Ryan Stephenson: There should be no lawful excuse for the criminal damage of statues

10 Jan

Cllr Ryan Stephenson is Shadow Cabinet Member for Children & Families on Leeds City Council and was the Conservative candidate in the Batley & Spen by-election.

Social media was ablaze with opinion this week, as a jury at Bristol Crown Court found the so-called “Colston Four” not guilty of criminal damage, despite video footage showing them pulling down a statue of 17th century philanthropist, Tory MP, and slave-trader, Edward Colston, and then ditching his bronze into Bristol’s Floating Harbour.

Left-wing commentators and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement argue that the jury’s verdict validates direct action, whilst those opposed argue that the courts are pandering to the woke brigade. But what does such discreditation of a jury’s verdict mean for the future of our legal system?

In this case, a randomly selected jury reached a verdict based on the evidence and a defence put to them in court. The irony for the defendants is that they were acquitted by the very type of antiquated system of traditions and processes that their movement rallies against. As predicated in Magna Carta, and then by Pope Innocent III in 1215, those charged with an offence are entitled to be judged by a panel of their peers: twelve good men and true.

As video evidence shows, there was no question over whether the four were involved in the toppling of the statue; however, the court was presented by the defence with an argument of lawful excuse and it is on the point that those angered by the verdict should focus their attention, not towards members of the jury.

The defence argued several points, including – most oddly – that removing the statue was to assist in the prevention of a crime, asking the jury to consider whether the presence of the statue itself constituted an offence under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, citing that its existence was causing harm or distress to some members of the public. Clearly, there are some in society who have recently become vexed by the existence of British history, but this is not absolute; indeed, according to Deltapoll, only 24 per cent of the public agreed with the toppling of Colston’s statue. This defence therefore raises deeper questions around the threshold for a lawful excuse of preventing distress when it may just be that the individuals were simply offended by something in a society that claims to foster freedom of speech and expression.

There are further deficiencies around lawful excuses. Under Section 5(2) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971, legislation permits a defence for carrying out criminal damage if the person believed that those entitled to consent to the destruction or damage to property had so consented or would have so consented if they had known of the destruction or damage. Furthermore, the Act determines that it is immaterial as to whether such a belief is justified or not if it is honestly held. In effect, this could raise a defence of lawful excuse in that the perpetrators of criminal damage in this case honestly believed, whether justified or not, that members of the public attending the demonstration were entitled to consent to the destruction of the statue by virtue of it being owned by Bristol City Council, for and on behalf of the wider public.

As a result of this case, the government should reform legislation, but ministers must avoid falling into a trap of questioning the jury’s verdict, doing so risks putting ministers in the uncomfortable position of undermining the principles of trial by jury. Instead, ministers should seek to reform the Criminal Damage Act to remove clauses of lawful excuses that can be used in court as a reasonable defence. There should be no lawful excuse for criminal damage where those entitled to consent have not expressly done so. Honestly holding a belief that the owner of the property would consent should no longer be a lawful excuse and it should certainly no longer be immaterial as to whether such a belief is justified or not. It should be for a jury to determine whether such a belief is indeed justified based on evidence put to them in court.

The Criminal Prosecution Service argue that there are limited circumstances where a lawful excuse for criminal damage is a necessary clause in legislation, for example, to protect firefighters from charges relating to third party water damage as a result of extinguishing a fire; however, it can be argued that those protections are already provided by virtue of Section 44 of the Fire & Rescue Services Act 2004, establishing the actions available to firefighters in an emergency.

It would be easy to jump on the bandwagon and call out the jurors for the verdict they reached in the case of the “Colston Four”, but they reached their verdict based on a defence provided within legislation. To strengthen law and order in the public realm and to prevent further instances of criminal damage by a mob intent on erasing passages of British history, the answer should not be to discredit our system of legal process, but to reform it; and ministers would do well to begin by removing lawful excuses for criminal damage.

Who needs cars, hey?

8 Nov

If there was an award for the biggest casualty in the UK’s Net Zero mission, perhaps the top contender would be the car.

What was once the pride of many Britons now seems to be something far less dazzling; an asset to be hidden away, in fact. At least, that’s the impression politicians give, many of whom are forcing motorists to either phase out or replace their vehicles – in the name of environmentalism.

Today, for instance, one paper reports that Bristol council, where the Green Party and Labour hold the same number of seats, is considering charging motorists “more than £400 a year to park at work under proposals to cut air pollution and make car use less affordable”.

The scheme is established in Labour-run Nottingham and is being considered in Oxford, Leicester and Glasgow. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has published guidance for boroughs on how to introduce the charges.

What’s the problem, anyway? A representative from Bristol council said the plans will “reduce the number of journeys” and that the money can be used to boost public transport.

It all sounds very idyllic until you ask what the immediate effects of such a policy will be. Demand for parking is not going to magically go away overnight, after all; motorists will hunt for new spaces, and congestion will merely grow.

Moreover, it’s another example of motorists – who are expected to pick up the bill for this policy, as has been the case in Nottingham – being disproportionately affected by the green revolution.

We seem to have forgotten there are perfectly reasonable explanations for why people might need to drive to work. A). It can be expensive to live near the office. B). They may be living in parts of the country where transport connections are few and far between. I can go on… Yet councils treat driving as an indulgence the public could give up – if only they cared about the environment more.

In general, policymakers – from across the political spectrum – are the most callous when it comes to getting through eco policies. All practical considerations seem to go out of the window, in terms of what Joe Bloggs can financially cope with, so long as we can “Build Back Better”. 

One of the most cumbersome examples of this is Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), which block cars going down roads. Many were installed during lockdown and proponents think they’re a fantastic green policy. Speak to tradesmen/women, however, and it’s a different story. They talk about being stuck in traffic for hours on end and losing jobs, among other disadvantages.

Then there’s Ultra Low Emission Zones, which have been expanded in London. These force drivers to upgrade their cars – often to the tune of thousands of pounds – should they not comply with the ever-changing minimum emissions standards.  

Similarly, when I talk to local tradesmen about this policy they are unbelievably frustrated, having had to trade in fairly new, decent vehicles to meet the requirements. Freelancers are the most affected, as they have to pay for these costs, as opposed to having a company to absorb them.

At this point, I should add that I don’t drive; I happily walk and bus around London. Yet it irks me to see hard-working people, with little or no option but to use a car, being treated with contempt. Whenever I have raised concerns about affordability, the attitude seems to be “well, there’s going to be a bit of economic pain in this eco revolution”. That economic pain is hitting the people who can least afford it hardest, though.

Interestingly, James Frayne warned last year for ConservativeHome that “London-based, upper-middle class officials and advisers [who] lead work on environmental policy” who can “end up with a warped view of what most people’s lives are like”, and that “they can make woefully unrealistic and unpopular recommendations which ordinary people can’t adapt to.” This is what I have seen in my area – and now appears to be widespread. 

Politicians have got to wake up. The public may support green policies, but not at serious personal inconvenience – in the case of Bristol, for the crime of trying to get to work. 

Harry Fone: Local authorities should not start or invest in energy companies

2 Nov

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

New research by the TaxPayers’ Alliance has revealed the shocking amounts of taxpayers’ cash that has almost literally gone up in smoke due to underperforming investments in energy companies by local authorities. Thanks to the work of our superb research team we revealed that 13 energy companies in receipt of council investment had a net loss of over £74 million between 2016-17 and 2019-20. Of these eight were council-owned and their losses totalled £114 million in the same period.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, three of those companies are now either in administration or liquidation; Bristol’s BE 2020, Nottingham’s Robin Hood Energy, and Portsmouth’s Victory Energy Supply. This may not be surprising to anyone who has followed this issue; the writing has been on the wall for years now. But the huge sums of taxpayers’ money that have gone down the drain is astonishing.

Between 2016-17 and 2019-20, BE 2020 experienced the largest cumulative losses of any energy company at £46.5 million. Robin Hood Energy lost the most money in a single year at nearly £23.1 million in 2018-19, with total losses coming in at £31.6 million over a four year period. In those same four years, £132.3 million of public investment has been plunged into energy firms by local authorities.

Now at this point, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the UK energy market is incredibly competitive and volatile, the latter being especially true at the moment. So there could be more bad news to come given recent news that a number of firms are on the brink of financial collapse. But – is there any good news? Have any council-owned or council-invested energy companies made a profit? The answer is yes but with some big caveats.

Five councils invested money in energy suppliers that were independently operated. Of these, four made a profit between 2016-17 and 2018-19. So it could be argued that if councils are desperate to get into the energy market then this is the better option based on the data available.

Of the eight council-owned companies, only one registered a profit – but dive a little deeper into the numbers and a fuller picture emerges. B&D Energy is owned by Barking and Dagenham council. Over the four year period (2016-17 to 2018-19) it posted profits of nearly £300,000. However, it received the largest amount of capital investment from taxpayers at £38.8 million. This consisted of £30.2 million in loans from the council with the rest coming in grant form thanks to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Also interesting to note – that as of 2020-21, B&D Energy only has 477 customers so they shouldn’t count their chickens just yet.

But why do local authorities start or invest in energy companies in the first place? Many do it for the same reasons as Bristol Energy which said it would “provide ethically sourced, low-cost energy and with the aim of returning a profit for council tax payers.” This would have been wonderful had it paid off; perhaps council tax bills would have been lower as a result?

Sadly this hasn’t happened and Bristol now has the third-highest band D council tax bill in the South West. Nottingham has the highest bill in the entire country. Similarly, Gateshead council – which owns Gateshead Energy Company and made total losses of £1.9 million – has the highest rates in the North East and ninth-highest in England. I could go on but you get the picture.

There is a glimmer of hope in the fact that of the 391 local authorities that responded to our freedom of information requests, 94 per cent did not own an energy company. For those authorities thinking about risking public money in this market they should heed our warnings. Their grand visions for publicly-owned energy companies that will supply cheaper energy and plough profits back into frontline services rarely materialise. Instead, many taxpayers are being left in the dark with failed firms and a big bill to boot.

Local councils in depth: Bristol – its wokeness presents challenges for Labour as well as the Conservatives

8 Sep

Source: Election Maps.

Case study: Bristol

Control: No Overall Control.

Numbers: Green Party 24, Labour 24, Conservatives 14, Lib Dems 8.

Change since last local elections: Green Party +13, Labour -13, Conservatives and Lib Dems unchanged.

All out or thirds: All out.

Background: Bristol City Council, as currently constituted, was formed in 1974 with elections the previous year. Since that time, it has mostly been under Labour control, though at various stages it was a hung Council and, for a couple of years, the Lib Dems took charge. It was given unitary status in 1995 and has had a directly elected Mayor since 2012. Before 1974, the Council was called the Bristol Corporation. Until 1963, the municipal bus company operated a “colour bar” – with the support of the trade unions and the Labour-run council.

Former Bristol MPs include Edmund Burke and Tony Benn. Labour easily won all four Bristol constituencies at the last General Election. Thangam Debbonaire won Bristol West for Labour with a majority of 28,219. That seat used to be held by William Waldegrave, for the Conservatives, until 1997. As recently as the 2015 General Election, there was a Conservative victory in Bristol North West – Charlotte Leslie won the seat with a majority of nearly 5,000. Last time round there was a Labour majority of over 5,000. Boundary changes mean the city is due to have five constituencies in future.

Results: The local implications of the results are limited as Marvin Rees was returned as the directly elected Labour Mayor. That means Labour is still in power even without a majority of the councillors. But the results do highlight challenges for both the Conservatives and Labour. Sometimes Sir Keir Starmer is advised that to win back traditional, patriotic working class voters all the “woke” barnacles must be stripped off the boat. Labour must desist from all the sucking up to Extinction Rebellion, Stonewall, Black Lives Matter, et al. Sound advice overall, perhaps. But the Bristolians seem worried that Labour isn’t woke enough. In this volatile age, might Bristol start returning Green Party MPs?The friction isn’t new, of course. George Orwell complained of socialism attracting “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist.” Tricky. Labour risks losing the sandal-wearing vote in Bristol without winning back the bitter-drinkers in Burnley.

For the Conservatives, the difficulty in Bristol is rather more stark. We didn’t lose any council seats. But this was in a year where significant overall gains were made by the Conservatives nationally. In the directly elected Mayoral contest, the Green Party came second with the Conservative candidate a distant third. This is an affluent city. Why should the party of free enterprise find it so hard to win votes?

The graffiti artist Banksy might have prospered under the capitalist system. But he is not very grateful. In the 2017 General Election, he offered electors in Bristol a free print if they did not vote Conservative. The junction of Stokes Croft and Jamaica Street has one of his murals. It depicts a teddy bear lobbing a Molotov cocktail at three riot police was voted Alternative Landmark of Bristol. There is a community group called the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft which dedicates itself to protecting and promoting graffiti. Stoke Bishop Ward still returns Conservative councillors but while it used to be a safe space for Bufton Tuftons it is gradually turning into a hipster colony.

There is a section of the City’s population that is more politically centrist – many work in financial services, for instance. But while mildly economically liberal they would regard themselves as “socially progressive”. They tend to be “anywheres” rather than “somewheres” as David Goodhart would put it. Bristol voted Remain by a large margin in the EU referendum. Only 55 per cent of housing in the City is owner-occupied.

Perhaps the biggest part of the explanation is that Bristol has two universities. These days, a university in a constituency is electoral poison for the Conservatives. It is not just the student vote but also the graduates who decide to stay on for a few years. Then there are a large number of college employees – the academics, the researchers, the adminstrators, and so on. The sector is increasingly bloated. Those who work in it are not merely temperamentally hostile to the Conservatives but (quite understandably) feel a Labour Government would safeguard their financial interests. Slashing the subsidies so that many of the more futile courses are scrapped, and many colleges close, is the way forward. That would also mean reversing the trend to require a degree as a qualification for an ever-growing list of public sector jobs. Such reforms would certainly further antagonise those working in the universities. Yet it is hard to see what the Conservatives have to lose. The motives for “rebalancing” the career paths of the young into more fruitful directions are rather wider and purer than seeking to get a few more councillors and MPs elected in Bristol. Yet that might be a welcome by-product of such a bold endeavour.

Andrew Bowie: Expanding regional airport capacity can help strengthen the Union, and support left behind communities

1 Jun

Andrew Bowie is Member of Parliament for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and a Vice-Chair of the Conservative Party.

While representing West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine in the House of Commons is a huge honour and a privilege, it’s quite the commute to the office. So, when you represent a constituency 398 miles “as the crow flies” from Westminster, you develop a new appreciation for just how important air travel is, particularly for those who want or need to travel to Scotland.

Scotland has, of course, long been a top tourist destination for travellers from around the world, particularly the beautiful North East I am lucky to call home. Whether it’s the thirteen stop “Castle Trail” through my own constituency, an even longer tour of the Speyside distilleries, or even a trip up to Banffshire’s famous “Dolphin Coast”, the North East is a fantastic place to live and visit.

Visitors from around the world clearly agree with this assessment. In 2019, before the impact of the pandemic, visitors to Scotland made 17.5 million overnight trips, with a total spend of £5.9 billion, the highest figures over the last decade according to VisitScotland. This represents a huge contribution to our GDP, with much of this money flowing in from the US, Europe and further afield.

Scotland’s heritage and natural beauty is a huge asset to the UK, one we should invest in to keep the “union dividend” rolling in for Scottish businesses, particularly those in the hospitality sector who have been hit so badly by the pandemic. And while every visit to Scotland is a pleasure, business travel is also of paramount importance.

For example, without high quality, reliable air links, Aberdeen would not be the oil and gas capital of Europe it is today. The oil and gas industry isn’t just the beating heart of the local economy in the North East, employing many of my constituents, but is also crucial to the wider Scottish economy.

This is well understood across the Scottish political spectrum. The SNP’s 2014 economic plan for independence relied heavily on high oil prices and the continued exploitation of these resources. The subsequent downturn proved this would have been a disastrous model, but it does serve to underline just how central the industry is to Scotland’s economy.

With COP26 fast approaching, it might seem unfashionable to advocate for an industry widely demonised for its central role in the exploitation of fossil fuels. But what is not always widely understood in political circles is the huge contribution the oil and gas sector is making to achieving net zero, by developing and investing huge sums of money into clean renewable energy technology. When we reach net zero, as we will, we will have achieved it not despite the oil and gas industry, but in large part due to the incredible innovation and investment taking place in cities like Aberdeen.

The same is true for aviation – we cannot reach net zero without investing in sustainable air travel. As the vaccine rollout continues in the UK and around the world, many of us will be looking forward to a long overdue holiday, whether abroad or to another nation of our United Kingdom (the second paragraph of this article may have given you some ideas!). The demand for air travel is not going to disappear any time soon, and we should take the opportunity to make sure that the future of British aviation is sustainable, drives investment around the UK, and strengthens our precious union.

For this reason, I welcomed the UK Government’s Union Connectivity Review when it was announced, and eagerly await its recommendations. It is not enough to simply make sure that each part of the UK receives investment in transport infrastructure – we need a joined-up approach to encourage domestic travel around the UK, its nations, and its regions. If people cannot easily and quickly travel around the UK, they cannot enjoy everything it has to offer them. Without those opportunities and experiences, we run the risk of letting support for the Union stagnate when it should be growing.

The best way to do this, at the lowest cost to the taxpayer, is to support clean aviation growth by backing regional airports like Aberdeen, Bristol, and Belfast – particularly where they need to expand to increase capacity. Too much of our national conversation about airport capacity is focused on Heathrow and the other London airports, just as too much of Westminster’s time is spent talking to Westminster about Westminster.

Investing in sustainable aviation around the UK would be a fantastic way to show that we are a party and a government for the whole United Kingdom, as well as providing fresh opportunities for the Government’s levelling up agenda. Wherever there is investment in airports and the infrastructure which serves them, thousands of jobs and opportunities are created in the local area and further afield through the supply chain. Increasingly, as in the oil and gas sector, many of these are “green” jobs.

And while it is right that the Government spend money on levelling up in communities which have lacked investment for many years, it is important to remember that this doesn’t just mean spending in the “Red Wall” and the North of England. Communities that were left behind by Labour deserve to see investment and support. But we mustn’t take our eye off the ball in other parts of the UK, lest we repeat the mistakes of previous governments and create a new generation of left behind communities.

I’ve welcomed the measures the Government has taken over the last 18 months to support airline operators, particularly household names like British Airways – long-established great British brands we want to preserve. But other parts of the aerospace and aviation industries are suffering too, in what the industry body ADS called a “deepening crisis” earlier this year.

Rolls-Royce, another great British household name, made significant job cuts to its global workforce last year, as did Airbus. Both companies are big long-term investors in the UK and significant employers in the South West of England, a major hub for the British aerospace industry in general.

So, what is to be done? The Union Connectivity Review was a good first step and I eagerly await Sir Peter Hendy’s recommendations, to be published this summer. But in the meantime, we should be looking at what we can do in the immediate short term to increase regional airport capacity – getting ahead of the demand rather than trying to catch up. This means working closely with regional airports and investors who are willing to help build the infrastructure needed to increase capacity in a green, sustainable fashion.

And what we mustn’t do is uncritically accept the narrative that British aviation is incompatible with a net zero future – just as we’d be wrong to take that view of the oil and gas sector. The public want politicians to come up with sensible, balanced solutions to combat climate change. They won’t thank us for knee-jerk reactions or short-sightedness.

Sam Hall: Conservative lessons from Houchen and Street about how to respond the Greens

11 May

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network

The dominant stories from last week’s elections were the Conservatives’ hat-trick of English triumphs in Hartlepool, Tees Valley, and the West Midlands, and the SNP falling short of a majority in Scotland. But amid these headline-grabbing results, a new trend emerged: the quiet rise of the Green Party.

The Greens won 88 new council seats across England, including from Conservatives. Yes, they did well in their traditional strongholds, such as Bristol, Sheffield, and around Liverpool, where their main competitor is Labour.

But they also defeated incumbent Conservative councillors across England in places as diverse as Surrey, Sussex, Derbyshire, Stroud, and Northumberland. They won an additional two seats in the Scottish Parliament and an extra member of the London Assembly, recording their highest ever vote share in both contests.

Despite two brief surges around the 2015 general election and the 2019 local elections, the Greens have for decades struggled to break past five per cent of the national vote. But the signs from Thursday are that they are on the rise, and could become an electoral threat not just to Labour, but to the Conservatives too.

The reasons for the Greens’ recent electoral success are varied. Public concern about the environment is at historically high levels, with media and government focus on the issue growing, and climate change impacts becoming more visible. It’s understandable that, as the environment becomes more salient, more voters turn to the party whose defining mission is to save the planet.

Factionalism on the left is undoubtedly boosting the Greens, too. As Keir Starmer repudiates Corbynism, he is pushing some of the party’s more left-wing supporters towards the Greens, who have long supported some of the more radical ideas of John McDonnell, such as a universal basic income. The Liberal Democrats remain toxic to many on the left for going into coalition with the Conservatives. And in Scotland, the Greens provide a more environmentally-conscious alternative to the SNP.

Greens across Europe have benefited from a similar trend. Just a few months out from federal elections, the Greens are currently the highest polling party in Germany, two points ahead of the CDU. Greens are part of the coalition government in Austria, after securing 14 per cent of the vote in the last year’s elections. There was also a green surge in the 2019 elections for the European Parliament, with the green bloc growing from 50 seats to 74.

However, this phenomenon isn’t simply about splintering on the left. Nor is it the case that the Greens are just taking votes off Labour and allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle. As Thursday’s results show, the rise of the Greens threatens both the main parties.

That said, the threat shouldn’t be overstated at this stage: the Greens only control one council, Brighton and Hove (where they are a minority administration), and they still only have one MP. But a response will be needed nonetheless.

First, here’s what to avoid. Counteracting the Greens doesn’t entail copying their policies, which are a bad combination of the unfeasible (net zero by 2030), the unpopular (a meat tax), and the economically damaging (a four day week). But neither should they Conservatives shouldn’t become hostile to the entire green agenda, which is popular with a majority of voters. Nor should they ignore other policy priorities in favour of an exclusive focus on the environment. As James Frayne has argued convincingly on this site, this approach wouldn’t keep the party’s voter coalition together.

Instead, Conservatives should unite behind the strategy that the Prime Minister articulated in his ten point plan for a green industrial revolution, linking net zero to people’s immediate economic concerns. This prospectus has the best chance of binding together the Conservatives’ diverse supporter base and stalling the rise of the Greens.

This strategy has worked well for Ben Houchen, whose tireless advocacy for Teesside is helping to attract many of the UK’s leading net zero investments to his area, from GE’s new turbine manufacturing factory and BP’s blue hydrogen plant, to one of the first carbon capture projects and a hydrogen transport hub. He has been one of the biggest advocates for the PM’s green industrial revolution, including on this site, and was re-elected by a landslide.

The Government should copy this formula in other parts of the country. It should invest in enabling infrastructure, fund large-scale green demonstration projects, and put in place market frameworks to attract private investment in new clean industries, such as battery manufacturing, floating offshore wind, heat pumps, and green steel production.

But while it can unite Conservatives, this approach to net zero is divisive on the left. The red-greens can’t decide if they support ‘degrowth’ as a route to tackling climate change. They debate whether people’s lifestyles must be drastically curtailed, or whether to focus on clean technology. And they are divided over whether to attach radical cultural policies on race and gender to their environmental agenda.

The other main element of the Conservatives’ response should be to implement ambitious but practical environmental policies that improve people’s communities and their quality of life. Here, the Conservatives’ other great election-winner from Thursday, Andy Street, provides a blueprint.

He has overseen major improvements in public and active transport in the West Midlands, reopening rail stations, extending metro lines, putting in segregated cycle lanes, and freezing bus fares. He is showing how mayors can connect up their region, reduce the cost of living, and improve the local environment at the same time.

National government should enable more pragmatic local environmental leadership like this. Ministers could give councils the powers and funding to create and safeguard a new network of wild green spaces (a ‘wilbelt’) around towns and cities. They could devolve more funding to metro mayors to insulate social and fuel poor homes in their regions. And they could fund transport authorities to replace old diesel buses with electric or hydrogen ones, and to install electric charge points along the strategic road network.

The Greens, by contrast, have a poor record of delivery on the few occasions when they’ve been entrusted with office. Remember their failure in Brighton and Hove to arrange the bin collections, which lead to strikes and images of rubbish piled up on street corners. There is a political opportunity here for Conservative environmentalism that sets ambitious targets, actually delivers them, and does so in a way that benefits the economy and people’s standard of living.

The Greens had a good night on Thursday. But by uniting behind Boris Johnson’s green industrial revolution, and replicating the approach of Ben Houchen and Andy Street, the Conservatives can prevent them rising further and can make the environment a winning, unifying issue for the party.

This year there are a record number of Mayoral races. West Yorkshire is the latest addition.

2 Apr

Already this week, I have contemplated the Mayoral contests for London, the West Midlands, and Tees Valley. Those will probably be the highest profile elections, but there are a number of other Mayoral contests taking place.

James Palmer, the Conservative Mayor for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, is seeking re-election. Last time he won by a clear margin – though there is the note of caution that the election took place in 2017 at a time when Conservative fortunes were generally buoyant. The only really difficult territory is Cambridge itself. In that city the Conservatives have no council seats at present; it is a Labour/Lib Dem battleground. All the seats on Cambridge Council are up for election this year.

Palmer was previously the Leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council and worked in the family dairy business. Since becoming Mayor, he has written on this site about his work on transport infrastructure, apprenticeships, and promoting business investment.

A closer result last time was for the West of England Mayoralty. This post is to lead the West of England Combined Authority which covers the local authorities of Bristol, South Gloucestershire, and Bath and North East Somerset. Tim Bowles, the Conservative incumbent is standing down. Samuel Williams is the Conservative candidate. He is a businessman who was the candidate for Bristol Mayor two years ago. Some local authorities have a directly elected Mayor instead of a council leader. Some regions have a Mayor with a wider role – in addition to the local authorities. This means some places have two directly elected Mayors – those in Liverpool have one for the City and another for the region; those in Tower Hamlets have one for their borough and another for London. Those in Bristol have one for their city and another for the West of England. The Conservative candidate for Mayor of Bristol is Alastair Watson. He is a former Lord Mayor of Bristol – a quite different role. I hope that is all clear.

Andy Burnham is surely very likely to be returned as the directly elected Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester. He won with a big majority in 2017 – even though there were some spectacular Conservative successes elsewhere. Political expediency appeared to triumph over consistency with his messages regarding lockdown. We did see some interesting General Election results in 2019 – not least the Conservatives gaining Leigh, the constituency Burnham himself used to represent. It comes under Wigan Council. Other councils in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority include Bolton, Bury and Trafford which have reasonable levels of Conservative support. But Manchester itself has no Conservative councillors while Oldham and Salford remain challenging. However, in Salford the Conservatives have been making progress and now have eight councillors. Salford has its own directly elected Mayor. Arnie Saunders, a Conservative councillor described by the Salford Star as a “jovial rabbi”, is the Conservative candidate. The Conservative candidate for Mayor of Greater Manchester is Laura Evans. She has written about her candidacy for us here.

Liverpool City Region is even more solid Labour territory – though it does include Wirral. Steve Rotherham, a left winger and former Labour MP, is standing again. The Conservative candidate is Jade Marsden.

But there will be more interest in the contest for the directly elected Mayor of Liverpool City Council. Joe Anderson, the Labour incumbent is not seeking re-election. He was arrested in December after accusations of corruption. The replacement Labour candidate is Joanne Anderson, no relation, who emerged after a messy selection process. The three who made an earlier shortlist – all Labour councillors – were barred from standing. Given that commissioners have been sent in to run the City, the election result is rather otiose for the immediate future.  Katie Burgess is the Conservative candidate. She certainly has no shortage of material for her campaign messages about Labour mismanagement.

West Yorkshire is electing its first Mayor this year. The West Yorkshire Combined Authority has the following member councils: Wakefield, Kirklees, Calderdale, Bradford and Leeds. That area includes Shipley, which comes under Bradford – represented by the Conservative MP Philip Davies. Keighley, another Bradford constituency was gained by the Conservatives in 2019. Calder Valley comes under Calderdale and has a Conservative MP. Most encouragingly we have the constituency of Wakefield – which was gained by Imran Ahmad Khan for the Conservatives at the last General Election. Parts of Leeds are covered by the constituencies of Pudsey, Morley and Outwood and Elmet and Rothwell – all three with Conservative MPs. (Morley and Outwood includes some wards that come under Wakefield Council.)

Then we have Dewsbury – another seat gained by the Conservatives at the last election and now represented by Mark Eastwood. It comes under Kirklees – as do another Conservative constituency, Colne Valley.

Yet even if we take the 2019 General Election as a guide – a cheerful set of results to reflect on – Labour would still have been slightly ahead among votes cast in this region. Some of their MPs still had big majorities – notably in Bradford. The electoral system for the Mayoral race may make it tougher still – with Green Party and Lib Dems voters tending to give Labour their second preferences.

Tracy Brabin is Labour’s candidate. She is currently the Party’s MP for Batley and Spen. She was embroiled in controversy after issuing a statement attacking the teacher suspended by Batley Grammar School for showing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, but then changing her stance. The Conservative candidate is Matthew Robinson. He’s a councillor in Leeds and works helping children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Robinson is the underdog but this should be a competitive race.

Harry Fone: Bristol is consulting on a Council Tax rise. But will it take any notice of the response?

15 Dec

Harry Fone is the Grassroots Campaign Manager for the TaxPayers’ Alliance. This is the first of a new column from him.

With many households struggling to pay their bills, it is hoped that councils across the country are tightening their belts and eradicating wasteful spending to avoid inflation-busting rate rises. Some local authorities are certainly trying but others leave a lot to be desired.

In Bristol, residents are taking part in a consultation on whether or not to increase council tax. Looking at the last five years, Bristol has hiked rates by the maximum permissible sum every time. It’s hard to imagine that council members would freeze tax even if everyone called for it.

The consultation lays out the economic challenges Bristol City Council faces. A shortfall of £9 million is forecast for this financial year – to be expected given the pandemic. But maybe the shortfall didn’t need to be so great given the millions of pounds of wasteful spending uncovered by the TaxPayers’ Alliance.

The council spent over £900,000 on taxis alone between February and September this year. Add to this, £12 million on an entertainment arena that has yet to get off the drawing board and £37.7 million up in smoke on a failed energy company. Perhaps most ridiculous of all, councillors awarded themselves an allowances increase totalling £180,000, just as the pandemic was starting to take hold.

Rates could rise by as much as five per cent – described as “modest” by Bristol Council. Hardly modest when households in a typical band D property would see bills rise by nearly £90 to £1,846 (more than £2,100 when you include parish precepts).

The council asking residents for their feedback is most welcome. But given Bristol’s repeated tax hikes and poor record with taxpayers’ cash will it actually listen?

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In Lincolnshire there has been “fierce backlash” to South Kesteven District Council’s (SKDC) plan to potentially spend £100,000 of public funds to unveil a statue of Margaret Thatcher.

The leader of SKDC, Cllr Matthew Lee said:

“My expectation and that of our Cabinet is that the cost of the event will be fully met through donations and not the public purse. The Council will simply be providing a cash flow situation to support the forward funding of the event of up to £100,000.”

Of course there’s no guarantee that the council will recoup the money in full and there are more pressing local concerns. As one South Kesteven councillor put it to me:

“Some of our tenants have gone through two winters without proper heating in place. Rather than focusing on the needs of our residents, the Cabinet has decided to devote time and resources to a vanity project.”

I’m inclined to agree. Data shows that between 1997 and 2017, council tax has increased by 65 per cent in real terms for South Kesteven residents – every penny of their taxes must be used to procure the best frontline services possible.

The council has history when it comes to vanity projects. In 2019, SKDC announced plans to spend £103,000 on a giant outdoor TV screen “as part of its drive to develop the cultural scene in the district.” Given the threat of another rate rise many people will not be pleased to see precious funds spent on an unveiling ceremony.

Mrs Thatcher was very much a champion of getting the best possible deal for the taxpayer. After all she uttered the famous line:

“There is no such thing as public money, there is only taxpayers’ money.”

It has to be asked, would the Iron Lady herself approve of this largesse?

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Good news east of Lincolnshire though. Reports suggest that Stoke City Council is set to trim the number of staff on its books. The authority is aiming to cut four roles from its senior management team. One idea is to merge the directors of Housing and Place into a single role. The most recent figures reveal each received remuneration in excess of £150,000. No wonder the council estimates savings of £360,000 a year.

Since 2007, the TaxPayers’ Alliance has compiled an annual list of council employees who receive remuneration in excess of £100,000. As of 2018-19, 2,667 individuals across 384 councils enjoyed six-figure pay packets – remuneration totalled £360.1 million. The average salary, excluding bonuses, pension contributions, expenses and loss of office payments, was £116,478. If each of the 384 councils were (on average) to cut just one position, recurring nationwide savings in the years ahead would be around £45 million.

It’s pleasing to see Stoke council taking positive steps to cut down on a bloated management structure. Other authorities must now follow their lead. For the sake of ratepayers who pay their wages, council bosses should be minimising wasteful spending and maximising efficiency wherever possible.

Mark Shelford: Independent Police and Crime Commissioners are less accountable than party politicians

14 Dec

Mark Shelford is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for Avon and Somerset

Bristol-born merchant, philanthropist, and slave-trader, Edward Colston, is not the only public figure to have fallen dramatically in public estimation in the West of England in recent months. As his statue was toppled in June, Colston also brought crashing down with him the reputation of the Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner, Sue Mountstevens.

It is quite a fall for Mountstevens, who was re-elected to her post as an independent in 2016. She is one of only four remaining non-party PCCs across England and Wales. Interestingly, two of the other three are from the West. The police forces covering Gloucestershire and Dorset also have independents attempting to hold them to account.

The cry of “keep politics out of policing” resonated in parts of the country in 2012 but has been increasingly silent nationwide ever since. In 2016, seven independent PCCs were replaced by Conservatives and after the events of the last few weeks, attitudes here in the West of England are also shifting.

The limitations of Independent candidates are being increasingly exposed. An analysis of ONS statistics published earlier this year highlights areas with the lowest crime rates, across a wide range of offences. These overwhelmingly have Conservatives in charge. Avon and Somerset is listed just once as a good performer, under “miscellaneous crime”.

The idea that frontline policing should not be party political is beyond argument. The police must enforce the law, and keep order, without fear or favour. Ensuring police forces and their Chief Constables uphold this principle is an important part of the job for the 40 PCCs in England and Wales, plus the Mayors of London and Greater Manchester, who fulfil the same role.

But in the West of England, while there is sympathy with the general sentiments expressed by those demonstrating in Bristol last June, attitudes towards how the police acted, and have policed large unlawful public gatherings since, are much less nuanced. Most local people I speak to, from across the political spectrum, remain aghast at local police leaders’ chosen approach.

Many hoped that the relaxed attitude to keeping order taken by the force leadership would be at least questioned by the PCC. Sadly, “independent” Mountstevens not only took no such action, she wholeheartedly endorsed the police leadership approach. Not long after Colston’s fall, Mountstevens issued a rather extraordinary statement, which suggested that if there were enough protesters, if they appeared potentially violent, and if they were protesting against something deemed politically incorrect, the current Police and Crime Commissioner was more than happy for the police not to intervene. And, as an independent, for her, that was the end of the matter. Would a party politician have been able to make such a statement and then move on unchallenged?

Now Mountstevens’ newly-appointed deputy (and conveniently for her, her former chief executive, John Smith) is being lined up to stand for election as an independent to replace her when she steps down next May. In what appears an overly-cosy relationship between the Avon and Somerset operational and political police offices, Smith’s appointment as deputy PCC was endorsed in writing by the current Chief Constable – on the face of it a peculiar blurring of the lines between operational independence and political oversight.

What will “independent” John Smith’s views be on holding the police to account, and how will voters know? What guarantee can there be that his independent views, whatever they are, will remain consistent, were he to be elected? What checks will there be, and from whom, to ensure this independent sticks to his campaign promises? And can residents be sure he will exercise effective oversight of a Chief Constable who recommended him for his current job?

Contrast such an independent candidate with me, running as a Conservative. Voters know what they will get from me on law and order – effectiveness and efficiency, support for frontline officers and putting the victims of crime first. If there were any question of me deviating from that position, there would be plenty of people, not least in my own party, ready to haul me over the coals. There is a democratic party structure which delivers checks and balances and protects voters. Independents have none of this to worry about. Once elected, they can do as much, or as little, as they please.

In the past few months, I have met community groups, parish councils, MPs, and councillors of all parties and none, across this region. As a former councillor myself, I know how important this direct contact is. I have talked to hundreds of party members, alongside members of the general public and serving police officers. A key role of the PCC is to be the voice of the public. My political links and experience would mean I’d have no choice but to be accountable to the public. I couldn’t get away with avoiding public meetings or not responding to concerns raised by the public. There is no way I, as a party politician, could retreat to a cosy cabal of advisers and cronies, even if I wanted to.

An independent PCC like Mountstevens or her prospective replacement, John Smith, is indeed independent of the day-to-day scrutiny which any party politician has to deal with, and especially Conservative politicians when it comes to law and order. The public know we have to deliver. It’s a leap into the dark with independents.

Across the West of England, the notion that those overseeing the local police should be ‘independent’ is an idea whose time has gone. Roll on the PCC elections next May. From what local residents are telling me, they can’t come soon enough.

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.