Harry Fone: Vague titles and virtue signalling. The municipal “non jobs” are back in force.

7 Sep

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

Continuing the theme from my last column, I’ve unearthed another five council contracts which show that before pleading poverty and hiking tax, local authorities could be rooting out wasteful spending.

Let’s start with a serial offender when it comes to profligacy. Despite being in debt to the tune of £1.5 billion, Croydon Council tendered a contract worth the best part of £10,000 for a “Cultural Transformation Engagement Programme”. If you think the title is suitably vague wait till you read the description:

“The Council is looking for an experienced Organisation Development provider to work with them to co-design and co-deliver a rapid programme of engagement events across the whole organisation to further confirm the culture we are trying to change from and “cross the threshold” into our new way of thinking, being and working”.

Have you ever heard such a load of nonsense? This may be a relatively small sum of money in the scheme of things, but without doubt, Croydon council has more pressing matters at hand, such as finding funds for essential services.

Not to be outdone, Bedford Borough Council put calls out for the provision of “Weight Management Services for Faith Groups”. According to the authority:

“During the Coronavirus pandemic, Bedford Borough Council Public Health team has built relationships with local faith communities and faith leaders. We would like to build on this by offering further support outside of COVID, and focussing on healthy weight”.

Several questions spring to mind. Why is this the business of the council? It certainly doesn’t seem like a statutory responsibility to me. Why is it focussing seemingly solely on churches? Shouldn’t other groups in the community be included? Given the mess that covid has caused, surely Bedford council has better things to focus its time and resources on. It’s not just Bedford though. Nearby Northamptonshire County Council has similar contracts worth £1 million.

Meanwhile, in Essex, the county council has thought it wise to splurge £500,000 of taxpayers’ cash “Tackling Cycling Inequalities”. The contract states:

“Essex Pedal Power scheme is focused on low-income communities where the need is highest, and the benefits of becoming regularly active through cycling are greatest.”

This is a noble cause but is it the role of a county council? Let’s not forget either, that Essex regularly tops the tables in the TaxPayers’ Alliance Town Hall Rich List series. In 2019-20 it had 40 employees receiving remuneration in excess of £100,000 – the highest in the entire country. Axing some of these staff would be a good way to pay for the scheme if it must go ahead.

Of course it’s unfortunate that not everyone can afford a bicycle. But this is something that would be much better left to private charity.

To Waltham Forest now and another contender for “Most Vague Contract Title”. The borough is set to spend over £60,000 on “Consultancy support for a strategic reset” which seeks to:

“Shape [its] strategic activity over the next year, creating a compelling narrative, working with management team to define and agree priorities and establishing the strategic programme that will enable us to deliver our priorities effectively.”

Just like the title, the contract’s description is wishy-washy. The council needs to set clear objectives of what success looks like so that taxpayers can judge the results for themselves. Waltham increased council tax by five per cent this year. One would hope that this “strategic reset” will focus on how to make savings and ramp up efficiency.

In what many would deem as virtue signalling, Lambeth, Brighton, and North Tyneside councils are set to spend a total of £130,000 towards citizen’s assemblies on climate change. In each case, the authorities are seeking the views of residents on how to reduce carbon emissions. Two thoughts spring to mind. Firstly, if they want to get as many views as possible, why not just email every council taxpayer and ask them to complete a simple online form? The costs would be relatively minimal. Secondly, wouldn’t it be better to spend this money on upgrading existing infrastructure? Replacing diesel vehicles with electric or hybrid ones would be a good and obvious way to reduce harmful emissions.

These examples are just a small selection of contracts I found after a few hours of searching. Thousands more are out there, likely containing more unnecessary spending. That’s why I need your help to root them out. Please send me an email with your findings and the TaxPayers’ Alliance will be happy to investigate further.

Alex Morton: Ministers can have more houses or higher immigration. But they won’t be able to get away with both.

21 Jun

Alex Morton is Head of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and is a former Number Ten Policy Unit Member.

A very large part of the Chesham and Amersham result was driven by the shamelessly and ruthlessly NIMBYist approach of the Liberal Democrats on both housing and HS2.

As Ed Davey put it just before the election, “we are seeing a promising number of Conservatives switching to us, because they want to say no… we don’t want these planning reforms.”

This now-notorious Lib Dem leaflet sets out the strategy: no policies bar opposing development. MPs who campaigned state the issues on the doorstep were new housing and HS2. Pure NIMBYism is a powerful force in the South of England.

So how do the Conservatives tackle the issue? The Government certainly needs to adjust its course – but it cannot ditch planning reform altogether. Ultimately, we still desperately need more homes, especially in London and the South-East where pressures are greatest. The current reforms contain a great deal of good.

But the truth is another issue sits alongside planning, which Westminster is not focusing on, but which sits on voters’ and MPs minds when contemplating new homes: immigration.

The politics of new homes in London and the South is complicated

A critical political argument for new housebuilding is it will protect the Conservatives majority longer term. Homeowners vote Tory, renters don’t. The argument made to Southern MPs is more homes and more homeowners will secure their electoral base.

But, while correct on a macro scale, this argument is not necessarily so on the micro. Many MPs note that the new homes built in their constituencies are often most attractive to, and affordable for, those leaving London. But as London’s housing pressures spill over into the Home Counties, so do London’s political attitudes.

This helps to explain why commuter constituencies like Canterbury and Bedford are becoming marginals: internal migration drives up anti-Conservative ex-London voter numbers. While Brexit accelerated this, between 2010 and 2015 Outer London (the ‘doughnut’ that twice elected Boris Johnson as Mayor) swung from Tory to Labour, even as the rest of the country moved the other way.

In the North, nice new homes often bring Tory voters – as Peter Mandelson noticed revisiting his old Hartlepool seat.  But new housing in the south annoys existing Conservative voters without always bringing new ones.  The conversion process will still probably work longer-term, as new voters relax into home ownership and shed London attitudes.  But MPs understandably think in five or ten year horizans.

Making things worse, many Southern MPs face not Labour, but the Lib Dems or the Greens, boasting to middle-class voters they are pro-immigration (unlike ‘nasty’ Tories), while also shamelessly arguing they will block new homes locally. Labour cannot do this, as it knows that it must deliver if it wins.

Meanwhile, Tory-inclined voters are susceptible to another simple message: new homes are only needed due to migration. They feel the problem is hundreds of thousands of new arrivals a year, who need extra homes, meaning concreting over the South-East.

The current system of housing targets enables a dishonest political debate

So how do Conservatives tackle this problem? This, I am afraid, is where it gets technical. But it first involves admitting voters have a point about immigration.

Currently, Government housing targets are based on a 2014 estimate (using data from 2012-2014) that we are creating 214,000 new households a year. Various tweaks are done to turn this household number into a housing target, including adjustments based on affordability. The end result is a national target for new housing of 297,000 a year.

The 214,000 households figure assumes net international migration (i.e. the difference between those arriving and leaving) of around 170,000 people annually (see here). So, under current estimates, around 37 per cent of all new homes are needed due to net international migration (see here). So the anti-immigration lobby have a point. But even with zero net migration, we would need many more homes.

However, immigration is very clearly pushing up the numbers needed, and has a disproportionate effect in the South. For the key years 2012-2014, around 50-60 per cent of net international migration went to London, the South East, and the East. This pushed up their housing need most. Even pre-pandemic, London’s population would be falling without international migration, but international migration drives it back up, rippling out over time in terms of housing targets across the South.

Why does this matter politically? It shows it is logically absurd for any party to promise both higher levels of net immigration and yet lower housebuilding in the South. But that is exactly what the Lib Dems and Greens do. And they get away with it because of the current lack of transparency around housing need calculations.

We need to include net migration figures in the local plans

We’d need more homes even if with zero net migration – because we have not built enough for years. As I pointed out in my day job at the Centre for Policy Studies, the 2010s were the worst modern decade for housebuilding – and every decade has got worse since the 1960s.

But one way for the Conservatives to change the politics of planning – and show their immigration controls are crucial – is a clearer link between migration numbers and local housing need. The new Planning Bill should ensure that each local plan periodically adjusts housing targets and housing need in line with net migration. This would inject honesty into the housing debate.

As noted, current housing plans are based on net international migration of 170,000 a year. If net migration fell to 50,000, we would need 60,000 fewer homes a year (assuming roughly one home for two new people). If it rose to 350,000, it would mean 90,000 more homes each year.

If the Liberal Democrats, or the Greens, want to argue for more immigration nationally, it should be clear this means more homes in each area. This would fundamentally change the debate in the South. In Chiltern District Council, home to Chesham and Amersham, the difference between annual national net immigration going down to 50,000 or up to 300,000 would be several thousand extra homes in the next ten years. Pro-migration, NIMBY parties would have to choose.

The worst outcome would be higher net immigration and weakened planning reform

The worst outcome for home ownership is higher net immigration plus weaker planning reform. Yet in the wake of Chesham & Amersham, this seems very likely. Currently, annual net migration is running at 281,000 – or around 110,000 more people a year than 2014 projections. This means 55,000 more homes a year since the 2014 projections – more than the entire rise planned last year after the planning reform row.

Higher migration but no planning reform is also the worst possible result for the Conservative Party. It would exacerbate London and the South’s problems – creating new voters who don’t vote Tory through higher migration, annoying existing Tory voters with new homes, but not delivering enough home ownership to capture new voters.

Housing numbers and migration are an example of Morton’s political triangle. You cannot please everyone. Government policy is currently pro-migration (in numbers not rhetoric) and pro-housebuilding. Both positions put off voters in Chesham. Yet ditching planning reforms while keeping higher migration dooms the Tories in London and the South longer term. The best shot for the Conservatives in the South is more homes and lower immigration – and this, not ditching planning reform, should be their next step.

Bella Wallersteiner: I attended the Freedom March yesterday. I’m no anti-vaxxer, or conspiracy theorist. I just want a return of common sense.

30 May

Bella Wallersteiner works as Senior Parliamentary Assistant for a Conservative MP.

Over the bank holiday weekend, I attended a Freedom March in central London with thousands of others. I am not a Covid denier. I am not anti-vaccine. I am not a conspiracy theorist. I want a return of common sense and fundamental freedoms. The British people are growing increasingly angry; unless there is a dramatic change to the UK’s Covid situation, restrictions must end, as planned, on June 21.

The Coronavirus Act which received Royal Assent on March 25 2020 gave the Government sweeping emergency powers to combat Covid-19. The Act gave the Government full authority to suspend civil liberties: public gatherings have been stopped, freedom of travel curtailed, individuals suspected of either having the disease or being in close proximity to someone who may be carrying the virus have been forced to stay at home. Never before in peace-time has there been such an egregious infringement on our basic human rights, culminating in multiple nationwide and regional lockdowns.

In times of national emergency draconian measures are sometimes necessary. However, we now know a great deal more about the virus and how it behaves than we did in the spring of 2020. There is a strong argument that the Government needed to take decisive preventative action to stop the virus from spreading and hospitalising the elderly, the vulnerable and those with underlying health conditions. The disastrous decision to release hospital patients into care homes illustrates why the Government became more cautious in its’ approach and subsequently adopted stricter measures. But we now need to reassert our rights, take back control and find a way back to normality.

More than 38 million people in the UK have received at least one dose of a Coronavirus vaccine. The vaccine rollout is being delivered at an impressive speed with four million doses a week being administered. This week, people in their 20s are expected to have their first jabs, while the over-50s complete their vaccination cycle with their second jab.

Hospitalisations are falling in every age group over 55, with the most up-to-date data showing the most significant reductions in those aged between 65 to 74 as the protection from second doses takes effect. The same data shows a small increase in case rates in all age groups, reinforcing hopes that the link between infections, hospitalisation and deaths has been broken.

The current localised response to the uptick in infections, linked to the Indian variant, is the right one: speed up the roll-out of vaccines to the over-18s, coupled with surge testing, in the affected areas. Given the compliance of the population thus far we will soon see the Coronavirus hotspots such as Bedford and Bolton return to much lower levels of viral transmission.

The Government must not deviate from its course because there is a new variant of Coronavirus; the clue is in the name ‘novel Coronovirus’ and there will always be threatening mutations as this is what viruses do to ensure human to human transmission.

The fact that the Indian variant is now the dominant strain is irrelevant as we will have many more variants in the years to come and the Government should ignore Neil Ferguson’s gloomy prognostations which have already caused the UK to lockdown three times. ‘Professor Lockdown’ has warned that a full re-opening of society on June 21 now “hangs in the balance” and this downbeat view is supported by Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), who says the prospect of opening up “looks a little bit risky”.

You would be forgiven for thinking that our vaccine does not work against the Indian variant. However, data from Public Health England shows the vaccine is doing its job.

Of 5,599 people in England found to have the Indian variant, only 177 had received both vaccine doses.

Across the country, 60 per cent of cases are among the unvaccinated. The majority of the remainder have only had only had a single dose, with just three per cent of cases, and two per cent of A&E cases, involving those who have received both doses.

This should inspire confidence in Britain’s vaccine rollout and allow the restoration of all liberties on June 21.

The Government insists that it is still being “guided by the science”, but there has been a failure to consider alternative of scientific opinions. Instead worst case scenarios, such as Ferguson’s modelling, are still being used to justify some of these most draconian restrictions.

It is time that the Government stood up to the pessimists on SAGE. They have kept the nation fearful and divided by far exceeding their remit. They do not consider the consequences of their actions nor do they have a grasp of how most people live. Every day of restrictions creates more of a dependency culture, the Government should not continue to ride roughshod over our long-held freedoms while pretending to defend them.

The Indian variant may have scientists worried, but the Prime Minister should stick to his  Rabelaisian libertarian instincts which are to return us to a pre-Covid ‘Merrie England’ of craft beer drunk in country pubs, village cricket and festivals for the young.

The dates and the data are in synergy and the Prime Minister’s roadmap should not be hijacked by ‘doomsters and gloomsters’ who would have us permanently muzzled and grounded. Not following through with the final stage of our unlocking on June 21 would be an epic betrayal of the British public who have sacrificed so much to get us to this moment of national liberation.

People won’t be silenced and that every week the numbers marching for freedom continue to grow: the media continues to peddle the lie that protestors are on the lunatic fringe of David Icke and QAnon followers – but the truth is that the overwhelming majority are hard-working, rational, moderates who just want their freedom back and to get on with their lives. These are the natural conservatives and we ignore them at our peril.