Paul Maynard: Here’s why I believe as an ex-Minister that a hard rain may indeed be coming for the civil service

31 Aug

Paul Maynard was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport from July 2019 to February 2020. He is MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys.

When an early morning call from Number 10 is scheduled on reshuffle day, then the writing is on the wall. The only question is where you want to be when you are asked to “step aside” from Government. Clearly not my Commons office – like the rest of the estate, mobile reception is at best intermittent.

I sat Portcullis House, but then thought better of being dumped in front of passing colleagues, so I strolled down the Embankment a little to receive the inevitable. The Prime Minister was friendly and had perfected the art of the rueful rejection. No-one will ever describe it as pleasant – unless they had pre-planned their departure.

Rather than head straight back to Parliament, I strolled across Waterloo Bridge in dismal drizzle. Never has the location felt so far removed from the Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset. I certainly wasn’t in paradise, and rather hoped that the only sunset wasn’t that of my political career. From that bridge, I could gaze upon the Whitehall skyline as if it were some hermetic village, peopled by a priestly caste who floated high above my constituents’ supposedly more mundane concerns, and start mulling over my conclusions about how government does and doesn’t work.

More time in my Commons office then lockdown gave me an opportunity – and how we ex-Ministers seek them – to reflect on whether I felt I had achieved much in office, and whether the machinery of government is best equipped to help ministers do what they both wish and need to do to achieve their lofty ambitions.

Indeed, I felt I had achieved, though others may disagree with the footling nature of my supposed achievements. HS2 anyone? I looked back fondly on my promotion of the “sunflower” lanyard across the transport sector as part of the Inclusive Transport review I oversaw when first a transport minister.

That was until I read Michael Gove’s recent and insightful lecture to the Ditchley Foundation – “inclusive lanyards” came in for a bit of stick as a poor substitute for achieving radical change. The sight of so many such lanyards in supermarkets now has given me pause for thought also.

Gove made so many points which did resonate with me though. Not the least was the need for greater specialism by both ministers and civil servants. As the Major Rail Projects Minister, I literally begged to be sent on some course that might enable me to do a better job of holding delivery bodies to account – yet it was always “just around the corner” until the axe fell.

Excellent officials populated all my three differing ministerial stints, yet many seemed to be in perpetual motion as they moved from role to role, barely staying long enough to finish a project they started. There were exceptions – and they were all the more effective for it.

Ministers are often advised to pick three things to achieve within their average 18 month tenure, but even that degree of longevity seems optimistic these days – so fast is the hamster wheel of ministerial life. You realise things are dysfunctional when you find that you know more about an issue than the officials briefing you, or when you seem to be scheduling farewell drinks for someone in your private office every couple of months.

Individual civil servants are sincere, capable and enthusiastic. I was one of those ministers who knew we were just hot air without people to turn our vision into reality. They are easy targets for ministers lacking that subtle art of both listening and hearing.

However, I remember with enthusiasm that, in opposition, think tanks were a steady stream of innovative policy ideas. In particular, I recall Oliver Letwin’s pamphlet on the conveyor belt to crime – but the conveyor belt of fresh ideas seems to have gradually slowed down.

Within Downing Street, we need to reach out and ensure the hothouse of talent can be harnessed better. We have started to shy away from difficult complexity in addressing our policy challenges on the occasions we do decide to try and deal with them.

But for too long, whichever party may be in government, as a nation we have failed on some of the grand challenges. As a party, we have great ideas and insights, but they fail to see the light of day when they come to be put into practice.

I know ministers are often frustrated that they don’t feel they get the guidance they need as to what the centre wants. Involvement only seems to come when something goes wrong. In Canada, on appointment, ministers receive a “mandate letter” setting out what they are expected to achieve by the Prime Minister. Such a move would be both radical and positive, I believe, in this country. In addition, Canadian ministers don’t have to locate themselves in a departmental silo. The team of officials is built around their briefs – relatively narrow briefs which change as political priorities wax and wane.

So we need to try much, much harder to burst the departmental silos. Whilst some ministers sit across government departments, and the Cabinet Office has at times acted as an enforcer of key themes, on some of the really big thematic underpinnings of policy, Whitehall has not been able to effectively co-ordinate.

Ministerial committees are flabby, too full of a mix of posturing and defensiveness, as ministers defend the turf or score points off colleagues rather than collaborate to achieve. They always struck me as akin to the “boardroom” section of The Apprentice. It isn’t enough just to have someone in your private office picking up the phone to a distant department a small part of whose remit you hold the brief for, if only in theory. Build the structure around the minister’s mission.

That’s why I think we should appoint a pair of cross-government thematic ministers based in Cabinet Office, with the right to attend cabinet, focusing on social justice, infrastructure or inter-generational solidarity – as a test-bed for a new way of structuring Whitehall.

Is the answer to relocate Civil Service decision-making, as some suggest? If it is a case of aping the BBC and transplanting the denizens of Barnes to equally affluent Bowdon, modish Hackney to already-gentrified Hale, then the answer is no. Was the sole reason it was mooted sending the Lords to York was because senior civil servants had found some highly desirable Victorian villas they could afford in Harrogate?

If it is locating, not just processing, PIP claims to Blackpool (hundreds are already here), but those who come up with the processes and financial provisions within which those decisions have to be made, then yes. It needs to be more than a sop to the newly-won constituencies. Indeed, we’d be happy to host the Lords in Blackpool’s magnificent Winter Gardens ballroom where so many of them once strutted their stuff at party conferences.

History is littered with temporary bursts of enthusiasm for reforming the machinery of government or replanting clumps of civil servants in stonier ground. Often this is because it is seen to be an end in itself, rather than measured by whether the fundamental outputs change. Maybe this time will be different – the very scale of the challenge we now face with Covid will force through some radical innovation.

My knowledge of the Wade-Giles romanization methodology for Mandarin doesn’t allow me to confirm whether the Chinese characters for “crisis” and “opportunity” are in fact one and the same, as one endlessly-repeated ‘fact’ that is trotted out states. But even if they aren’t, it has to be how we approach the coming years.

The machinery of state has shown itself to lack the bandwidth and agility required to deliver complexity at pace. A hard rain may indeed be coming, if only because there is no alternative. Far worse, perhaps, would be the ‘spits and spots’ of precipitation beloved of BBC forecasters. Do it properly or not at all.

Andy Street: One, two, three – it’s a hat-trick of coming Conservative Party conferences for Birmingham

28 Jul

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

For years, the Party conference season was synonymous with the seaside. With the Commons in recess, delegates headed to places like Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton, to shape policy in the midst of seaside rock and ‘kiss me quick’ hats.

All that changed in 2008, with a bold decision that sent an important message about Conservative commitment to urban, modern Britain. The conference came to Brum. Last week, I was delighted when Amanda Milling returned here to announce that we will be hosting three more conferences – in 2022, 2024 and 2026.

It was an announcement that was greeted with real excitement. Birmingham is a hospitality city, with exhibition and conference venues that have made us leaders in “business tourism” in the UK.

Holding the Party Conference brings great benefits, both economic and more symbolic ones.

Firstly, of course, Conference brings income to the host city – estimated to be worth £20 million for each conference. This is great news for the region’s economy and jobs as we attempt to safely restart the economy post lockdown.

Major conference and exhibition venues like the NEC and ICC directly employ many thousands of local people, and the West Midlands’ hospitality sector also supports a region-wide supply chain, from hotels, restaurants, bars, events companies, and marketers. This vital sector was brought to a complete halt by Coronavirus. It is no wonder last week’s announcement was so well received, coming hot on the heels of the Prime Minister’s announcement that exhibitions could reopen from October 1.

Secondly, the return of Conference to Brum gives us an opportunity to underline our region’s relationship with and connection to Government – bringing, since 2010, the whole Government to the region. Much has been said about the need for Government to escape their South East bubble to connect more with communities north of Watford. By relocating to Birmingham for Conference, ministers will see first-hand how their investments, guided by devolved decision-making and local expertise, are helping level-up the economy.

Thirdly it gives us the chance to showcase the City and wider region. While the traditional warm Brummie welcome hasn’t changed, delegates and the media will notice plenty of visible improvements to Birmingham. They highlight the renaissance that has transformed the Second City in recent years and is set to continue.

When delegates arrive in 2022, a better-connected Birmingham will still be buzzing with the afterglow of the summer’s Commonwealth Games. Trams will have once again become a familiar sight, running past the Conference venue, the length of Broad Street and out towards Edgbaston. We will have seen further huge improvements in the City’s transport network – with the complete rebuilding of University Station (winning Government funding last week).

New, first-generation Sprint bus routes, which months before shuttled international spectators between Commonwealth Games venues, will be bringing people to a city centre transformed by the completion of the £700 million Paradise development. By 2022 Birmingham’s bold, bright new future will be firmly here.

Finally, the location of the annual conference reiterates the political importance of the UK’s cities to our party. When David Cameron moved our annual conference from the traditional seaside setting to our great cities it underlined the party’s ambition to win again in urban Britain. After all, until 1997 those cities contributed an important cohort of MPs and Cabinet Ministers to Conservative Government.

However, that drive to win back urban Britain has proved an elusive challenge, despite the election victories of 2010 and 2015. Even when the “red wall” was breached in 2019 Labour bastions in Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds proved resistant. Indeed, of these cities, only Leeds has conservative councillors.

For this entire period, the only Conservative MP in any of our great cities was Andrew Mitchell in Sutton Coldfield. But it was in Brum that the break-through came. In 2019, for the first time since 1987, the Party gained a big city seat – Birmingham Northfield. This was a hugely important and symbolic win for the Party, showing we can win in cities again.

More importantly it has given the people of Northfield constituency a dedicated, effective and sincere champion in Gary Sambrook. Gary has already proved tenacious in fighting for his area – and is pushing, for instance, for further regeneration of the former Rover factory site at Longbridge. Much has already been done to reclaim what had been a derelict eyesore for many years – but Northfield’s new MP is determined to create even more jobs and opportunities there.

Birmingham also sets the pace when it comes to Conservative representation on local authorities in urban Britain. Unlike the other big cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, the Conservatives have run the council here in recent memory and retain a strong, influential base of councillors, led by indomitable campaigner Robert Alden.

In the last local elections Labour’s majority across a city of ten parliamentary constituencies comprised just 4483 votes – less than 500 per constituency, a tiny majority. Indeed, when you consider that my own majority averages 135 in each constituency, it shows how closely fought elections are in our area.

There is a real possibility that when delegates arrive in Birmingham for the conference in 2022, they will be visiting a growing city of more than a million people with a Conservative-led Council. If we are serious in our ambition to be a party that reflects a modern and diverse Britain, achieving this outcome must be a reality.