Local elections in depth: The Green Belt is an electoral noose for the Conservatives in St Albans

15 Dec

Source: Election Maps.

Case study: St Albans

Control: Lib Dems

Numbers: Lib Dems 30, Conservatives 23, Independents 2, Labour 2, Green Party 1.

Change since last local elections:  Lib Dems +5, Labour -3, Conservatives -1, Independents -1.

All out or thirds: Thirds

Background: St Albans is a cathedral city in Hertfordshire. During the Roman occupation, it was known as Verulamium, the second-largest settlement after Londinium. However, there were some boundary changes and redevelopment schemes after 60 AD when the original settlement was destroyed by Boadicea and her Iceni tribe. At a meeting in St Albans on August 4th 1213, the Magna Carta was drafted. St Albans City and District Council was formed in 1974. Until the 1990s it was mostly under Conservative control. Then the Lib Dems tended to have the upper hand. Though from 2015 to 2019 it was back with a Conservative overall majority. In 2019 it went to “no overall control”. Then in May, the gains made by the Lib Dems gave them an overall majority.

At the last General Election, the Lib Dems gained the St Albans constituency. Former MPs include – Peter Lilley, who in 1992 had a majority of over 16,000. (Before Lilley the seat was held by Sir Victor Goodhew for the Conservatives, usually with comfortable majorities in successive elections.)  Labour gained the seat in 1997 and held on until 2005 when Anne Main won it back for the Conservatives. But it should be noted that in 1997 a new constituency was created, Hitchin and Harpenden, which included several St Albans wards. The seat was held by Lilley until he stood down in 2017. Since then the Conservative MP has been Bim Afolami. But proposed boundary changes mean it will cease to exist.

The Lib Dems have never won the St Albans Parliamentary seat before 2019 – perhaps surprisingly given their better fortunes in the council elections, However, Jacob Bell, the Whig candidate, did defeat a Conservative in a by-election in 1850. The borough was then disenfranchised after a Royal Commission found proof of extensive bribery which is how it became part of Hertfordshire.

Results: Residents of St Albans voted Remain in the EU referendum by almost two to one. As so often, that vote is an important starting point in understanding what has happened since in political developments. Linked to that has been the Lib Dems managing to establish themselves as the clear alternative to the Conservatives here. Hitherto, opposition to the Conservatives was more evenly divided between Labour and the Lib Dems.

Since the M25 was opened by Margaret Thatcher in 1986, house prices in St Albans have risen even more sharply than elsewhere. There is something of a divide between the city centre and the suburbs. Younger public sector professionals live in the centre – often commuting into London. They are well paid – but usually not sufficiently well paid to be able to buy. The Lib Dems have championed the al fresco dining cohort with pedestrianisation schemes. The Conservatives have complained about traffic being dispersed elsewhere and raised the plight of small businesses and white van man.

When it comes to development there is less of a divide. They are all Nimbys. In any case, almost all of St Albans comes under the Green Belt. The Council’s website includes the proud boast:

“The current adopted Local Plan is The District Local Plan Review 1994.”

Not very “current”, is it? 1994 was the year the National Lottery was launched and Four Weddings and a Funeral was the hot new release in the cinema.

Residents may feel that the failure to adopt anything more recent is a sign of anti-development cred. The Green Belt constraints would apply anyway but they do allow development under some circumstances – “infill”, brownfield sites, developments that include “affordable” housing. Not having a Local Plan makes it easier for developers to push it through – if necessary on appeal. But these intricacies are likely to be lost on the electorate.

What of future Conservative prospects? There is a significant Bangladeshi community in St Albans which Labour has traditionally taken for granted. Might that change? As Brexit becomes a settled reality perhaps the anger over that issue may subside and an aspirational, tax-cutting agenda might start to woo liberal urbanite voters (assuming the Conservatives were to adopt such an agenda at some stage).

But housing is probably the key. Supposing the Green Belt rules were changed to give presumption to allow development on unattractive, derelict and contaminated land if environmental gains were offered? That with a hundred acres of wasteland, a developer was allowed to build (traditional) housing on half of it while providing a park on the other half?

Much of St Albans is beautiful – including the Cathedral, of course. But not all of it is. Is St Albans Magistrates Court beautiful? It is not. Suppose it is was knocked down and replaced with neo-classical housing. Then an elegant new Court built on some unloved piece of scuzzy wasteland. Would there really be a conservationist backlash? Surely the City’s pride would be enhanced. Would not the committee of the St Albans Civic Society dance a jig in celebration? Yet under my (admittedly fallible) understanding of the National Planning Policy Framework such an outcome would be illegal, due to Green Belt restrictions.

Does anyone lament the demise of the BHS building in St Peter’s Street? They do not. It is ugly development that is the source of grievance. We should have the flexibility to reverse some of the mistakes of earlier decades.

I understand the most enlightened liberalisation of planning rules will prompt cynicism. But in its present form, the Green Belt is an electoral noose for the Conservatives in places like St Albans. It could be changed in such a way that both conservationists and Generation Rent would applaud.


Sam Hall: How to help poorer people meet the costs of net zero

6 Jul

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.

Last week marked two years since MPs unanimously put into law a target to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Since then, the target has been reaffirmed in the Conservatives’ election-winning manifesto, a raft of carbon-cutting, job-creating policy measures have been implemented, and many other large economies have followed the UK’s lead in setting net zero targets.

Our main challenge now is not the overall cost of the target, which is both affordable and dwarfed by the many benefits, but ensuring fairness in how costs are allocated.

While it is certainly true that net zero will require significant new investment in clean infrastructure and technologies, these investments will bring wide economic benefits, notably a net increase in employment, and will cost less as a share of GDP than the damage caused by unchecked climate change.

As we accelerate emission cuts over the next few years to achieve the UK’s more stringent targets for 2030, this will trigger additional investment in building retrofits, renewable energy, and transport infrastructure, which will ease post-Covid unemployment.

Thanks to the ingenuity of British scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs in developing new technologies and making existing technologies better and cheaper, the overall costs of net zero are being revised downwards all the time. And since clean technologies like electric cars and heat pumps are much more energy efficient than the fossil fuelled equivalents, there are likely to be significant fuel savings for consumers in the long term.

More important than the overall costs is how they will be distributed across society and the economy. Many of net zero’s critics highlight the impact of net zero on the poorest as one of their chief concerns. They are right to make this a priority, although fortunately so far negative distributional effects have been minimal. According to the Climate Change Committee, household energy bills have remained flat since the passage of the 2008 Climate Change Act. But we need to ensure that forthcoming technology changes aren’t regressive either.

This distributional analysis is one of the main focuses of the Treasury’s net zero review, which is currently being finalised on Whitehall. But as well as identifying potential regressive effects, the Treasury must also provide policy solutions. To do this, they can look to a number of excellent recent centre-right think tank proposals on how to drive forward net zero in a way that both enhances fairness, and boosts jobs and the economy.

Take critical clean technologies like carbon capture or low-carbon hydrogen, which due to a lack of scale remain expensive, yet are a promising source of green jobs. When commercialising these nascent industries, we should follow Onward’s recommendation and avoid subsidising them through energy bills, since low-income households spend a greater share of their income on energy.

The government was right recently to cut subsidies for more expensive electric vehicles (EVs), lowering the cap for the Plug-in Car Grant so that vehicles with a sticker price of more than £35,000 were ineligible. Ministers should also consider Bright Blue’s recent call to subsidise second-hand EVs, so that low-income people can benefit from this government funding pot too, and access these cheaper-to-run vehicles.

Similarly, as more people switch to EVs and need affordable overnight charging, we should protect people without private driveaways from paying extortionate prices to use on-street charge points. Policy Exchange has proposed a system of price caps for charge point operators in receipt of public funding.

Fairness is particularly important in the drive to retrofit Britain’s homes for net zero, given the scale of investment required. As Bim Afolami has advocated on this site and Simon Clarke more recently, the Treasury should offer vouchers for the most expensive types of insulation, such as solid wall insulation, and heat pumps. Even though a home’s running costs will be lower after it’s been retrofitted, the upfront costs are often a barrier to people installing these home energy improvements.

Finally, if the Treasury does extend carbon pricing to more of the economy, as is rumoured, it should consider giving some of the money back, in the form of a carbon dividend, to low-income households, as the Centre for Policy Studies has argued.

Once these investments have been made and these technologies adopted, our society will be fairer. People on lower incomes who typically live by busy roads will be less exposed to harmful air pollution. The fuel poor, who live in draughty homes, will spend less on their energy bills each month, while avoiding cold-related ill-health.

And if we replace Fuel Duty with dynamic, congestion-sensitive road pricing, driving will be cheaper for people living in rural areas and towns, who after all have few alternative transport options compared to city dwellers. But to realise these benefits, the government needs to help people make the necessary investments.

If we were to pursue the alternative approach of not mitigating climate change, unfairnesses in society would be exacerbated. Low-income households, for example, are disproportionately exposed to flood risk and to the health impacts of heatwaves, according to the CCC, and due to a lack of savings, they are more financially vulnerable to climate-related hazards. Similarly workers in traditional fossil fuelled industries – concentrated in ‘red wall’ constituencies – would have less opportunity to transition into new green industries and could end up in ‘stranded jobs’ as other countries switch to clean energy.

Some will argue that, in the face of these challenges, we should just abandon net zero, but that would be economically foolish, diplomatically isolating, electorally damaging, and much more besides. Others will argue that it’s not the government’s job to intervene to tackle inequality. But since the government isn’t a passive observer of this technological change, it can and should make sure it doesn’t adversely affect the least well-off and instead reduces their cost of living and makes their lives more convenient.

Now that our climate targets are becoming embedded, net zero politics is entering a new phase. Now is the time to put fairness at the heart of our net zero strategy.

Today’s ConservativeHome online fringe event line-up: Barclay, Buckland, Ford, Glen, Afolami and Courts

3 Oct

And we’re off! Welcome to Day One of our online Party Conference fringe programme. All of today’s ConservativeHome events are listed below, including a range of MPs, ministers, industry voices and experts discussing numerous essential topics, including economic recovery, protecting low-income families, future trade and the prevention of crime.

Participation in all of our events is completely free of charge and is open to Party members and non-members alike. To take part, simply register for your free Party Member or Observer (member of the public) ticket to access the Conservative Party Conference here, and visit the ConservativeHome events area in the Fringe zone.

The ConservativeHome 2020 Conference Programme is kindly sponsored by TheCityUK.

Bim Afolami: Conservatives need a new economic vision

14 Sep

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin and Harpenden.

Covid-19 gives us the chance to examine deeper questions about the nature and direction of economic policy. I believe it is time to have a rethink of our economic philosophy as a Conservative Party, and rediscover some fundamental Conservative principles – which are, and always have been, much broader than support for market economics. We need to embrace an active enterprising state, reformed and reforming, that can help drive an enterprise nation forward. And one with strong environmental credentials, which can deliver an everlasting environment.

Much of current Conservative economic thinking was set in the Thatcherite revolution, succinctly described by Nigel Lawson in 1984 as “increasing freedom for markets to work within a framework of firm monetary and fiscal discipline”. I agree with that and believe that articulates a simple truth at the heart of macroeconomics which is still true.

However, the greatness of Thatcher was not ideological. It was because she was radical in reaching solutions for the economic problems of that time in ways that were rooted in Conservative principles of freedom, opportunity, self-reliance and prosperity on the basis of hard work.

We need to do the same today. Conservative thinking on economic policy has become muddled in recent years. We profess to believe in a balanced budget, but we do not want to reduce government spending. We often talk about reducing bureaucracy and regulations – yet our tax code continues to become more complicated and the quangocracy goes from strength to strength. We believe in devolution, yet the Treasury keeps its iron grip on all major infrastructure decisions. We need to be clear what and who we are for and show how timeless Conservative principles also apply to our new age.

The economy should benefit the person with ideas rather than inheritance. It should support families and communities rather than allowing multinationals to rip them apart in the name of efficiency – the family and small communities are the bedrock of society. It should unashamedly help the British business grow and scale here at home – and be better at supporting our national champions in different sectors. Finally, as climate change worsens, we should aim to make the UK the cleanest economy in the world, truly a Conservative act, conserving our green and pleasant land for our descendants.

I believe that there are five principal, significant, long-term economic problems in the UK at the moment, and that Conservative economic thinking needs to provide a sensible response to them. These are: (i) poor investment and productivity growth; (ii) too much SME debt and too little equity; (iii) growing fiscal challenge; (iv) unbalanced growth – the need to level up; and (v) climate change.

To deal with these we need an enterprising state, which can help power an enterprise nation.

An enterprising state

Central government needs to be a macro-enabler. It needs to use its broad strategic oversight to enable the private sector and devolved parts of the public sector to do transformative things.

The Government has set out its clear intention to build and deliver much more and better infrastructure. Yet the way for us to achieve this cannot be for the Treasury to control every single infrastructure decision of any consequence. We need to facilitate private investment in infrastructure, by allowing many more development corporations to be set up using innovative financing models that allow money to be raised locally.

We should establish a UK Sovereign Wealth Fund (long championed by John Penrose MP) that would create a pot of savings that could pay for state pensions and benefits. The Fund would provide an intergenerationally fair solution that would take some of the burden of these costs from being shouldered by future generations. It would also be an ‘anchor investor’ providing long-term investment capital for British entrepreneurs and start-up businesses and would help provide equity to UK SMEs which have too much debt to grow.

An enterprising state cannot be governed by command and control from Whitehall. We need to give local areas and cities the ability to experiment with different ways of doing things, to learn from their own experiences and from each other. This should have two aspects.

The first is that all regions (particularly in England) need to have a greater degree of fiscal autonomy. We should allow regions to (i) raise local income, sales and tourism taxes (all up to a limit); (ii) make decisions on infrastructure to allow them to give private companies the ability to build and operate new infrastructure; and (iii) give local public services much more freedom on procurement.

The second aspect is that the enterprising state needs to remember that economic growth and success can often come from investment in non-economic things by local people. Investing in a village hall or local library may not have an ostensible economic benefit, but improving the local environment of a small town can have incalculable improvements to the lives of those who live there, and can have significant economic benefits through increased desirability and investment.

An enterprise nation

We Conservatives know that prosperity does not fundamentally come from government. It comes from people willing to start and sustain a business.

We should reduce NI for new hires, keep taxes on the self-employed low, and maintain the difference between capital taxes and income taxes – capital taxes should be low because we should reward those who take risks.

The central government should also work with the private sector to help the UK’s technological landscape. Emerging technologies like blockchain should be utilised to help revolutionise our approach to trade and SME finance through a Centre for Distributed Systems, established in a partnership between the government and the private sector.

On the environment, we need to see this as an economic challenge and opportunity. The state’s role should be twofold. First, the Government needs to continue to issue binding targets for decarbonisation in key areas and give more targets across different areas of the economy.

The second aspect is to provide, and to help corral, the finance required for every aspect of decarbonisation. This finance will be needed to help ensure that there are very few barriers for individuals, communities and businesses which prevent them transitioning into a low carbon future.

Lubricated by this finance, inventors and innovators will be able to take advantage of the UK’s position as the first major country to turbocharge our approach to net zero and export its technologies across the world. This could be transformative for the UK, and the jobs created across all industries will be created all over the country, at different skill levels. Levelling up to save the planet.


What I have tried to do here is to sketch out a new economic vision for the Conservative Party. We can build on the achievements of the past 30 years by addressing our modern weaknesses. We have every chance of leading in the world in a new type of Conservative economics just as we did in the 1980s. We can achieve it.