Neil O’Brien: The virus and the lockdown. Let’s keep calm and carry on – for there’s reason to believe that a vaccine is coming soon.

2 Nov

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Sarah Thomas is a lunatic. And amazing. About a year ago, she became the first person to swim the Channel four times in a row without stopping. It took 54 hours.

Between booking her slot, and getting in the water, she survived cancer. Setting off, she was immediately stung in the face by a jellyfish. On her fourth crossing, strong tides pushed her off course, turning 83 miles of swimming into 134, forcing her to sprint-swim to break free from the current.

She’s inspiring. And swimming the channel isn’t a bad metaphor for our fight against coronavirus. Metaphorically, we’re somewhere in the middle, when you can’t see Britain, but can’t quite see France either.

The national restrictions announced by the Prime Minister on Saturday underlined that we will still be slogging through this for a while yet. Polls suggest the public strongly back his decision: given the alarming data, it is definitely the right one.

Yet everyone’s tired of the restrictions and not seeing loved ones and friends, and the good things we look forward to once this is over remain a way off.

As we go through this marathon ordeal, what can we learn from Sarah Thomas?

First, most top athletes are taught to visualise success.

Regarding Coronavirus, the finishing line is becoming more visible, with progress on vaccines looking good. The New York Times runs a Vaccine Checker which lets you follow progress.

Eleven different vaccines are in final-stage “Phase 3” clinical trials, with half a dozen or so now seeing limited use outside trials.

There were always reasons to be optimistic about a vaccine: when the whole world wants something really badly, it’s likely to get produced. Producing a vaccine for coronavirus isn’t like inventing the atom bomb or putting a man on the moon, which required oodles of new technologies. A Covid-19 vaccine is a sideways-step from existing technologies. Several categories of vaccines look like they will be ready to roll in the coming months:

  • The Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine is basically a weakened version of a common cold type virus, modified to carry a protein which Covid-19 also shows, so that your body can learn to seek and destroy it without exposure to the real thing. Trials found it produces a good immune response including among older people, and doesn’t have side effects. The UK, US and EU have signed for hundreds of millions of doses.
  • Other vaccines based on a similar approach in final stage tests include China’s CanSino vaccine, Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute and Johnson & Johnson in the US.
  • Another promising approach is based on the use of messenger RNA: a blueprint for making proteins. The Pfizer / Biontech vaccine works like this and may well be the first to go into non-trial use in the US. There was some speculation last week that we could start using it here in the UK before Christmas, which seems a bit soon, but it isn’t far off. Another similar vaccine from the Gamaleya Research Institute is also final stage trials.
  • Finally, there’s a bunch of traditional vaccines based on inactivated versions of Covid-19 (like the Hepatitis B vaccine, which has been around since the 1960s). China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac both offer vaccines like this – the Sinovac one is already being used outside clinical trials and you can buy it in some cities for $60. The Indian Council of Medical Research is also in final stage trials of an equivalent.

So the shore’s not so far away.

The other lesson from Sarah Thomas is about listening to the right people. She says she nearly quit halfway, but her team egged her on.

Contrast that with the British commentariat, large parts of which are dishing out terrible advice. If they’d been in Sarah Thomas’s support boat they’d have been telling her to give up, harping on about how cold it was. They’ve been hopeless throughout.

First, they dismissed the problem. Richard Littlejohn wrote in the Daily Mail on March 2nd/

“My default position on all these health scares is weary scepticism. We’ve been here before. Sars, Mers, Ebola, Bird Flu, Swine Flu… All passed in Britain, at least without the catastrophic death toll the so-called ‘experts’ confidently predicted”.

Wrong.

Then they declared the problem over. In the Daily Telegraph, Allison Pearson wrote in May that that, by June: “a scientist friend assures me the coronavirus will have petered out.” Sunetra Gupta, one of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, (and who the media fawns over), predicted in May that “the epidemic has largely come and is on its way out in this country”, which she said was “due to the build-up of immunity”.

Wrong.

The commentariat want to shout down wiser voices. In September, Sir Patrick Vallance faced a torrent of abuse for saying that there might be 200 deaths a day from Covid-19 by mid November. “Project fear,” thundered one Telegraph columnist. Piers Morgan blasted the Government’s “scaremongering.”

Wrong.

In fact we hit that grim milestone sooner, in late October, and hit 326 by the last day of October. We need to start listening to the right coaches – not hopeless people who get it wrong time and again, but face zero accountability.

Finally, top athletes learn from the best. In terms of Coronavirus, the best performers are Japan, Korea and New Zealand. France has had 19,800 cases per million people. The UK 14,800. Japan has had just 795, and Korea just 512 and New Zealand 325.

New Zealand is rural, but Japan and Korea are heavily urban. How did they do it?

Partly it’s about near-universal mask use. As the Lancet notes: “In Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, the habit of mask wearing by people with respiratory conditions was already widespread before the pandemic”. Part of it is that all these countries also have tough virus border controls.

There are other factors. Japan locked down Tokyo at a very early stage. South Korea’s super-duper test and trace system uses records of credit card transactions, mobile phone and global positioning system data, to fill in gaps in what coronavirus patients can remember in interviews.

The most important lesson from Asia is that success breeds success. A low rate of cases makes it easier for test and trace staff to isolate and shut down chains of infection, and contain local outbreaks. Too many cases and such approaches are overwhelmed.

To use an analogy, it took us a long time to work out how to conquer inflation. The key discovery was that the only way to have stable inflation is to have very low inflation.

The same’s true of coronavirus. Either you are beating coronavirus, or it is beating you. It doesn’t want to go in a straight line or rise gently, but to streak exponentially upward. Korea, Japan and New Zealand have got it pinned to the floor, so can get on with their lives. Instead of surrendering, as let-it-rippers in the commentariat advocate, they’ve decided to win.

Unlike Sarah Thomas we don’t have to swim for 54 hours. But we’re all enduring hardships. To get to the other side of this we need to keep thinking straight. It’s easy to be seduced by the idea that there’s some easy way out. There isn’t.

When she was far out to sea, her team called to her: “Just keep swimming.” At first, I thought that sounded really dumb. But when you are out in the middle of the Channel, it’s not such bad advice.

Neil O’Brien: A locally targeted approach to coronavirus is the best way to preserve lives, liberty and livelihoods

5 Oct

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Health secretary Matt Hancock is doing a good job in unprecedented circumstances.  Britain is now testing far more people than similar countries, testing more than France, Germany or Spain. Technology upgrades that could have taken years have happened much faster: 99 per cent of GPs now offer video consultation, up from just three per cent pre-pandemic.

As we head into the autumn we face a tricky balancing act: to keep the economy open on the one hand, and fight the virus on the other. The one thing that we can be sure of is that there will be more areas where local outbreaks require targeted measures.

My constituency saw the first local ‘lockdown’ early this summer, in which shops, pubs and cafes were shut. No-one here wanted to have such restrictions, but they worked: Leicester was on the edge of a massive breakout, and the restrictions brought the virus back under control.

Part of the constituency, Oadby and Wigston, currently has some measures in place again, banning households from socialising. Again, not something anyone wanted, but again, the restrictions are working, and rates of infection are falling.

As an MP who’s been trying to help constituents understand why we have been through such local measures, it’s been helpful that the NHS has improved the publication of local data. I know first-hand how seeing our alarming local data changed people’s behaviour.

Over recent months the Government has published data on the number cases of the virus at the local authority level, and now even by neighbourhood.  It has started publishing the number of tests being done, which is helpful.

But having been through two rounds of local restrictions, it strikes me that there are certain small things we could do to make the published data more useful to people.

First, we should change the Government’s “Coronavirus data” website so that it gives seven-day average rates for local authorities, not just absolute numbers. People have sometimes said to me that such and such a place has more cases than another: but without realising that the first place may have many times more people in it. Rates are more useful.

The website should chop off (or at least put a massive disclaimer on) the data for recent days.  At present, if you look at the data you will always see that recent days for your local authority show few or no cases.  Hurray!

Actually, no – all this means is that this new data is incomplete so far, and will get revised up later.  But because there’s no warning about this, some people see the zeroes for recent days and think everything has miraculously got better and so there’s no need to worry.

Where rates are high, we should start adding some contextual information about how a local area’s rates compare to the rest of the country: e.g. this is the Xth highest rate out of Y local authorities, or Z times the national average, or above the 20 per 100,000 rate at which we impose quarantines on people returning from other countries. Even rates, on their own, don’t mean much to people.

We should enable people to make side by side comparisons of different areas, like the DFE does for schools, and the Financial Times does for international coronavirus comparisons.

For the neighbourhood level data, we should change it to show rates over a period as well as absolute numbers.  It should let people easily see how the numbers have changed over time.

Last but not least, the Government should publish test numbers and test positivity rates on a local authority basis.  One thing that happens (rightly) when an area goes into special measures is that the rate of testing goes right up.  This means more cases are flushed out, but some people then ask: is the higher number of cases is just because of the extra testing?

Local authority public health officials have data on the proportion of tests that are positive, but it should be regularly put in the public domain.  Where there’s a local problem, that would help people understand what’s really going on (not just more testing but more real cases).

The creation of NHSX last year, to improve data and people’s experience of the NHS, has already increased transparency and dragged NHS technology into the 21st century.  Until recently the NHS was one of the few remaining buyers of new fax machines, and owned a tenth of all the remaining pagers in the world.  That’s ending, to the relief of staff.

Opening up Covid-19 data has been similarly positive, leading others to create useful tools, which the Government website should now adopt.

Russ Garrett has created a useful map of case rates across the country, and Carl Baker has an animation showing how they have changed over time. The brilliant staff of the Commons Library have made a map of areas with local restrictions, and open data guru Matthew Somerville has made a postcode lookup tool so people can find what rules apply where.

Government should add these features to its own website.

The overall approach the Government is taking is the right one: keeping the virus under control until we can get to a vaccine (or rapid mass testing) that would let us get back to normal.  The PM is right to flag up how “a stitch in time saves nine,” and how early measures can prevent more disruption later.

The approach of targeting problem areas is right too: the virus is very unevenly spread around the country. I’m writing this from just outside Leicester, which has had nearly twenty times as many cases per head as places up in the Highlands.

The targeted approach we are taking is the only realistic way to preserve freedom and lives at the same time.

Some people have called for a “Swedish style” approach. I’m not convinced: Sweden has had ten times more deaths per head than its Nordic neighbours. Intrusive social distancing measures are now in place just as they are here, so it is not like everything is normal there.

Sweden had massive advantages: a sparse population and more people living alone than anywhere else. If we’d applied the same approach here, with large, dense cities and much larger households (particularly in the virus hotspots) it would have been a catastrophe.

The Government’s approach is already as targeted and light as possible consistent with avoiding exponential growth of the virus. With hospitalisations due to coronavirus ticking up, (see chart) there’s little room for manoeuvre.  There’s no middle way between what we’re doing and a “let it rip” approach.

Going for herd immunity is always one option. But as Sir Bernard Jenkin pointed out on this website, its proponents should be honest about the hundreds of thousands of deaths it would likely entail to get there.

In reality, the locally targeted approach we’re following is the best way to preserve lives, liberty and livelihoods. Better data is one of the things we need to make it work as we head into a tough winter. The officials who have worked to improve the data so far deserve our thanks.  Now, as we go into the next round of the fight against the virus, we should take the next steps forward.

Neil O’Brien: Johnson should instruct a team of Ministers to wage war on woke

21 Sep

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Every day brings fresh examples of the woke revolution rolling through western institutions.

The last couple of weeks saw Edinburgh University ‘cancelling’ the great Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume, taking his name off one of its buildings. The BBC broadcasting a comedian joking about killing white people. The Parliamentary authorities considering making MPs undertake “unconscious bias training”. The Natural History Museum reviewing displays relating to Charles Darwin, because the voyage of the Beagle could be seen as “colonialism”. The SNP administration in Edinburgh trying to push through a “Hate Crime” law – despite being warned by everyone from the Police Federation to comedians and novelists that it threatens free speech.

In the US, where the woke agenda is further advanced, it was announced that films must now hit diversity quotas to be eligible to win an Oscar.  The English department at the University of Chicago announced it will admit only those graduate students who plan to work in Black Studies.

I’ve written before about what’s wrong with the woke agenda, but others have put it better than me, and in response to the woke revolution, there’s now a diverse group of thinkers pushing back.

Ed West and Douglas Murray have chronicled the excesses of wokery in books that are funny as well as perceptive.  Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have explained the origins of the woke agenda in the “critical theory” sweeping universities over recent decades.  Tom Holland, though not a political writer, explains how much the woke agenda owes (without realising it) to Christianity.

For me, one of the most compelling critiques is by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, two liberal professors in the US.

They are worried the woke agenda isn’t just undermining basic liberal ideas like free speech and debate, but encouraging younger people to think in ways that are damaging.

They diagnose three bad ways of thinking which have become engrained in US universities: a belief that young people are emotionally fragile and have to be protected from ideas they might find upsetting; a belief that you should always trust your emotions, prioritising emotion over reason; and forms of us-versus-them thinking which divide the world into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, with no in-betweens.

As Haidt and Lukianoff write, making universities into ‘safe spaces’ with no intellectual diversity is setting people up to fail: students don’t get used to disagreeing reasonably; or understanding that people who don’t agree with you may not be evil. As someone pointed out: you don’t help someone get strong by taking the weights out of the gym for them.

Their book contains hair-raising accounts of the kind of protests and madness this agenda has led to in US universities, increasingly a world of ‘trigger warnings’, ‘no-platforming’ and everyone walking on eggshells for fear of committing ‘microagressions.’

While this may seem remote to us living in Britain and not working in universities, the truth is that ideas from the US relentlessly percolate into the UK.

Whether it’s the Black Lives Matter protests in London, or British teenagers referring to the British police as “Feds”, ideas always blow over from across the Atlantic, so what happens in the US today will likely happen here tomorrow.

I find the woke agenda alarming because it promises a future very different from the one I grew up hoping for. When I was a teenager the future was going to be that we would be increasingly colour-blind.  That people would be treated as individuals, not members of races.  That everyone was capable of fitting into our shared modern, western culture.

Instead, wokeism tells us we should increasingly see each other as members of different races.  That ethnic minorities can’t assimilate into a modern, western culture because that they are (in some ill-defined way) incompatible with that culture.  That young people from ethnic minorities should be on their guard at all times, because they live in a culture which seeps racism from every pore.

Worst of all, it tells us that we must stay in our lane.  That we can’t enjoy another culture, because that’s “cultural appropriation.” That values like working hard or objectivity or the nuclear family are characteristics of white people, not others.

I’m not the first to say it (indeed there’s comedy sketches about it) but in the same way that the extreme left and extreme right are kind of similar, the woke agenda and the racist one have some powerful similarities.

If we think the woke agenda is damaging, divisive and illiberal, what can we do about it?

There’s now a number of campaign groups dealing with different aspects of it. The Free Speech Union does what it says on the tin. The Campaign for Common Sense brings a thoughtful take to the big questions raised by the woke agenda. The Equiano Project and “All In Britain” promote grown-up, non-hysterical discussion about race and diversity.

But what should we do as a Party and a Government?

While the Prime Minister is quite right to speak out on absurdities like the Last Night of the Proms saga, he simply can’t be everywhere, since he has a virus to fight, an economy to save and a Brexit deal to land. So the Government needs to empower a minister, or group of ministers, to lead and deal with this.

Different solutions are possible in different fields. For example, in the civil service, government has more control.  The Government could end programmes like “unconscious bias training” which don’t work and waste money, but have official backing and are compulsory for all staff in many departments.  The other day, it was revealed that the Ministry Of Defence has more diversity and equality officers than the Royal Navy has warships. Do we need so many people in such roles in the public sector?

In other fields like broadcasting, universities and cultural institutions, government has less direct control. Ministers like Oliver Dowden and Gavin Williamson have rightly rapped institutions over the knuckles when they have done things that are unacceptable.

But as well as intervening, government also needs to communicate why this agenda is wrong and divisive, and what it opposes.

Margaret Thatcher could not intervene personally in every departmental squabble.  But she didn’t’ have to. Civil servants didn’t have to wonder what her view on an issue would be. You knew. Because she took time to make arguments of principle, again and again.

That’s what’s needed now. One common theme in many woke rows is that people in positions of leadership simply don’t understand where the boundaries are.

For example, permanent secretaries of various government departments tweeted their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The Civil Service Race Forum attacks government, claiming “many anti BAME policies originated in Whitehall.” Several department’s intranets have promoted highly contentious material about “white privilege” and Britain’s “systemic racism.”

Officials need to understand that they are not posting neutral stuff that everyone agrees on, but one side of a political argument.

When the British Library promoted materials to staff suggesting they should back a campaign by Diane Abbott, how could its leadership not spot that they were violating the rules on political neutrality?

The truth is we all live in bubbles, and if you run a large arts organisation in London most of the people you know probably have a certain world view. Such people need to be reminded that the taxpayers who pay their wages don’t all agree, and they have an obligation to be neutral.

To get them to understand where the boundaries are, government needs to set them out clearly and wholeheartedly.  The Prime Minister has even bigger battles to fight. But he should empower a minister to lay down the law, and wage war on woke.

Neil O’Brien: Introducing the new Levelling Up Taskforce – and its first report on how we can measure progress

7 Sep

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Were you still up for Penistone? One of joys of election night last December was winning so many seats we’ve not held for decades.

The constituencies we won over in 2019 are quite different from the party’s traditional base, in the deep red bits of the map above. Seats we gained last year don’t just have lower earnings than the seats we held, but earnings five per cent lower than Labour seats. Of the bottom quarter of seats in Great Britain with the lowest earnings, more are now held by us than Labour. Compared to seats we gained, homes in Labour constituencies are a third more expensive.

Many of the places we won have felt neglected for a long time. And led from the front by the Prime Minister, the new Government has committed to “levelling up” poorer places. But what does that really mean? How can we measure if we are succeeding? How can we get the private sector growing faster in these places, making the country stronger overall?

To help the Government answer these questions, I and 40 other Conservative MPs have formed a new Levelling Up Taskforce.

Our first report is out today, looking at how we can measure progress. It also examines what’s been happening in different parts of the UK economy over recent decades.

Income per person in London (before paying taxes and receiving benefits) grew two thirds faster than the rest of the country between 1997 and 2018: it’s now 70 per cent higher in London than the rest of the country, up from 30 per cent higher in 1997.

While the divergence seen since the 90s has been a story of London pulling away from all of the rest of the country, it follows decades in which former industrial areas in the north, midlands, Scotland and Wales fell behind. Between 1977 and 1995 South Yorkshire, Teesside and Merseyside saw GDP per person fall by 20 per cent compared to the national average, and most such areas haven’t caught up that lost ground.

Why does this matter?

It matters, first, because opportunity is linked to the economy. There are fewer opportunities to climb the ladder in poorer places. Not just fewer good jobs, but less opportunity in other ways.

In London, over 45 per cent of poorer pupils who were eligible for free school meals progressed to higher education in 2018/19. Outside London there were 80 local authorities where richer pupils who were not on free school meals were less likely than this to go to university. Overall, more than 60 per cent go to university in places like Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster. But less than a third go places like in Knowsley, Barnsley, Hull, and Thurrock.

It also matters because more balanced economies are stronger overall. In an unbalanced economy, resources like land and infrastructure are overloaded in some places, even while they are underused elsewhere. This might be particularly true where cities have seen population shrinkage, and have surplus infrastructure and land. If there are greater distances between workers and good job opportunities that makes it harder for people to get on: not everyone can (or wants) to move away from family to find a better job.

More balanced is stronger overall, but on a wide range of measures the UK is one of the most geographically unbalanced economies. In Germany 12 per cent of people live in areas where the average income is 10 per cent below the national average, while in the UK 35 per cent do. It is very striking that there is no industrialised country that has a more unbalanced economy than the UK and also a higher income, while all the countries that have a higher income have a more balanced economy.

What are we going to do about it? Well, that’s the question our new group will try to answer.

The answer isn’t any of the traditional Labour ones: pumping public sector jobs into places, or subsidising low wage employment, or trying to hold back successful places: we’re interested in levelling up, not levelling down.

Different things will work in different places.

For example, transport improvements might make a bigger difference for remote areas. The ONS defines certain places as “sparse”: the north of Devon and Cornwall, most of central Wales, Shropshire and Herefordshire, most of Cumbria and the rural north east, along with large parts of North Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and North Norfolk. In these places income levels are 17-18 per cent lower. Even controlling for the qualifications and age of people living there, these sparse areas have income levels between £600-£1,300 a year lower, likely driven by poor connectivity.

In other places, the answers are different. I’ve written before about how the way we spend money on things like R&D, transport and housing is skewed towards already-successful areas, creating a vicious circle. We should change that.

But tax cuts could also play a bigger role in helping poorer areas. There’s actually been convergence between regions at the bottom end of the earnings distribution, driven by things like the National Living Wage, tax cuts for low income workers, and things like Universal Credit, which have reduced the differences between places by levelling up the poorer areas more. In poorer places, more people benefit from these policies.

The reason there are growing gaps between areas overall is divergence higher up the income scale.
Looking at the gap between earnings for full-time workers in London and the North East, the pay gap shrank for the bottom 30 per cent of workers, but grew for those higher up. For those at the 10th percentile the pay gap between the two places shrank from 32 per cent to 20 per cent. But for richer folks at the 90th percentile, it grew from 62 per cent to 88 per cent.

So how do we get more good, high-paying jobs into poorer areas? There are a million different specific opportunities, but one that’s relevant in a lot of Red Wall seats is advanced manufacturing.

Over recent decades, Chancellors have tended to cut capital allowances (a tax break for investment) in order to lower the headline rate of corporation tax. I’m not sure that was a good idea: Britain has a lower rate of fixed capital investment than competitors and our tax treatment of investment is stingy. But either way, this change has had a pronounced regional impact: it favours services over manufacturing, so helps some areas more than others.

One way to blast our way through the current economic turmoil would be to get businesses investing again by turning capital allowances right up (“full expensing” in the jargon). That would be particularly likely to help poorer areas. Indeed, when we have tried this in a targeted way before it worked.

Government should think more about how tax and spending decisions can help us level up. It should produce geographical analysis of all budgets and fiscal events, setting out the different impact that tax and spending changes will have on different areas. The Treasury’s Labour Markets and Distributional Analysis unit should have geographical analysis added to its remit.

This whole agenda is exciting. But a lot of people are cynical, because they heard New Labour talk the talk – but not deliver. We’ve got to deliver. So let’s hold ourselves to account, and set ourselves some ambitious goals.

Let’s get earnings growing faster than before in poorer areas. Let’s get unemployment down in the places it’s worst. They say that “what gets measured gets managed.” So let’s “measure up” our progress on levelling up.

Neil O’Brien: The next algorithm disaster – coming to a Conservative constituency near you. This time, it’s housing growth.

24 Aug

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Algorithms have been in the news, not for good reasons. One lesson from the A-levels row is that principles which seem reasonable can lead to outcomes you don’t expect. Another algorithm’s coming down the tracks: the new formula for how many houses must be built in different places. There are few with higher stakes.

I wrote about the housing White Paper in my last column: it proposes not just to change the methodology for assessing housing need, but also to make a standard methodology compulsory for the first time. In other words, if we don’t like the results of the new algorithm, we’ll have blocked off the emergency exits.

The new algorithm is set out here. It’s not particularly easy to read. For example, one of many factors is set out in bullet point 30:

Adjustment Factor = [( Local affordability factor t = 0 – 4 4) x 0.25) + (Local affordability ratio t = 0 – Local affordability ratio t = 10) x 0.25] +1 Where t = 0 is current yearr and t = -10 is 10 years back.

Clear enough for you?

I thought it might be a while before we saw what the new algorithm would produce in practice. But Lichfields, the planning consultancy, has translated the algorithm into what it would mean for local authorities.

The numbers that the formula spits out can be compared to the number of homes actually being delivered over recent years, or to the numbers in the current (optional) national formula. Whichever way you look at it, it’s controversial.

I’ve long argued we should concentrate more development in inner urban areas, for various reasons I’ll come back to below.  But this algorithm doesn’t do that – at least not outside London.  In the capital, the algorithm would indeed increase numbers substantially.

But in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.

Overall, the algorithm proposes a south-centric model of growth for Britain (with some growth in the midlands).

If we compare the algorithm to recent delivery, the South East has been delivering just over 39,000 homes a year, and will be expected to increase that to just over 61,000, a 57 per cent increase. The East of England would see a 43 per cent increase, the East Midlands a 33 per cent increase, the West Midlands a 25 per cent increase and the South West a 24 per cent increase.

For the North East, North West and Yorkshire, the numbers the algorithm proposes are lower overall than the numbers delivered over recent years. But as with A-levels, the devil’s in the detail.

The really controversial changes are within regions, where the algorithm suggests jacking up numbers for shires, while taking them down in urban areas. Comparing the existing national formula to the proposal, we can see this for most large cities.

The number for Birmingham comes down 15 per cent, while the rest of the West Midlands goes up 52 per cent.

Numbers for Leicester go down 35 per cent. The rest of Leicestershire goes up 105 per cent.

Nottingham goes down 22 per cent, the rest of Nottinghamshire goes up 48 per cent.

Southampton goes down 17 per cent, Portsmouth down 15 per cent and Basingstoke down 23 per cent, but the rest of Hampshire would go up 39 per cent.

Wealthy Bristol would see some growth (5 per cent) but much lower than the rest of Gloucester, Somerset and Wiltshire (47 per cent).

It’s the same story up north. Leeds down 14 per cent, Sheffield down 19 per cent, and Bradford down 29 per cent. But the East Riding up 34 per cent, North Yorkshire up 80 per cent, and North East Lincolnshire up 123 per cent.

In the north west the core cities of Manchester (-37 per cent) and Liverpool (-26 per cent) see huge falls, while the areas around them shoot up. In Greater Manchester, for example, the growth is shifted to the blue suburbs and shires. Outer parts go up: Wigan up 10 per cent, Bury, up 12 per cent, and Rochdale up 97 per cent. And areas to the south and north of the conurbation up much further: Cheshire up 108 per cent, while Blackburn, Hyndburn, Burnley and the Ribble Valley together go up 149 per cent.

But it isn’t just that the numbers in the new formula are lower than the old formula for urban areas. In many cases the new formula suggests a lower number than their recent rate of delivery. This is true of Sheffield (12 per cent below actual delivery), Leeds (16 per cent), Bradford (23 per cent), the entire North East (28 per cent), Nottingham (30 per cent), Manchester, (31 per cent), Leicester, (32 per cent) and Liverpool (59 per cent). The new formula seems to assume we are going to level down our cities, not level up.

It’s true that there’s another step between the Housing Need Assessment which this algorithm produces and the final housing target, which can be reduced a bit to account for delivery constraints like greenbelt.

But if we go with this algorithm unamended, outside London most Conservative MPs will be seeing large increases in the housing targets for their constituencies, while many Labour MPs see their local targets reduced. Is this what we want?

Leaving aside the politics, I think not. Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK has much less dense cities.

Places like Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Birkenhead, Hull and Newcastle all had smaller populations in 2017 than 1981, while places like Birmingham and Manchester weren’t much bigger. Our cities have untapped potential, many went through a period of shrinkage and have space, and there are health and environmental reasons to prefer urban growth too.

In dense urban areas, people are more likely to walk or cycle – and in the UK, people in cities walk twice as far as those in villages each year. This reduces public transport costs and improves health.

Denser cities can sustain better public transport and so cut car congestion and time spent travelling. As well as reducing pollution from transport, denser cities reduce energy use and pollution because flats and terraced homes are much more energy efficient.

I’m not sure the draft algorithm is even doing what Ministers wanted it to. The document in which it is set out says that “the Government has heard powerful representations that the current formula underestimates demand for housing in the growing cities in the Northern Powerhouse by being based on historic trends.”

But the algorithm seems to do the exact opposite.

There may be technical reasons why things aren’t working out: there’s lots of ways to measure affordability… differences between residence-based and workplace-based income measures… there were certain caps in the old model, population projections have changed and so on.

However, the bigger issue is this.

There’s no “objective” way of calculating how many homes are “needed” in an area. While there are ways of carving up the numbers that are seen as more or less fair, ultimately a vision is required.

Projections of population growth are circular: the projected population growth for the farmland between Bletchley and Stony Stratford would’ve been pretty low before we built Milton Keynes there.

Likewise the forecast for the derelict Docklands of the early 1980s. While there are real economic constraints, the future need not resemble the past.

Though it took a huge effort, Germany raised East Germans from 40 per cent to just 14 per cent per cent below the national average income since reunification. That’s levelling up.

Do we want to continue to concentrate growth in the South East? Do we want European-style denser cities, or for them to sprawl out a bit more? An algorithm can help deliver a vision: but it’s not the same as one.

Neil O’Brien: Planning reform needs to be handled with care

10 Aug

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

The White Paper on planning is out. Will it solve our housing crisis?

Obviously, reforming planning can only be part of the solution.

For starters, half the issue is about demand, not just supply of new homes. The government can shape demand: limiting immigration, using tax and credit policy to encourage funding to flow into businesses, not property speculation.

Likewise, declining homeownership reflects not just undersupply, but a choice to grow the rented sector with tax advantages. Over the decade to 2016 we added 165,000 privately-owned homes a year. But 195,000 homes were transferred into the private rented sector. So more homes were owned privately but by fewer people. We could use tax to increase homeownership instead.

Even on the supply side, planning’s only part of the picture. The Letwin Review highlighted how developers build out slowly to keep prices up. Page 37 of the White Paper promises: “we will explore further options to support faster build-out”.

So this paper only covers one part of the housing picture.

But it’s still important, and there are four big ideas in it.

Most of them I like, but there are risks.

1) Faster, simpler plan making.  

Making a local plan takes seven years on average, involving councils spending loads on consultants drawing up dozens of reports which no-one ever looks at again. With plans up to 500 pages long and supporting documents up to ten times that, we can surely simplify.

The White Paper proposes a time limit on drawing up a plan (30 months) and cutting the number of documents required. Plans will be “two thirds” shorter.

It’s a good idea. The risk is a backlash.  The paper notes that having all three of “Strategic Environmental Assessment, Sustainability Appraisal, and Environmental Impact Assessment – can lead to duplication of effort and overly long reports which inhibit transparency and add unnecessary delays.” But making things simpler without annoying conservation-minded voters will require care.

2) Simpler, more useful, developer contributions and (maybe) more benefit for the community. 

At present “Section 106” contributions made by developers are opaque, and developers spend yonks arguing the toss over how much they’ll pay. For builders, it’s like an Arabic carpet shop where you waste hours haggling just to find out the price.

But residents also lose out, because crazy rules constrain how funds for the community can be spent: so tightly, money is often returned to the developer.

The White Paper proposes replacing Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) – which only half of councils use – with a single, simpler levy. A welcome part of the proposal is that 25 per cent of revenues will stay in the parish they are raised in.

In principle, it’s great. But the detail is key. The paper is ambiguous about whether the new levy should raise more overall. It should: my constituents are driven mad seeing developers making massive windfall profits while dumping onto taxpayers the cost of the necessary infrastructure for new homes.

The paper proposes setting a minimum amount of the levy to be spent on affordable housing. I don’t agree. Councils should be able to choose for themselves whether they want more social housing, or to spend more on new schools, bypasses or superfast broadband instead.

The paper’s lead option is to create a single, nationally-set levy, with one rate for the whole country. Simple, but that would create big winners and losers. The paper keeps open the option of a single levy, but councils still setting their own rate (which sounds more sensible).

Extending the levy to homes created through change of use is questionable: do we want to tax brownfield regeneration?

3) Simpler, faster assessment of need.  

Presently, councils spend ages and pots of cash working out how many homes they need to plan for. Because of the difficult politics and risk of legal challenge, they hire a bunch of expensive consultants (them again) who basically take the ONS population forecast for the area, stick their finger in the air, do some magic, add and subtract a bit for various local factors and… often end up back where they started, around the ONS population forecast.

The White Paper proposes a more standardised formula which will spit out a target number based on population growth, up-weighted for things like demand, but down-weighted for various local constraints like greenbelt.

It’s a bold move, as lots of councils and MPs will argue with whatever figures the national formula spits out for them. The actual formula will be key to whether it succeeds or leads to a backlash: I’ve argued before for increasing the numbers in inner urban areas for environmental reasons and deliverability. It might be wise to have a bit of flexibility as a safety valve to let councils propose their own approaches: some will always have idiosyncratic factors which aren’t in the national formula.

4) Zoning. 

The most novel idea in the paper, “zoning”, is the one that I’m most unsure about. Zoning is common around the world, but means very different things in different countries. Page 25 of the paper proposes a wide range of options.

The basic idea is that sites put in the local plan for development will be taken to have outline planning permission. Many councils say this is unnecessary: they don’t refuse planning permission on sites they’ve put in their plans.

Some campaigners, in contrast, take this as signalling the start of a planning “free for all”. But the paper is clear that councils will be able to set, for each site, outline controls over things like the heights and density of buildings.

My concern is that because it will be harder to say yes or no to a specific design, councils may feel they just have to set more prescriptive rules upfront to control development.

In my experience as a constituency MP, as much of the concern about new homes is driven by (legitimate) concerns about flooding, parking, traffic and construction as the actual new homes. Limiting councils’ discretion in some ways, but not in others, could lead to a lot of fuss for little real change.

The lead option in the paper creates a new middle category of “renewal” areas, where development is not approved or forbidden, but there is a statutory presumption for things like densification. Gentle densification can be good, but I’m sceptical such changes can be waved through in principle, rather than looking case by case.

There are some underplayed aspects of the paper. It notes that 50 per cent of councils don’t have a plan, but doesn’t say much new about handling councils that won’t adopt one. It’s silent on how large developers lock out small builders through opaque land optioning.

More than anything I would welcome more consideration of the underlying reasons why voters oppose new development: that we build piecemeal, on the kind of infill sites on the edges of villages and towns that most annoy people. That we combine some of the least dense cities in Europe and the most geographically unbalanced economy. The housing problem can’t be solved in isolation, and we need a vision of where we are to build, not just a formula.

The White Paper is a radical document. There are some great things in it, but it contains some ideas that need a lot of thought and careful handling.

Neil O’Brien: Why closing the marriage gap between rich and poor is a vital mission for social justice

27 Jul

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Our daughter just had her last day at nursery. In the autumn she’s off to school. We’re sponging second-hand uniform from friends. It feels like just the other day I was driving home after her birth, flakes of snow streaking through the headlights.

Our baby son can suddenly crawl fast. He wants to climb the stairs, and chew any bits of cardboard he finds lying around.

My sister has unearthed a trove of old black and white family photos. There’s lots of things that catch the eye: Glasgow’s housing estates looking shiny and newly-built; the funny looking cars; the endless cigarettes. The bigger families too: my gran with her two children from before the war, and two after.

It set me thinking about family. Ten years ago we talked about it a lot. David Cameron’s criticism of “Broken Britain” highlighted work by the Centre for Social Justice on family breakdown and poverty. The most eye-catching pledge during his leadership campaign was a marriage tax break.

Over the last five years there’s been a lot of other things doing on, to say the least.  But as the new government starts to set out its domestic agenda, family should be part of it.

Politicians are nervous talking about family. It’s not just bad memories of the 1990s, when we screwed up and sounded like moralising hypocrites against a backdrop of sleaze.

It’s a deeper fear of sounding critical of friends and relations. We all have close friends who have been through everything: raising kids alone, divorce, abortion, bereavement and so on. I think of a friend who has raised two wonderful kids alone. Another single friend helped look after a young person when no-one else would. I don’t know how anyone manages to do it single-handed: they’re amazing people.

Some worry family policy will be about condemning them, or that politicians want to try and trap unhappy couples together. It mustn’t be about either. Instead, it has to be about two different things.

First, helping people with children financially, and with practical help, particularly during the difficult years with small children. Having no money on top of no sleep and endlessly crying babies makes it harder to sustain relationships.

Second, it should be about support and building up the social capital that many middle class people in politics take for granted. Indeed, it’s about healing a split in our society.

Let me explain.

Politicians who are serious about reducing poverty and spreading opportunity can’t avoid thinking about families and households.  Last year 23 per cent of children in couple households were below the fixed poverty line, after housing costs, compared to 38 per cent of children in lone parent households.

Controlling for other factors, A CSJ report found those who experience family breakdown when aged 18 or younger are twice as likely be in trouble with the police or spend time in prison, and almost twice as likely to underachieve educationally. They’re more likely to suffer mental health issues.

One part of family policy should be direct help families with children. I’d love to see us recognise children in the tax system, as we did until the 1970s: our tax system is unusually family-unfriendly. We should help working families with children on Universal Credit keep more what they earn before it gets tapered away. The CSJ has called for higher child benefit for parents of young children.

But we need to go deeper, and recognise that the links between family breakdown and low income run in both directions. Over recent decades a quiet revolution has taken place, and richer and poorer people now live in very different family structures.

Between 1979 and 2000, the proportion of households with dependent children which were lone parent households grew from 11 per cent to 25 per cent, then remained at that level, dipping a bit in recent years to 22 per cent in 2019. Since 1979, the proportion which are married couples fell from 89 per cent to 61 per cent.

There are few countries in Europe where children are less likely to live with both parents than Britain. It’s more likely that a teenager sitting their GCSEs will own a smartphone (about 95 per cent) than live with both parents (58 per cent).

But these headline stats conceal a massive social split, which starts at the point of birth and widens out.

For those in the top socioeconomic group, 75 per cent of children are born to parents who are married; another 22 per cent are jointly registered to parents cohabiting; 2 per cent are jointly registered to parents living apart, and just 1 per cent registered by one parent only.

At the bottom end of the scale, 35 per cent are born to married parents, 38 per cent to cohabiting parents, 21 per cent jointly to parents living apart and 6 per cent registered by just one parent.

These huge differences weren’t always there. For people at the top, family life looks similar to their parents’ generation. For people on lower incomes, society looks utterly different. A marriage gap has opened up, and society has been splitting apart into different family structures for rich and poor.

In the 1970s, mothers of pre-school children were equally likely to be married whether they had a degree or not, and 90 per cent plus were. By 2006 for mothers with a degree that was down to 86 per cent, but for non-graduate mothers it fell to 52 per cent.

Between 1988 and 2018 the proportion of jointly registered births which were to married parents fell from 90 per cent to about 77 per cent for the top socio-economic group. At the other end of the scale it fell from 70 per cent to 37 per cent.

Equally, it’s impossible to understand modern Britain without appreciating the different families people from different ethnic groups live in.

In 2011, among households with dependent children, for white households 53 per cent were married couples, 16 per cent cohabiting couples, 25 per cent lone parents, and 7 per cent other household types (mainly multigenerational households).

Among Indian households with dependent children, far more were married couples or multigenerational households.  68 per cent were married couples, 2 per cent cohabiting couples, 9 per cent lone parents and 21 per cent in multigenerational households.

Among black Caribbean households 28 per cent were married couples, 11 per cent cohabiting couples, 47 per cent were lone parents and 14 per cent in multigenerational households.

People of different ethnicities live in very different families, which influences everything else.

Most voters favour government taking action to support family life. But in Whitehall there’s scepticism: can the state do anything about these trends?

The truth is we don’t really know. As it happens, at the point when government stopped publishing its measure of family stability in 2016, the trend seemed to be moving back a little towards more children living with both parents.

Whitehall can be too pessimistic. Until Michael Howard, the consensus was that nothing could be done about rising crime. He proved the consensus wrong. Likewise, in the 1990s Whitehall had given up on helping lone parents into work. But successive reforms (under governments of all parties) doubled their rate of employment.

It’s not like there’s no ideas about how to help.  There’s masses and masses of recommendations gathering dust on think tank shelves, covering everything: tax, benefits, family hubs, relationship education in schools, birth registration, pre-and postnatal support…

My modest proposal is this: let’s do a major programme of controlled trials to test these ideas, and see what, if anything, makes a difference. Happily for the Treasury, experiments are cheaper than rolling things out nationally.

But we have to try. The costs are too high not to. They say the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, but the second best time is today. Let’s plant some seeds.

Neil O’Brien: No, more economic prosperity doesn’t depend on more social liberalism

13 Jul

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Danny Finkelstein took issue with Boris Johnson’s idea of “levelling up” in the Times the other day. He reviewed the work of Richard Florida, a thinker dubbed the “patron saint of avocado toast” for highlighting the role of bohemian urbanites in driving economic regeneration.

Danny concludes from his work that, “Social liberalism and economic prosperity go together.” He argues that: “in order to match the success and power of metropolitan areas, non-metropolitan places need to become more… metropolitan.  The problem with the metropolitan “elite” isn’t that there is too much of it. It’s that there aren’t enough members of it, drawn from a wide enough background and living in enough places.”

I hesitate to disagree with one of the smartest columnists on the planet. But economic growth and social liberalism don’t always go together.

What about the Victorians, combining breakneck growth with a religious revival and tightened public morals? What about Japan during their postwar decades of blistering growth and conservative “salaryman” culture? Over the last 70 years, Britain has become more socially liberal as our growth rate has slowed.

Even in Britain today, it’s highly questionable. London is the richest and fastest growing part of the UK.  But where is opposition to homosexuality and pre-marital sex strongest? London. Where is support for censoring offensive speech highest? London.  The capital mixes liberal metropolitan graduates with religious immigrants. Its success is shaped by both.

Danny’s other argument has more important implications. Is it really the case other places must emulate London to succeed? Like other capital cities across Europe, London has grown faster than the rest of the country since the 1980s. The shift to an economy based on “office jobs” over has favoured the centres of larger cities.

But we shouldn’t get too carried away by the idea that hipster-powered megacities are sweeping all before them. For starters, there are successes elsewhere. Cheshire has high tech in a rural setting, with productivity and wages above the national average.  Milton Keynes likewise, because it’s easy to build there. Productivity in Preston has grown faster than average because it’s a transport hub with advanced manufacturing.

On the surface, large cities outside London have done well.  Since 1997, our 16 largest cities grew their GDP faster than their surrounding areas: Leeds grew faster than West Yorkshire, Manchester faster than Greater Manchester, and so on.

But on average, those cities saw also slower growth in income per head than their surrounding areas. In other words, people became more likely to work in city centres, but that growth was fuelled by people commuting in from smaller places around them. Their growth has been powered more by smalltown commuters than flat-cap wearing uber-boheminans.

It’s right that there are cities outside London that have things in common with it, and might benefit from similar investments. Lawyers in London will soon get Crossrail. So why have lawyers in Leeds waited 20 years for a tram?

But too often Richard Florida’s work leads politicians to focus on shiny cultural facilities. A cool art gallery in West Brom.  A national museum of pop music in Sheffield. It’s not just that these projects flop and close. It’s that they distract from two bigger issues.

First, most people aren’t graduates – so we need a plan to raise their productivity and wages too.

Second, places outside urban centres are perfectly capable of attracting high-skill, high income people – with the right policies.

Britain’s economy is unusually unbalanced compared to other countries.  Pre-tax incomes in Greater London are nearly 60 per cent higher than the national average, but more than 20 per cent below average in Yorkshire, the North East, Wales and Northern Ireland.  These imbalances mean our economy is overheating in some places and freezing cold in others, slowing growth overall. There are no major economies that are richer per head than Britain which have a more unbalanced economy.

But these imbalances don’t represent pure free market outcomes. It’s true that low-skill, low wages places can get stuck in a vicious circle. True that some places on the periphery have very deep problems. Nonetheless, the British state doesn’t do much to stop that – in fact it does a lot to unbalance growth.

Consider how we spend money. Capital spending on transport infrastructure in London is nearly three times the national average. Research funding per head is nearly twice the national average. Nearly half the core R&D budget is spent in Oxford, Cambridge and London. Spending on housing and culture per head in London is five times the national average. We’re “levelling up” the richest places.

We’ve rehearsed these problems for years, but not fixed them. Instead of chasing flat white drinkers, we need to find a cool £4 billion a year to level up R&D spending in other places to the levels London enjoys. Fancy coffee can come later.

Consider our tax system. Overall, the tax rate on business in the UK is about average.  But we combine the lowest headline rate in the G20 with the lowest capital allowances. The combined effect of this is a huge bias against capital intensive sectors, particularly manufacturing.

That in turn has a regional impact, hurting places more dependent on making things: manufacturing accounted for only five per cent of London’s productivity growth since 1997, but nearly 50 per cent in the north west. A hostile tax system is one reason Britain has deindustrialised more than any other G20 country since 1990, and why manufacturing’s share of the economy is half that in Germany or Japan.

Manufacturing should be a key part of levelling up outside cities: it needs space, not city centre locations. In English regions outside London, wages in manufacturing are about nine per cent higher than in services, and manufacturing productivity grows faster than the economy as a whole.  But Britain’s excessive focus on professional services makes it harder to grow high-wage employment in non city-centre locations.

Consider where we put our key institutions. In Germany the political capital was Bonn, and is now Berlin. The financial capital is Frankfurt. The Supreme Court is in Karlsruhe. The richest place is Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen. There are major corporate HQs spread across the country. TV production is dispersed because central government is banned from running it.

In Britain, all these things happen in just one city. We’ve talked about this for years, but made little progress.  In recent years, we managed to move one chunk of Channel 4 to Leeds, and a bit of the BBC to Manchester. But that’s about it. Whitehall only wants to move low-end jobs.

The debate on levelling up is frustrating, because we know some things work, but we don’t do them. “Regional Selective Assistance” boosted investment in poor places with tax breaks and subsidies.  Thanks to evidence from natural experiments, we know it boosted growth. Yet it was allowed to wither.

I don’t want us to be just another government promising the world, then not delivering. Politically, it’s vital we deliver. Lots of people who haven’t voted Conservative before put their trust in us last year. It’s telling that the centre point of the seats we won is just outside Sheffield.

We won on a manifesto combining centrist economics, (50,000 more nurses) mild social conservatism, (ending auto early release) and national self-confidence (Getting Brexit Done).  Levelling up is central to all this. We promised voters steak and chips.  We could serve up avocado toast instead, but we shouldn’t be surprised if the voters don’t thank us.

Neil O’Brien: The New Puritans want to tear down our liberal settlement. Here’s who they are, what they think – and why they must be resisted.

29 Jun

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Consider recent news.

JK Rowling criticised the expression “people who menstruate,” leading to accusations of “transphobia”, numerous authors quitting her literary agency, and staff at her publisher refusing to work on her new book.

Various controversies have followed the Black Lives Matter protests. Liverpool University will rename a building named after Gladstone.  UKTV deleted an episode of Fawlty Towers making fun of a racist character. The RFU is reviewing the singing of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.

These stories illuminate a new division in our politics. It’s not left vs. right, but is uniting conservatives and liberals against something new, which we need to give a name to.

“Woke” is the most common term, and laughing at its excesses is part of the cure. But we also need to take it seriously. Paul Staines calls it “Neo-puritanism”, which captures the absolutist, quasi-religious nature of it – the urge to “police” others behaviour.

Like puritanism, it’s strongest in America, but powerful here.

So what is Neo-puritanism?

First, Neo-puritans want to change the balance between free speech and censoring offensive speech.

The embodiment of liberalism is the slogan: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Neo-puritans feel a duty to “call people out”, often pressing for people to be sacked or shunned.

Don’t debate JK Rowling – “cancel” her. They see debate not as a chance to test and exchange ideas, but as unwelcome, wearying, maybe impossible.

Neo-puritanism has tightened the boundaries of free speech. Like Amber Rudd being “no platformed” by Oxford students. The NUS trying to block Peter Tatchell from speaking. A school dropping plans to name a house after JK Rowling. A DJ sacked (now reinstated) for denying he has “white privilege.” An Oxford professor given security guards after threats from transgender activists. Sheffield University paying students to police “micro-aggressions”. Hundreds of Guardian employees attacking Suzanne Moore’s “transphobia” for writing: “Female is a biological classification.”

Second, Neo-puritans believe in “hard” quotas and targets.

Conservatives and liberals often support increasing numbers of women or ethnic minorities in certain roles. They favour outreach programmes, mentoring, open days, etc.

Neo-puritans want quotas and sex/racially defined scholarships which other groups can’t enter. For example, Reni Eddo-Lodge argues that “when there are no hard targets for programmes of positive discrimination, they will always run the risk of looking like they’re doing something without achieving much at all.”

Examples include Cambridge University’s scholarship scheme (worth £18,000 a year) solely for black British students and Oxford’s  Arlan Hamilton scholarships for Black undergraduates. UCL has scholarships for BME postgraduate students. The Bank of England has scholarships for African Caribbean students.

Third, Neo-puritans (i) think people are defined by their group, (ii) say people have “false consciousness” about our society and (iii) attack the liberal idea that people can be neutral.

A wave of bestselling books by Neo-puritan authors ramp up the importance of group differences Whether we’re talking about “White supremacy”, “White privilege”, or “White Fragility”, it’s not that some people are racist, but society.

For Neo-puritans, not only are people defined by their race, but race is defined by behaviour in an almost mystical way. The founder of “decolonise the curriculum,” Pran Patel, said: “Priti Patel is the perfect example of whiteness inhabiting a different coloured vessel”.

Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge academic, tweeted: “White lives don’t matter. As white lives” and “Abolish whiteness.” This isn’t just divisive and unhelpful. The concept of “whiteness” – that there are certain ways of behaving that are “white” – is intrinsically racist.

This explains why Neo-puritans think it’s OK to attack Conservative MPs from ethnic minorities as “coconuts” or “bounty bars” Robin DiAngelo argues there is deep false consciousness in our society: “Our racial socializatition sets us up to repeat racist behaviour regardless of our intentions.”

Neo-puritans see the “colour-blind” ideals of liberals as part of this false consciousness.

Reni Eddo-Lodge argues: “Colour-blindness is used to silence talk about structural racism while we continue to fool ourselves with the lie of meritocracy.”

A headteacher in Sheffield agrees, writing to parents: “Our society is built upon white supremacy… the world’s systems and structures are built on this bias, and this therefore creates White Privilege.”

Finally, Neo-puritans have a particular take on history, with the emphasis on criticism.

The self-styled “leader” of the BLM protests says Churchill’s statue is offensive and should be taken down.  A university lecturer argues: “Churchill must fall”, because he was an “imperialist racist,” “hated” by the working class. Maya Goodfellow argues: “The way Churchill is remembered in the UK has always been tied up with ideas of white superiority.”

Nor is it just Churchill.

Take the student union leader who vowed to paint over a First World War memorial: “Mark my words – we’re taking down the mural of white men in the uni Senate room, even if I have to paint over it myself.”

Or the Oxford lecturer who hopes Oxford researchers don’t invent a coronavirus vaccine first because: “it will be used as it has been in the past, to fulfil its political, patriotic function as proof of British excellence.”

So what’s the problem with Neo-puritanism?

First, I worry hard quotas lead to resentment; undermine those who succeed (am I only here because of my race or gender?); and lead to unfair, arbitrary decisions: can a scholarship for black students be awarded to a mixed-race person?

Second, there’s an abuse of language here. Apartheid South Africa and the Confederacy were states with an ideology of “White Supremacy”. Britain isn’t.

Third, relentless emphasis on group membership plus tighter boundaries on speech will lead to a society not at ease with itself. Instead of the colour-blind world liberals hope for, we’ll end up in a world walking on eggshells, where more and more we’ll see each other primarily as members of groups.

Fourth, I worry about the counter-productive effects of this conversation. If the “core function” of the police is racism, why should anyone non-white join up?

A 13 year old boy recently pleaded guilty to kicking a police officer on the head as he lay on the ground because of protests he’d seen on TV. Ideas have consequences.

If you claim our society is built on “white supremacy”, this will be heard by some people with fragile mental health. I know of a case of a young person who feels oppressed by all around her, seeing offers of friendship and help from white people as disguised attempts to hurt her.

Compared to a world in which you tell kids – ‘you’re all just the same, you just have different coloured skin’ it makes it more difficult to have natural relationships, and friendships without hangups.

Overemphasis of group differences is disempowering. Katharine Birbalsingh, head of one of the country’s top performing state schools says it: “undermines much of the work we do at school in trying to empower our children to take personal responsibility and grab life by the horns.”

Finally, healthy countries need a balance of self-criticism and self-confidence. Self-loathing is unattractive, but might also have bad practical consequences. People are often called on to do things for the greater good of the nation, from paying tax to fighting for their country.  If Britain is basically shameful, why bother?

Neo-puritans sometimes highlight important problems. But though there is more to do, the big picture is one of progress. Sexism is down, racist attitudes are declining and ethnic minorities are steadily getting better off. Neo-puritanism won’t accelerate that, but instead risk a whole set of new divisions.