John Pennington: Labour is punishing the motorists in Bradford

18 Sep

Cllr John Pennington is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Bradford Council

My Labour-led local authority has announced that it is to use the services of a telephone parking payment provider called RingGo whilst drumming up even more ways to persecute the motorist.

In what is becoming tradition, new schemes are too often ill-conceived and certainly never fully thought through. I will address parking charges and their effect upon decimated town centres later. In the meantime, residents will need a permit to park outside their homes – but so too, visitors who must be pre-booked for a specific date and time along with vehicle registration number and owner’s name. The last two categories can be chosen from an already requested and submitted list ‘allowing’ residents to select one from up to a maximum of 10 visitor names. There is even a suggestion that a tradesperson’s permit will be introduced costing £15 per day; sounds like some very expensive home improvements to me.

Residents are informed all this will be very simple to follow and can be done paperless on line via a computer or smartphone. For those without, it is suggested they visit their local library (if still there and open). There is little thought given to the more elderly who may live alone and not be IT savvy.

Of more concern is the elephant in the room, the Labour dictatorship intend to use an outsource partner called “Imperial” who specialise in civil enforcement solutions. Other providers are available, one widely used being Permit-Smarti. Requesting people to supply personally identifiable information and register movements of visitors is one thing but to then pass it on to a third party surely contravenes the Human Rights Act and the more recently introduced GDPR which has been the cause of some many problems to businesses.

We are again told not to worry and that everything will be straightforward but such an invasive intrusion into our public and personal privacy must not be tolerated. The information will only be stored for 12 years and one of the first questions ‘imperial’ enforcement ask is for the grant to use cookies.

Thank you if you have stayed so long, I now turn to how we can help our Town Centres.

Councils are now experiencing what businesses have for far too long – a shortage of customers, reality has finally hit. My Council compounded by coronavirus will lose up to £1 million in parking fees and charges, the estimated income across the country in fees alone would have been £885 million before the exodus hit. Councils now have to make business decisions, foreign though it may be to them. Do they reapply, even increase, parking charges to protect their own car cash cow income but by doing so risk hurting, or worse, still lose businesses that bring in rates, jobs, and prosperity? No more heads in the sand policies.

Many councils seem hellbent on exterminating the motorist through increased charges and extending hours in to the evenings and Sundays and the removal of 30 minute free periods. Whilst I salute the request to go green and we rightly look at ways to promote cycling and walking we must also ensure adequate space for motor vehicles. Huge sums are being spent on cycle lanes and extended pavements which are empty. Social distancing measures which could be in place for a long period have significantly reduced public transport capacity. Centres hollowed out even further by businesses now looking to reduce office space after successfully moving to home working will mean even more empty property. Ground floor offices and shop units should become garages with residential above.

Bold leadership is needed if politicians are to get the respect of the electorate; they are there to do what is right. 64 per cent of shopping trips are done by car according to a National Travel Survey; one of the reasons out of town shopping centres have free parking. My Conservative Group proposal is to remove parking charges both on and off street, but limited to two hours. We would also remove the costly supervision overhead by introducing a London style vehicle tow-away where anyone who overstays or parks without thought for other road users will have to reclaim their vehicle from a distant compound, pay a hefty fee (£250), and produce valid driver and vehicle documents.

Algorithm or no algorithm, the UK needs houses. Fast.

30 Aug

Since it was published on this site last Monday, there has been a huge amount of interest in Neil O’Brien’s column, which documented flaws in the Government’s housing White Paper. In his piece, O’Brien criticised an algorithm that will be used to decide how many houses should be built in different parts of the UK.

Algorithms aren’t exactly in the nation’s good books anyway, given the confusion over recent A Level results. But members of the public will be even more wary upon understanding what this latest one could mean. Lichfields, a planning consultancy, has predicted its practical impact (something people usually only discover the hard way), with some astonishing findings.

As O’Brien says of the consultancy’s analysis: “in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.”

Furthermore, the algorithm suggests a “lower number than their recent rate of delivery” for some areas, including Sheffield, Bradford, the entire North East, Nottingham and Manchester. These effects are hardly a winning formula, and there are already signs of Tory resistance.

Indeed, The Times reports that in his video conference with 17 Tory MPs from the greater London area on Wednesday, Boris Johnson was warned that the algorithm risks “destroying suburbia” and “creating the slums of the future”, and that reforms will cause “real harm to the Conservative vote”.

As we’ve seen this year – from difficulties with Huawei to Johnson u-turning on free school meals after Marcus Rashford wrote a letter to MPs – this Government is not immune to having to massively rehaul its policies, and it seems unlikely the algorithm will be accepted, based on the statistics in O’Brien’s article.

Even so, there is no shying away from the fact the country urgently needs hundreds of thousands more houses built, whether it’s an algorithm that designates their location or not. It is interesting to note the objections in the aforementioned video conference, where there were fears about areas becoming built up, and MPs concerned about losses to the Conservative vote. The latter is inevitable, anyway, if the Government does not help my generation (millennials), and those below it, for whom buying a home looks about as probable as winning the X Factor.

One interesting question in all this – which no algorithm can predict – is how Covid-19 is going to change the housing landscape. Clearly many have left cities in favour of space and country air. Whether this change is permanent remains to be seen, but boosting figures in shire and suburban areas may not be such a bad thing, as is the algorithm’s south-centric model of growth in Britain (where, in truth, much of demand is focussed).

As a 31-year-old renting in London (who has somewhat given up on the prospect of home ownership), the Government reforms were the first thing I’d seen to show that MPs actually care about fixing this problem; one that is giving people my own age real anxiety about the future, from whether we will ever have families, to wondering how old we will be when we stop sharing with X amount of strangers.

Of course, any flawed algorithm must be untangled and corrected. But let’s hope that Johnson’s video conference isn’t a taste of kicking the can further down the road. Whatever solution the Government takes to fix the housing crisis will not be perfect. But the worst will be to do nothing at all.

As a government source reportedly said: “This is not something we’re going to step away from. We’ve got a duty to do this for the next generation.” Indeed.

Neil O’Brien: The next algorithm disaster – coming to a Conservative constituency near you. This time, it’s housing growth.

24 Aug

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Algorithms have been in the news, not for good reasons. One lesson from the A-levels row is that principles which seem reasonable can lead to outcomes you don’t expect. Another algorithm’s coming down the tracks: the new formula for how many houses must be built in different places. There are few with higher stakes.

I wrote about the housing White Paper in my last column: it proposes not just to change the methodology for assessing housing need, but also to make a standard methodology compulsory for the first time. In other words, if we don’t like the results of the new algorithm, we’ll have blocked off the emergency exits.

The new algorithm is set out here. It’s not particularly easy to read. For example, one of many factors is set out in bullet point 30:

Adjustment Factor = [( Local affordability factor t = 0 – 4 4) x 0.25) + (Local affordability ratio t = 0 – Local affordability ratio t = 10) x 0.25] +1 Where t = 0 is current yearr and t = -10 is 10 years back.

Clear enough for you?

I thought it might be a while before we saw what the new algorithm would produce in practice. But Lichfields, the planning consultancy, has translated the algorithm into what it would mean for local authorities.

The numbers that the formula spits out can be compared to the number of homes actually being delivered over recent years, or to the numbers in the current (optional) national formula. Whichever way you look at it, it’s controversial.

I’ve long argued we should concentrate more development in inner urban areas, for various reasons I’ll come back to below.  But this algorithm doesn’t do that – at least not outside London.  In the capital, the algorithm would indeed increase numbers substantially.

But in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.

Overall, the algorithm proposes a south-centric model of growth for Britain (with some growth in the midlands).

If we compare the algorithm to recent delivery, the South East has been delivering just over 39,000 homes a year, and will be expected to increase that to just over 61,000, a 57 per cent increase. The East of England would see a 43 per cent increase, the East Midlands a 33 per cent increase, the West Midlands a 25 per cent increase and the South West a 24 per cent increase.

For the North East, North West and Yorkshire, the numbers the algorithm proposes are lower overall than the numbers delivered over recent years. But as with A-levels, the devil’s in the detail.

The really controversial changes are within regions, where the algorithm suggests jacking up numbers for shires, while taking them down in urban areas. Comparing the existing national formula to the proposal, we can see this for most large cities.

The number for Birmingham comes down 15 per cent, while the rest of the West Midlands goes up 52 per cent.

Numbers for Leicester go down 35 per cent. The rest of Leicestershire goes up 105 per cent.

Nottingham goes down 22 per cent, the rest of Nottinghamshire goes up 48 per cent.

Southampton goes down 17 per cent, Portsmouth down 15 per cent and Basingstoke down 23 per cent, but the rest of Hampshire would go up 39 per cent.

Wealthy Bristol would see some growth (5 per cent) but much lower than the rest of Gloucester, Somerset and Wiltshire (47 per cent).

It’s the same story up north. Leeds down 14 per cent, Sheffield down 19 per cent, and Bradford down 29 per cent. But the East Riding up 34 per cent, North Yorkshire up 80 per cent, and North East Lincolnshire up 123 per cent.

In the north west the core cities of Manchester (-37 per cent) and Liverpool (-26 per cent) see huge falls, while the areas around them shoot up. In Greater Manchester, for example, the growth is shifted to the blue suburbs and shires. Outer parts go up: Wigan up 10 per cent, Bury, up 12 per cent, and Rochdale up 97 per cent. And areas to the south and north of the conurbation up much further: Cheshire up 108 per cent, while Blackburn, Hyndburn, Burnley and the Ribble Valley together go up 149 per cent.

But it isn’t just that the numbers in the new formula are lower than the old formula for urban areas. In many cases the new formula suggests a lower number than their recent rate of delivery. This is true of Sheffield (12 per cent below actual delivery), Leeds (16 per cent), Bradford (23 per cent), the entire North East (28 per cent), Nottingham (30 per cent), Manchester, (31 per cent), Leicester, (32 per cent) and Liverpool (59 per cent). The new formula seems to assume we are going to level down our cities, not level up.

It’s true that there’s another step between the Housing Need Assessment which this algorithm produces and the final housing target, which can be reduced a bit to account for delivery constraints like greenbelt.

But if we go with this algorithm unamended, outside London most Conservative MPs will be seeing large increases in the housing targets for their constituencies, while many Labour MPs see their local targets reduced. Is this what we want?

Leaving aside the politics, I think not. Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK has much less dense cities.

Places like Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Birkenhead, Hull and Newcastle all had smaller populations in 2017 than 1981, while places like Birmingham and Manchester weren’t much bigger. Our cities have untapped potential, many went through a period of shrinkage and have space, and there are health and environmental reasons to prefer urban growth too.

In dense urban areas, people are more likely to walk or cycle – and in the UK, people in cities walk twice as far as those in villages each year. This reduces public transport costs and improves health.

Denser cities can sustain better public transport and so cut car congestion and time spent travelling. As well as reducing pollution from transport, denser cities reduce energy use and pollution because flats and terraced homes are much more energy efficient.

I’m not sure the draft algorithm is even doing what Ministers wanted it to. The document in which it is set out says that “the Government has heard powerful representations that the current formula underestimates demand for housing in the growing cities in the Northern Powerhouse by being based on historic trends.”

But the algorithm seems to do the exact opposite.

There may be technical reasons why things aren’t working out: there’s lots of ways to measure affordability… differences between residence-based and workplace-based income measures… there were certain caps in the old model, population projections have changed and so on.

However, the bigger issue is this.

There’s no “objective” way of calculating how many homes are “needed” in an area. While there are ways of carving up the numbers that are seen as more or less fair, ultimately a vision is required.

Projections of population growth are circular: the projected population growth for the farmland between Bletchley and Stony Stratford would’ve been pretty low before we built Milton Keynes there.

Likewise the forecast for the derelict Docklands of the early 1980s. While there are real economic constraints, the future need not resemble the past.

Though it took a huge effort, Germany raised East Germans from 40 per cent to just 14 per cent per cent below the national average income since reunification. That’s levelling up.

Do we want to continue to concentrate growth in the South East? Do we want European-style denser cities, or for them to sprawl out a bit more? An algorithm can help deliver a vision: but it’s not the same as one.