct Reduced Iron (DRI). Nitrogen produced in the EAF process remains a significant problem, as it makes for brittle steel.

The DRI process itself is still heavily reliant on thermal coal or natural gas, while trials such as those in Sweden to use hydrogen continue. Some point to the intention of HYBRIT to have a commercial plant running by 2026 as the way forward, but again without even touching on feasibility in the short to near term of replacing plants with such energy intensive replacements, they fail to realise that the HYBRIT process is for production of DRI – the problems in the EAF process, and the necessary use of coking coal remain.

It is absolutely right that we scale up our investment into hydrogen production, storage and usage as a fossil fuel replacement. But we have to be honest with ourselves that it is unlikely to be the panacea for the road to net-zero by 2050. In the same way that wind, solar and marine energy production will feasibly replace our fossil fuel production but not our reliance on nuclear for baseload, hydrogen will replace some of our fossil fuel reliance but not all. These two subjects – electricity availability and hydrogen production – are intrinsically linked by the energy intensive nature of the latter.

We must seize the narrative around net-zero, and be honest about what that means for the people in our constituencies. Counter-intuitively, part of the route to net-zero is to bring back some of our carbon footprint that we’ve offshored by importing from countries that often have dubious environmental protections. Growing our economy, and revitalising our UK manufacturing base will necessarily bring carbon emissions. But we must work harder and smarter here in the UK to reduce our reliance and to reduce the impact.

The recent Measuring up for levelling up report from Onward, which led to the creation of a Levelling-Up Taskforce of which I’m a member, shows the stark reality that average GVA per capita has grown faster in London than anywhere else post-deindustrialisation, while in constituencies like mine in Workington it has slipped back or remained stagnant.

We have a significant opportunity to level up across our constituencies if we can rejuvenate our UK manufacturing base, but we won’t do that by looking at policy-making through a lens that appears more focused on absolute zero, than it does net-zero

Mark Jenkinson: We must seize this opportunity to pass serious planning reform with both hands

9 Sep

Mark Jenkinson is the Member of Parliament for Workington.

Last month, the Government announced the launch of its consultation on ‘Planning For The Future’, gathering views from the public on how best to reform an outdated planning system, that for many years has failed in delivering desirable outcomes for local communities.

Prior to my election to Westminster I was a local councillor, sitting on the planning panel for the bulk of my tenure. My final six months was spent as the executive member with responsibility for planning.

Battle-hardened from regular sparring on the panel, I had many things I would like to have seen changed – which explains why I have been so excited by the interventions proposed in the White Paper.

I spent many hours debating local plan policies, settlement limits, and developers’ wishes to reduce contributions to local infrastructure. I fought for the council to publish financial viability assessments, yet had to go into private session if I wanted to pull up a developer for putting protection of their 25 per cent profit margin above providing school places or a road crossing.

Plan-making is currently extremely slow. The first part of our local plan, setting out the principles of development, was adopted in 2014. But we wasted more time than was reasonable debating ‘settlement limits’ from 1999, our hands being tied until the adoption of Part 2. That wasn’t adopted until this year – and still I had to listen to councillors trying to defer or derail it’s adoption.

I had a great officer team, but I often felt that fear dominated: the fear of losing the next appeal, or the fear that introducing a Community Infrastructure Levy would prohibit development, at least until neighbouring boroughs done the same.

This is why reading the consultation gets me excited about the possibilities for reform: to see proposals that talk of both growth and protection; that aim to deliver the housing we require in the places that localities deem fit; and to see talk of national and local design guides. After all, we’ve all looked at a new development and asked “who allowed them to build that, there?”

The proposed reforms seek to streamline the planning system, with councils publicly consulting and designating areas as growth, renewal or protected in a new local plan. And these local plans are expected to have cleared all hurdles within just 30 months.

Plans would be expected to set clear development rules rather than general policy. Meet those rules in a designated growth area and you clear the first hurdle of outline permission; go on to propose beautiful development in line with locally produced design guides, that have been developed with genuine community involvement rather than meaningless ‘consultation’, and the next stages will be much simpler than they are presently.

All the while we would better protect our green belt, our heritage assets and conservation areas, and areas of significant flood risk. We pay lip service to ‘placemaking’, but often we fail to deliver beautiful, functional, sustainable places.

Whenever I ask my constituents – and I have asked many thousands since December – if we should build more affordable housing, the answer is overwhelmingly yes. Yet the median house price in Workington is only 63 per cent of that for the whole of England and Wales, while the median salary is higher than that across the UK. The current system of assessing financial viability and negotiating section 106 agreements has not delivered the affordable housing that people need, in the areas that they want. It is a constant race to the bottom, while communities lack the infrastructure upgrades that should come alongside development.

These proposals seek to address that imbalance, with a new flat rate charge for infrastructure, and greater powers for local authorities to determine how that is spent. At the same time, we would look to close the loopholes whereby permitted development rights circumvent the need to provide for necessary infrastructure upgrades. And we are clear that the new system must provide greater infrastructure spending than currently, and should seek to deliver more affordable housing on-site.

We must be more ambitious in our aims for desirable local communities: every development should deliver net gain, not just no net harm. We should not be afraid to ask for beauty in our built environment. We must refocus on design, on quality, and on sustainability.

We’ve come a long way in recent years, and construction last year hit a 30-year high. But too much of what we build is low-quality, and often deemed ugly by local residents. Planning works best when it’s locally-led. A poor planning process leads to poor outcomes, and that has led to a collapse of confidence in local authorities to deliver large-scale development in a way that benefits communities.

These reforms give local people a greater and much more meaningful say in their locality, while making it easier to access and understand planning proposals and harnessing digital technology to create a more transparent planning system. They seek to increase the supply of beautiful, quality affordable homes in the places that people need and want them. They will deliver the infrastructure that communities need, and support the renewal and regeneration of our towns and cities.

We must seize this opportunity to put people at the heart of planning with both hands, creating a system that works for all. If we are to be ambitious in our hopes for the future, we must be ambitious in the reforms that will deliver them.