Stephen Greenhalgh: The pandemic has shown faith groups helped those in need. We aim to foster that spirit.

14 Sep

Lord Greenhalgh is the Minister of State for Building Safety, Fire and Communities.

Over the past year and a half, the response of faith communities to the pandemic has been remarkable and I have been extremely proud of being the Faith Minister during this time.

Up and down the country, faith communities have risen to the challenges created by the pandemic, offering solace to so many people, not only for their spiritual wellbeing, but also by providing a multitude of support services.

Faith groups have been a lynchpin for many, providing pastoral care, support networks for older or vulnerable people, and continuing informal education and enriching cultural activities online.

Faith groups have also been at the forefront of the vaccine roll out, promoting and supporting people to take up the vaccine as well as countering the spread of misinformation – with many vaccines being given in places of worship up and down the country.

I am therefore delighted to share the steps I have taken to ensure we can build on the work witnessed over the past 18 months and strengthen the nature of engagement between national government, local government, and faith groups.

The Faith New Deal Pilot Fund has two elements:

  • £1,000,000 (including £25,000 to aid capacity building in the faith community sector) available through a competitive Grant Fund to support Faith groups to deliver innovative partnership projects
  • Development of a Faith Compact which will set out key principles to aid engagement between faith groups, national government, and local government.

Each element aims to bring in the underutilised capacity of the faith sector to work alongside local public services. I am also seeking to reduce the number of initiatives taking place in silo, and make best use of national, local and philanthropic funding.

It is important to acknowledge two reports from parliamentarians / parliamentary groups that have helped to shape this new policy. Danny Kruger’s report for government, ‘Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant‘  and the APPG on Faith and Society’s report, ‘Keeping the Faith – Partnerships between faith groups and local authorities during and beyond the pandemic’.

Both reports set out the ability of faith groups to provide innovative solutions to complex problems to make valuable contributions to all parts of society.  I also expect the independent advisor Colin Bloom’s report on the Government’s engagement with faith communities to help me further form this policy – specifically the Faith Compact.

The £1m Faith New Deal Pilot Fund

The pilot fund is a new, competitive grant programme to test and strengthen relationships between public bodies and Faith groups. My intention is for this fund to explore how we build on the way faith groups have partnered with national and local government throughout the pandemic to see how we can forge a ‘new deal’ between government and faith communities to galvanise our energy in the national COVID-19 recovery effort.

The Fund has been designed to provide proof of concept that faith groups can play a significant and effective role in supporting wider communities to solve local problems, levering in additional philanthropic resources and providing match funding from their own resources. The intention for the funded projects is that they support capacity building efforts to develop learning and good practice, documenting the impact of their programmes and their unique role and contribution to civil society.

Faith Compact

The Faith New Deal Pilot Fund will also inform the development of a Faith Compact, a set of partnership principles, to strengthen existing collaboration and inform future relationships. The Compact will seek to promote open working at all levels to give faith groups the opportunity to continue to work constructively and effectively as part of civil society. We will work closely with the APPG on Faith and Society, Danny Kruger MP, and Colin Bloom to determine the most effective way to inform this work.

The time is right to announce this new policy in response to recommendations made from our colleagues in parliament and the exceptional work we have witnessed over the last 18 months. The Faith New Deal will continue to build on the tenets of common understanding and collaboration and the fundamental proposition that by working together, we will achieve more through our common endeavours.

Let’s look at how to reduce the need to put people in care homes. Not just who should pick up the bill.

13 Sep

Those who wish social care provision in this country to be logical, face rather a daunting problem. Jacob Rees-Mogg, interviewed for this site last week, said:

“It is odd that if you’ve got Alzheimer’s it’s not paid for, but if you’ve got cancer it is paid for”.

Indeed so. If the principle of the NHS is that healthcare should be universal and free at the point of use, then why not also social care?

On the other hand, if means-testing is accepted for welfare payments, why not for social care? John Redwood argued in a Centre for Policy Studies paper a few years ago:

“Families who would like to inherit the old family home or their elderly relative’s property argue that it is unfair for the state to pay for the residential or care home costs of those who saved nothing during their lives and did not buy a home, whilst expecting the richer pensioners who did make provision to pay their own bills. Their argument is a specific case of a more general argument against means-testing – it “rewards” the unsuccessful, the profligate, the lazy, the unlucky and the disadvantaged at the expense of the hard working and the prudent.

“It is, surely, morally right to expect the taxpayer to fund decent food, care and accommodation for the disadvantaged and the disabled who may have not been able to get a better paid job, or afford the home or put money away in savings. This may also entail the state paying for some of those who could have provided for themselves but chose not to. The latter is the price of being able to do the former: for everyone who has blown money on round the world cruises or fast cars who ends up penniless, there are many more deserving cases of people who were never able to earn good money in their working years.”

The full basic State Pension is currently £137.60 per week. I’m due to start being paid that benefit after my 67th birthday on January 11th 2033.  If I keep toiling away for ConservativeHome I may well be too rich to be eligible for anything on top of that modest provision from the taxpayer by then. But what if I become idle and extravagant with “world cruises or fast cars”? And then, scheduled rather cunningly, I become completely skint by 2033? I could fill my boots with Pensions Credit (currently an extra £177.10 a week). Plus my rent could be paid by Housing Benefit (which still exists for pensioners making new claims rather then being absorbed under Universal Credit.) Also Council Tax Support. Should we push up the basic state pension to, say £300, and scrap the Pensions Credit and Housing Benefit perverse incentives for the wastrels? There seems to be no clamour for any such reform.

The Government proposals strike me as misguided as they incentivise pensioners who are paying for good quality care which they have control over to switch to a deficient service paid for by their local authority. (They might be pressurised by their greedy offspring to make this switch.) Even if this increase in public spending was justified, it is complete nonsense to see that it is “impossible” to find savings in the trillion pounds of overall state spending. Even if it was impossible to fund such economies, we are so heavily burdened with tax already that any hike in rates may well be counterproductive in terms of revenues. Still, I accept that the issue of who should pick up the cost for social care is, as Sherlock Holmes put it, “a three-pipe problem”. Lord Lilley’s case for a genuine insurance scheme struck me as compelling.

What seems to be missing from the debate is how to reduce the number of us (half a million at present) who need residential social care – that fate which typically manages to combine being miserably dreary with staggeringly expensive. Of course, with an ageing population there is a sense of “running to stand still” with such endeavours. All the more reason to make every possible effort to avoid institutional care wherever possible.

Here are some relatively straightforward starting points.

First. End Stamp Duty on “downsizing”.

For some, there is great sentimental value in staying where they are. For others, the upheaval of moving is discouraging. But cost is also a factor. Charging Stamp Duty for those who downsize makes no sense. From October, the threshold will revert to £125,000 – the rate ranges from two per cent to 12 per cent of the purchase price. Given our astonishingly high property prices, that means that even those wanting to buy something more modest then they currently have would face a hefty bill. So inertia is encouraged with no transactions and no tax revenue. It also restricts the supply of family homes. Coping with a large home might well be challenging for an octogenarian. Repairs accumulate. Heating is expensive. Moving to a smaller home, perhaps nearer to relatives would have advantages. Less likely to fall. Less loneliness. Better family care. The need for a care home could, at least, be delayed. But the Chancellor of the Exchequer stands in the way.

Second. Lift planning obstacles to retirement homes.

For some simply moving to a smaller home might not be enough. While remaining property owners they might also want an arrangement where they have some assistance – and buy a flat or bungalow or cottage that is a “retirement property”. These are collections of properties where there is some assistance with security and maintenance. There are some developers (such as McCarthy Stone) seeking to meet this demand for those over 55 or 60 who are basically still able to cope with independent living with some back up. But there is a shortage – the Australians and Amercians have far more. Planning applications for such properties are treated like other private housing as it is unsubsidised. Then it is subjected to the financial penalties of Section 106 demands and the Community Infrastructure Levy. The social benefits of these developments should be recognised and such burdens lifted.

A Demos report concluded that:

“Specialist housing for older people delays and often prevents the need for residential care. Since for each year a person postpones moving into residential care the state would save on average £28,080 the cost savings can be substantial. Both the University of Reading and IPC calculated net cost savings to the NHS of hundreds of millions of pounds in building more retirement housing.”

So far as social housing is concerned the priority should be new sheltered housing. It should be well managed and architecturally beautiful. Where council-owned sheltered housing blocks are badly run then charitable trusts, if able to offer a better service, should take over the management. It makes no sense for an elderly person to be alone in a four-bedroom council home just because there is no alternative of attractive sheltered housing available.

Third. Require better value for money from Public Health budgets

Local authorities have Public Health budgets of £3.7 billion. Plenty has been written about wasteful spending during the pandemic. But I had already highlighted on this site that this was nothing new.

But the money could be spent effectively. Providing a vaccination against shingles is an example. Sometimes victims from this unpleasant illness have to go into hospital. More frequntly they remain at home but are unable to look after themselves and thus need social care.

Fourth. Boost local innovation

We often think of Council Adult Social Care as just being for the elderly – but a significant part of the service is also for adults with learning difficulties. Many councils have made substantial progress in improving the lives of disabled residents by taking part in the Shared Lives scheme. This offers an alternative for those currently in supported living or institutional care. It is of them being placed in a family environment in someone’s home. It can also provide respite for parents with grown up sons or daughters who they are caring for. But progress is uneven. Some councils are failing to take the opportunity to provide a better service for the disabled at a lower cost for the Council Taxpayer.

Then we have technological improvements. We can look to what other countries are achieving. Also innovation that has succeeded in parts of our own country that other areas have yet to embrace. The private sector has a role to play. Bath and North East Somerset Council and the NHS have used Virgin Care to provide integrated community care – which has delivered good results.

This is localism in practice and is already working to some extent. But the Government should nudge it along. At present, the Adult Social Care precept on the Council Tax just bails out failure. It could be replaced by an Innovation Fund.

Fifth. Bring back the Big Society

One heartening aspect of the pandemic was the enthusiasm for helping out elderly and vulnerable neighbours. Faith groups and voluntary organisations will always be better suited at applying compassion than inflexible public sector bureaucracies. The state should not seek to usurp this role but it should look at how it can help it to flourish – in commissioning services rather than trying to doing everything directly. Also in simply getting out of the way – in lifting regulatory budrens.

Conclusion

We are twice as likely as the Italians to end up in care homes. Four times as likely as the Poles. Eight times as likely as the Ukranians. We are constantly told it is “inevitable” that evermore of us can expect that fate. But why should we accept outcomes that are so much worse than other countries? Why should the only argument be about who pays for this grim destiny?

“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Jenevieve Treadwell: Rural communities also need “levelling up”

21 Aug

Jenevieve Treadwell is a researcher for Onward.

In the coming weeks, with the publication of the Levelling Up white paper, the Government’s agenda to deliver on its biggest domestic policy priority will take shape. It is an ambitious project, but this is necessary in order to tackle complex, ingrained inequality. As there is no one single problem, uniformly applied, there can be no quick fix. A fact illustrated in the Prime Minister’s levelling up speech. From fighting crime to football pitches, illness to infrastructure and high streets to homeownership, levelling up will work to create opportunity throughout the UK.

Yet in the face of such a far-reaching programme, it is important to remember that the devil often lies in the detail. These places, like the problems they face, are not homogeneous. Rural communities, like the rest of the UK, face hurdles to opportunity and success. But the type of obstacles faced differs wildly between places. In particular, levelling up rural communities will be complicated by demography and geography. These factors shape, among other things, the nature of crime, the experience of inequality and determine access to opportunity and facilities.

The demographic composition of rural areas differs from the other areas of the UK. As younger people move away from rural areas, these same places are becoming proportionally older than their urban equivalents, bringing with it higher associated social and medical care costs. Rural communities are also less densely populated than their urban counterparts. In extremes, urban centres, like London, have population densities as high as 5,700 people per square kilometre versus rural areas with population densities as low as 50 people per square kilometre.

Running a centralised service becomes significantly more costly and difficult when it needs to adjust to the low density and high degree of diversity of context and need across these areas. For instance, in rural areas, common crimes include dog attacks, fly-tipping and increasingly, cybercrime. As farms have diversified, farmers have increasingly taken on new technologies and practices, however, despite their keen adoption, knowledge of the risks of these services is limited. This has led to an increase in cybercrime. While the vast swathes of open countryside and back roads make the policing of many of these crimes difficult. As a result, the 20,000 police officers promised by the Prime Minister are unlikely to be of service to rural communities, where preventing crime cannot practicably be a matter of bobbies on the rural beat.

Similarly, large infrastructure projects, while undoubtedly important, will not make a vast difference in the day-to-day lives of rural communities whose local bus service remains unfunded. Rural communities often lack intra- and inter-area connectivity. In 2017-18, out of the 88 local transport authorities, 56 had either reduced or spent nothing on supported bus services. This is not a recent phenomenon and will be well known to some readers.

It is not only physical infrastructure that is lacking. While it is certainly true that in the two years since this Government was formed it has had huge success in the spread of gigabit connectivity – from 6 to almost 60 per cent coverage – it is also true that the spread has not been uniform. Access to a download speed of above 10 Mbps is a right according to Ofcom. However, it is one not enjoyed by 57 per cent of rural communities.

While this is in part a natural reflection of the challenging geography of rural areas it is also a consequence of insufficient funding. Visible in the downgrading of the government’s gigabit target from 100 to 85 per cent coverage.

This lack of connectivity is destructive. People are limited in their access to healthcare services, as well as educational and employment opportunities. Without the required infrastructure to take people to new jobs and training centres or connect them with online learning and working platforms, reskilling and upskilling are going to be challenging. With insufficient opportunity to better their situation, families and individuals are left with little choice but to relocate, leaving behind smaller and older communities. And so the cycle continues.

It is a vicious cycle but not an inevitable one. As the Prime Minister’s speech outlined, there is space in the levelling up agenda for local leadership and place-based solutions. To begin, all that is necessary is the recognition of difference. Happily, many community groups have been leading the way in this. Free, accessible training sessions on cybersecurity are being run by a diverse range of actors, from local charities like Rural Action Derbyshire to local police-led initiatives. While in Warwickshire, in collaboration with police, farmers are using drones to help in the fight against theft and other illegal activities.

Collaboration may also be the answer to connectivity barriers. Community bus services, designed to cater to the specific needs of a community, have helped to fend off isolation experienced by individuals in hard to get to places while managing to avoid the prohibitive costs of wider-reaching services. These community-led initiatives have found solutions to geography that national operators struggled to overcome.

Supporting rural communities to get the most out of the levelling up agenda means empowering and financing those who are already taking responsibility for their areas. The application of a one-size fits all policy developed with an urban setting in mind is inappropriate and will ultimately be unsustainable. Instead, rural communities need and deserve innovative, tailored solutions.

Toby Lloyd: Two years since Johnson promised to level up Britain, has the detail proven better than the spin?

27 Jul

Toby Lloyd is a former special adviser to Theresa May and Chair of the Create Streets Foundation’s No Place Left Behind Commission on prosperity and community placemaking.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been over two years since Boris Johnson stood on the steps of Downing Street for the first time and promised to “level up” the country. I missed the speech, as I was slipping out of the back door of No 10 at the time, having been stripped of my pass, phone and laptop, along with the rest of Theresa May’s advisers, as part of the brutally clinical hand-over ritual that each outgoing PM must go through.

To us policy hacks, regrouping in the sweltering heat of a nearby bar, “levelling-up” seemed like one of those sound bites that would be quickly dropped, to join May’s “burning injustices” and David Cameron’s Big Society in the pile of unifying concepts that never quite worked.

After all, few people know what it means, and many of those that do actively dislike the idea, as Rachel Wolf pointed out on this site – and even ministers have been accused of a “complete lack of understanding” of the agenda. In the wake of the Chesham and Amersham by-election, the logic goes, it’s time to drop all this nonsense and pivot back to the base.

But instead of dropping it, the Government has doubled down on levelling-up. There’s a £4.8 billion government fund bearing it’s name. The appointment of Neil O’Brien to lead the development of the forthcoming levelling-up white paper shows real commitment to the agenda – not just lip service to an electoral strategy. And Johnson chose to speak for a full hour on the subject recently. Clearly, levelling-up is here to stay.

Which makes it even odder that it’s still not clear what it actually means, and no agreed indicators to measure success or failure by. Last week Johnson seemed to imply that disparities in life expectancy were the best indicator of regional inequality, and even that he had single handedly raised the life expectancy of all Londoners in his term as Mayor.

Life expectancy is an excellent proxy for all sorts of things, and a very robust data point – so if the Government is making that it’s central metric of levelling-up it could silence the carping of the wonks.

And it’s obviously a good policy aim to level up life expectancy across the country. Given the new shift in electoral geography it may be smart politics too. But it’s not necessarily great comms to tell your new voters that they’re going to die sooner than your traditional base – especially if you don’t have a really good plan for how you’re going to change this.

In this regard, Johnson’s latest attempt to flesh out the vision was rather thinner. Much of his emphasis was on crime, big transport infrastructure, better broadband connections, and education. All of which are excellent subjects for public investment – but it’s hard to see how they will turn around the sense of neglect accumulated over decades in some of our most left behind places. HS2 is certainly not about to increase life expectancy in seaside towns that have seen better days.

Part of the problem is that whenever Johnson – or anyone else – tries to explain levelling-up, they have to grapple with big economic structural forces at the same time as hyper local factors; hard infrastructure as well as a more intangible senses of pride and community.

While big national kit is expensive, and often controversial, it’s at least something clear you can announce and eventually, hopefully, cut a ribbon in front of. Dealing with local issues from the Prime Ministerial pulpit can seem incongruous at best, patronising at worst. Although all politicians love a positive message of national pride for all, with or without implied criticism of all other nations for being just not quite as good as us, the resentments between different parts of the country are much harder for a PM to speak to.

The result can be vague, even incoherent, and easy to ridicule: you’re not going to reverse 50 years of deindustrialisation with a few quid for removing chewing gum from pavements. But despite all these vulnerabilities, it is the right approach, because the problems of left behind places, and of geographic inequality more broadly, really are both big and small, hard and soft, at the same time.

The dog mess and graffiti that spoil the local park really matters – as does the damage to town centres wrought by 1960s urban motorways and the decline of seaside tourism. Levelling-up, and left behind places, work as concepts precisely because they speak to both dimensions at once.

If you want proof that being left behindness cannot be boiled down purely to economic data, look no further than the Brexit referendum. The Index of Multiple Deprivation, an excellent source of data on poverty, tells you almost nothing about the likelihood of a place voting Leave or Remain.

By contrast, the Community Needs Index, formulated by Local Trust to identify which places really are left behind, has a strong correlation with voting leave. Poverty matters, hugely, but it doesn’t describe everything. We need a more subtle, more human, understanding of why some parts of the country feel neglected. Elected politicians often have a better nose for this sort of thing than policy wonks like me.

The politicians also have an answer to the technocrats’ critique that levelling-up lacks a precise metric. Goodhart’s law states that once a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. This is because individual and organisational behaviour adjusts to hit the target, but frequently misses the point. This iron law of policy surely applies to concepts as messily human as levelling up: there can be no simple measure of levelling-up – but we’ll know it if we see it.

More serious is the risk that such a broad agenda creates the perfect conditions for waffly speeches with impressive but context-free numbers, and reports celebrating nice things happening in diverse places.

These are invariably a means of avoiding difficult decisions and trade-offs. Isn’t it lovely that this community group has got a grant to bring that abandoned Victorian workhouse building back into use as hub for local business and community activity! No need to ask why it had been left empty for decades, raise the spectre of tricky tax changes, or to worry about the future viability of those lovely new micro-enterprises.

The solution to these tensions is to return to the beginning. The entire levelling-up agenda is about place: places that feel left behind, people who live in places that have been poorly served by state and market alike for too long. Here the Government’s strategy is better than Johnson’s speech. There is real money on offer for improving town centres, for local transport, for communities to take ownership of the assets they need to shape change. To make this investment work, it has to be combined with a coherent attitude to localism, as Paul Goodman argued.

I would add that Whitehall also has to start trusting local people and, yes, local government a bit more and get over its addiction to competitive bidding for time limited pots. These waste huge amounts of energy as councils and community groups complete endless bids promising subtly different outcomes for the same projects – and inevitably mean that those best at playing this game win at the expense of the others.

This is no way to overcome division and level up. Better to follow the call for “localism on steroids” from Bill Grimsey, the former CEO of multiple high street business, and empower local communities to redesign their town centres to meet the needs of the 21st Century.

This is the territory that the Create Streets Foundation’s No Place Behind Commission is exploring – and in the next few months will be proposing real reforms and investments to turn the good intent into reality. The real test of the levelling-up agenda will not be how it scores on socioeconomic metrics, but whether it can start a process of empowerment, improvement and investment that makes left behind places look and feel better. for the communities that live in them.

Jonathan Werran: Levelling up. A radical economic overhaul and zero carbon cannot be delivered from the centre.

6 May

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

Like a wild schoolyard football game, it will be a case of everyone’s eyes on the ball, with their legs enthusiastically following, as we throw our attention into the joyful pile-on of local and devolved election results.

We should certainly enjoy the spectacle of postponed local democracy restored, while voters in their millions flock to polling booths across England to vote in various district, county, unitary, London mayoral and regional mayoral combined authority elections.

But were we to zoom out and survey the whole frame, we’d see a tangled skein of pitches with different games being played out on fields of various sizes, to somewhat different sets of rules.

This is because, for many parts of England, a devolution destiny remains unfixed. This means, in certain cases, it remains doubtful whether there will be repeat polling business four years hence. The baked-in assumption is that in order to secure prized strategic devolution deals, parts of the country will submit themselves to the Whitehall meatgrinder of reorganisation.

The white paper and the problem of “place”

Today Localis has issued a place-based analysis of “Building Back Better” in a report entitled A Plan for Local Growth. The central thrust of our argument is that there should be a strict separation between short-term, community-led decision-making for town centre and high-street renewal – which boosts place prosperity – and long-term, high-value central government infrastructure strategies aimed at raising historic low-levels of productivity.

To this end, central government must get behind community control of high-street regeneration, accelerate devolved skills reforms and define a clear role for local authorities and their economic partners in driving economic development and meeting net zero targets.

On that vexed issue of local government reorganisation, our analysis questions the efficacy of driving economic recovery through changes of machinery to the local state. Localis firmly believes that national recovery through building back better and “levelling up” will only succeed through a grounded approach focused on place – melding the horizontal elements of place with the sector based vertical deals from the ancien regime’s industrial strategy.

However, the problem seemingly is that the definition of “place” can mean literally anything across separate Whitehall departments operating in the same place. This is often to the bewilderment of authorities seeking inward investment and businesses seeking to survive and thrive beyond Brexit and Covid.

This Whitehall disconnect also applies to public services. Anything from dedicated schools grant, migration to criminal justice reform can see individual departments taking on bit parts – research, funding, delivery. Perhaps whether the ambit of the Levelling Up White Paper can solve the perennial problem of un-joined-up government is a moot point. But a way is needed to integrate disparate cross-departmental central government agendas so that there is actual early proof these connect at the level of place, work in practice and inspire confidence to move onwards at speed.

This is where we must pin our hopes upon Neil O’Brien to ride to the rescue.

On account of the time, money, political capital and economic potential forever lost to the pandemic, we find ourselves at more of a crucial moment than we perhaps realise. The moment calls for urgently aligning the agenda for devolution and decentralisation with that of growth and recovery.

So it is a hopeful sign that O’Brien has been set the task of pulling together the disparate threads of the levelling up agenda into a forthcoming white paper, resurrecting a cause deflated by last autumn’s failure to launch the English Devolution and Economic Recovery White Paper amid the sudden ministerial departure of Simon Clarke.

The challenge demands a policy mind as sharp and political senses as keen as O’Brien possesses. The levelling up agenda currently risks a fate worse than “Big Society” – as a potentially hugely transformative agenda with popular appeal that dies from lack of rootedness in local daily life and concrete, plainly visible outcomes.

Joining the dots on levelling up

Devolution and growth must be seen as so intrinsically linked as for one to be as impossible to conceive of as existing without the presence of the other. There’s a fancy term from classical rhetoric for the occasion, “hendiadys” or literally “one through two”. In common parlance, think of “bread and butter” or “fish and chips” and try imagining in your mind one of these essential elements without the thought of the other arising.

In an earlier Localis contribution to ConHome on England’s place in the union, and taking our cue from George Orwell, we advocated that “England has got to assume its real shape”. A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome, it was argued. And as Paul Goodman instantly observed of the Plan for Growth in ConHome, “if it really wants to go for sustainable and more even growth, the Government will need to devolve more power”.

So on the basis that levelling up, a radical economic overhaul and zero carbon cannot be delivered from the centre, and that we must trust in the new mayors to use their convening powers to get the local political economy around the table, how might we suggest the Levelling Up White Paper create maximum benefit for minimum effort? To build on the foundations laid out in the Plan for Growth, Localis recommends that the Levelling Up White Paper should:

  • Create pathways to community autonomy as a vehicle for hyperlocal, small-scale and patient financing of regeneration;
  • build a framework for devolution to skills advisory panels to facilitate local collaboration between employers, providers and education authorities to further accelerate the push to improve skill levels;
  • create a clear role for the local state in driving towards the skills for net zero; and
  • clarify and codify the role for existing institutions of the local state particularly local authorities in LEPs – in driving economic development.
The political and economic imperative

Many Red Wall Conservative MPs will become if they are not already are acutely alert to the fact that they risk paying the political price for an unreformed, silo-fixated Whitehall’s disjointed and agonisingly slow local delivery at local level.

The test for Levelling Up White Paper will be its ability to work through connective administrative tissue of the “people’s priorities” – clean growth, whatever new badge is thrown over industrial strategy, as well as local skills training. A joined-up and fleshed-out levelling up can achieve a virtuous circle of devolution, leading to growth and recovery that inspires further trust and pride in place and place leadership.

Witness the electoral fortunes of Ben Houchen in Tees Valley and Andy Street in the West Midlands. Their likely success is testament to the policy vision laid out for trusting men of “push and go”, charismatic regional leaders with energy and vision to champion their wide economic area. So on the basis that a combination of the vaccination bounce and whatever local political factors ensure a satisfactory set of local and regional results overnight, there should be both confidence and conviction to repay this trust with Whitehall ceding more powers to metro mayors in a deeper devolution settlement.

Otherwise, we risk the continuation of a lop-sided, centrally-led, interventionist growth policy which only serves to hamstring our localities from achieving anything like their fullest inherent economic and place potential.

Profile: Danny Kruger, defender of Christian conservatism and traditional ideas of virtue

31 Mar

Who now dares to talk about the virtues? Danny Kruger, MP since December 2019 for Devizes, is one of the few parliamentarians who ventures to do so.

In his latest declaration, jointly launched with Miriam Cates, who in 2019 took Penistone and Stocksbridge from Labour, Kruger begins by denouncing the facile assumption that we are all born good:

“What is the job of society? There is a modern delusion that we are born pure, and then corrupted by an unfair world. But surely the plain truth is that we are born greedy, narcissistic and violent. That’s why laissez-faire doesn’t work any more than big government. Left entirely to ourselves, individuals will exploit, slack off, rent-seek, and cheat.”

So we need to be educated:

“The job of society is to teach us to temper these impulses and to train us in a different set of habits. What habits are these? The old times called them the virtues: the practices that human beings are uniquely good at, like courage, temperance, fortitude, creativity, compassion and shrewdness. The virtues make us happy and great, and make life better for everyone else.”

Kruger calls for “a New Social Covenant”, under which “the family, the community and the nation” become our “schools of virtue”, and goes on to enunciate 12 propositions, including:

“The state should safeguard the customs of the country.”

“We need a new ‘economics of place’ instead of the failed doctrine of economic mobility.”

“Marriage is a public institution and essential to society.”

He proceeds to defend these propositions in a reasonable and erudite tone, for he has been working on this for a long time. Kruger was the author of David Cameron’s “Hug a Hoodie” speech, delivered in July 2006 to the Centre for Social Justice.

Cameron had become Leader of the Opposition in December 2005, and needed to show that after three general election defeats, the Conservatives were at last undertaking the fundamental changes that were required.

In April 2006 Cameron signalled the modernisation of environment policy by going to Norway to hug a husky, and three months later he proclaimed, at the Centre for Social Justice, founded by Iain Duncan Smith, his commitment to understanding rather than condemning young people who wore hoodies, an item of clothing which had recently been banned, with Tony Blair’s approval, by the Bluewater Shopping Centre.

Not everyone was impressed by this exercise in compassionate conservatism. According to Kruger, reminiscing in The Spectator in June 2008:

“The day of Boris’s election [as Mayor of London on 1st May 2008] was also the day I stopped work as David Cameron’s speechwriter to go full-time at the charity my wife and I founded two years ago to work with prisoners and ex-offenders. My main claim to distinction in my old job was drafting the speech in which David said something capable of the construction (though not the words, not the words themselves) that the public should all get out there and hug hoodies.

“This speech has gone down in Tory lore as a terrible blunder, but I am still rather proud of it. The nub of it was, that while we should certainly punish people who cross the line into criminality, on this side of the line we need ‘to show a lot more love’.

“Love is a neglected crime-fighting device. But the need for it is powerfully proved in Felicity de Zulueta’s important book From Pain to Violence: The Traumatic Roots of Destructiveness. She argues that violence and hatred are not motive forces of their own: they are the terrible expression of wrecked relationships, of thwarted love.

“Men and women seem to have a yearning for agency, for the ability to affect things. As de Zulueta puts it, the sense of helplessness is ‘a state tantamount to annihilation’; we will do anything to avoid it. Hence self-harm, and what youth workers call ‘self-sabotage’ — the apparently wilful screwing-up of opportunities, the no-show, the walking-away at the moment before achievement. People who feel incapable, feel the need to prove it: failure, at least, is something they can author.”

One sees that for Kruger, all this really matters. Cameron spoke about it as if he too cared deeply about it. But somehow the Big Society, as this strand in his programme became known (Steve Hilton is credited with inventing the name), never quite achieved lift-off.

There are, after all, serious difficulties in proclaiming a manifesto derived from Christian teaching. Fewer and fewer voters regard themselves as Christians.

Nor does any politician with half an ear for public sensitivities wish to adopt a holier-than-thou tone of voice. Piety would be insufferable. The present Prime Minister makes every effort, in his daily proclamations about the pandemic, to avoid sounding preachy.

And the Big Society, with its support for voluntary work in support of civil society, seemed to lack ideological content. Surely a socialist could believe as devoutly in it as a Conservative? Kruger himself suggested as much in an essay which appeared on ConservativeHome in October 2014, lamenting the dropping by Cameron of the idea:

“The Big Society elevated the national conversation to something approaching a moral discourse: what sort of society do we want? What are our own responsibilities, what are others’? What is the condition of my community, and what can we do about it?

“If these weren’t two ridiculous words for a Conservative leader to adopt I would have advised David Cameron to call himself a ‘new socialist’. Old socialism was about using the power of the state to advance the interests and wellbeing of the working class. New socialism is about using the power of society to protect minorities, defend and promote local communities, and create opportunities.”

Essay question for aspiring Conservative candidates: “Is Boris Johnson a new socialist? Discuss.”

Kruger is not a socialist. He is a politician with the moral courage to think for himself.

This he inherits from his father, Rayne Kruger, who rather than do the conventional thing, liked to back his own judgment, as the admirable and admiring obituary of him in The Times made clear.

The elder Kruger, who was born in South Africa and moved while still a young man to London, married first an actress 16 years older than himself – in Pygmalion she had played Eliza to his Professor Higgins – and secondly a young South African woman who had arrived in London intending to make her way as a Cordon Bleu cook.

She was called Prue Leith, and their son, Danny, was born in October 1975, three days after they married. She has since achieved fame and fortune as a restaurateur, with her husband running the business side of things; and is now yet better known as a presenter of The Great British Bake Off.

A friend says of Danny:

“He’s more like his mother than he thinks he is. She just gets stuff done by energy and determination. He’s turning out like that.”

He was educated at Eton, read history at Edinburgh, at Oxford wrote a doctorate about Edmund Burke, and was more inclined to lie in the bath thinking great thoughts than to do the washing up.

He was liberated from this perhaps rather stuffy, old-fashioned mode of life by falling in love with his future wife, Emma, a teacher. She was an evangelical Christian and prayed that he would be converted, which he was. For a time they lived on a council estate. They have three children.

Kruger became the guy who would do the washing up, and in 2005 (after early stints as director of studies at the Centre for Policy Studies, Conservative policy adviser, and chief leader writer on The Daily Telegraph) he and Emma set up Only Connect, a prison charity which they ran for ten years, and which concentrates on helping offenders not to reoffend.

Also in 2005, Kruger was obliged to stand down as the Conservative candidate in Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat) after The Guardian reported that he had declared: “We plan to introduce a period of creative destruction in the public services.”

He is a good friend of Dominic Cummings, and backed Vote Leave.

In the summer of 2019, Cummings brought Kruger to Downing Street as Johnson’s Political Secretary, charged with maintaining relations with Tory backbenchers during the exceptionally turbulent months when the new Prime Minister was striving to get Brexit through.

When I met Kruger in the Palace of Westminster on one night of high drama, he seemed in his imperturbable way to be enjoying himself.

In November 2019, Kruger won selection for the safe Conservative seat of Devizes, after CCHQ had intervened to cut the short list from six to only three candidates.

At the end of his maiden speech, delivered on 29 January 2020, he returned to the Christian roots of our politics:

“I finish on a more abstract issue, but it is one that we will find ourselves debating in many different forms in this Parliament. It is the issue of identity, of who we are both as individuals and in relation to each other. We traditionally had a sense of this: we are children of God, fallen but redeemed. Capable of great wrong but capable of great virtue. Even for those who did not believe in God, there was a sense that our country is rooted in Christianity and that our liberties derive from the Christian idea of absolute human dignity.

“Today those ideas are losing their purchase, so we are trying to find a new set of values to guide us, a new language of rights and wrongs, and a new idea of identity based not on our universal inner value or on our membership of a common culture but on our particular differences.

“I state this as neutrally as I can, because I know that good people are trying hard to make a better world and that Christianity and the western past are badly stained by violence and injustice, but I am not sure that we should so casually throw away the inheritance of our culture.”

On the morning of Saturday 23rd May, just after the story had broken of the visit during the first lockdown to County Durham by Cummings and his wife Mary Wakefield, Kruger leapt to their defence on Twitter:

“Dom and Mary’s journey was necessary and therefore within rules. What’s also necessary is not attacking a man and his family for decisions taken at a time of great stress and worry, the fear of death and concern for a child. This isn’t a story for the normal political shitkickery.”

In the days that followed, Kruger stuck to his guns, telling other newly elected MPs:

“No 10 won’t budge, so calling for DC to go is basically declaring no confidence in PM.”

To make this stand amid such a storm of protest showed fortitude. One of the advantages of believing in a moral tradition is that it may render one less liable to be swept hither and thither by one moral panic after another. Here is Kruger speaking a few days ago in a debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill:

“Our culture historically taught men that they had a duty to honour and protect women. It is a difficult thing to say, because it may appear that I want to turn back the clock to a time when men chivalrously protected the weaker sex, but of course, as I have said, that is not how it always was in the old days, and even if it had been, we do not accept the idea that women need protection by men; they just need men to behave themselves. So let me say emphatically that I do not want to turn back the clock; however, we do need to face the fact that our modern culture has not delivered all the progress it was supposed to. I wonder whether that is because our modern culture has a problem with telling people how to behave—it has a problem with society having a moral framework at all.”

Many voters, not all of them Conservative, will agree with that. Kruger’s arguments are sometimes described as communitarian, but that pallid label does not convey the force of the challenge he poses to an intellectual establishment which supposes it can dispense with traditional ideas of virtue.

David Willetts: Solving our nation’s problems requires a fair deal for the young

3 Dec

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.  

Civil society is a powerful concept covering every form of association which stands between the individual and the state. It is one of the great strengths of modern liberal democracies and distinguishes them from totalitarian states or dictatorships which are hostile to it.

I myself have written about “civic conservatism”, to challenge a critique of free market economics that it was just about atomistic and selfish individuals and left no room for the institutions which are outside the market but not controlled by the state. They are the ones which often make life worthwhile.

Margaret Thatcher was often caricatured (and is again in the new series of The Crown) as just thinking of balance sheets and accountancy when she also wanted to roll back the state to create more space for civil associations.

But the breadth of the concept of civil society produces risks and difficulties too. It can become an amorphous shifting residual: what is left after more powerful forces such as market and state have done their bit. It is like that strand of theology, “the God of the gaps”, in which the divine is thought to be expressed in phenomena which are not yet explained by science.

That opens the question of what kind of relationship civil society has to other forms of social organisation. There is an ideological debate about whether the state should be seen as friend or enemy. Did the creation of the modern welfare state in the first half of the twentieth century lead to the destruction of the friendly societies, or was it partly a response to their increasing weakness in the face of the rise of those twin features of a modern industrial society – unemployment and retirement?

The relationship between civil society and the family is not straightforward either. The instinct to look after one’s own family is natural and noble. But family ties reinforced by inheritance can be bad for social mobility. Extended families can themselves act as a kind of mini-civil society serving their own kith and kin, but are those relationships benign or a kind of clan-based corruption? The rise of civil society in Great Britain was in part the product of small nuclear families and limited government leaving space in which civil society, at least of a certain sort, could thrive.

Close up, civil society proves to be a surprisingly controversial idea. But engaging with tricky issues is better than the alternative, which is to leave it just as a vague appeal to do good. Civil society then becomes a kind of social glue which we imagine we can pour over a diverse and divided society to try to hold it together. Asking for us to be good and co-operate with others is admirable, but on its own may not actually get us very far.

Instead we should start with much more limited and less favourable assumptions about human behaviour. The challenge is to try to construct policies promoting civil society with minimal prior assumptions. Instead of trying to stick us together with benign altruism, it is more like dry-stone walling where the stones are held together not because they want to be, but because of the most basic natural forces and skilled institutional design. The starting assumptions about humans should be as limited as those which lie behind modern economics.

The intellectual resources of game theory and evolutionary biology then help to show a way forward from this apparently unpropitious starting point. One of the classic puzzles in modelling human behaviour is the Prisoner’s Dilemma – two criminals are arrested with strong incentives to betray each other even though they both do best if neither of them betrays. As neither can trust the other not to betray them, they end up both betraying and therefore are both worse off.

The dilemma forces us to think through the circumstances in which humans can co-operate. A key advance was made by Robert Axelrod when he showed that if we think of this dilemma not as a one-off but as an endlessly repeated exercise, then it becomes rational not to betray until you are betrayed. This in turn helps us to understand what institutions do. They provide environments where repeated interactions promote co-operative behaviour. And we are talking here of real institutions which can do much more than the much more invertebrate concept of community.

This raises another set of other problems. Do such patterns of behaviour within institutions reward insiders versus outsiders? Indeed, one of the liveliest issues animating a lot of politics is who are the insiders, and who are the outsiders? Some feeling against immigrants comes from the fear, however unjustified, that they are freeloaders, coming to benefit from a welfare state to which they have not contributed. It is one of the paradoxes of liberalism that it embraces diversity, but that it may also reduce support for a welfare state.

And what if the insiders are the members of our own generation? Think of a local residents’ association committed to supporting the local community. Its volunteers serve as councillors or as school governors, but they are all middle-aged or older owner-occupiers and oppose new housing in their area because they are unaware or uninterested in the younger people desperate to get on the housing ladder.

Why should they care about the younger generation? Well it makes sense to look after the younger generation because as we get older we hope they will look after us. It is not just a one off decision, it will shape what they do to us later. In the wise words of the great American bumper sticker – “be nice to your kids they choose your nursing home.” And as tax payers they might be helping to finance your nursing home as well.

So if we boomers treat them fairly now they may treat us better when the boot is on the other foot. Or as Paul Samuelson put it very well: “giving goods to an older person is figuratively giving goods to yourself when old”. It is these exchanges between generations which are at the heart of society, and also the modern welfare state. It is why services from education (for the young) and health care (for the old) matter so much to us.

At any one moment they may look like transactions with someone else, but they are also exchanges with ourselves at different stages of the life cycle. It is easy to think of these people of different ages as just different – imprinted with different experiences during their formative years and familiar with different technologies. But there is another way of thinking of them: just like us but of a different age. And the more we can connect with them the more we may continue to support these exchanges between different generations which keep society together.

That is particularly true as the country faces up to both the demographic challenge associated with the big baby boomer generation growing old and the need for rebuilding and renewing associated with recovery from the pandemic. Building back better must be above all an investment in the younger generation who have had the greatest economic hit from the epidemic. We owe it to them.

The above is an extract from ‘Civil Society, Unleashed’, an essay collection published by Pro Bono Economics on December 1.

Andy Cook: To help reduce mass unemployment, back up Universal Credit with Universal Support

2 Nov

Andy Cook is Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Social Justice

In politics, as often in life, you seldom get praise for what doesn’t happen.

But when we look back on the recent history of this pandemic, we will recognise Universal Credit as a great success story. Had we still been operating the paper-based system of the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown era, we would have had unemployment queues snaking round city centres. It wouldn’t have needed an England footballer to point this out, it would (quite rightly) have shamed the country.

I remember that time well. Despite massive government spending, I founded a charity to tackle unemployment – because there were generations of kids who were being harmed because they didn’t see the benefits of work in their home life. We musn’t return to those days.

We are now facing the grim prospect of unemployment as high as 13 per cent – that’s around four million people without a job. In July, 5.6 million people were receiving welfare with almost half officially “searching for work.” One of the areas with the highest numbers of new Universal Credit claims is leafy Guildford in Surrey.

Britain faces the very real problem of mass, long-term unemployment. At the beginning of 2020, there were 3.1 million people in Britain who were not working, but wanted a job. This figure could grow by more than two million due to the Covid-19 crisis.

Benefit claimants are increasingly vulnerable, with more complex challenges, meaning that they need more support when navigating our welfare system. Inadequate support for some claimants has resulted in some falling in to a ‘state of crisis’ – increased financial insecurity, food bank usage, evictions, and homelessness as well as worsening mental health.

Unemployment can be disastrous for any individual. Unemployment is not just the loss of an income, but the loss of a sense of purpose, identity, and dignity. Poor health quickly follows.

If we want to get really serious about tackling poverty, we have to get serious about making sure people get into jobs. Financial pressures can lead to debt, housing problems, relationship strains, and in the most extreme cases, violence, homelessness, substance misuse and criminal activity.

This is the true cost of an unemployment crisis. Worklessness has a lasting impact on communities, and children growing up in a workless household are more likely to perform poorly at school, less likely to work themselves, and end up involved in the criminal justice system.

For all the winter eeconomic plans announced by the Chancellor, tackling the human toll of worklessness will be the biggest long term challenge. Long before the pandemic struck, the UK still had a long-term unemployment problem, with particular challenges from disability, and a disability employment gap that had hardly shifted in a decade.

Despite remarkable successes over the last ten years in halving the number of people unemployed for two years or more, the other half still exist, pandemic or no pandemic. The challenge will now be to make sure that our millions of newly unemployed (and their families) don’t join them as long term unemployment ‘stats’.

There are real human lives behind the statistics – which is why the Chancellor must look seriously at Universal Support.

Universal Support gets money to local charities to offer real personal support for jobseekers. Run by local authorities, Universal Support works alongside Universal Credit payments, with the aim of helping welfare claimants tackle the real barriers to sustained work.

Helping people who may be applying for Universal Credit, but who also need help in stabilising their housing situation, advice on dealing with burdensome debt, help in accessing opportunities to develop skills, or getting an appointment for a medical diagnosis – Universal Support commissions local charities who work with people rather than statistics.

A truly compassionate social security system should be about helping to support people fallen on hard times, not just a welfare check in the post. It is self-evidently not enough for programmes to get people work ready if there is no work. So it’s also time to channel our inner Reagan and go for some big tax cuts targeted at the regions to rebalance the UK and encourage the creation of jobs.

The recovery must be driven by the private sector, but the Government should seize the opportunity to direct this in a regionalist way with rebalancing as an explicit goal.

The Centre for Social Justice’s paper “The Future of Work: Regional Revolution” makes the case for enterprise zones in the UK’s most left behind towns and cities: tax breaks and financial incentives would be offered specifically to businesses operating in these regions. State loans to start-ups should have job creation in our poorest areas as an explicit objective.

We can’t just treat unemployment as a problem on a spreadsheet. There are real human lives behind the statistics, which is where Universal Support comes in. We need to see it in every town. Economic measures to rebuild our regional economies need to go alongside welfare support that stops the spiral of unemployment and offers a compassionate helping hand into newly-created jobs.

How to ensure that disadvantaged children are fed when schools are closed

26 Oct

When Theresa May was Prime Minister, Conservative MPs stopped voting, for a time, against Opposition Day motions.  This had two upsides.  First, they were no longer assailed in their constituencies for trooping through the lobbies against motions that could be read to be innocuous.  Second – and even more to the point – one can’t lose a vote if one doesn’t vote at all.

The downside of not opposing those motions was that, once they passed and the Government then ignored them, Ministers were open to the charge of holding the will of Parliament in contempt.  In any event, Labour then unearthed a device that the Government couldn’t bypass – the Humble Address.

We mention this to-and-fro from the last Parliament in the wake of a vote in this one.  Tory MPs are raging about being whipped to vote against last week’s Opposition Day motion on free school meals – especially those newly-elected last year.  They feel that the Whips’ instruction has made them targets in their seats.

Angela Rayner’s disgusting cry of “scum” may be part of the reason: over 100 Conservative MPs say that they and their staff have been the targets of abuse and threats.  Some Labour MPs have form in this way: remember John McDonnell’s notorious remark about lynching Esther McVey.

We believe that Tory MPs can’t simply run away from Opposition motions.  But we also feel that those unhappy backbenchers have a point.  For the simple truth is that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the departmental ministers concerned could scarcely be handling this issue worse were they trying.

One can grasp the scale of the problem by pondering the arguments that Conservative MPs have been deploying against making free school meals available during the Christmas holidays.  The problem is not that there are none.  It is that there are too many.

On the one hand, it was said last week that the taxpayer can’t afford it.  It’s true that we are losing a sense of what the Treasury can afford as the Coronavirus bills pile up.  But if the Government can afford Eat Out to Help Out, why can’t it afford Feed Kids to Help Out?

On the other, it was also said that the Government is spending millions on feeding poorer children.  True again.  But the money is divided up between a mass of programmes – support to local authorities, the Universal Credit uplift, the holiday activities and food programme, Fareshare, Magic Breakfast, and more. That’s a mouthful to communicate.

Conservative MPs point out that the last Labour Government didn’t make free school meals available during the holiday period.  Correct: but Gordon Brown’s failed administration is beginning to become a bit of a distant memory. They say that parents should be responsible for feeding their children, not the state.

Quite so – up to a point.  But if the principle were extended to its logical conclusion, there would be no free school meals at all.  What about sudden unemployment after furlough, to strike a timely note?  Or disability?  And what about state policy that frustrates families – complex childcare schemes, high energy bills, food taxes?

When a Tory MPs can claim that vouchers for meals are being spent on crack dens and brothels, without being able to produce hard evidence, one can hear the bottom of the barrel being noisily scraped.  If vouchers are such a bad idea, why did the Government make them available over the summer holidays in the first place?

There is a hint of the Thatcher era about what is happening now.  Some will say that she won three elections, and the moral of those victories is: ignore the protesters.  But there is a new dimension – even if you don’t believe that the loss of reputation for compassion came back to haunt the Party once it lost its reputation for competence.

It is that while Labour MPs and the hard left are one thing, local businesses, charities and football clubs are quite another.  All these, and more, are queuing up to offer help to disadvantaged children.  Do you warm to the idea of the Big Society?  Well, here it is in action – with the Conservative Party on the wrong side of it.

Reports today suggest that Downing Street knows that it has dug itself into a hole, and must now start to dig itself out.  That would be best attempted by finding a plan that’s better than Labour’s (or Marcus Rashford’s) communicating it, implementing it – and then campaigning for it.

Fortunately, there is one to hand.  If you think about it, schools are not the right venue for delivering help to poorer children during the holidays – for the obvious reason that, by definition, they are then closed.  And the exceptional circumstances of the spring lockdown are now, we all hope, behind us.

Nor do vouchers guarantee “healthy, tasty and nutritious food and drink”, to quote from Government guidelines – which, in the case of food, is better delivered hot.  These are best provided in a formal setting.  Which is precisely the aim of the Holiday Activities and Food Programme which we mentioned earlier.

This is a £9 million programme in its second year of pilots.  This summer, it supported up to 50,000 disadvantaged children across 17 local authority areas at a cost of some £9 million – providing at least four weeks of free activities and healthy food during July and August 2020.

The speech of last week’s debate came from Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Clevelys (Blackpool itself, by the way, has eight of the ten most deprived areas in England).  “My view is that we need a national and universal summer holiday activity and food support stream to deal with the trials that have occurred,” he said.

Maynard is not alone in understanding the issues: see Alan Mak’s work, for example, on Magic Breakfast. But he was right to suggest that the pilots have been too slow.  As he said, the issue “is the ultimate example in politics of where something must be done. That is very different from saying that anything should be done”.

Exactly so, and two different groups of people ought to read his speech with special care.  The first are Ministers, the Downing Street apparatus, the Treasury – and a handful of backbenchers.  There is no more matter more primal than food – and getting fed, especially if one is going hungry.

This debacle is a fearful warning to Boris Johnson, Downing Street, the Government and CCHQ: in all things, let alone any matter so emotive, one needs a policy, a message – and the capacity to campaign on it.  In each of these areas, they have been found wanting.

They will have to raise their game on continuing the Universal Credit uplift, and responding to the second part of Henry Dimbleby’s report on food strategy.  Why didn’t they, in this case?  Perhaps because, amidst all the focus on the Just About Managings, they are missing a point: social justice matters in the former Red Wall, too.

The second group of people concerned are the Rashford campaigners.  Some Tories complain about the footballer.  We aren’t joining them.  After all, if it wasn’t for him, we might well not be writing this morning about the issues he has highlighted.

But he should surely see that vouchers, dispersed to parents in a mass of homes, are not a substitute for nutritious meals, delivered to children who are gathered together in a formal setting – just as in term-time.  If Ministers offer such a programme on a bigger scale, he should jump at the chance to embrace it.

Frances Lasok: This pandemic has shown the Conservatives need a local community focus

24 Sep

Frances Lasok is a political campaign manager for local elections.

What are the challenges for the first post-COVID elections, what will we stand for, and what should our strategy be?

The beginning of the pandemic was defined by civic unity. Roadside banners went up to the NHS, and we suddenly became a society that asked after our neighbours. But then came the after-effects. An end to the political ceasefire, plummeting GDP, a doubling of reported symptoms of depression, the beginnings of the long-term effects of economic decline, increased isolation and post-furlough job losses. People will rally round in a crisis; it’s as we move out of it that the uncertainty hits.

As the governing party, it leaves us in a difficult place: elected on a manifesto less than a year old where the biggest challenge was Brexit. And as Theresa May proved, it isn’t enough to just promise competent government or more-of-the-same small-c conservativism. Boris rallied the country on “Get Brexit Done” but since then the world turned upside down, leaving the levelling up agenda as the philosophical drive behind the Conservative Party.

It’s relevant. But for it to be more than words, it needs local engagement and local co-operation: a united drive between Government and the bodies at the coal face rather than, as is often the case, good ideas from the centre killed by falling into a gap between multiple overlapping authorities with different agendas, motives or political stripes. The potential gap between idea and implementation is huge. Which brings us on to the first post-COVID elections, in 2021.

The stakes are high, higher than just political capital, because the seats up are the major players: the County, unitary, and combined authorities that will hold the purse strings and implementation responsibilities for huge swathes of the Government’s post-COVID agenda: schools, social care, economic development and transport. Many of these seats were last up in May 2017, the record high for Theresa May’s Conservatives. In a good year, simply holding what we’ve got would be a high bar to clear.

So, what do we say in the first post COVID elections? Looking back to the Queen’s Speech in October 2019, what’s striking is how many themes of the pre-COVID agenda – community, social care, small business, towns – have been driven to the forefront thanks to the pandemic. And many of these ideas knit together: one of the biggest barriers to levelling up is dying town centres. Off the back of the Taylor Review, the proposed Employment Bill was highlighting flexible working and use of technology to increase productivity. Whilst Eat Out to Help Out gave the “use it or lose it” message about local businesses, flexible working means there are people who now have the time and money to get lunch at a local café or stop for essentials in a local shop, rather than a 5am rise for a £30 train then home for 8pm and order online. These points on the national agenda have knock-on effects to the local: small business, levelling up towns, greener transport.

There’s been a surprising return of an old friend in the last few months: the Big Society. Isolation and loneliness, and the knock-on effects to social care and mental health, have been on the backburner for years. The COVID mutual aid groups that sprung up across the country were an organic network of community minded people who wanted to help others, had the ability, and saw the need. They were often made up of the demographic of 30s-50s or younger, professionals, working parents that local initiatives often struggle to engage. When it comes to community, logistics matter. Influenced by Roger Scruton’s Building Better Building Beautiful initiative, in refreshingly plain English the Planning Reform White Paper said this:

“Planning matters. Where we live has a measurable effect on our physical and mental health: on how much we walk, on how many neighbours we know or how tense we feel on the daily journey to work or school.”

Policy and technology affect community. Someone commuting 6am-8pm is not likely to get involved with local initiatives. Technology is a friend that could change the face of the voluntary sector and local government entirely, making it possible for someone to fit in Council around the school run or a 4pm meeting. The Conservative Party should seize on this – and if we don’t, the Greens and the Lib Dems will – because these are the people we need running councils.

It’s helpful because another challenge will be socially distanced recruitment. Campaigners across the country will have breathed a quiet sigh of relief at the prospect of no more rubber chicken dinners. But humans are social creatures and whilst the opportunity for members to have Zoom calls with the Chancellor is fantastic, the remote nature means that the local MP doesn’t meet the new joiners.

The same will be true of campaigning, with social distancing currently means no canvassing. The alternatives to knock-every-door data collection are post (expensive and only a proportion will answer) or demographic targeting. Targeting is not yet perfect and carries risks. But it’s ideally suited for the local elections where only an engaged minority are going to vote. And long-term, the next battle around the corner is for Generation Z. Already, they are the hardest to reach using traditional methods: more likely to live in HMOs or difficult-to-access flats, less likely to read snail mail, more likely to move frequently which affects the data we can manually gather, less likely to engage locally, more likely to engage online. The challenge isn’t just their hearts and minds, but reaching their ears and eyes. If we’re forced away from traditional methods of engagement in 2021, it’s a learning curve for what “normal” will be in twenty years.

After a crisis, any incumbent party is dealt a difficult hand. The temptation is to fight a rear-guard action piecemeal, but we don’t need to do that. Capitalism adapts and we are the party of innovation and opportunity. The solutions we need across the board – on communities, planning, transport, localism, mental health – link together into an achievable local manifesto with the levelling up agenda and compassionate Conservativism at its heart, deliverable in a way that has local communities at the centre. And these are questions that we have to ask and answer now because when we face a shaken and worried electorate in nine months’ time, we need to know what we will say; how we will say it; and what, as Conservatives, we stand for.