Neil Shastri-Hurst: Criminal Justice reform – a modern crusade for a modern conservatism

6 Mar

Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a barrister, surgeon, and former British Army Officer.

As of November last year, the UK’s prison population stood at 78,838. A study by the Ministry of Justice predicted that, by September 2026, that figure would rise to 98,700; an increase of around 25 per cent. Add in those on probation, which in September 2020 accounted for some 222,657 people, and that is approximately 0.6 per cent of the UK’s total current adult population.

It would be an entirely nonsensical position to argue that prisons are not necessary; patently , they are. Sadly, people do some terrible things, and it is right that they are appropriately punished. However, for too long we have become bogged down in the mantra of “you do the crime, you do the time”. There is a cogent argument that one size does not fit all. It is an issue that, as conservatives, we must engage in.

Some years ago, I listened to a panel discussion that took place at a Conservatives Political Action Conference in the United States. One might have anticipated this would be a rallying call of the conservative right; quite the contrary.

It was engaging, informative, and surprisingly liberal-minded. A phrase that stuck with me from the talk was from Pat Nolan, at the time Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform. When describing for whom prison should be, he noted that prisons have expanded to include “offenses that are not morally reprehensible. Some of these offenses are bad simply because the legislature says they are. Prison is for people that we are afraid of, not the ones we are mad at”.

Arguably, Nolan’s standpoint was shaped by his own personal experiences. He had been the Republican Leader in the California State Assembly prior to a conviction for corruption, as part of an FBI sting. Convicted and incarcerated, his prison experience led to a desire to reform the American criminal justice system. One can draw analogies with Jonathan Aitken, in the UK, whose own fall from grace led to a journey of reflection and personal reconstruction.

My interactions with the criminal justice system have been, thankfully, limited. I practise in the field of civil law, not criminal. My hospital work brought me in contact with the aftermaths of violent crimes in terms of trauma, but not the inner workings of the prison system.

And whilst my soldiers gave me the odd grey hair with some of their antics, by and large they steered away from criminality. Notwithstanding that, the need for criminal justice reform has been a policy area that has always interested me. I have never been a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” type of Tory.

The purpose of the Criminal Justice System must be aimed towards rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Clearly, that will not always be possible. I accept some individuals will never be reformed however much the system tries to help but that should not stop us trying where we can.

The current model is failing. There are high rates of recidivism. Within nine years, 75 per cent of prisoners reoffend; of those, 39.3 per cent do so within the first twelve months. It would be hard to argue in the face of those statistics that prisons keep us safe.

An interesting mental exercise is to challenge oneself to identify an institution that expands through failure. I can only come up with one; prisons. Moreover, the greater their failure, the greater their expansion and with it a burgeoning cost to the taxpayer.

Conservatism has, at its heart, a desire to preserve the integrity of society. Criminality undermines that social fabric and the current system is not achieving what it is aimed to do; make us safer. In order to tackle the problem and bring down the rates of reoffending, a three-stranded approach is needed.

First, mentorship programmes. These need to be bespoke, and focused on the individual needs and challenges of prisoners. It takes time to find a good match and even longer to recruit a large enough body of volunteers. Mentor and mentee should be paired six months or more before release, thereby enabling them to develop a relationship and smooth the transition into post-prison life. There is good evidence that such systems are effective; former Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas introduced such a scheme, and first year rates of recidivism dropped from 21 per cent to nine per cent.

Second, address the mental heath crisis in our prisons. A significant proportion of the prison population suffers from mental heath disorders. If you include drug and alcohol abuse within those numbers they go up further. The true scale of the problem is unknown, but there have been rates of up to 28 per cent for self-harm amongst the female prison population, and an estimate of two per cent having acute and serious mental health problems.

There are issues surrounding access to medical appointments. “Did not attend” rates are high amongst prisoner; some estimates put them in the region of 15 per cent. Training staff to be aware of mental issues is also an area where improvements could be made. A more pragmatic approach would be to address the root cause. If you lock someone up who has problems associated with mental health or substance abuse and hope for the best, he or she is not going to be better when released. It merely compounds the issue. Setting up mental health wings or halfway facilities that deal with these issues would be a proactive step that would prepare prisoners to cope better upon their return to society.

The third strand, which is arguably the most important, is the improvement of educational attainment. Those leaving school with qualifications have a greatly reduced tendency towards criminal behaviour. Low rates of literacy are linked with custodial sentences. Those struggling and left behind by the educational attainment gap can readily fall into what feels like an inescapable spiral.

t would be easier to argue that this is another layer to add to teachers’ overflowing in-trays, but that would not be fair. Clearly, one would hope that personal and parental responsibility would come into play, but that cannot always be relied upon. And so we come back to the theme of mentors.

But rather than mentoring those already in the system, it is about mentoring at an earlier stage to avoid at risk individuals becoming ensnared by it. In the West Midlands Combined Authority Area, Andy Street has set up the Mayor’s Mentors Scheme. This has been a huge success. However, it could be expanded, and is a prime example of how Metro Mayors, Local Government, Police and Crime Commissioners can work collaboratively to improve the life chances of the younger generations.

None of this comes easy. There will always be those who take a more punitive approach to the penal system. However, a golden thread that runs through conservatism is the desire to unlock potential and provide individuals with the skills and opportunities to succeed. There can be no better embodiment of that desire than not merely rehabilitating those who have offended, but preventing the need of such rehabilitation in the first place.

The Budget. Sunak’s strong message that operation “level up” is under way.

4 Mar

There were all sorts of striking announcements in Rishi Sunak’s Budget yesterday, from the £5 billion grant scheme to help hospitality businesses in England recover from the pandemic to the less welcome news that the Government will raise the rate of corporation tax to 25 per cent.

The Government will be told it spent too much/ too little; that it shouldn’t have gone for corporations, and so forth. But one thing you cannot accuse it of is forgetting its commitment to “level up” the country, which was a big theme in the Budget.

The Conservatives were elected on this promise – to spread “opportunity across the whole United Kingdom” and move away from being South/ London centric – and Sunak’s speech did not disappoint in this regard.

“If we are serious about wanting to level up, that starts with the institutions of economic power”, he said firmly, before announcing that there will be a new economic campus for the Treasury in Darlington. This means that 750 employees will move from the Capital to that area.

In another interesting development, Sunak announced eight freeport locations in England for East Midlands Airport, Felixstowe and Harwich, Humber, Liverpool City Region, Plymouth, Solent, Thames and Teesside.

While it quickly became obvious (on Twitter, at least) that some people don’t know what a freeport is, let alone have a view on whether they’re a good idea, many councils have been working hard to put in bids for these.

All five council areas in Tees Valley worked together in developing one for Teesside, and it has paid off. Its freeport will be the largest in the UK, spanning 4,5000 acres (2,550 football pitches).

The freeport is expected to increase investment to Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool by over £1.4 billion and create around 18,000 skilled, good quality jobs within five years. The Government will also be hoping it can boost the chances of Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, to get re-elected at the end of this year.

Speaking about his vision for Teesside, Sunak said: “Now, when I look to the future of Teesside I see old industrial sites being used to capture and store carbon. Vaccines being manufactured. Offshore wind turbines creating clean energy for the rest of the country. All located within a Freeport with the Treasury just down the road and the UK Infrastructure Bank only an hour away” (the bank will be in Leeds).

In another part of the Budget, Sunak singled out Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, where the Government is also increasing public investment.

It is putting £225 million into rail stations and the reopening of old railway lines. Government support will also go towards a major housing and commercial development scheme around the upcoming HS2 Solihull Interachange, along with other regeneration efforts.

Responding to these developments, Street said: “The Chancellor has done exactly what we asked for him, and set out clear and wide-ranging support to help West Midlands businesses and the self-employed through the end of the roadmap and into the recovery stage.”

So you can see that, while covering off lots of areas, yesterday’s Budget sent out a strong political message that the Government can hear people outside Westminster (now literally moving departments to other parts of the country).

The Budget may even have an appeal to Generation Rent throughout the UK, as through trying to correct regional disparities, the Government can also help shift demand for housing, which is overly focussed in the South East.

But overall, it was a show that now the Government’s got “Brexit done”, operation “level up” is well and truly under way.

Andy Street: My transport plan will get the West Midlands moving as never before

9 Feb

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

A year ago, I stood in the halls of Aldridge Transport Museum, surrounded by historic vehicles of all shapes and sizes, to unveil my 2040 Transport Plan. The museum is a great place to learn how we got about in the past – and it was the perfect venue to launch a vision for the future of transport in the West Midlands.

An ambitious 20-year vision of how our towns and cities will need to be linked in the coming decades, the 2040 Transport Plan involves various modes of transport including the Metro, rail, bus, and high-tech vehicles. It envisages 150 miles of new Metro lines and calls to reopen long-closed railway stations, as well as pioneering ‘Very Light Rail’ technology and driverless vehicles.

My plan captured the imagination of local people, partly thanks to a Tube-style map which lays out just how all of these new networks would knit together to provide the connectivity needed for the West Midlands in the second part of the 21st Century.

Of course, creating an Underground-style map also clearly signalled my determination to build a transport network of the standard enjoyed by the capital for decades – with the funding to match. The message was clear: this was no fanciful vision, it was an achievable route to overcome decades of underinvestment, creating a transport network that will link communities, attract business and investment and connect people to new opportunities.

Yes, it requires serious investment. But if we truly want to ‘level up’ our nation’s economy and repay the trust of voters in the Midlands and the North, this kind of ambition is vital. In fact, the investment required – costed at £15billion over 20 years – is the same as the initial budget for Crossrail, which forms just one part of London’s network.

As we plot our way out of the coronavirus pandemic, transport infrastructure will be critical to our economic recovery as a region. And despite the many challenges of the last year, we have been getting on with the job. Thanks to the determination and professionalism of our teams, work has continued apace, despite Covid-19.

In central Birmingham, the ‘Westside’ Metro extension from Centenary Square to Edgbaston village is set to open later this year, while work has started in Digbeth on the ‘Eastside’ line, which will take the Metro through to link with HS2 at the new Curzon Street station.

However, the crucial point about my plan is that it is not just about pouring money into Birmingham City Centre. This represents our own West Midlands version of ‘levelling up’ – as we focus well beyond the Second City. Two of our largest projects are brand new stations for our other two great cities – Coventry and Wolverhampton. Both are progressing fast and Wolverhampton will open in the Spring – along with a new link to the Metro network.

Elsewhere on the railways, we have made major progress on our plans to work with Government and our local councils to reverse the Beeching cuts and reopen long-closed stations. Planning permission has been secured for five new stations – including in the heart of the Black Country in Darlaston and Willenhall, with the local business cases approved and work set to start soon.

This is just the start. We are about to bombard Grant Shapps and his team with plans for many more stations, including Tettenhall in Wolverhampton, three more in Coventry at Binley, Coundon and Foleshill, and at the Fort and Castle Bromwich in North Birmingham, creating Birmingham’s third cross-city line.

The Metro section of my plan is also progressing at pace. Not long after becoming Mayor, I secured £250 million of Government support to extend the Metro network. Looking back now, that early win not only indicated a shift in onus after years of underinvestment in the region, it illustrated that a Conservative Mayor could get things done after decades of Labour inaction.

That money has underpinned the rapid expansion of the Metro, putting diggers in the ground, laying track, and providing tangible, visible evidence of ‘levelling up’ in action. For example, the work to extend the Metro through more of Sandwell, past Tipton, and out to Dudley and Brierley Hill is now well underway, with the major engineering work started. In many ways, Metro is the West Midlands’ Crossrail, creating an East-West link across the conurbation.

Huge progress has also been made on the bus network, which remains the backbone of public transport here, with 267 million journeys a year compared to 50 million for rail and about seven million on the Metro. Our bus fleet has been continually improved, with new vehicles and cutting edge technology. National Express’s Platinum buses boast comfier seats, USB points to charge phones, crystal-clear CCTV, bright LED interior lighting, and improved sound proofing.

This spring, 20 new hydrogen buses – which consume four times less fuel compared to diesel buses and cover 300 miles on a single tank – will be introduced in Birmingham. Coventry has been selected to develop a business cases to switch the entire city’s bus fleet to electric vehicles. Finally, National Express has announced a fourth consecutive annual fare freeze – a huge contribution to millions of families here at such a difficult time.

Then there is ‘Very Light Rail’, a pioneering concept that draws on design and component expertise from our auto industry to create a relatively low-cost streetcar system.

The Very Light Rail Innovation Centre, now being built in Dudley, will design and develop lightweight rail vehicles and include 2km of test tracks. It will test the new VLR system that is being built now in Coventry and will soon be rolled out in the city and hopefully more places across in the UK and around the world. In VLR, West Midlands industry is once again driving innovation.

What the transport map doesn’t show are the numerous other schemes on the table to improve cycling, walking, and healthier ways of getting around which will also play a part in revolutionising how people move about the conurbation.

We aren’t going to overturn 40 years underinvestment in the West Midlands in just four years, but we are moving forward at pace and are on target. That has been possible because of our partnership working with Government, councils, transport operators, and the region as a whole. It has also shown the ability of a Conservative Mayor to get things moving after so many decades of congested roads, poor services and neglected infrastructure.

And what of Aldridge, home of the Transport Museum where I launched my plan last year? Well, we’ve just purchased a site in the village to enable us to re-open the station there, which would see a passenger service reintroduced for the first time in 56 years. It is another stop on a route map that is showing real progress.

Andy Street: The big opportunity for the West Midlands in the small print of the EU deal

12 Jan

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

As the nation continues to grapple with the immense impact of Covid-19 it already seems a lifetime ago that Brexit was the dominant issue on our TV screens.

Right now, all our efforts are rightly focussed on the two key challenges of bringing down the infection rate while rolling out vaccinations. At the same time, unprecedented financial support continues with huge investment in projects that will help kickstart the economy and create new jobs.

Yet only a few weeks ago the Government achieved what for a time seemed in peril – a free trade deal with our biggest trading partners, the EU. We must not overlook what a critical moment this was for our nation, or the countless businesses and jobs that depend on it.

The news was met with real relief here in the West Midlands. I had long argued how vital a deal was for our economy, given that exporting makes up a bigger proportion of our GDP than any other English region.

Throughout the Brexit debate, much was made of the new opportunities that would flow from leaving the EU. Now we must be relentless in seeking and securing those opportunities. In this column, I want to outline how one of these lies within our all-important automotive industry – and how investing in its future success can deliver benefits far beyond the car factories themselves to create a new post-Brexit economic bedrock for the region.

Of course, when we talk about the automotive industry we primarily think about the car manufacturers themselves, like Jaguar Land Rover here in the West Midlands. Today, JLR is the flagship of a 21st-century automotive cluster, a concentration of businesses which has evolved from our heyday as Britain’s motoring heartland.

After all, Jaguar is just one of the many motoring brands with historic links to our region: Rover, Singer, Triumph, Healey, Humber, Standard, Land Rover, Daimler, Morris, Austin, Hillman – the list goes on and on.

But while these famous names employed thousands on their assembly lines, it was the vast supply chains that supported them that were the backbone of our broader industrial strength. Back then, huge Birmingham companies like Lucas and Dunlop dominated the supply chain and provided mass employment at landmark premises, but a myriad of smaller operations supported them too.

Here is the opportunity that Brexit brings – in the small print. As part of being able to continue to trade tariff free in the future, products built here will have to have a minimum amount of their parts made here (or in the EU) to count as British when it comes to exporting.

This concept is called “Rules of Origin” – not the most exciting of phrases but something I, and others, have been campaigning relentlessly on. It simply means that for a product to be classified as “Made in Britain” it has to include a significant proportion of British parts – and not just be a collection of foreign components with a Union flag stuck on it at the last minute and marked “British”. This requirement offers a huge opportunity to expand the local supply chain for our biggest manufacturing industry.

As in many manufacturing sectors, in recent decades much of our automotive supply chain has, regrettably, moved from the West Midlands to Asia and the rest of the world, taking with it quality jobs. Now, as a result of the EU trade deal, the automotive industry and others has a driving imperative to source more parts and components from the UK – or face tariffs that will make its exports uncompetitive in our biggest trading partner.

The threshold for British-made parts starts at 40 per cent but will rapidly reach 55 per cent as a minimum – creating huge scope and opportunity to rebuild and expand our automotive supply chain. Crucially, as part of the agreement, components can be made here or in the EU, retaining trading ties that allow important practices such as “just in time delivery”. However, there is a real imperative to expand our local supply chain.

Let’s be clear: we already have a good start, with a successful supply chain already in place. We have a huge network of support firms that have developed over decades, with a track record of transforming to meet the changing demands of the automotive sector. We also have the foundation industries that make the metals and materials that underpin vehicle manufacture at more than 20 sites.

Some firms are already leading the fightback, like Alucast in the Black Country, who I recently visited – an automotive supplier expanding and growing by adopting new technology. We are well placed to take advantage of the trade deal and grow this ecosystem of suppliers. While the days when almost every car part was made locally are a distant memory, we now have a real chance to bring some of these jobs and plants back from Asia to the West Midlands.

However, this is not about returning to the past, it is about embracing the future. In ten years’ time, the only new cars sold in Britain will be electric or hybrids. The entire sector is on the cusp of a revolution that will require not only rethinking its products but retooling and refitting much of the industry itself.

The highest value parts in any electric car will be the batteries that power it. So, ensuring our own ability to build these car batteries at scale in this country is critical. That means ‘gigafactories’, like the one built by Tesla in Nevada. The Government has recognised this by allocating £500m towards this technology. Here, in the West Midlands, £108million has already been invested in a state-of-the-art Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry.

A gigafactory, and the supply chain that would gravitate around it, will make a huge contribution to meeting the need for British-built parts in our cars. It will be vital not just future jobs, but for keeping the ones we have.

The pandemic has had a huge impact on the West Midlands economy, and of course the impact of coronavirus must remain our main focus as we fight to protect the NHS and livelihoods.

But the Brexit deal provided one of the few moments of real optimism for business. Now we must grasp the chance to start a major expansion of our automotive supply chain. For the British car industry to thrive in the future it needs more British-built parts – and that means more British jobs.

As we plot our way out of the pandemic, the small print of the EU trade deal offers a very big opportunity indeed.

Bill Bowkett: The pandemic has shown the value of localism. But the Government seems to be ignoring this lesson.

31 Dec

Bill Bowkett is a MA Newspaper Journalism student at City, University of London. He is a former editor of the University of Kent’s student newspaper InQuire and has worked as a researcher in Parliament for Sir Oliver Heald MP.

New year’s resolutions are always a fitting tradition. The Romans birthed this trend with the worship of Janus – the two-faced God of beginning and end. Back then, citizens gifted presents to their enemies. In return, Janus would forgive those who confessed their sins.

And lo, two millenniums later, the sun rises in 2021 and a chance to start anew. When news of a vaccine was announced back in November, an ending to this Covid-19 impasse looked imminent. But as the last few weeks have proven, hopes of a ‘social reset’ have been quashed.

New tiering measures meant Christmas was cancelled for families across England. Those that were hoping to spend some time with nanny and pappy last week had their plans shattered because of rising cases, particularly across the south-east. Not to mention a new mutant strain.

This year has dealt multiple blows, but these authoritarian restrictions leave a bitter aftertaste like a par-boiled Brussel sprout. Each of us who have sacrificed our freedoms in the name of public health – and were promised family festivities and an imminent return to normality – have been betrayed.

Serious questions continue to be raised about No 10’s handling of the crisis. But it seems that voters have had enough and have made their intentions clear: they want to take back control.

A recent survey by community network Locality showed that out of 2,000 adults polled, half lack faith in central government to make the right decision for their local community. Moreover, 56 per cent said that they wanted more local decision-making powers.

For all their efforts, this overbearing administration has failed to deliver on multiple fronts. Contract tracing has left thousands of infected individuals missing from the national database. Testing targets are repeatedly being missed at a cost of billions to the taxpayer. And with thousands of shops, pubs, and restaurants forced to close at this, the most wonderful – and profitable – time of the year, the economic forecast looks grim.

Funny that. The Conservatives usually pride themselves on being the party of localism. Yet, they certainly have enjoyed the powers given to them in the Coronavirus Act.

Just a fortnight ago, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, threatened Greenwich and Islington councils with legal action if they failed to keep schools open (even though keeping children in class, with days left until the end of term, was illogical).

Why the government is acting in this manner is anyone’s guess. They wish to be in command, yes. But this is not a job they can face alone. With anxieties of a third national shutdown on the horizon, we need new grounds for optimism.

Where should change come from? The answer is centred on those who are normally responsible for wellie bin collections and allotments. Because in 2020, local government has stepped up big time.

Take Leicester, the first city to go into local lockdown back in June. Authorities chose to ditch the NHS Test and Trace App. They used their own methods that applied local insight, calling residents over the phone and knocking on doors. Shortly after results started to show, and cases dropped in the short space of time the initiative was running.

The same goes for the West Midlands where Andy Street, the region’s metro mayor, said piloted tracing identified between 98 and 100 per cent of cases. Remarkable.

And in Sunderland, the council and local Mack’ems are looking towards the future, with the two working on a draft neighbourhood plan that aims to combat health inequalities.

The pandemic has changed the way citizens think about where they live. It has anchored us closer to what happens on our front door – whether that be civil associations working to deliver essential goods, or local authorities setting up support networks to care for our most vulnerable. Localised planning has made a positive difference (certainly a breath of fresh air to the ruckus coming out of Westminster).

With all that being said, if there is one New Year’s resolution the Prime Minister should make that will help the country in the long run, it is sharing the balance of power in England — and a comprehensive devolution framework that meets the needs of those closest to our doorstep.

Rishi Sunak’s “Shared Prosperity” funding announced in this month’s spending review – allocated to local authorities to help stimulate growth – should be spent by independently-minded legislators, not those in London. No conditions, ifs, buts, or maybes. As the Northern Powerhouse think tank director, Henri Murison, said, the government should not “top slice” funds and “pocket it in Whitehall for their own programmes”.

And like in the summer, authorities in England should have lockdown abilities returned so as to have the same power-status as the rest of the home nations. A hyper-localised approach means decisive action with local residents and businesses in mind. That also means control over mobile testing in places like care homes where the Health Secretary Matt Hancock recently announced £149 million of additional funding.

All aspects of life are going to bear the brunt these next few years, if not decades. The Tory’s manifesto pledge to ‘level up’ left-behind Blighty will invariably be set back amid Britain suffering the worst recession in history, as well as having the worst regional inequality in the developed world. Frankly, these are tasks beyond the executive’s capacity.

Radical thinking is needed to disperse fiscal and political responsibility away from high office, whilst also retaining accountability to those who govern. Therefore, a bottom-up approach holds the keys to our destiny – a meaningful partnership based on forward-thinking – because this epidemic impasse cannot last any longer.

Each new year brings the opportunity to resolve, and 2021 is no exception. If the frontbench continues as they are doing right now, we will continue to get the same. It is time to change our current trajectory. Time to give power back to the people.

Andy Street: Our pioneering bus partnership will get the West Midlands economy moving

15 Dec

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Robert Jenrick: We’ve made real progress on reducing rough sleeping since the pandemic came – but there’s much more still to do.

7 Dec

Robert Jenrick is Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and is MP for Newark.

At the start of this pandemic, the Government knew that we had a duty to protect the most vulnerable people in society, from the elderly to those shielding with health conditions.

And this was especially necessary for those people sleeping rough on our streets – a part of the community who are especially susceptible to the dangers of the virus.

We were elected on a manifesto commitment to eradicate rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament, and the pandemic meant redoubling our efforts to take urgent and decisive action. Our immediate task was to mobilise all levers of government to accelerate our plans to provide urgent support to rough sleepers.

Working closely with local councils, charities and faith groups we created the ‘Everyone In’ campaign in a matter of days. By helping over 90 per cent of those sleeping rough on our streets into safe accommodation, we mercifully avoided many deaths, and to a great extent the scenes of vulnerable people left in deserted city centres seen in places like New York.

We have now housed 29,000 vulnerable people, supporting over 10,000 into emergency accommodation and 19,000 into settled accommodation or with move-on support. Relatively few of those helped in have returned to the streets. This work has not stopped – and will not stop.

As we look back on a tumultuous and difficult year, the progress made in this area is one of the most positive legacies of the pandemic and has been recognised as one of the most successful policies of its kind in the world. Subsequent studies by the ONS and in the Lancet have estimated the lives saved and as far as one can ever know, they are considerable.

I want to thank everyone – including the many ConservativeHome readers, Conservative councils and Mayors like Andy Street – who have been involved in this huge national effort.

It’s only been possible due to a coalition of central government, local government, charities, volunteers and outreach workers who have delivered life-changing support to rough sleepers since the onset of this pandemic and I am grateful for their tireless work during such a challenging time.

Money alone is not answer to this most complex of challenges. But we are providing the resources needed. This year alone, we have already committed over £700 million to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping from all angles. The recent Spending Review increased our commitment by 60 per cent on the last one, so this level of investment will continue beyond Covid.

We always knew this winter would be especially challenging, and so began planning in the summer. The new Protect Programme is providing a further £15 million for councils requiring extra support throughout winter to provide accommodation for rough sleepers and we will continue to work closely with local authorities to develop these plans.

This is in addition to the £92 million allocated to 274 councils in September to fund their individual plans for rough sleepers over the coming months, as well as the £10 million Cold Weather Fund for all councils to help keep rough sleepers safe this winter – meaning all councils are eligible for support to bring forward Covid-secure accommodation this winter.

We are also making a further £2 million available for faith and community groups to support rough sleepers into self-contained and Covid-secure accommodation.

Through such programmes as Housing First, we are also tackling the root causes of rough sleeping for those with multiple and complex needs. This includes building partnerships with housing providers and finding innovative ways to access secure and safe accommodation.

Not only have we introduced unprecedented support to protect renters throughout the pandemic, but we have approved grants to deliver 3,300 new long-term homes across England for those sleeping on the streets.

This is part of a broader £433 million package which will provide 6,000 homes for rough sleepers over the course of the Parliament – the largest ever investment in this kind of accommodation, and one that will leave a lasting legacy of this Government’s commitment to protecting vulnerable people. It takes inspiration from the homes for the homeless established 30 years ago by the then Conservative Housing Minister, Sir George Young.

Once allocated housing, rough sleepers will receive the specialist support they need and an opportunity to turn their lives around, taking forward the Housing First approach and expanding it into almost every local authority in the country.

But we know that our work is not done. In addition to the significant pressures caused by Covid, the winter poses a new series of challenges for both those sleeping rough on our streets and the services working around the clock to help them. And if history is a guide, rising unemployment risks more people finding themselves on the streets.  My department is working with all councils in England to update their rough sleeping plans for winter and beyond to ensure that we are able to meet the challenges in the months ahead.

Building on the unwavering partnerships born out of this pandemic, let us now continue to secure brighter futures for those who are most in need of our help.

This is not an easy issue to solve. Rough sleeping is as much a health issue as it is a housing issue – it is often a crisis of addiction and mental health as well. As more than 50 per cent of those sleeping rough are ex-offenders – it requires a new approach to those leaving prison. And as more than 60 per cent of those on the streets of central London are from outside the UK, it requires a different approach to immigration enforcement, making use of the controls available to us after leaving the EU. The Home Secretary, Justice Secretary and Health Secretary are all working with me to ensure the most coordinated approach we’ve seen.

Nobody’s path is predetermined. Working across government, we will help as many of those living on the streets as possible to transform their lives and fulfil their potential. This is our duty as Conservatives, and one we will continue to strive to meet.

Andy Street: 15 years on, we can finally heal the scars of MG Rover’s collapse

1 Dec

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

The battle to protect our economy from Coronavirus has brought comparisons with previous downturns, re-examining past recessions and reminding us of the impact felt when major industrial players have collapsed.

The levels of borrowing outlined last week by Rishi Sunak are testament to the unprecedented efforts being made by Government to draw on past experiences and protect jobs as we face a new kind of recession.

Here in the West Midlands, there remain acres upon acres of former industrial land which remind us of previous slumps. With government backing, we are now reclaiming these eyesores to provide new homes and job opportunities.

And as we face this latest challenge, I am hopeful that we will finally heal one of the biggest, and most painful, of these scars. Longbridge, in Birmingham, offers an opportunity to use this economic crisis to erase the results of an infamous economic shockwave.

Completing the regeneration of Longbridge would be a powerful example of Conservative policy actively “levelling up” the economy. For 15 years, local people have waited to see this site fully reclaimed. Let’s show them that after three years under a Conservative mayor, and with a new Conservative MP in place, we are ready to deliver it.

For anyone whose roots are in the West Midlands, car making holds a special place in our hearts. As someone brought up in Northfield, just up the road from the famous Longbridge car plant, I am also very conscious of the past of our car industry. Home of “the Austin”, Longbridge at its 1960s zenith was one of the world’s biggest car factories, employing tens of thousands of people producing ground-breaking vehicles like the Mini.

Then, of course, came the painful decline through the disastrous British Leyland years and beyond. The causes of that decline are still the cause of much debate, but no-one can argue about the individual and collective pain that each job loss brought.

This culminated 15 years ago in the collapse of MG Rover, with the loss of the remaining 6,000 jobs. It remains one of the darkest days in the history of Birmingham and the West Midlands.

Psychologically, the closure dented the confidence of a region with a proud automotive pedigree. Economically, MG Rover’s collapse impacted on the thousands of people who worked for the firm and the massive supply chain that supported it.

Physically, when MG Rover shut its gates for the last time it left behind a vast industrial site that reminded us of the closure.

Since then, much of the site has been redeveloped. Developer St Modwen has shown real ambition and vision, effectively building a new town centre on part of site, which also boasts a fantastic college. Aquapak, a firm at the cutting edge of recycled polymers, recently welcomed Alok Sharma to their premises on the new business park there.

The old MG Rover site is being reshaped by a sustainable mix of businesses and housing redevelopment, including state-of-the-art senior living. Yet every time I pass Longbridge, I look across to the parts that remain empty and think about what it once meant for local jobs.

Now I’m determined to complete the regeneration of Longbridge, reclaiming a site that once represented one of our region’s most established industries, by applying one of our newest.

In the last year I have been joined by fellow Brummie Gary Sambrook, the Conservative MP for the area, in this ambition. He has been working with developer St. Modwen to get MG Rover’s “West Works” site redeveloped, and once again generating opportunity for local people.

Together we are promoting Longbridge’s strong business case to be a critical site for Government support through the Urban Transformation Fund. That’s why I submitted Longbridge to Government as one of our region’s top funding bids and it is why Sambrook passionately pitched it to the Chancellor last week in the Commons debate on the Spending Review.

To put it simply, this derelict site – which has been levelled for years – could provide a quite profound and tangible example of “levelling up” in action, and illustrate the West Midlands ability to bounce back from adversity.

That ability is also reflected in the land reclamation technology being pioneered here, which up until the pandemic hit, was cleaning up derelict eyesores like Longbridge and helping us build new homes at record numbers, through our “brownfield first” policy.

The exciting investment in the National Brownfield Institute at Wolverhampton will cement our position as a national leader in remediation and construction technology.

It is fitting that this example of West Midlands 21st Century innovation can be put to use to “level up” Longbridge, given its links to our industrial heritage.

Of course, there is another reason why the fate of the remaining Longbridge site would resonate so much now. The automotive industry is facing huge challenges. The sector is going through a revolution, illustrated by the Government’s ambitious decision to stop the production of petrol and diesel cars in 2030.

Longbridge stood as a reminder of what happens when we fail to invest in our automotive sector. The promise of £500 million in the Spending Review, to back electric battery technology and production shows the resolve not let this happen again. That’s why the Gigafactory that is so critical to our automotive future must be built in the West Midlands.

Longbridge may, sadly, never produce another car – but the site can produce quality new jobs for local people. With a new Gigafactory, we can recharge the automotive industry 15 years after MG Rover’s collapse.

By backing the regeneration of Longbridge, while investing in the West Midland’s automotive future, the Government can not only accelerate its ambitions to “level up” the economy – it can also drive home a profound message about our ability as a nation to bounce back.

Andy Street: We must do more to save struggling town centres. Tackling business rates is a good place to start.

17 Nov

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Our traditional town centres and high streets have faced unprecedented challenges in recent times. First, our town centres were impacted by the drive towards out-of-town retail parks. Next, the rise of digital shopping impacted, as doorstep delivery hit footfall.

Then came Coronavirus, and restrictions that have brought town centres to a juddering halt. Now, in what retailers call the “Golden Quarter” – the critical run-up to Christmas – they are coping with another month-long closure.

Through the Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund, the Government is backing town centres, on top of the unprecedented support already shown for business throughout the pandemic. I believe that we must double down on this investment to secure the future of our high streets, but the challenge we face is also reliant on generating fresh ideas and local buy-in. It is not just about money – it is about how we spend it too.

While 2020 has brought unprecedented challenges, I firmly believe in the future of our towns and cities, and evidence suggests that many others do too.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many reconnected with their local high streets. In lockdown, many chose to return to traditional butchers and grocers rather than face supermarket queues. When volunteers mobilised to deliver food to the vulnerable, it was often the local convenience store that provided a base, looking out for their regular customers.

And, when restrictions relaxed, people wanted to reconnect with town centres. Here in the West Midlands, Halesowen Town Centre saw the biggest bounceback in trade of anywhere in the country. Despite all the challenges, towns like this have a future because we are fundamentally a social species. After so long apart, we want to return as soon as possible to culture, to sport, to conferences – social pursuits that are so often in town and city centres.

However, it’s clear that investment is needed. Why? Our high streets matter. They matter because they are the heart of local communities. They matter politically, as they provide a tangible, visible sign of economic success. The Government recognises this, through its Towns Fund investment programme, as it seeks to “level up” the economy and reach out to former “Red Wall”’ areas. But we must think afresh.

Before Covid struck, we drew up our West Midlands blueprint to revitalise local high streets, the ambitions of which are even more pertinent today.

The blueprint aims to encourage a more personal shopping experience – the type you can’t get from a phone screen – while bringing local services into town centres, broadening appeal beyond retail.

We want to encourage more urban living in our town centres, which should also be the natural place for public services. The blueprint also aims to make our town centres greener and cleaner – with more opportunities to cycle and walk – and safe and secure with good lighting, proactive policing and CCTV.

Above all, strong local leadership must drive these ambitions, to build the partnerships and attract the investment needed. A key part of that leadership is pushing for a fairer tax system that levels the playing field between high street and online retailers.

Taxation remains a real issue. If a swift bounceback is evading us next year, then exemptions will be vital – but we must also tackle the long-term problem of business rates. They are simply outdated and, given the financial challenge we now face, the often-suggested online sales tax looks even more attractive.

Investment is also key to repositioning our high streets. In the West Midlands, we are putting millions on the table to back our blueprint.

Schemes vary in size from our £95.5 million investment in the Coventry City Centre South scheme, which will transform the City’s future, to £5 million towards a transformation of Kingshurst, in Solihull, creating a new village centre with shops, medical and community facilities.

Sometimes, it’s about removing eyesores that have blighted places for decades. The demolition of the Cavendish House office block symbolises that the regeneration of Dudley Town Centre is no longer a hope – it’s happening, thanks to regional funding. In West Bromwich, we are pulling down the hideous Bull Street Car Park, reclaiming the site to build new homes in the town centre – bringing much-needed footfall to existing businesses.

We’ve backed opening hotels in Walsall Town Centre and the heart of Coventry, and even helped bring an old rival from my John Lewis days, Marks and Spencer, into Sheldon’s high street in Birmingham.

Targeted investments like these demonstrate a confidence in the future of communities, and we are determined to do more locally. However, I want these investments to be a pilot for securing hundreds of millions from the Government’s Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund. Across the region we have seen enthused communities, businesses and councils come together to work on their bids for this funding.

Perhaps the most ambitious of these is in the Black Country, where an energised Wolverhampton partnership is pitching for £48 million not just in the city centre, but crucially for high streets in Bilston and Wednesfield too. This funding would go alongside our own investment in the City’s future, like the £150 million new railway station and metro link which is nearing completion.

Elsewhere in the Black Country we have more towns in the running for game-changing investment – Brierley Hill, Bloxwich, Dudley, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, Walsall and West Bromwich – each with their own distinct pitch.

A great example is Brierley Hill – a traditional town centre that was badly hit by the opening of the huge Merry Hill shopping centre in 1990. Now we have the chance to reconfigure the town centre to open it up and ensure that shoppers visiting big retailers like Asda can easily access the rest of the high street. The extension of the West Midlands Metro into Brierley Hill will link it to the wider region.

Communities around smaller suburban high streets are grasping the opportunities of the Future High Streets Fun too. Erdington, in Birmingham, has a brilliant scheme designed not only to boost retail but to make the best of their assets, by opening up the historic Churchyard area to provide better, high-quality open space. They also want to turn the boarded-up Victorian baths into a job-creating business hub.

Too often the debate over “levelling up” is reduced to North versus South. Here in the Midlands, where the Red Wall was first breached, we are engaging with the opportunities to bring investment into our communities that will drive tangible, visible improvements.

The Government is putting in money. But as we plot our way out of the pandemic, it must be ready to double down on this investment, while enthusing communities to play a part in revitalising the civic centres they so cherish.