Houchen has won a freeport for Teesside. Will the voters reward him?

1 Apr

On Tuesday I noted that most of the areas represented by the Mayor of the West Midlands were not traditional Tory territory. That applies even more so when it comes to Tees Valley. That covers the five local authorities of Middlesbrough, Stockton-on-Tees, Redcar and Cleveland, Hartlepool, and Darlington. Together they constitute the Tees Valley Combined Authority. Yet on May 7th 2017, we saw Ben Houchen, the Conservative candidate, elected as the Mayor of the Tees Valley. The margin of victory was almost as narrow as Andy Street’s in the West Midlands. In the first round, Houchen won 39.5 per cent of the vote, compared to 39.0 per cent to his Labour opponent. The second round then saw transfers added from UKIP and Lib Dem supporters. This saw Houchen elected with 51.1 per cent, with his Labour opponent on 48.9 per cent.

In 2017, the local election results extrapolated into a projected national lead of 11 per cent for the Conservatives over Labour. So if one was to be a desiccated calculating machine, the conclusion would be that current opinion poll leads for the Conservatives below nine per cent indicate that Houchen will be defeated. But that would discount regional variations. Just as the Conservatives have been doing relatively badly in London, when it comes to Teesside they are on the up.

Among the soundings I have taken, the Conservatives are rather bullish about Houchen’s prospects. Of course, the political direction anticipated in Hartlepool has already been much discussed. But the General Election of 2019 offers plenty of encouraging stats. The Conservatives not only gained Darlington but had a majority of over 3,000. The same happened in Redcar. Stockton South was gained and with a Conservative majority of over 5,000. Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland was not just held by the Conservatives, but with a majority of over 10,000. Labour hung on in Stockton North – but only by a thousand votes. In other words, though Labour only needs a tiny advance on their 2017 result to win, if we take 2019 as the guide, then Labour would need a significant recovery.

While Houchen’s victory was a shock, his credentials as a candidate were pretty solid. Though he was young to take on such a formidable role – he is still only 34 – Houchen had already qualified as a solicitor, founded a successful international sportswear business, stood for Parliament, and served as Leader of the Conservative Group on Stockton-on-Tees Council.

As Mayor, perhaps his greatest national significance has been in championing freeports – a theme he has written about for us. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had argued in 2016 that Brexit gave an opportunity to make use of them. However, with the grey men in Whitehall always looking out for “administrative difficulties” it is important to having vigorous backing. Not just for such reforms to be introduced, but to do applied in a bold and radical way – rather than emasculated when it comes to the small print. Eight freeports were announced in last month’s Budget, including one in Teesside.

Houchen says:

“I passionately believe that a Teesside Freeport can be a jobs dynamo, a roaring engine of economic growth, and a flag-bearing project for Global Britain. There are huge opportunities for job creation here. The wide package of tax reliefs, simplified customs procedures and streamlined planning processes freeports will benefit from can bring in the investment needed to unlock Teesside’s latent economic power.”

Freeports fit in with Conservative principles when it comes to “levelling up”. That is because they rely on the confidence that, if the state gets out of the way, then the free market will prove effective at widening prosperity. Not that Houchen is entirely fanatical in following free market ideology. He brought Teesside Airport back under state ownership.

Houchen is the Chairman of the South Tees Development Corporation – the first Mayoral Development Corporation outside of Greater London. It covers a 4,500 acre site in Redcar – including the former SSI steelworks site. Houchen has pledged to use his powers to “kickstart” economic development on the site.

The Devolution Deal negotiated included transport infrastructure and adult education and training.

There was a low turnout last time which makes the result harder to predict. Many former Labour supporters felt let down and abstained in 2017 as a way of signifying their disillusion while retaining an antipathy to the Conservatives. What will they do next month? Some may return to the Labour fold, feeling that their old Party has been taught a lesson and has removed Jeremy Corbyn. They may note that Labour seems to have accepted that Brexit is now the reality and do not propose we rejoin the EU. Others may be less forgiving. Having been neglected and taken for granted by Labour for all those years, they might grudgingly concede that the Conservatives are making a bit of an effort on their behalf. My prediction is that enough of them will agree that Houchen has kept faith with them to secure a second term.

Richard Holden: This spring’s local elections. For levelling-up to work, we need local councils and leaders who back it.

29 Mar

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Constituency Office of Richard Holden MP, Medomsley Rd, Consett

The leaflets are landing on doorsteps. The Risograph is working overtime. Walk routes are being updated. First-time council candidates – a heady combination of apprehensive and excited – are getting to know each other on WhatsApp as they make friends with people in other wards. Experienced candidates impart nuggets of wisdom, ‘war stories’ and experience on our zoom calls. Labour’s keyboard warriors fight on , but there is very little sign of life in the party of Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer on the ground.

These elections are taking place in a way that is like nothing I’ve known in two decades of campaigning – after over a year of gruelling Covid-19 restrictions and under the shadow of a virus whose lingering presence, even as Britain’s phenomenal vaccine programme knocks case numbers and deaths down, is still a real concern for many. It’s not been a normal year, and it’s not going to be a normal election.

As a new MP, I can barely remember a time that I wasn’t having to try and help those struggling with Covid-19 or the impact of measures to control it. The long tail of Coronavirus will continue in various guises. Many months of delayed operations and stifled economic growth need to take place. The impact on the education of children will last for years, especially for the poorest, even with the welcome efforts of the Government at top-up tuition. The Government debt taken on to support the people, jobs and businesses through the pandemic will stay for decades.

It is in that context that Rishi Sunak came up with a big offer to business: unprecedented tax relief to try and drive investment and help to deliver knock-on productivity gains. The Treasury and Department of Trade moves to Teesside and the new freeport are massive economic boons, too, for the North East. These moves are not just about the jobs – though that’s the main part. It’s about showing that we both care and want to do something about the problems faced by our new voters in the ‘Blue Wall’.

It’s clear that both the First Lord of the Treasury and the Second Lord of the Treasury “get it”. Short term, the plan is about recovery from Covid-19: getting jobs back and the economy moving again – which they’ve also got a plan for with Kickstarter and support for apprenticeships double.

And for the longer term, jobs in the next industrial revolution are coming down the track: batteries for our car industry and wind power for our transport and electricity. This big push to drive private enterprise to invest now is crucial, because we all know that only productivity gains can lead to real wage increases and the much talked about ‘levelling up’.

As we escape the shadow of Covid-19 we can see that much has changed but some things have stubbornly remained. In many parts of the North, moving back to the status quo ante – pronto – seems to be the order of the day from Labour. The debate over the coal mine on the West Coast of Cumbria brought this home in recent weeks.

To give you a bit of necessary background, Cumbria is a joint Labour/Lib Dem administration. Labour lost overall control in 2017 and formed a coalition (despite the Conservatives being by far the largest party). Labour retained control with their three tribes of Corbynites, Brownites and few Blairites, in what is a perpetual internal struggle.

To the mine itself. Robert Jenrick, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, has taken a lot of heat, but it’s clear that what’s really behind the palaver is vacillation among the Labour/LibDems who are running the council. Cumbria County Council has now put forward the proposal only then to decide to re-consider it no fewer than four times. Jenrick has done everything he can to let the council decide, but in the end its vacillation created a national controversy. A dangerous precedent.

Labour weakness and division doesn’t just stop at doing everything possible not to make a decision on bringing 500 really well-paid jobs in Cumbria. Look across the other side of the country and you see it caught up in another culture war with itself in Leeds.

West Yorkshire wants to rival Greater Manchester as the engine room of the North of England. Leeds is back in the premiership, and everyone’s longing for the old rivalry on the pitch and, more generally, some healthy competition across the Pennines.

But Labour politicians locally can’t even agree on whether to expand Leeds Bradford Airport. The Labour-run Council has, eventually, passed a proposal, but the local Labour MPs (more concerned about their own membership than their voters) have gone against it. Hilary Benn and Alex Sobel, amongst others, literally asked the Secretary of State to call in a decision by the local Labour council.

Scratch the surface anywhere in the North and you’ll find Labour in mini-civil wars everywhere. What does this mean for other big projects? The A1(M) upgrade? New train lines? The A66/68/69/74? Are we going to allow vacuous, vacillating, virtue-signalling Labour Councils to kibosh our levelling-up agenda?

Contrast Labour’s approach to Ben Houchen’s in Teesside or Andy Street’s in the West Midlands; pro-enterprise, and willing to work with the Government. Interestingly, Andy Burnham seemed to be too, during his early days of wanting to get stuff done but his rivalry with Sadiq Khan over who will be the next Labour leader has seen him go from pragmatic local leader to disingenuous leadership contender, in lock step with Starmer’s personal poll rating.

What I’m driving at is that for levelling-up to work, we’re going to need to see local authorities and local authority leaders who want it to work.   The sad truth is that many local Labour councils and local bureaucracies don’t want it: they’re scared of it. In County Durham, it would create further upheaval in the system of sinecures that, sadly, local council positions have been for 102 years. They don’t want to risk ‘levelling up’ – they’re happy with a lazy the politics of grievance. After all, it’s served them well for decades.

Meanwhile, when faced with big political calls, the Prime Minister tends to make the right ones. On running for Mayor. On Brexit. On standing for the Conservative leadership in 2019, doing what many said was impossible, and getting Tory MPs to back him. (I remember this ,because when I joined his campaign you could get six to one on him to make the ballot.) On the general election. On the vaccine.

He’s making a big call on the economy now – the big push to level up. This is his big bet on Britain.  To deliver it though we need strong aligned local leadership. Mid-term elections always hammer the party in power, and we’re coming from the 2017 local election high point and a year of Covid. Getting Conservative 2019 voters to come out again is the challenge on which the ability to deliver the agenda now rests. We’ve fifty days to show them it does.

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.

Dean Godson: It’s easier for the right to a left on economics than for the left to move right on culture. That’s a plus for Johnson.

21 Nov

Dean Godson is the Director of Policy Exchange.

“You have limited time, limited capacity, and limited choices. Where does your focus lie?” asks Rachel Wolf on this site last week. Well, the Conservative Party has been walking and chewing gum since Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act — and there is no reason why the “reset” triggered by the departure of Dominic Cummings should change that.

Representing a critical mass of both the prosperous and the “Just About Managing” classes and parts of the country is what all successful political parties do in democracies. Since the Tory party became the party of Brexit and expanded – or maybe one should say rediscovered parts of its working class base – it is certainly true that the heterogenous coalition which it represents has spoken with a somewhat different accent.

Indeed, a case can be made that the part of the political class that ascended to power after December 2019 represents a significant break with all governments since the fall of Margaret Thatcher. The governments of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May (though less so the latter) tended to put global integration before national sovereignty, the metropolitan before the provincial, higher education before further education, trains and planes before buses, diversity before cohesion, the cognitive classes before the artisanal ones.

Their version of the national interest broadly reflected the priorities of what my colleague David Goodhart, who was interviewed recently by this site, has called the people who see the world from Anywhere. And in his most recent book Head, Hand Heart, he describes a narrowing definition of a successful life, as seen by Anywhere Britain, based around academic success, a university education and entry into high-status professional employment. This is the world of the big cities, the university towns and much of the middle and upper public sector, (and certainly of wide swathes of the senior civil service which were at daggers drawn with Dominic Cummings).

But what of that part of the population that cannot achieve or does not want to achieve this version of success? They still want recognition, and to feel able to contribute to the national story and the Brexit vote provided the opportunity for many of them to say ‘no’ to much of that governing class consensus.

The Vote Leave strand of the Johnson Government sought to represent and appeal to this part of the electorate – summed up in the phrase “Levelling up” – in a way that no government, let alone a Conservative government, has done for decades. That has, unavoidably, created tensions with many powerful interests and beliefs, including inside the Tory Party itself, many of which came to be focused on the pugnacious personality of Dominic Cummings.

A more emollient tone can be struck – but to abandon what was termed “Erdington modernisation” (after Nick Timothy’s Birmingham roots) and return to the necessary but not sufficient Notting Hill modernisation (in which the party made its peace with much of modern liberalism) is now very hard.

This is the case for electoral reasons as much as any other – with both Keir Starmer and Nigel Farage both praying for a return to Cameron-Osborne era Conservatism with its implicit assumption that the common good can be achieved through a kind of trickle-down from the most successful and dynamic parts of our society.

There are other reasons for thinking that it would be foolish to switch back now. Politics for most of the post-war period has been dominated by economics. And, of course, a thriving economy is still a sine qua non for any government. But economics is a means not an end, and the economistic bias of the Anywheres gave us the failed cost-benefit analysis of the Remain campaign.

Today’s much higher profile for the security and identity cultural issues ought to be a boon to the centre-right because, as has been pointed out, it is easier for the right to move a bit to the left on economics (as it certainly has done) than for the left to move right on cultural issues (as Starmer would no doubt like to do, but will find his path blocked).

This does not require an aggressive culture war from the right. The cultural offensive has been coming mainly from the left – as exemplified by the controversies over statues and the decolonisation of museums. The right needs to stand up for common sense, and for the large majority who accept the equalities of modern liberalism but do not want their sensibilities constantly undermined.

Conservatives should be the party of value diversity. Go back to the 1950s and the country was often dominated by a conformist, traditional culture that stunted the lives of many people and often punished those who deviated. Over many decades, much higher levels of choice and freedom for women and minorities of various kinds have been achieved.

Part of the Left now wants to impose a degree of progressive conformity comparable to the traditional conformity of earlier decades. Tolerance and pluralism should be the watchwords in these matters — with a strong bed-rock of rights and anti-discrimination legislation, but also an understanding that rights and values often clash and the ratchet should not only turn in a progressive direction.

That all said, walking and chewing gum is possible, and there is space, post-Cummings, for a new tone and a new stress on policy bridges that seek common ground between Anywhere and Somewhere priorities.

The green industrial revolution is clearly one of those policy areas, and should not be seen as a soft bourgeois indulgence. As the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, it is places like Teesside, Port Talbot and Merseyside that are now centres of green technology and jobs. Ben Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, underlined the same point in the introduction to Policy Exchange’s recent report on The Future of the North Sea, and on ConservativeHome earlier this week. Research we will soon be publishing on redesigning the national grid should also generate many good, skilled jobs in areas that are sometimes seen as “left behind”.

The re-set seems more likely to be a milder form of reboot. Without Cummings, some of the urgency will go out of parts of the recent agenda, particularly the machinery of government and data in government focus. But many of the priorities of the new conservatism—Brexit, levelling up, higher spending on the NHS and police, social care, boosting further education, immigration reform, restoring some bustle and pride to Britain’s often unloved towns—are owned by a broad range of the people that matter.

The Red Wall voters are likely to prove more complex beasts than in the Vote Leave or Remain caricatures – and no political strategy can focus too much on just one slice of the population but without producing visible, tangible improvements to the lives of people in places like Stoke and Leigh before the next election the Conservatives will not be returned in 2024.

Brave New World

15 Nov
  • One of this site’s favourite sayings is that character is destiny.  This being so, it would be unlike Dominic Cummings to go quietly.  At some point, he will surely drop a bunker-busting bomb on Downing Street – his version of recent events.  It will not make happy reading for the Prime Minister.
  • This position overlaps with Lee Cain’s, but isn’t identical.  Like Cummings, Cain is a core member of Team Vote Leave.  Unlike him, he worked for Boris Johnson previously as a SpAd at the Foreign Office, and then as his aide after the Chequers resignation.  “Caino” has a real attachment to his former boss.
  • At any rate, both are gone, and the sum is that certainty has been changed for uncertainty.  With the Johnson/Cummings duo, the Government’s political strategy was a known – and and a core part of it was winning and keeping support in parts of England with a Labour history, from those famous Just About Managings.
  • Does the new Downing Street aim to carry on marching north, as it were, but with fewer male, macho officers in charge: more Allegra Strattons (not to mention Carrie Symonds, now fully politically engaged?), fewer Cains   If so, will such a switch work?  Isn’t in-your-face anti-establishment aggression an integral part of the exercise?
  • Or does the Grand Old Duke of Johnson intend to march his army back south towards its home counties comfort zone – to make a greener, kinder, gentler and more female pitch to a more familiar Tory audience, with today’s Prime Minister magically recreated as yesterday’s London Mayor?
  • Either way, it is, in principle, a bad thing for a Government to seek to reinvent itself after less than a year in office.  If it’s messed up the past – by its own tacit admission – why trust it in future?  In practice, it is also swapping certainty for uncertainty: Johnson risks becoming a blank sheet of paper on which others will scrawl whatever they wish.
  • Which is what’s happening now.  So it’s necessary to discount much of what you are currently reading and seeing as rumour and speculation.  What’s certain is that the Prime Minister needs to make some decisions fast: first, about Downing Street itself.  Second, about the Government.  Third, about policy and strategy.
  • On Downing Street, he needs a permanent Chief of Staff.  What would fit the bill is a senior civil servant, not an MP, with political views.  That sounds a lot like David Frost, when the Brexit negotiation is over.  Sajid Javid’s name is presumably being floated because Symonds was his SpAd, but he would be wrong for the post.
  • Which takes us to government.  Able politicians should be running departments as Cabinet members, not working as staffers in Number Ten.  Johnson cannot now avoid a reshuffle at the top.  That means bringing in talent old and new: Javid, Tom Tugendhat, Jeremy Hunt, Kemi Badenoch, Liam Fox.
  • And, on the subject of governing better, Cabinet members should be given their heads and not micro-managed.  There can be no repetition of the Cummings experiment – not least because it would be impossible to find a substitute for him, anyway.  Circumstances make it inevitable to try a more traditional style of government.
  • That also suggests: a single elected MP, who has independent political authority, as Party Chairman; a new Chief Whip and more experience in the Whips’ Office; an Andrew Mackay-type senior MP to sit in the key Downing Street meetings and to work the backbenches.
  • Next, and turning to policy, the Brexit trade talks.  Cummings’ departure raises two possibilites.  First, that any deal is written off as a “betrayal of Vote Leave’s legacy” and “a stitch-up by Remainers” (point of information: Symonds and Stratton both voted Leave).  And that No Deal leaves Johnson bereft of Cummings when he most needs him.
  • Then there is Covid-19 – and the December 2 deadline for returning to the three-tiered system.  The emergence of the Covid Recovery Group is a sign of a rising backbench revolt against lockdown.  Attempts to prolong it would blow up the fragile truce currently in place between Downing Street and MPs.
  • On policy, other quick points.  MPs opposed to the Government’s housing plans are moving in to try to kill them off; others who back a “war on woke” are mobilising (in the wake of reports that Johnson wants to steer clear of one); and all agree that the Prime Minister is increasingly preoccupied by the possibility of losing Scotland on his watch.
  • What will any new stress on green policy mean, as COP26 looms into view?  One version would be a softer-focused one, focused on emissions, climate change and animals (a passion of Symonds).  Another would be harder-edged: preocuppied with growth and “green jobs” – that stressed by such pro-Brexit provincial politicians as Ben Houchen.
  • Uncertainty reigns elsewhere, too  For example, does the Prime Minister really want to recreate a Cameron-era style Policy Board – led by an MP: reportedly, our columnist Neil O’Brien? If so, how would it, and new taskforces with MP members, dovetail with the Number Ten Policy Unit, as led by Munira Mirza?
  • The media is currently trampling on the grave of Dominic Cummings.  At some point, much of it will turn on Symonds.  Her backers will point out that she is a communications professional, and entitled to have views.  Her critics will argue that she is unelected, and holds no official position.  There are claims of sexism.  This is where we are going.
  • And finally, there is one very senior Conservative politician indeed who is keeping well out of it – and, no, we don’t mean Michael Gove, who is still our candidate to bring order to policy and process.  Rather, we are thinking of the man last seen placing his rangoli outside Number 11 for Diwali: Rishi Sunak.

Ben Houchen: The North Sea must be at the heart of Britain’s net zero revolution

6 Nov

Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.

For about a thousand years, Britain’s most important economic highway was not a road or a river, but a sea. The North Sea provided wealth and opportunity for its coastal communities for centuries from the fall of the Roman Empire to the modern era.

Those regions then used coal and steam power to supercharge human productivity and North Sea ports exported the industrial revolution around the world. In the 20th Century, the North Sea offered up more riches and innovation through the oil and gas industry.

At each stage, energy, innovation and trade have combined to enrich Britain and its coastal regions. Yet in recent decades the east coast has faced headwinds that undermined our industries. It even eroded our sense that we had something to offer the world, which cut away at rich traditions and community pride.

A paper released today by the think tank Policy Exchange shows how that downwards trend can be reversed. It points out that new industries connected to the North Sea, focused in a ‘Net Zero Triangle’ between Humberside, Leeds and the North East, as well as key industrial hubs in Scotland, could put these places back at the cutting edge of another global revolution: clean energy. Wind power, hydrogen fuel, and carbon capture and storage are all shovel-ready technologies that could deliver huge rewards in our industrial centres.

The paper also sets out the prize for our coastal communities: an extra 40,000 direct jobs (even accounting for long-term decline in oil and gas employment) and £20 billion of economic activity directly related to the North Sea. Far from Net Zero being a hair shirt that we all have to endure, this is a massive opportunity to deliver new careers. But if we don’t act now to invest in the North Sea, the Government’s levelling up mission will fail – and so will its Net Zero target.

The trick is getting from our current position to a situation where we can take full advantage of this opportunity. Part of this is creating funding pots for projects to help new technologies get off the ground, like the Government’s new Hydrogen Transport Centre in Tees Valley, which will help us to be world leaders in green buses, trains, ships and planes. But we’ll need more than just this welcome new funding.

There are several barriers that stand in the way of developing the North Sea. The biggest barrier is the need to use the North Sea’s finite space efficiently, rather than allowing a free-for-all. One way to help that along is the creation of a new body to promote and coordinate development, and to identify areas that need protecting. Such an agency would help regulators and investors to create new cable networks and pipelines in advance, which will unlock business opportunities for wind energy and clean hydrogen projects.

Another part of the solution is to make sure that the owners of offshore wind farms contribute to local communities. To do this, they should contribute just one per cent of their revenue to the communities where they operate. This will help to reduce opposition to so much new infrastructure.

The other side of the coin is about helping local communities to make the most out of these new industries. That is not entirely straightforward. We often see our most talented students leave for promising careers in London or other urban centres. After industrial decline and the resulting drop in local investment, industrial towns often struggle to attract visitors or new residents, making it harder to capture regenerative investment.

The answers partly lie in training and connectivity – the ‘Net Zero Triangle’ would rival George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse concept, with transport investments to link up industrial hubs, top universities, and urban centres in Humberside, Teesside, York, Newcastle, Leeds, and Durham. It’s the same thinking that led me to take over Tees Valley’s airport, making it a destination for business visitors. With its own ‘Minister for North Sea Development’ and Metro Mayors with more powers, the area could also secure more focused investment in housing, culture and training.

There is no doubt that the Net Zero agenda offers opportunities for the UK to ‘Level Up’, if we are just willing to grasp them. The North Sea presents the biggest opportunity of them all.

Guy Opperman: We are making your pension safer, better and greener. Here’s how.

7 Oct

Guy Opperman is the Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion, and is MP for Tynedale and Ponteland.

Over the past decade, Britain has made great progress in boosting pension power and delivering better outcomes for savers.

The introduction of automatic enrolment in 2012 is undoubtedly one of the greatest long-term policy success stories of the Coalition Government, which has now been taken forward by this Conservative Government. More than 10.5 million employees are auto-enrolled into a workplace pension, saving eight per cent a year.

Today, our Pension Schemes Bill returns to the Commons, after clearing the Lords earlier this year. It is a Bill that delivers pensions for the next decade. It will make your pension safer, better and greener. This is how: 

Safer  

Pensions are a life asset, built up over decades. When we save for a pension, we expect that money to be there for us in retirement.

This Bill cracks down on the callous crooks who put people’s pensions at risk through their reckless behaviour. In future, reckless bosses who plunder people’s pension pots to line their own pockets will go to prison.

We have all heard the stories of cruel pension scams, too. I don’t like to call these crooks scammers, because they are thieves who rob victims of their hard-earned savings. Last year, we banned pension cold calling, but this new Pension Schemes Bill strengthens the powers of the Pensions Regulator to prevent scams happening, making your pension safer.

Better  

If you’ve ever tried to check how much you have saved for retirement, it can often involve emptying out draws in the hunt for lost paperwork.

Thirty years ago, many of us had just two or three jobs throughout our entire lifetime. Research shows the average millennial now expects to have an average of 12 jobs, and with auto-enrolment meaning more of us are saving for retirement than ever before, keeping track of pension pots from multiple employers can be tricky.

The Pensions Dashboard aims to change that by creating one single place – just like any other app on your phone – to see all your pension pots.

Dashboards will unite billions of pounds in lost, unclaimed pensions with their rightful owners, and users will be able to clearly see how much they have saved through information that is easy to access and understand.

Privacy is crucial, so dashboards put you in control. You can decide how and when your data is accessed, and who has access to it. This new technology puts consumers in control, and undoubtedly makes your pension better.

Greener  

The 2019 Conservative manifesto pledged to get Britain to Net Zero by 2050. As the Prime Minister made clear yesterday in his brilliant conference speech, we can do it with investment in clean energy solutions, like wind, solar, and hydrogen.

With trillions in assets under management, our pensions have a crucial role to play.

When you save into a pension, your provider invests that money to provide long-term returns on your savings. If your savings are invested sustainably and ethically in green infrastructure and new technologies, your pension can play its part in getting Britain to net-zero. The evidence is also clear that this still ensures a safe and good return on your investment.

Last year, I introduced new Environmental, Social and Governance regulations – ESG. These require pension funds to take due account of climate risk when making investment decisions.

This Bill goes one step further, requiring pension schemes to take the Government’s Net Zero targets into account, as well as the goals of the Paris Agreement. This helps manage climate risk. and makes sure you know if your pension is invested sustainably.

Some have argued that we should simply divest pension funds away from high-carbon stocks. I am afraid this is a fundamentally flawed idea. Selling assets to others without the same environmental concerns is unproductive and will do nothing whatsoever to get Britain to Net Zero.

Instead, a partnership with business is the way forward, so we can deliver the innovative change required. By investing in the right assets, trustees can nudge, cajole and vote firms towards lower-carbon business practices.

I have seen this in practice across the country. Since last year’s general election, I’ve visited inspiring businesses and innovative organisations that are helping lead us to Net Zero.  I met with BP and visited their solar farm in Angus to see how their organisation is evolving from an oil and gas company to a modern sustainable energy company. I’ve also had the opportunity to see how the team from Logan Energy is making hydrogen commercial, working to transform energy systems across the country, including in Teesside under the leadership of its Mayor, Ben Houchen.

The Pension Schemes Bill will transform our pensions system for decades to come, by cracking down on bad pension bosses, utilising new technology to put the consumer in charge, and making sure pensions are playing their part in getting Britain to get to Net Zero. I hope the Bill gets widespread cross-party support from across the Commons at Second Reading later today.

Shaun Bailey: We can’t let London grind to a halt

23 Sep

Shaun Bailey is a member of the London Assembly and the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London.

Remember the days when London’s transport network led the world? It wasn’t that long ago. Look back to before Sadiq Khan and you see what we used to be capable of. When Boris Johnson was the Mayor of London, we signed off Crossrail 1. We started planning Crossrail 2. We got Boris bikes. We rolled the Overground out to more areas than ever. And we had a congestion charge that raised money without being extreme.

How times have changed. Now we’ve got a Mayor who spent four years managing Transport for London so inefficiently that he had to be bailed out by the government. He let TfL debt rise to a historic £13 billion. He hiked the congestion charge to £15 and extended it to seven days a week. He came into office with Crossrail on time and on budget, but managed to delay it and increase its cost. And he has allowed countless bridges to close, turning journeys across the river into Homeric odysseys, as our former Mayor might have said. These days the only way our transport system leads the world is in headlines about how London’s bridges are falling down.

It’s incredibly disappointing. Forget about the rest of the world — our transport system is what makes this city possible. It’s how businesses get around but it’s also how we see family and friends. That’s why I believe Londoners have the right to an efficient transport system. And I believe it’s the Mayor’s responsibility to deliver it. So I can’t understand why Sadiq Khan has let our transport network fall into its current state.

I don’t buy the narrative that failure is inevitable. After all, it’s not like we’ve seen these transport failures in other parts of the country. Far from it. Conservative mayors like Andy Street and Ben Houchen are setting a great example for London, something our Mayor should take note of.

Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, is pioneering a Metro system and opening new stations in Coventry and Wolverhampton. Ben Houchen, the Mayor of the Tees Valley, saved the local airport from closure and helped bring new investment into the region. They are doing exactly what Conservative mayors always do: working with business and government to deliver improvements in people’s lives.

Recently, Greg Hands and I had to take some of Khan’s job description into our own hands. When Hammersmith Bridge was closed yet again, Khan refused to take responsibility yet again. But the consequences were too great for us to ignore. Residents faced three-hour bus rides just to get across the river. Emergency services struggled to respond to call-outs. Businesses were reporting that trade was down between 30 per cent and 40 per cent.

So together, Greg and I asked the government to intervene and take over Hammersmith Bridge. And we are hugely grateful that the government listened. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, bailed out Sadiq Khan by taking over the bridge and funding the repairs.

But even though Grant Shapps did the right thing, it should never have come to this. As the Mayor of London, I’ll make it my priority to get TfL’s finances back in order. I’ll cut waste, end inflated executive pay, and provide the leadership TfL needs. That way, Londoners will have a transport network fit for a global city — and we can start to lead the world once again.

Andrew Carter: Devolving responsibilities to our town halls must also mean devolving money

22 Sep

Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities, who have published a new report Levelling Up Local Government in England

Last year, the Conservative election manifesto pledged to deliver a system of full English devolution and, as I understand it, the Government is now finalising these plans in a white paper due to be published this autumn.

Reform of England’s complicated local government structures is long overdue. There are currently 349 district, county, unitary, and combined authorities in England, as well as the Greater London Authority, many with overlapping responsibilities and competing interests.

Nottingham, for example, has nine separate councils, all with responsibilities for local planning and economic development in their part of the city. The seven district councils have responsibility for new housing, but then the two county councils are charged with delivering the transport infrastructure that new homes need. This bureaucratic arrangement makes joined-up long-term strategic decision making about Nottingham’s future much more difficult than it needs to be.

Additionally, many smaller district councils have neither the capacity nor the political will to deliver the large-scale housing and infrastructure projects needed to level up their areas, and the financial challenges of maintaining this patchwork system are increasing every year.

But the problems in English local government are about more than just function and finance. There is also a democratic deficit, with little public awareness or understanding of councils’ roles. Back in 2012, just eight per cent of people could name their local council leader, and I doubt this figure has improved much since then.

And a system in which a council leader is also a local ward councillor directly answerable to only to a tiny electorate makes it difficult for them to balance their voters’ priorities with their duty to the wider area. This means that hyper-local issues can crowd out the long-term planning and investment that an area needs.

The current system is the product of decades of political compromise and piecemeal reform, but it’s having a damaging effect on the places that the Prime Minister has promised to level up, many of which have been hit harder economically by the Covid-19 pandemic than more affluent areas. We can’t keep tinkering around the edges – only wholescale reform will work now.

First, England’s existing 349 councils should be reduced down to 69 new, larger unitary and combined authorities that mirror as much as possible the economic areas in which people live and work. This would make joined-up strategic decision-making far easier.

When I make this argument, people often stress the importance of ensuring that historic or cultural boundaries are reflected in local government. I have two points to make on this: First, civic identity is not determined by local authority boundaries; it is possible to celebrate civic identity while having council boundaries that reflect the area over which people live and work.  And second, as our proposals show, it is possible to create a new system that aligns political and economic geography whilst respecting existing historic county boundaries.

Second, the leader-and-cabinet model for local government should be scrapped and the 69 new authorities should be headed by a directly-elected political figure. In cities and large towns they should be called a mayor, in rural areas they could have a more appropriate name. But whatever they are called they should be given the mandate, powers, and resources to improve the lives of people living and in working in them.

Responsibility for key areas of the levelling up agenda such as housing delivery, infrastructure, management of public transport, and adult education provision should all be moved out of Whitehall and put in the hands of the new leaders and their authorities.  The relevant government departments – Business, Transport, Education – could then be shrunk to reflect their smaller roles and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government could be transformed into an England Office similar to the Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland Offices and, like in the devolved nations, be given responsibility for managing England’s devolution deals.

This simpler system, with a directly elected political leader, will begin to address the lack of public engagement in local politics. Though less than one in ten people nationally can name their council leader, in the Tees Valley, 40 per cent of people know the directly elected Conservative mayor, Ben Houchan, and they can name a policy achievement of his.

But it would be disingenuous to restructure local government and give it extra powers and responsibilities, without also providing it with the funding it needs to make good on these extra responsibilities. Devolving control over how local business rates, council tax, and charges are raised and spent, and giving greater discretion to councils on how they manage their budgets would give them the freedom and incentives they need to drive forward improvements in their areas – and would be a welcome relief after a decade of local government austerity.

Opponents of what I’m proposing will tell you that, despite its flaws, the current system works; and perhaps on a purely functional day-to-day level it does. But we should be asking ourselves what we want from local government in the future, particularly in light of the Covid-19 crisis.  Should it just be emptying bins and collecting library fines? Or should it be applying its deep understanding of England’s cities, towns, and counties to deliver the levelling up agenda? I would argue it’s the latter, and I hope that ministers writing the devolution white paper, agree with me.