Ben Houchen: The Budget. On Wednesday, Sunak must hear the voice of the North – and kickstart a new era of job creation.

26 Feb

Ben Houchen is the Mayor of the Tees Valley.

With spirits buoyed by the Prime Minister’s roadmap out of pandemic restrictions, and the light at the end of the Covid tunnel finally in sight, all eyes now turn to the Budget on March 3.

This could be one of the most influential Budgets, both for our nation and for the region I represent, in a generation. Crucial decisions need to be weighed and judged by the Chancellor to ensure that our comeback from Covid is powerful and that the light at the end of that tunnel proves to shine on a better future.

There is no doubt in my mind that the top priority for Rishi Sunak is jobs and rebuilding the economy – an economy battered by the necessary restrictions on lives and livelihoods. I know from talking to local businesses how many are fighting on the edge, and it’s to the Government’s credit that the furlough scheme and other financial support have kept so many businesses alive and people in employment.

The “Red Wall” communities in my area overwhelmingly backed Boris Johnson in the last election, and it’s essential that the faith they put in him is returned. The Prime Minister promised a new kind of government, free of Brussels blinkers and Whitehall hand-wringing, which would address ordinary people’s concerns.

The best way to prevent low incomes and low opportunities from blighting the lives and hopes of adults and children, especially in the UK’s left-behind communities, is to do all we can to create new, good quality, well-paid jobs, on an unprecedented scale.

However, for a jobs agenda to be effective, it needs to be directed with strategy and precision. This can’t be an illusory statistical employment growth driven by foreign workers on contracts in the south. At the last election, the country was promised better policymaking for towns, villages and rural areas, and a transformative levelling up programme which would see growth, prosperity, and potential finally realised in communities across the nation.

This is the moment for a step-change in that levelling up agenda, to drive a jobs revolution in areas like Teesside, Darlington, and Hartlepool. Only by marrying the levelling up agenda to the jobs agenda will we ensure that new growth is serious, sustained, and benefits everyone.

There are two key ways in which the Chancellor can kick-start the recovery, levelling up, and the creation of good quality, well-paid jobs in my area. I and my team have done the groundwork, and the question is: will the Government grasp these golden opportunities?

The first, and most essential, step needed is for the Chancellor to give the green light to my plans for the Teesside Freeport. With thousands of acres of developable land, the largest deep-water port on the east coast, a nation-leading focus on delivering net zero technology and clean growth, and a pathway to pioneering innovations to support the whole UK freeport ecosystem, I passionately believe that a Teesside Freeport can be a jobs dynamo, a roaring engine of economic growth, and a flag-bearing project for Global Britain.

There are huge opportunities for job creation here. The wide package of tax reliefs, simplified customs procedures and streamlined planning processes freeports will benefit from can bring in the investment needed to unlock Teesside’s latent economic power.

Sunak was an early supporter of freeports himself, so I know that he understands the enormous potential we have here. The Teesside Freeport could create more than 18,000 skilled, good-quality, well paid jobs over the next five years and boost the local economy by £3.2billion. It would also increase inward investment into Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool by over £1.4 billion.

Now the Chancellor needs to have the courage to overrule any official arguing to delay pressing ahead with this game-changing jobs catalyst. As soon as Sunak gives us the green light, I’ll be driving this forward, unleashing the potential of Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool.

The second action I’m looking for from the Chancellor is another where I know he understands the opportunity, but where again he needs to cut down the unimaginative Sir Humphreys within his department.

The Government’s plan to relocate 22,000 senior Whitehall civil servants out of London by 2030 will see 800 civil servants moved from Sunak’s own department to a new northern economic campus, dubbed “Treasury North”.

The vast majority of people don’t live in metropolitan cities, they live in our towns, our villages, in the countryside and on the coast. By moving out of London these civil servants will be able to develop a greater understanding of the issues and opportunities people are confronted with on a daily basis and, ultimately, develop better policy that is anchored in real knowledge gained by living in the communities it will impact the most.

For decades, talented local people in my area, graduates of fantastic northern universities and people who should have played an important part in our communities, have been sucked away by over-centralised bureaucracy. Now this self-perpetuating cycle can be broken. More than 100 local business leaders, both Teesside and Durham Universities, and political leaders from across the political spectrum have backed my proposal to bring Treasury North to Teesside.

It would be tragic if the prospect of opportunity and in-tune government was dissolved into a cluster of London civil servants being flown to Manchester, Leeds, or Newcastle. Such an outcome would fail to deliver better policymaking for towns like Hartlepool or Darlington, villages like Stillington or Skinningrove, or rural areas far and wide, and it would fail to deliver the promised levelling up agenda.

On Wednesday, the Chancellor has the chance to set a defining roadmap for our economic recovery from Covid. As a northern MP himself, I believe that he will hear the voice of the North and kickstart a new era of job creation. The tools are in his hands. The nation is waiting for Sunak to equip us to get to work and create the jobs of tomorrow.

Robert Halfon: The Conservatives were the party of affordable and social housing – and must be again

24 Feb

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Conservatives need to remember something forgotten about our past. We were once the party that brought social housing to the people that needed it throughout this country.

In 1951, Tories went into a General Election with the phrase, “housing is the first of the social services”, proudly sat at its heart. Echoes of this could be heard when the PM last summer committed to “not just to defeating Coronavirus but to using this crisis to tackle this country’s great unresolved challenges of the last three decades.” The first of which he said was housing. He is right, but I think we can go further with the housing we need.

The 1951 manifesto made clear that access to a good home, an affordable home, was central to productivity, family life and good health. This sentiment – this vision – is as relevant today as it was then. The difference, however, is today we have lost our way in making that vision achievable.

Harold Macmillan, the then minister in charge of delivery, ensured that the Government beat its target of 300,000 homes a year, and good homes at that. I know this, because I am proud to represent a small part, in the form of my constituency of Harlow. Our town was created as part of the post-World War housing boom, started by a Labour government but accelerated by a Conservative one.

These homes were true homes as well. Safe, secure, affordable and designed to be far better than what had come before. New Towns like Harlow were – and some will be surprised by this – incredibly popular. They were also made possible by Government investment in social housing. Housing that ensured everyone, whoever they might be and whatever they did, could benefit from the delivery of this vision that everyone should have a home, whatever their background.

In 1979, the BBC broadcast a show about Britain’s New Towns and visited Harlow. It interviewed both those who had moved out of shoddy accommodation in London, as well as the children for whom the town had always been home.

Harlow had been gifted, by both Labour and the Conservatives, a proud community who lived in quality social housing that allowed them to prosper. Children had a great start in life. They had fields to play in, good local schools to attend, sculptures to inspire them, their own bedrooms for big ideas to be imagined.

Unfortunately, this is where the story of Harlow and of housing takes a turn.

Nobody, not Macmillan, not Churchill, or Atlee for that matter, intended the post-War investment to be the final investment. To build the New Towns and that be that. Yet, in a way, this is what happened. Investment in housing wound down and the focus on the delivery of social housing took a 40-year back seat to reach a position like the one we are in now, with fewer than 7,000 new social homes a year being built.

A failure to deliver a positive vision for housing has consequences. Consequences whereby families are placed into, what can only be described as human warehouses – unsuitable, former office blocks – away from their communities, their families, in an act of social cleansing by predominantly London Labour councils. There’s no room to build a better life. There is one room and in it you eat, you watch TV and you sleep.

Families are in unsafe conditions. Exposed to vulnerable people. Parents are exhausted, taking their children on long commutes to distant schools. This is not how we used to do it. It is not a fair offer – it isn’t a Conservative offer.

Fortunately, the MHCLG Secretary of State is well aware this is not good enough and is taking steps to improve such conversions, demanding quality housing and more say by local councils.

However, this doesn’t tackle the underlying problem: that instead of measuring our housing success in the places we build and opportunities we bring, we engage in a relentless pursuit of “units”. We are doing this the wrong way round. Homes should not be measured in units delivered but in lives transformed.

Temporary accommodation, which is what many office-block conversions through permitted development rights often are, cost councils almost £2 billion in 2019/20. That’s a 55 per cent increase since 2014/15 and is money that by and large we pay to private landlords for providing unsuitable homes.

This is absurd. And we see it right across England. For example, in Blackpool, almost three-quarters of private renters are having to rely on housing benefit and yet the local authority is blocked from applying for grants for social homes due to the current rules. That doesn’t then mean public money is not spent, but instead of spending it on building homes to be proud of, we send it into the hands of private companies.

I share the ambition of the Prime Minister and the Government to unlock home ownership for a new generation. I am proud to be a part of the party that has done so much to champion it through measures like Right to Buy. But I also see no contradiction in being both the party of the home owner and the party of social housing. Quite the reverse.

By building the social homes we need, we may in fact be truly demonstrating that we are the party of home ownership. Not doing so, has made home ownership an impossible dream for too many.

Being stuck in an overpriced private rental market is the real barrier to ownership. According to Shelter, 63 per cent of people in private rented households have absolutely no savings at all. Two in five (40 per cent) of the population have less than £100 in savings. It is just not possible to save for a deposit if your money is having to all go into the pocket of a landlord.

Moveover, overcrowding has massively increased in the rental sector – from 187,000 homes in 2011 to over 300,000 right now. An affordable, social home would be.

Perhaps some Conservatives will be fearful of trusting local authorities with something like building homes – they fear they would be wasteful and slow. Surely, however, just as we can support academies as the model for delivering our schools, we should consider the role of Housing Associations in being a private route to social housing.

But for Housing Associations to succeed, we need a Conservative Government to unlock their potential. Because right now, social homes just aren’t being built. In fact, more than half of local authorities delivered no social rent homes at all last year and 50 local authorities have now gone five years without delivering a single social home.

We need to enable and incentivise better about what we need. Housing Associations are currently building a lot of shared ownership because that’s what policy is pushing them towards. Even without any extra investment we could change this by simple measures like increasing the flexibility provided around grant rates.

For example, the current grant rate for social housing is too low in most parts of the country and that means Housing Associations have to build more market sale and shared ownership to cross subsidise. If we removed the grant rate cap, or raised it, they could build more social rent.

We also need to look at how the current regulations and tax systems benefit the big developers making homes for private sale. The scales are too weighted towards helping the big boys at the expense of the communities they are building in. The recent plan to expand the small sites exception will make this worse. Currently, new developments of up to 10 units are exempt from providing any community benefit or affordable housing. The proposal to increase this exemption to between 40 and 50 units should be reconsidered.

Instead, the Government should look at how that contribution is made more effective. They have said they will replace the current method through Section 106 contribution with a new infrastructure levy, recognising that right now the system isn’t doing enough. However, the proposals need a lot more detail and could benefit from embracing existing good practice that we see in places like South Gloucestershire, where the Conservative-run council continues to be number one in the country for building social housing.

Finally, the Government should listen to the advice it received from the former Cabinet Minister, Oliver Letwin. His review into why homes weren’t getting built pointed directly at the cost of land. Innovative proposals around how to address this by changing the way we interpret phrases like “market value” exist and are worthy of consideration. Not least, because the status quo, in which land can rocket by 275 times its value following the grant of planning consent, are only creating perverse incentives to trade in land instead of building actual homes.

This Conservative government should not be afraid to fix the rules that are currently breaking our country’s housing market.

At the end of 2019, we earned the trust of the country by promising that we would make their tomorrow better than their today. During this pandemic, our Prime Minister rightly promised to build back better. We should, and we can, do all this if we again become the party of social housing.

Emily Carver: Covid has exposed the flaws in our education system. It’s time for a radical rethink.

24 Feb

Emily Carver is Head of Media at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Over the course of this pandemic, J S Mill’s “harm principle” has been used to rationalise the decision to lockdown. At first glance this appears reasonable, however, it rests on the assumption that the harm caused by the virus exceeds that of lockdown. It will be many months before we fully comprehend the impact of the restrictions, but the former assumption may be flawed when applied to education.

The Prime Minister has now confirmed that schools will reopen in March, which will no doubt come as a relief to parents up and down this country. But the temporary school closures, and the disruption of nearly a whole year of education, have severely affected children’s well-being and educational progress – the impact of which will be felt for many years.

The toll on mental health is already recognised. In a survey of over 10,000 parents, over half said they had seen a negative change in the mental health of their children since lockdown. The rates of probable mental disorders among children have risen considerably, increasing from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in July 2020. Anecdotally, parents are reporting a rise in disordered eating, anxiety and loneliness.

Far from being a leveller, the pandemic has, inevitably, impacted disproportionately the education of the already disadvantaged. During the first lockdown, primary age children from the richest third of families received four and a half more hours of learning time compared to those from the poorest third of families. This has compounded pre-existing inequities and is nothing short of a scandal.

Months on, children from middle-class households are still, on average, spending considerably more time learning than those from working-class households. Regional inequalities are also stark, with children in London and the South East spending more time on schoolwork, both online and offline, than those in other parts of the country.

The Government plans to give schools a cash boost to fund “catch up” classes during the summer holidays, and to pay staff to work additional hours to support children who have fallen behind. Such interventions are welcome and should hopefully go some way to mitigating the impact of the last year on pupils’ progress.

However, this will be little more than a sticking plaster unless the Government addresses the broader, more structural problems in our schooling system. It is no secret that our education system is failing many children in this country; you only have to look to the international league tables to see that the UK is underperforming compared to Asian countries, as well as a number of European nations. This should be a national embarrassment.

While it is certainly true that our elite schools, in both the independent and state sector, are some of the highest performing in the world, too many are lagging behind. If the Government is as serious about education as it claims to be, there needs to be a renewed effort to address the system’s failings. It is simply disgraceful that somewhere between 15 and 20 per cent of our young people may be “functionally illiterate” when they leave school!

So, where do we go from here? A new paper by the Institute of Economic Affairs argues this could be the time for a radical rethink of our education system.

To begin with, why do we insist children start school by age five? This is earlier than in most other developed countries and actually dates back to a time when the majority of children left school at ten. Considering that teachers have reported that significant numbers of children are quite simply unprepared to start school at this age (another scandal), it may well be the case that children would be better off entering school a little later, when they are more ready to benefit from formal education. Of course, this will have an impact on pre-schooling arrangements which, at present, greatly advantage the better off. It also seems inexplicable that we have children entering reception classes with almost a year between the oldest and youngest in the class, which has been proven to disadvantage summer babies.

Longer school days have been mooted by politicians over the years, including by the former Education Secretary Michael Gove, but little has changed. If additional classes help those falling behind now due to the pandemic, why not be bold, and extend this into the future? Not only would this allow more scope for extra-curricular activities – something that has been sorely missed during the past year – but the extra hours would allow for homework to be replaced by supervised class work – a welcome move for those pupils who struggle to work from home and a way to improve the educational outcomes of the less advantaged.

However, such policies could prove difficult to implement. The teaching unions have been very resistant to government policy over the course of the pandemic and could present a rather stubborn obstacle in the way of any radical reform of the school year. In order to pursue any meaningful change, the Government would need to amend the national contract, which is tied to the traditional school year, and which the unions may perceive as an existential assault on their influence. Of course, the majority of teachers are not as intransigent as their union representatives and may be more flexible in their attitude towards change, if well-argued.

Successful academies, independent schools and free schools have provided useful models for a way ahead. Free from the restrictions of the national contract, such schools have been able to innovate with their education provision, experiment with the length of the school day and diversify their curricula. It is interesting that many of these institutions serve less-advantaged children and are led by headteachers who advocate “traditional” methods of knowledge-based learning, discipline and pride in the institution itself. Further academisation may provide the flexibility we need to boost standards significantly.

And why not offer parents more choice? The Government currently pays schools a “pupil premium” to support disadvantaged pupils. This amounts to £1,345 for every primary age pupil and £955 for those in secondary school. However, parents have no say in how this is spent. We know how much private tuition can benefit children’s learning, so why not place more power in the hands of less well-off parents and redirect this money in the form of vouchers, which could then be used to hire tutors or for other educational purposes?

It would be naïve to suggest that there are quick fixes to the myriad of challenges facing any secretary of state for education. However, it is clear that this pandemic has shown up fundamental fault lines in the provision of schooling in this country. If the Government is really serious about levelling-up, there has to be a reconsideration of the way in which we provide education; it is neither moral nor sensible to congratulate ourselves on our elite schools and universities when so many children leave school ill-equipped to enter adult life. It is in the interests of everyone to have a well-educated, workforce at the heart of a successful, vibrant economy.

Andrew RT Davies: Wales. Here’s how we can extinguish the dangerous flame of separatism.

24 Feb

Andrew RT Davies is the leader of the Welsh Conservatives and Assembly Member for South Wales Central.

One of the many unfortunate, if unintended, consequences of the Blair devo-revolution has been to undermine the Union’s sense of “permanence” – both from an ideological and an institutional perspective.

Designed to see off the nationalist threat, devolution has merely shifted the political narrative into an endless cycle of debates around further powers, with little correlation emerging between the performance of devolved governments and the level of support for independence.

It’s scarcely been more fashionable among constitutional experts (and BBC journalists) to view separatism as inevitable, but I certainly don’t share the view that it’s a foregone conclusion. Far from it.

The patriotic fightback has started and, as the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, these are some of the steps I want to see us take to extinguish the dangerous flame of separatism.

Put ‘Project Fear’ on ice and champion the pride of Britain

As Unionists we can often be guilty of basing arguments in process or economics. All very valid, and all incredibly important, but we need to own the emotive, patriotic argument – remembering and learning the valuable lessons from the victorious Brexit campaign many of us were part of.

We need to put “Project Fear” on ice and champion the pride of Britain.

I’m a proud Welshman. Proud of a Wales that consistently punches above its weight on the sporting and cultural scene, and has been to the fore on the pandemic frontline in delivering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine through Wrexham-based firm, Wockhardt.

But I’m also a proud Brit. Incredibly proud of our world-leading armed forces, our pharmaceutical industry, our rule of law and our enviable creative industries.

It’s the very best of our country and a symbol of the greatest union the world has ever seen – socially, culturally and economically. Why would we want to undermine and banish that great unity for division and separation?

But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels and the British state can do more. Why don’t our great institutions such as the Imperial War Museum, National Gallery, British Library project themselves into Wales? That footprint can and should be easily corrected. Let’s do it.

And yes, where appropriate let’s champion the economic benefits too. In Wales, we’ve benefited enormously through the various support schemes delivered during the pandemic by the Government, which have saved hundreds of thousands of Welsh jobs during the recent crisis, and are now saving thousands of lives with Britain’s hugely successful vaccination programme.

I’m a proud Welshman and proud Brit and make no apology for it, and that’s the turf I want to see us fight on. Let’s dictate the terms of engagement, and redouble our efforts to make the positive and patriotic case for Wales, Britain and the Union.

Minister of the Union and inter-governmental relations

There’s no greater champion of the UK than the Prime Minister, and he’s taken the duty head-on with responsibility as Minister for the Union, working alongside the three excellent secretaries of state.

One of the PM’s greatest strengths is on the campaign trail and while it was brilliant to welcome him to Wales last week, it’s a shame current restrictions prevent him from engaging more widely with the public on his agenda to level up all parts of the UK, which will be the cornerstone of securing the Union’s long-term future.

It’s been well briefed in the press that Lord Dunlop’s (as yet unpublished) report recommends the creation of a new cabinet position for the Union, and suggests that it should be elevated in line with the other great offices of state to help keep the UK intact.

Whether this is necessary is a call for the PM, and the PM alone, but one area I have long felt needs attention is inter-governmental relations within the UK.

It’s my personal view the Joint Ministerial Committee requires urgent reform/reprioritisation to improve collaboration and decision-making, particularly with Brexit and the significance of UK-wide frameworks.

The devolved leaders are mischievous at the best of times and their aims are not always aligned to ours, particularly Holyrood’s EU-flag-waver-in-chief.

But an overhaul is required to shower them with attention and keep them in check, particularly when they pretend they have responsibility for areas they do not.

Unleash the opportunities of Brexit

While it may seem counter-intuitive, particularly given the strength of feeling in Scotland on the issue, Brexit provides us with an opportunity to reaffirm the benefits of our Union, and to shift the focus onto a positive discussion around the country itself.

The UK’s new found agility has allowed us to save lives thanks to a dynamic procurement strategy and rapid rollout of Coronavirus vaccinations, in comparison to the European Union’s overly bureaucratic and beleaguered jabs programme. Team GB at its best!

But there are other tangible benefits to Brexit, with the automatic repatriation of a vast array of new powers to these shores, including the devolved nations.

We need to ensure the new Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) delivers for our poorest communities – levelling up our country – and reaching people who were for so long ignored.

This is an exciting opportunity for the Conservative government to transform all four corners of our country, and a game-changing regeneration scheme would be a powerful cocktail to the politics of division, separation and hate.

Devolution should never have been about power-fanatics in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood or Stormont – it’s about local communities

The biggest failure of Welsh devolution has been the hoarding of power in Cardiff Bay with people in north Wales feeling as disconnected with the Senedd as they ever did with the EU.

Devolution was meant to bring power and decision-making closer to communities, and it’s not too late to ensure that’s the case, albeit the UK government will have to be the driving force.

It’s important UK government spending is effectively targeted and given the PM’s ambition for large-scale projects, I’d like to see the designation of “Union Highways” that would unblock Wales’s arterial routes on the M4, A40 and A55 and boost important cross-border growth.

Where devolved government fails, let’s help local authorities and the communities they serve.

No more referendums, no new constitutional chaos, but a sole focus on recovery

People in all corners of the country want to see politicians across the UK working in partnership to focus on defeating Coronavirus and the other challenges we face.

And whatever happens post-May, the UK government should stay strong. The Scottish referendum of 2014 was a once-in-a-generation vote, one which the separatists lost. End of.

The energy and resources of governments at Westminster, Cardiff Bay, Holyrood or Stormont should be focused on our post-pandemic recovery. Anything else would be unforgivable.

And as we emerge from this crisis, Conservative energies must be focused on improving everyday lives and rebuilding our economy, which will be the best antidote to the constitutional fanatics.

So let’s back Wales, back Britain and get on with the patriotic job of building back our country better than ever.

Paul Howell and Heather Wheeler: Full HS2 is critical to our election commitment to rebalance the economy

16 Feb

Paul Howell is the MP for Sedgefield and Heather Wheeler is the MP for South Derbyshire.

After our landslide election victory last year, the Prime Minister made a promise to unite the country and level-up our nations and regions. The jobs-first approach and once in a generation levels of public investment in infrastructure announced by the Chancellor in his spending review set our party on course to deliver on these promises, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic.

The Chancellor has invested in supporting businesses and individuals throughout the pandemic – at massive cost to the Exchequer. But now that the vaccine is being rapidly rolled out across the country, we need to start thinking seriously about the economic recovery. We feel strongly that we need to invest in infrastructure and that in particular, investing in new rail lines, upgrades and new train fleets is one of the best ways to do so.

As Members of Parliament representing constituencies in the Midlands and the North East, we are pleased to see reform of the Treasury’s Green Book rules to unlock future public investment for our regions. Too often in the past, a rigid interpretation of the rules has led to spending in London and the South East, with areas such as ours being overlooked. The reforms under consideration have the potential to turn the situation on its head – essential if we are going to achieve our goals of levelling up.

The publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy is also welcome, as is the unequivocal support it provides for High Speed 2 – our flagship national transport project.

When the Government gave HS2 the go-ahead it recognised that it will deliver vital connectivity, cut journey times and boost capacity. We are aware of the current calls to cancel the project outright given the impact of Coronavirus. However, as Andrew Stephenson recently said, to do so would “send a terrible signal out globally about the UK intending to build back better from Covid-19.”

With over half of the Phase 1 budget for the line from London to Birmingham already spent or contracted to, such calls are frankly nonsensical, and would lead to the loss of 13,000 jobs directly employed by HS2 and tens of thousands more in the supply chain.

Construction is well underway across the route, and British businesses are benefiting, such as County Durham based Cleveland Bridge, a world-leading steel engineering company. It produced twenty-four massive steel girders that form part of the first of HS2’s new modular bridges, recently installed over the A446 in Solihull in just 45 minutes.

Instead, we must continue with this once in a generation investment into UK plc. HS2 will serve as a much-needed catalyst for economic change across many of the cities and towns that are now Conservative constituencies. Many of these areas have seen positive change over recent years but such is the scale of the economic challenge that our levelling-up agenda must double down on investments such as these to drive economic growth and opportunity. This is made all the more important in light of the ongoing battle to contain Covid-19 across the UK, but particularly in our Blue Wall areas.

And to counter those who say the impact of home working and changes to commuting, or the future widespread introduction of autonomous vehicles means that we should no longer invest in rail, we say that is wrong. Demand for rail travel rose year on year since privatisation in 1995 – and pre-pandemic was predicted to go on rising – and we see no reason for this to change in the longer term. HS2 is intended to have an operating life of 120 years; it is right that we are thinking long term and investing in high-speed rail, just as virtually every advanced economy in the world is doing.

Try telling people in Japan, Germany, South Korea, China, Turkey and elsewhere that such investment is a waste of money and you will get an incredulous response. With many more countries now developing national and international high-speed rail networks, we have the opportunity in the UK to establish a world leading capability and export new trains, equipment and expertise to the likes of India, Australia, Scandinavia and many more. This opportunity is too often overlooked, but it has huge potential.

Making sure the British public gets the best bang for their buck from our flagship national transport project and that it truly delivers for the whole country will be vital. Anything less would be a missed opportunity. That is why HS2’s Phase 2b, Midlands Engine Rail, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and our plans to reverse Beeching’s cuts must also get the green light from the Integrated Rail Plan, which we are eagerly awaiting. Furthermore, investing in rail, and shifting people away from car and domestic air travel, is critical to achieving the Government’s net zero targets.

The opportunity from this unprecedented public investment is not just about new tracks, wires, bridges and tunnels – important though they are. We represent areas with rich and unrivalled heritage of train building, with two major rolling stock factories (Bombardier Transportation in Derby and Hitachi Rail in Newton Aycliffe) directly employing thousands of our constituents and supporting many thousands more jobs in their British supply chains.

After too many years of decline, when we saw British train building virtually extinguished, train building is back.

We now have two established UK factories employing highly skilled workers who are producing new trains that improve the journeys of British passengers. Were they to secure the order for the new fleet of very high-speed trains it would secure jobs and investment in regions outside HS2’s Phase 1 route, thereby spreading the programme’s benefits more evenly across the country to regions like the East Midlands and the North East. More broadly, it would enhance and protect vital existing investment in rail manufacturing at a time when the pandemic has created uncertainty across the rail sector.

We cannot waste the opportunity that our Government’s high-speed rail investment plans presents. Using it to level-up the economic fortunes of the areas we represent will make good on the Prime Minister’s promise to first time Tory voters at the last election – to unite our country and re-balance our economy. It is time to build back better.

Philip Mitchell and Chris Goddard: 2020 was a reality check on China. Trade offers opportunities for the UK to assert its values.

15 Feb

Chris Goddard and Philip Mitchell are both members of Lewes Conservative Political Forum.

2020 provided a reality check in relation to China: no longer was it enough to promise, as the Cameron and May administrations had done, that Britain was “open for business” and that unpleasant features of Chinese nationalism could be overlooked because of trade. The scaling back of Huawei technology by Johnson provided a foretaste of a harder-edged response to growing Chinese influence throughout the world coupled with a realisation that, while trade normalises relations, it does not cure aggression or safeguard human rights.

Three events in particular have bought that reality into sharp focus. First, the introduction of the Hong Kong security law as an excuse to snuff out the remnants of democracy in that beleaguered territory has made plain that China regards any interference in its “internal affairs” as illegitimate and indeed worthy of denunciation – so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy”.

Second, as Nus Ghani has recently pointed out in these pages, there is increasing evidence that China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity in its repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, prompting the US already to take punitive action in the form of its Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act.

The UK’s response has so far been limited to outbursts of righteous indignation from the Foreign Secretary. Ghani has (unsuccessfully) proposed that the current Trade Bill includes a provision whereby trade with nations can be restrained by the courts if genocide is adjudged to have taken place.

Third we have the widely reported news that Ofcom has revoked the broadcasting licence of the CGTN – the overseas division of Chinese Central Television – on the grounds that, contrary to the conditions of its licence, CGTN is not an independent entity but is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and echoes its political line (for instance on Hong Kong).

It’s ironical that this move emanates from a mere regulatory body rather than any grave political decision, and yet it is likely to cause the most damage in future relations. This is because China does not recognise that administrators can act independently of governments and a political motive is automatically attributed.

A crucial dilemma has thus arisen for UK policy makers: is it right to call out China for its alleged abuses, being prepared to countenance a period of diplomatic deep freeze of a sort currently existing with Putin’s Russia? Or do we have to accept that the Chinese are likely to respond actively to what they see as hostility, and likely damage the substantial trading relationship which the two countries currently enjoy?

Trade and Environment

As for UK-China trade, the UK imports £49 billion worth of Chinese goods while China imports from the UK £31 billion. While this is a substantial figure and the imbalance does not seem outrageous, it should be remembered that the population difference between the two countries means that the UK per capita amount is approximately £1,500 while for China it is only £25.

Ordinary consumers are not necessarily aware of this – and perhaps they don’t care – as although packaging will show the country of origin, there is no such requirement with online sales. At a time when the UK is urgently looking to improve its trading relationships with countries beyond the EU, is it sensible to risk this massive trade?

Also, if Britain is serious about net zero emissions, it must export pollution to manufacturing countries such as China to reach its targets. The choice is either to abandon those targets, unpalatable with COP26 imminent, or accept ever greater overseas dependence.

Recent Assertiveness

China has always needed overseas trade to sustain its double-digit annual growth but counterparties have become wary of sharp practices, such as appropriation of intellectual property and distortion of markets by selling at uneconomic prices. A current example is the sale unto the UK of MG electric cars. China now owns this former British brand and offers attractive models at prices with which other manufacturers could not reasonably compete.

Not only has it financed many infrastructure projects in developing counties with grants or loans at attractive rates, but China has increased its influence in organisations such as the UN and the WHO by agreeing to fund projects which increase its profile or directly benefit its Belt and Road programme .

This assertiveness has become increasingly political. The example of Hong Kong has already been given, for which the suppression of freedom in Tibet is the now-forgotten forerunner. Displays of military might in the South China Sea are of concern to its immediate neighbours. Australia and China are at serious loggerheads over various issues, with China openly faking pictures of Australian soldiers harming children in order to punish Canberra over trade embargo threats. There is no subtlety in its recent diplomacy.

Action Together

China is a proud country and is replacing Russia as a superpower. No country including the UK can afford to treat it as a pariah state. Yet the continuance of trade offers opportunities for criticism and negotiation provided the West stands together to call out abuses. With its economy faltering, the CCP will arguably not want to fight on too many fronts. While the UN, WHO and WTO are unlikely to be effective vehicles for moderation, the UK can utilise its post-Brexit freedoms and bilateral trade alliances to provide support to countries who want to stand up to Beijing. What it cannot do is act alone, a paper tiger in a post-Imperial world.

Iain Dale: Ofcom was right to revoke the license of CGTN. It shouldn’t stop there, though.

5 Feb

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Keir Starmer hasn’t had a good week.

He had to apologise for saying at PMQs that he had never argued we should remain within the orbit of the European Medicines Agency.

Footage then emerged of him saying he would like to abolish the monarchy.

Then The Guardian got hold of a leaked strategy report which suggested Labour should wrap itself in the Union flag, Starmer should get off the fence and the party’s spokespeople should dress more smartly.

And then Wednesday was rounded off with an opinion poll showing a Tory lead of seven points.

Oh, and I forgot Stephen Bush’s excoriating article for The New Statesman in which he courageously reckoned that there are plenty of people doubting if the Labour leader was up to it.

I’ve written before that I thought Starmer had a very good first few months as Labour leader.

He inherited the job right at the beginning of the first lockdown, but made a good fist of leading his party out of the darkness of the Corbyn era.

He looked the part, supported the Government when necessary and put in some sharp Commons performances, especially at PMQs.

He assembled a team, which initially looked as if it could take the fight to the Government.

However, since Christmas he seems to have lost his way.

There are growing rumblings that he’s not “opposing” enough and appears too wishy-washy.

His reputation as “Captain Hindsight” has been placed firmly in the minds of the voter, and his front bench team appears unable to do anything except accuse the Government of doing “too little, too late” or remain in a state of “perma outrage”.

Anneliese Dodds, the Shadow Chancellor is a good example of this.

A transparently nice woman, she seems unable to articulate a Labour vision of how Labour would handle things better except to say she’d spend more money than the Conservatives and do it quicker.

My For the Many podcast colleague Jacqui Smith maintains Dodds is doing a lot behind the scenes to develop policy.

Well, maybe that’s the case, but in terms of putting over the Labour case on the airwaves, both she and the rest of the Shadow Cabinet need to up their game.

I wonder if a reshuffle might be on the way, in which some of the missing big beasts of the Labour jungle might be brought in, like Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper.

– – – – – – – – –

Talking of the Conservatives’ seven-point lead…

I wonder how much of this is due to a “vaccine bounce”. People have very short memories.

Assuming the vaccine rollout continues to go well, it may well be that it’s this which sticks in the minds of voters rather than the handling of the PPE, care home and schools fiascos.

Johnson can but hope.

– – – – – – – – –

I write this a few minutes after learning that Ofcom has revoked the license of the Chinese broadcaster CGTN.

I’ve no idea why it took it so long.

Each time I have dipped into CGTN – and admittedly it’s only been on a few occasions – what I have noticed is that is a heady mix of perfectly well reported stories interspersed with utter propaganda, disguised as reputable journalism.

It has clearly modelled itself on RT, the Kremlin-funded channel.

CGTN even hired former Ofcom board member and head of Sky News Nick Pollard to make sure it stayed just within the boundaries of acceptability, but he eventually saw the light and resigned over its coverage of the Hong Kong protests last year.

Quite how any British journalist had the front to take jobs with CGTN (or RT for that matter) is obviously something they will have to answer for in any future job interviews.

Were I ever in a position to be hiring anyone, I would just throw their CVs in the bin. I hope GB News and the new News UK station will bear this in mind, given that they’re both hiring presenters and producers at the moment.

Ofcom should not stop with CGTN, though. Quite how they have allowed RT to continue broadcasting its propaganda on the Sky platform is anyone’s guess. I hope they’re next to feel the iron fist of the Ofcom banning unit.

Starmer’s “paint-by-numbers” politics does not a Prime Minister make

4 Feb

It’s not been the best of times for Keir Starmer.

First there was the incident at PMQs. Boris Johnson accused him of backing the European Medicines Agency (which he did in 2017), only for the Labour leader to call this “absolute nonsense”.

Later it transpired Starmer had thought Johnson suggested he wanted to join the EU’s vaccine scheme and was forced to say he’d been “wrong” and “misheard” the PM.

Then there were the polls. They showed that Labour’s support has stalled in recent weeks, with the party attracting just four per cent of people who voted Conservative in 2019’s General Election.

Given the challenges the Tories have faced managing the pandemic, many have wondered why Starmer hasn’t had more of an impact.

These events, paired with others, culminated in a media onslaught, with commentators asking what the point is of the Labour leader.

How the tables have turned… It’s hard to remember now but when Starmer first took over from Jeremy Corbyn many newspapers were dazzled by His Royal Prosecutor, whose legal background they deemed kryptonite to the Conservatives.

As one gushed: “the word [forensic] doesn’t actually begin to capture the quietly terrifying force of a skilled former Chief Prosecutor assembling all the evidence and nailing it piece by damning piece to the accused.”

Strangely enough, it strikes me that some of the issues Starmer is now having are a result of the experience that was once so admired.

For one, it’s not that obvious what he stands for compared to Johnson (albeit, the pandemic is testing his libertarian ideals), as Starmer spends so much time trying to spot flaws in his opponent’s case.

This is partly why he has been deemed “Captain Hindsight” and accused of fence sitting, as Starmer’s is more tactical than ideological, often looking for the next move to outsmart his opponents, and somewhat risk averse about setting out his own agenda.

Sometimes Starmer appears all over the place ideologically. This same week a video came out of him as a young man suggesting the UK should “abolish the monarchy” (and people have not forgotten he was Corbyn’s deputy).

At the same time, a leaked document from Labour showed suggestions to win back the Red Wall, which included making more of the Union Jack and army veterans, to show patriotism.

I suspect what people would like most from Starmer is authenticity, not this “paint-by-numbers” politics of trying to predict what voters might want.

And it’s a sensible strategy – it’s far better to consistent in one’s vision than to wobble about depending on political events and sentiment.

The other issue with Starmer – and this is something of a brief round up – is a lack of imagination as to how to tackle Coronavirus.

Granted, Conservatives have had issues with this too – as we’re fighting a novel virus.

But some of the most memorable moments in this pandemic are when people had ideas. Tony Blair, for example, suggested a new vaccine strategy for the Government, which was listened to much more than any of Labour’s arbitrary criticisms on schools.

The most imaginative Starmer has been was during a podium appearance, in which he demanded a “circuit breaker” lockdown for the country. There was also the idea of moving all teachers up the vaccine queue, which clearly doesn’t make sense, and is arguably dangerous – as I have recently written.

So the party clearly needs some creativity on its front bench to make headway – and it should remember that many of its supporters will want an opposition that pushes for reopenings, as much as lockdown – not least people who need their children back in school to get back to work.

The last huge challenge for Starmer – and, again, this is a speedy roundup – is regaining trust with the electorate, particularly after Brexit.

Perhaps Labour thinks that now the deal is done that people will forget about Starmer’s time with Corbyn and the second referendum, so long as he waves the union flag.

But it seems to me he will be punished at a nationwide level, and it will be interesting to see the result of May’s local elections.

The shame for Labour is that there are lots of easy wins for them to boost their ratings. The most obvious is fighting woke ideology, which the Conservatives (bar a few) seem desperate to avoid. There’s a clear opening for another party to fight back here.

There are also things like solving the housing crisis and promoting the ability to have a family that lots of people would like. It’s not actually that difficult to think of ways to make headway.

Ironically, it’s Starmer’s wish to be Captain Foresight that’s holding him back.