Jane MacBean: Conservatives must prove we are the true environmentalists

11 Mar

Cllr Jane MacBean is a councillor on Buckinghamshire Council and chairman of the Council’s Health & Adult Social Care Select Committee

As Conservative councillors across the country stand for election this May, with many competing against the Lib Dems and Greens, let’s be clear about one thing: the environment is a political battleground and resident topic of choice. However, if handled properly, protecting, increasing, and enhancing, Green Infrastructure in your local area can be a real vote winner.

Green Infrastructure is the collective name for green spaces and natural features of all sizes in urban and rural settings, which can deliver quality of life as well as environmental benefits for communities. Everything from entire woodlands to window boxes on balconies in crowded city centres deliver GI value and form part of the green webs that we are striving to create. Why green webs and not green belts? Because webs integrate and fuse urban and rural areas to deliver better quality environments rather than setting clear boundaries that separate the two. Green webs bring built and natural spaces together in a way that enhances the value of both.

It is important to stress that the benefit delivered by Green Infrastructure is not solely environmental; it is also an intrinsic part of our social, economic, and health, agendas. GI delivers sustainable drainage, natural flood mitigation, insulation, carbon sequestration, and improves physical and mental health and wellbeing – as well as increasing property values.

Tree lined streets are a case in point. Not only do trees aid urban cooling, but also slow and reduce rainwater runoff, offer natural flood protection, and improve air quality. Studies have even shown that the presence of street trees can have a positive effect on drivers, showing a reduction in both speed and road rage.

Tree planting is exactly the kind of popular, nature-based project that Conservative councillors should be exploring at any point in the election cycle. A love of trees and strong climate concerns raised by residents were the inspiration and drive behind the Communi-Tree project in Chesham, our urban landscape planting project that is on track to put hundreds of trees back into our barren highway verges. Enthusiasm to participate has been strong from the start as we ask residents to nominate each site and invite them to play an active part in planting and caring for ‘their tree’. Streets that initially had a single Communi-Tree request have inspired interest from neighbours, and lone saplings are now part of tree lined avenues. Even our environmental projects can embrace healthy competitiveness with one re-populated street fuelling interest and enthusiasm in the next.

It is the universal popularity of nature that makes it a vote winner. The broad range of projects that can be defined under the umbrella of “Green Infrastructure” means that there is something for everyone. Whether you are campaigning in a bustling city or rural hamlet, there will be a project that simultaneously brings value to your residents, the wider community, and to the environment.

With such a wide array of rewards to be reaped, rather than shying away, Conservative councillors should recognise the vote-winning potential of nature and champion it in their upcoming campaigns. For any councillor or candidate looking to campaign on the environment this May, the Conservative Environment Network has put together a set of campaign ideas to provide you with inspiration.

Nature recovery is becoming an increasingly important responsibility for councils in England following the ground-breaking Environment Act passed late last year. It endows local councils with much greater responsibility for the environment, which will need to be evidence-based, locally led, and collaborative. County and unitary authorities will need to develop Local Nature Recovery Strategies, which will establish a network of shared plans that public, private, and voluntary sectors could and should all help to deliver. An LNRS will map existing and potential priority habitats and identify areas where nature can bounce back.

Although the Defra consultation is still underway to determine exactly what these strategies will look like, here in Buckinghamshire we are leading the charge as one of five areas in the country to trial the development of an LNRS. Councillors, officers, and partners representing a range of organisations have forged ahead with the creation and launch of our Biodiversity Action Plan, which sets out measures that will help to reverse current wildlife decline and help it to thrive. The plan serves as our interim Biodiversity Strategy as we convene our Nature Recovery Working Group that will focus on specific aspects of BAP delivery while our formal LNRS is finalised.

The Environment Act will also deliver changes in the planning process, with all new residential developments and infrastructure projects required to deliver a ten per cent uplift in biodiversity. As many of us wrestle with planning policy, work to build our Local Plans and resist speculative and often inappropriate and unpopular development, it will be essential to champion nature as an integral element of future local and national planning reform and policy.

Councillors who want to find out more about Green Infrastructure should look no further than the latest CEN briefing on this topic, which provides a detailed overview of the policy landscape as well as ideas on how to approach local GI projects. Natural England has also developed a Green Infrastructure Framework, an interactive mapping tool designed to support the greening of our towns and cities and their connections with the surrounding landscape.

Those standing for election this May should incorporate Green Infrastructure plans into their campaigns, and all councillors should make use of the wealth of resources provided by their own local authority, Natural England, and local wildlife groups, to spot opportunities and begin to map out their own nature recovery networks and projects.

Choosing to embrace Green Infrastructure in our fight back against the Lib Dems in the Chesham & Amersham constituency, and championing green initiatives as the majority group across Buckinghamshire, we are setting an agenda that is inclusive, engaging, financially sound, and popular, and shows voters that it is the Conservatives that can deliver solutions that are good for voters, public and private bank balances and, ultimately, the environment. A blue core fuelled by a green web that is woven through policy, campaigning, and workstreams, equals political and environmental gold.

Mario Creatura: The failure of social workers to protect vulnerable children is grim. But must not be ignored.

24 Feb

Cllr Mario Creatura is a councillor in Croydon and was the Conservative candidate for Croydon Central.

On Monday it was revealed that vulnerable children living in Solihull have to wait far too long for help. A probe of Solihull Council uncovered a ‘significant’ number of children who remain in ‘unknown risk’ due to assessment delays. It’s where six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was tortured and killed in June 2020.

A week ago, a report revealed that Bradford Council was struggling to recruit and retain social workers. 124 vacancies are being filled by 173 agency staff. It’s where 16-month-old Star Hobson was murdered in 2020. That meant the Council was stripped of control of its children’s services department.

On the south coast, vulnerable children in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole are being put at risk of harm by failing social services, with Ofsted last week rating the care as ‘inadequate’. The watchdog said “the fundamental building blocks required for children to get the right help at the right time were missing, almost in entirety”.

The same is true in Buckinghamshire. They were deemed inadequate in 2014 but the latest Ofsted review said improvements had been impeded by “acute and persistent” problems with recruitment and retention of social workers and managers, and poor social work practice. As a result, the help some children received was “fragmented and episodic” because they did not see the same social worker.

These are just a few of the well-publicised cases in the last fortnight. If you take the time to search, there are far too many examples of failures in children’s services up and down the country – yet it’s still relatively hidden, far too easily lost in the unrelenting noise of the news.

On 1st February, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) released a damning report exposing that police and Local Authorities are failing to properly identify and investigate child grooming gangs. They were looking at abuse in St Helens, Tower Hamlets, Swansea, Durham, Bristol, and Warwickshire, and found “extensive failures” in how Local Authorities tackled child exploitation, with police often unable to provide evidence on the extent of the problem. The inquiry said that the ‘child victims were often blamed by authorities’ – in just one example a charity revealed that child protection professionals were still describing abused children as “promiscuous” and “putting themselves at risk”.

Professor Alexis Jay, who led the investigation into child abuse in Rotherham, has said that child abuse and systemic neglect had become “even more of a hidden problem and increasingly underestimated” – she’s right, and it’s partly our fault.

These cases are all utterly heart-breaking, and the last thing that any of us want to contemplate happening in our communities, yet it’s clear that no part of the country is immune from the unimaginable terror of child abuse.

When heading into the office, do you really want to listen to stories of exploitation and neglect on the radio? Do you switch the station or just mentally tune it out? When reading the paper, do you scan past reports of child cruelty and torture? It’s understandable that you’d want to, I’m as guilty as the next man, but if we are to have any hope of helping these children then we must all redouble our efforts to accept how serious and widespread these tragedies are.

Only by adequately and comprehensively shining a light on institutional failures do we stand a chance of reforming the system and eradicating these horrors once and for all – that’s where Nadhim Zahawi comes in.

There is a Government review into the whole system currently under way, and based on previous statements it’s clear that our Education Secretary has the bit firmly between his teeth. It’s due to be published this Spring, and as well as tackling recruitment and retention, I hope it celebrates those Local Authorities and incredible social workers that have managed to turn things around. Cornwall, Lincolnshire, Barnet and others have all proven that poor children’s services can be revived. Every team that improves means more children being protected that previously may not have been. That’s worth unending enthusiastic praise.

With the Government working with authorities to improve national systems, and with all of us paying more attention and asking the right questions locally, we can collectively turn this around. It can be all too easy to leave the politics to the politicians, but if communities organise and rally to tackle injustices such as these then we can bolster top-down reforms with bottom-up scrutiny. We need that on this topic more than ever.

The IICSA report said that in some cases Local Authorities might be potentially downplaying the scale of abuse over concerns about the negative publicity, that they “don’t want to be labelled another Rochdale or Rotherham” – we cannot allow that to happen anywhere.

So read about it. Get angry about it. Discuss it with your friends and family. Demand that your local services get better, and do everything you can to push our Local Authorities and law enforcement to do more and do much much better.

Do that, and together we can start the painfully slow process of improving the lives of vulnerable children.


Joseph Baum: Pavement politics is how the Conservatives will beat the Lib Dems in Chesham and Amersham

25 Jan

Cllr Joseph Baum a councillor on Buckinghamshire Council and the Deputy Chairman (Political) of the Chesham and Amersham Conservative Association.

It doesn’t matter where you are in the country, if you are a Conservative activist the following sentence will almost certainly apply: the person knocking on the door cares more about politics than the person answering it.

For many readers of ConservativeHome – myself included – following the twists and turns of our political system is simply a part of our routine. But for the millions of residents out in the country who simply do not have the time or the patience to keep up, what goes on within the “Westminster bubble” is a world away from what’s actually happening in their community and what needs to happen for it to thrive. Yes, there will be the occasional story that “cuts through” but for every story emanating from Downing Street there are dozens of local issues that need attention on every street.

Whether it’s mending a broken drain or installing a new bin on a public footpath, many of the problems that affect people on a daily basis can, and are being, dealt with by local Conservative councillors.

For us in local government, the satisfaction of knowing that you got something done is why we stood in the first place. But it is particularly important here in Chesham and Amersham, which has been under new parliamentary management since June. In my last article, written in the immediate aftermath of the by-election, I said that we needed to acknowledge why we lost whilst at the same time recognising that all is not lost.

Although the work of rebuilding our Association is still very much in progress, the task of delivering for local people has never, and can never stop. Having lost our voice at Westminster, I am pleased to say that in just six months Buckinghamshire Council has made some significant progress on issues that really matter to residents.

It wasn’t our MP who approved further and much needed investment in our roads, taking the total to more than £100 million over the next four years. It wasn’t our MP who promised, and is on track to deliver on a manifesto commitment to unblock every drain and gully in the county – a herculean effort made possible by Conservative investment.

Interested in sport? In December the brand new Chilterns Lifestyle Centre in Amersham opened its doors to the public. Improvements to the Chalfont Leisure Centre were also delivered as planned earlier this year. And for all the talk of protecting our green belt, it wasn’t our MP who stood up to defend it when a Planning Application to build almost 400 homes was recently submitted to the local Council.

A strategy to improve our bus network, a county wide effort to plants thousands of new trees, a zero-tolerance policy on fly tipping which is now leading to successful prosecutions, the first ever Buckinghamshire Jobs and Apprenticeships Fair which will bring together some of the UK’s biggest employers to our community to showcase their vacancies, a Local Plan in Aylesbury which will result in a net increase in green belt, millions distributed to local businesses who are desperate to bounce back from the pandemic, or a Helping Hand scheme which is supporting some of our most vulnerable in society – the list goes on.

Whilst it will never be as glamorous as a free trade agreement with Australia or a climate change summit in Glasgow, you can be sure that these are the issues that matters to local people.

Delivering for local people can only part of the effort. At every turn we have made sure that residents should be in no doubt over who is responsible for these achievements. Since the by-election we have held six Action Days across the Association – held on the first Saturday of every month. We have surveyed, canvassed, delivered leaflets and even telephone canvassed. We have reached out to our membership base once again and looked to re-invigorate our branches. In the two major town of Chesham and Amersham, our Town Councillors have held monthly face to face surgeries in the library and street stalls on the High Street. Almost all of our councillors now have active Facebook pages, enabling residents to communicate with their local councillor and to receive updates about what they are doing. Ask a resident at random in the constituency and the chances are that they have seen or heard from the Conservatives since the by-election.

Whilst the task of rebuilding will not be complete until we take back Chesham and Amersham, the solution lies in what Conservatives do best – working hard, deliver for local people and campaigning to win.

David Willetts: Yes, let’s have more white male working class students. And new universities, too – some in the Red Wall.

3 Dec

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science, and His book A University Education is published by Oxford University Press.

The forthcoming White Paper is the crucial opportunity to shape a coherent agenda for levelling up – if Michael Gove, Neil O’Brien and Andy Haldane can’t crack it, then nobody can.

But even before it is published some specific policies are being launched which help to flesh out the idea. The Education Department has just made a really important shift in policy to boosting access to higher education. Its significance for levelling up may not have been fully appreciated. It is a brave challenge to the conventional wisdom that too many people go to university.

Many Conservatives do not approve of Tony Blair’s target for 50 per cent of people under 30 going to higher education. I myself don’t like targets, and it did not apply during my time as Universities Minister. But even without any such target, more and more young people are going to university. For young women, the participation rate has now reached 61 per cent – compared with 47 per cent for young men.

The guilty secret for Conservatives is that in many prosperous Tory constituencies the participation rate is now well over 60 per cent. If there is a social and economic problem of too many people going to university it is most acute in places like Kensington, Guildford, Winchester, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and the affluent suburbs of Sheffield and Manchester – even though these areas don’t seem to be suffering too much as a result.

But meanwhile, there is one group above all who have remained stubbornly resistant to the blandishments of higher education – white working class boys.

The Government has just appointed a new Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students Nadhim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan have followed up with a robust statement about what his priority should be:

‘White British young males who received free school meals are amongst the least likely to enter higher education, with just 12.6 per cent progressing to higher education by age 19 by 2019/20. …We would like to see the OfS rewrite the national targets to better align with this new focus, and renegotiate A&P (Access and Participation) plans with providers to meet these new priorities…”

It is a welcome recognition that higher education can and should boost social mobility. Perhaps the mood in Government is beginning to shift away from just complaining that too many people go.

This initiative opens up the crucial question of how this improved access is to be achieved. If we don’t want to see more people in total going to higher education, then universities will have to cut back on places for other groups. That would means that those traditional Tory areas with high rates of participation are going to have to cut back so as to make more room for students from Red Wall seats with much lower participation.

But somehow I suspect that the Government is not going to embark on such a civil war within the new Conservative electoral Coalition. Instead, the aim will be for this group of white young British males to catch up with higher participation groups. That means more places at university. This has always been the logic of higher education expansion ever since Robbins.

There may be an attempt to say that these young men should do different subjects. We certainly do need to ensure there are good opportunities for technical higher education. But it would be a pity if we restrict the arts and humanities to the middle classes at prestigious universitiesm and assume that young working class men should all be doing technical qualifications.

Nadine Dorries criticises the BBC for being too middle class – she would not find it acceptable if it replied that working class people should train to be engineers and plumbers, rather than journalists and broadcasters: it is hard to see how such an approach could be a basis for our higher education policy either.

Moreover, the British economy is so inter-connected that we need people with a wide range of skills. So, for example, one of the biggest barriers holding up on the Government’s ambitious investment in infrastructure is the need to conduct archaeological surveys of historic sites which are briefly revealed before they are built over. But there is a shortage of archaeologists. It would be wrong to miss out on this rare opportunity to learn more about our history so we need urgently to train a new group of development archaeologists.

The Government’s pressure to boost the shockingly low rates of university participation by young working class men is going to push up total demand for university places. Furthermore, there was a surge in the birth rate during the first decade of the Millennium which is now pushing up demand for higher education. And then there is the surging demand from overseas students – higher education is one of our best export industries, worth £30 billion a year.

Add all this together, and UCAS are expecting a million applications a year for places in British universities by 2025. Instead of pretending there is going to be a fall in student numbers, we need instead to be planning for a substantial increase.

That then opens up another issue: where are all these extra students to go? One possibility is that our current universities grow even bigger. But I’m not sure students want massive universities, and anyway there are physical constraints on their growth in some of our cities.

Instead this era of expansion is an opportunity to create new universities in the places that don’t have them – the cold spots. It is also a fantastic opportunity for innovation with new providers coming in offering a different prospectus.

That is what is happening with the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering at Hereford, which is on its way to becoming a university. Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge is developing a new campus at Peterborough which is planned to become a university. A Further Education College, such as the excellent one in Hartlepool, might expand and aim for university status.

Blackpool resisted having a university so it went to Lancaster instead: now there is an opportunity for them to correct that mistake. Wigan, Wakefield, Grimsby, Yeovil, Doncaster, and Thanet are all places which might aspire to have their own university. The Government could launch a competition to enable places to bid for a new higher education institution perhaps partly funded by local business partners needing to recruit more graduates.

The surge in demand for higher education is a fantastic opportunity to deliver levelling up. The Government should seize it.

Steve Baker: Wycombe’s food insecurity levels are a huge wake-up call. We must renew our vision of Conservative social justice.

3 Aug

Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.

On the one hand, it is simple to tell just by walking down the streets of High Wycombe there are people who do not find life easy. It’s probably true of a town of any size across the country. On the other, what did come as a surprise is the Food Foundation’s report, splashed by The Guardian, showing Wycombe had the greatest food insecurity in the whole of the UK. This is not something to dismiss lightly, and we must take this as a clarion call to action. 

The Wycombe constituency has some of the poorest and the richest people in the country, sometimes only living a short distance away from each other. This brings its own challenges. When civil servants are creating public policy and look at Wycombe the overall demographic is one of affluence. It is easy to think that everything is all right. But the constituency contains some areas of true deprivation. People in these areas have worse health outcomes, worse education results, and all the other traditional markers of a hard life. Low pay is compounded with high housing costs which squeeze low-income household budgets to breaking point.

The Coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions have brought these areas into sharp focus. There was a huge strain on working parents on low incomes; they had to continue to work, home educate children and provide more food such as snacks and lunch which were normally provided at school. My caseworkers were speaking to parents with young children who had not yet received their free school meal vouchers, and this meant they were finding it hard to feed their family.

Many people had jobs, but some had no work or a severely reduced income as a result of the Covid lockdowns and restrictions and did not qualify for any of the Government support schemes due to the nature of their employment. These were people who had to ask for help to feed their families for the first time. 

It is clear the lockdown pushed some people to the edge. I do not want to rehash all the things I said about the need for lockdown restrictions to be lifted as soon as it was safe to do so, but these were exactly the sort of people I had in mind when I said it. It wasn’t merely about allowing people to go abroad on holiday; it was about allowing hard working people to manage their everyday lives.

Before I became an MP, I did work for the Centre for Social Justice and I have always had an interest in making sure the least affluent in society are lifted up. For a long time, I have said more money should go into UC; we spend an enormous amount on the welfare state and it should help the people who need it, but this clearly doesn’t always happen.

I have previously lobbied ministers about the five week wait for benefits to kick-in once a new application is made. I know the £20 a week extra on Universal Credit has been welcomed by those who rely on benefits and, ideally, it should be kept. But the amount paid in UC is only one aspect of supporting those most in need. We have not yet broken the cycles of poverty the CSJ identified before we came to power in 2010: it is time now to renew our vision of Conservative social justice.

Charities and public agencies need to work alongside those who use foodbanks regularly or are food insecure to offer life coaching and mentoring. Getting the balance right here will be key. I do not want an authoritarian approach to telling people what to do, but most of us could use a helping hand or sounding board every now and then.

Buckinghamshire Council is working on a project to bring together debt support and advice, helping people get back into employment and addressing local skill shortages and training opportunities, greater take-up of food voucher schemes and better support to access benefits to ensure income maximisation.

All these schemes will help but the best way of lifting people out of poverty, and the knock-on effect of food insecurity, is through work and higher paying jobs. The Government’s Plan For Jobs includes the Kickstart and Restart scheme, and gives support for apprenticeships, traineeships and doubling the number of work coaches to get people back on their feet and into work. 

That’s a great start, but I want long-term prosperity for every one of my constituents. We must unleash the wealth creating potential of our great United Kingdom to secure it.

Gary Powell: Why flying the right rainbow flag matters

23 Jul

Cllr Gary Powell is a former councillor in Buckinghamshire.

Cllr Martin Tett, the Leader of Conservative Buckinghamshire Council, authorised the hoisting of the standard rainbow Pride flag at the authority’s offices on Global Pride Day, June 27th, in line with the Council’s policy on inclusivity. However, the flag that was instead raised, with its superimposed triangular design celebrating inter alia hard-line transgender ideology, was the “Progress Pride Flag”. This design emerged in 2018 and, whatever its original intention, has come to be associated with the militant extreme gender movement. Its ideology champions a version of identity politics that is particularly harmful to lesbian and gay people, to women’s sex-based rights, and to child safeguarding: topics about which I have written previously in these pages.

As a gay man, a conservative, and someone who has campaigned over four decades for fairer treatment and greater acceptance of lesbian and gay people, it is with considerable dismay and horrified incredulity that I have observed the emergence of a new extremist LGBTQ+ movement over the past ten years: one now in full colonisation and cancel-culture mode. This new movement insists aggressively that there is an untestable but objectively real entity called “gender” that is more important than biological sex, and that anyone should be allowed to declare his or her “gender” on the basis of self-identification alone, conferring all the legal and social rights and protections of the biological sex with which that “gender” is deemed to correspond. Where this unscientific insanity is allowed to prevail, it puts men and boys in women’s and girls’ protected environments and categories, and it gives any predatory non-trans-identified man the legally-protected opportunity to pretend he identifies as transgender so he can freely access those spaces with ulterior motives.

LGBTQ+ ideology also promotes the redefinition of homosexuality as “same-gender attraction” rather than “same-sex attraction”, leading in particular to biological men with penises invading lesbian dating sites while claiming to be lesbians, and same-sex oriented people being called “transphobes” and “bigots” when we insist we are only attracted to people of our own sex, not to people of the opposite sex who identify as our “gender”. This attempt to redefine our sexual orientation out of existence is, of course, the very opposite of “gay rights”.

The modern LGBTQ+ lobby also insists, in this social pandemic of real or designer gender dysphoria and transgender identification, that children can give informed consent to puberty-blockers: drugs that almost always lead to cross-sex hormones and that are a passport to sterilisation, lifetime medical patient status, sexual stimulation impairment, and possibly also to drastic surgical procedures. No gay rights activist should ever campaign for measures that are misogynistic, homophobic, and contemptuous of basic child safeguarding. Yet across the West, a sea of LGBTQ+ activists refuse to recognise the serious harm they are causing, and to desist from it. It is staggering that President Biden and his administration rank among the worst gender fanatic poseurs on the planet: an indicator of how serious and widespread the problem is.

As a recently-retired Member of Buckinghamshire Council, it was a cause of considerable surprise and consternation for me to see the Council’s tweet championing that flag, together with the words:

Flying the flag yesterday for #GlobalPrideDay! Showing our support for our LGBTQ+ staff, communities and residents in Bucks. #PrideMonth #LoveWins”

A new flag outside a government building can, of course, be a signal of colonisation, so I wondered whether the ideological capture of the increasingly woke Conservative Party hierarchy by extreme gender ideology had made new inroads. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s recent Pride Reception at 10 Downing Street was one to which Stonewall were pointedly invited, according to Lord Herbert – the Government’s first special envoy on LGBT rights. As many readers will already know, Stonewall is the notorious extreme gender ideology outfit that is regularly slated in quality newspapers. At the same time, the maligned and misrepresented LGB Alliance – the only UK charity dedicated to campaigning for lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) rights while opposing gender extremism – were left off the Pride Reception guest list by the Prime Minister. Proof, if any were needed, that the Government had simply thrown an unreconstructed rainbow genderfest.

Our Conservative Prime Minister is causing immense harm by feting Stonewall: and this, in the face of all the excoriating media publicity and objections to taxpayers’ money being wasted on an organisation that many lesbian and gay people from across the political spectrum are now demanding should be defunded and ostracised.

Even though Lord Herbert has stated there are areas of disagreement, such as on gender self-identification, between the Government and Stonewall, the Stonewall that he claimed “has done brilliant work over the years to promote equality” is the Stonewall of yesteryear: not today. Now, its obsession is to promote extreme gender ideology: so why are the Government and Lord Herbert empowering a rancid organisation that is well past its use-by date and set to cause increasing sickness in the society where its toxic product is consumed – or rather, force-fed? Who on Earth is advising the Prime Minister to behave like a woke apparatchik?

However, amidst all this gloom, at least there was reassuring news concerning the Progress Pride Flag outside Buckinghamshire Council’s offices. Cllr Tett explained to me that he had definitely not agreed to the hoisting of this more controversial version of the Pride flag, that he had taken up the matter with his Comms team, and that he did not intend for this particular flag to be flown again.

So Buckinghamshire has not fallen. Indeed, unlike Conservative Surrey County Council, Buckinghamshire Council is not wasting taxpayers’ money on Stonewall’s much-criticised Diversity Champions scheme, either – which I compare to the selling of indulgences under Pope Leo X. Other Conservative administrations across the country might care to watch out for what flag is raised on Global Pride Days. The LGBTQ+ lobby has been very successful at insinuating its ideology by stealth, under the radar; and watchful eyes are needed in local authorities and everywhere else.

While central Government and Lord Herbert entertain and flatter Stonewall, they are failing to provide our nation with what we desperately need: unequivocal, wise, and courageous leadership, together with action to protect the basic civil rights and liberties of vulnerable groups in the face of an extreme identity politics onslaught. A Government’s first priority should be to protect its citizens from harm.

Many left-wing people – particularly women – are now even declaring their intention to vote Conservative because of this specific crucial issue, on which the other main parties have sold out completely. If the Government continues with its shifty and pusillanimous appeasement of Stonewall, however, these leased-out votes will be retracted. Furthermore, the years leading up to Brexit should surely have taught the Conservative hierarchy a stark lesson in what happens when they abandon their grassroots supporters. The Conservative Party now risks haemorrhaging votes from grassroots conservatives who abhor spineless creeping capitulation to an extreme gender politics Zeitgeist that is ideologically rooted in the hard left.

We surely did not leave the European Union in order to become Gender Woo-Woo Island; nor for our sovereign Conservative Government to be stuck in timorous thrall to neo-Marxist identity politics.

Johnson puts the case for more localism in England. Now he must deliver it.

19 Jul

The unconvincing plan for growth apart, and the aftermath of Coronavirus not withstanding, ConservativeHome identified three main areas of policy weakness in the Queen’s Speech: social care, the delivery of net zero and English localism.

The first two turn out to be connected to the last – as are the whole country’s future prospects for growth and recovery.  Why?  Because, as David Lidington put it recently

“Whether it’s delivering an industrial strategy, or high quality apprenticeships, or integrated transport or a joined-up plan to implement net-zero carbon, we are likely to get better and faster results, and to encourage innovation and experiment…

…if these things are done by the central government of the UK working in genuine partnership with elected devolved, local and regional leaders…

…who in turn are able both to use their convening power to rally business, education, cultural and third sector organisations and through their endorsement give additional democratic legitimacy to the plan”.

Boris Johnson began to correct that weakness in his speech last week, in which he sketched out what may be taken from the postponed devolution white paper and put into the coming levelling-up white paper.

The nub of the Prime Minister’s case was that the mayoral experiment is working for cities and their suburban hinterland, and that the towns and countryside could do with a bit of it.

“Local leaders now need to be given the tools to make things happen for their communities, and to do that we must now take a more flexible approach to devolution in England,” he said.

Which could mean “a directly elected mayor for individual counties”; or devolution “for a specific local purpose like a county or city coming together to improve local services like buses”.

Ideas on a postcard, please, to our recently-departed columnist, Neil O’Brien. Or, as Johnson put it, “come to Neil O Brien or to me with your vision for how you will level up, back business, attract more good jobs and improve your local services”.

Put like that, the Prime Minister’s case sounds lamentably underdeveloped, open to fresh thinking, or simply cautious, depending on how you look at it.  But he, Robert Jenrick and others will have to make the following decisions.

At the outset, whether or not to push for uniformity, or something very close to it.  Both of the main schemes that would ensure it are out: regional government and an English Parliament.

Labour tried to make the North East a start-up zone for regional government, and the project was duly trounced in a referendum – the event which gave politics early sight of James Frayne and Dominic Cummings.

An English Parliament would institutionalise potential conflict between a First Minister for England, who would run the bulk of the country, and a Prime Minister stripped of responsibility for nearly everything other than foreign affairs, defence and security policy.

Which returns us to the options on Johnson’s table.  He could sit back and wait for local leaders to come to him.  And the map of local government in England would continue to look much like the patchwork we see today.

There is a good case for this approach.  “A bit of local laissez-faire and free choice when it comes to English local governance might not be the worst outcome,” as Johnathan Werren wrote on this site.

The downside is that if that, with so many cooks preparing the broth, nothing much might be served up: experience suggests that county, district, town and parish councils don’t easily come to agreement.

Some senior Tory figures in local government, and elsewhere, are keen on unitarisation – some has already happened (as recently in Buckinghamshire); more is happening (as in North Yorkshire), and more may happen still.

But ConservativeHome finds no appetite near the top of government for an attempt to force amalgamation on unwilling Conservative-controlled authorities: the whips have enough trouble with agitated councillors and backbenchers, thank you very much.

Nonetheless, experience suggests that if the Government wants more local mayors, it will have to push for them – and, if local people are given a say in a referendum, they tend to push back.

Remember May 3, 2012: the day on which ten cities voted for or against new mayors.  Only one, Bristol, went for change.  Since then, some authorities, such as Hartlepool, have voted to abolish their elected mayors; others, like North Tyneside, have not.

There are further problems about political legitimacy.  The Tees Valley has a population of about 1.2 million people.  Kent has one of approximately 1.8 million.  It follows that if an elected mayor can work for it might for the other.

Government sources also named other well-populated counties, such as Lancashire and Warwickshire.  But would it be practicable to  bundle ones with smaller populations together under a single mayor?

One of the problems that is wrecking the police commissioner project is the sense that there is no real local ownership of whoever is elected to the post.  Might not enforced, multi-county, amalgamated mayoralities run the same risk?

But if, to use the Prime Minister’s own example, a county or city comes together “to improve local services like buses”, who or what is to take charge, if not a Mayor?

Mention of an actual service is a reminder not to put the cart, structure, before the horse, services.  The first question is what to make more local.  The second is how to do it.

Which takes us to the mayors in place already.  Consider Ben Houchen in Teesside.  He already controls education for people over 18.  Wouldn’t it make sense for this to be joined up to that provided to people over 16 – given the stress he places on skills?

Andy Street made the same case for the West Midlands in a recent column on this site.  Why not go further, and let Houchen, Street and some of the other mayors pilot more local control?

For example, they could retain a slice, say, of airport passenger duty, vehicle excise, and VAT.  Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan recommended the full devolution of the last in The Plan, opening the door to tax competition between local authorities.

Johnson said that counties could “take charge of levelling up local infrastructure like the bypass they desperately want to end congestion and pollution and to unlock new job or new bus routes plied by clean green buses because they get the chance to control the bus routes”.

“Or they can level up the skills of the people in their area because they know what local business needs.”  The Prime Minister was careful to add that “we need accountability”.

But the thrust of his case was there are fewer “irresponsible municipal socialist governments” and that “most of the big metro mayors know that private sector investment is crucial”.

Johnson has no experience of running a major domestic department.  His sole government experience at Cabinet level was in the Foreign Office.

Nonetheless, he has been mayor of the biggest city in the whole country, serving two terms.  He will need to draw on that experience as he decides which localist options to take.

One thing is certain – though it won’t be what anxious MPs and councillors want to hear.  If the mayoral experiment had needed existing councils’ and sitting councillors’ agreement to happen, it wouldn’t have happened.

So since the Prime Minister wants more localism, and rightly, he must ready himself for a row – to add to the one already raging about housing and planning.  One can’t serve up a muncipal omelette without breaking eggs.

Bob Blackman: Voters are understandably wary about planning reforms. Here’s why a street plans scheme is a viable alternative.

22 Jun

Bob Blackman is MP for Harrow East.

I have worked in local politics for over 30 years: 24 as a councillor leading Brent council, or the Conservative grouping there, and 11 as MP. My seat, Harrow East, is about nine miles away from Chesham and Amersham, with two Conservative constituencies in between – one of them the Prime Minister’s own constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. While Harrow is more suburban than Buckinghamshire, we treasure the fields and green open spaces in the area no less and are no more willing to see them concreted over.

The notion that everyone is Conservative about what they know best is a pretty good summary of the results in the Chesham and Amersham by-election. Given the impression that planning changes would lose them control of development in their green and pleasant land, voters reacted with a protest vote, in good by-election tradition.

This does not mean, however, that locals are opposed to any and every bit of development that happens. Most of my constituents understand that the country needs more homes, and that some development must happen in their area. What they object to is development foisted on them, and which they feel they have no control over. They are worried when even members of our own party say that local democracy will be overruled to force through new development.

The Housing, Communities, and Local Government committee, on which I have sat since 2010, has a Tory majority and yet our report on the upcoming Planning Bill, or at least on those bits of it that have been released to the public or heavily signposted, could be described as “wary”. Many of us do not want to force sprawling new developments on places that cannot cope with them, leaving both new and existing residents badly off in terms of congestion, school places, and access to natural amenity.

The party may find itself at an impasse. We know that the country needs more homes – so people can live closer to the best jobs and afford to buy a home and raise a family. We know that the Conservative Party needs more homes – as homeowners with families always end up being the ones who vote for us. However, if more homes mean building over the landscapes that our voters hold dear, it may risk our core voters in places like Chesham and Amersham turning on us.

I think there’s another way. Earlier this year I contributed to a Policy Exchange paper called Strong Suburbs which outlines an extension to neighbourhood planning called “street plans”. These would allow individual streets, when a large majority of homeowners agree, to give themselves permission to increase the size of their houses. They could add bedrooms for children, granny, or a lodger, or even turn a large semi-detached house into two larger terraced homes. In many areas the value uplift, after building costs, could be several hundred thousand pounds for every homeowner on the street.

There are encouraging signs that this alternative to towers on the skyline, or building over fields, can carry a wide coalition of supporters. Six Tory MPs, including me and my colleague David Simmonds, whose constituency lies directly between mine and Amersham, have endorsed the idea. So has Tony Burton, the key inventor of neighbourhood planning, and chairman of the London branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). The idea also boasts the support of the London Forum of Amenity and Civic Societies, with more than 100,000 underlying members. Indeed, CPRE’s Hampshire branch recommended the report as part of its submission for the Winchester local plan.

These point the way to a compromise solution on housing, where we make it easier to build, but give local communities the final say, directly, about what goes where. Streets that want to retain their existing character can vote to do so. Those that opt to build more can do that, reaping the benefits, just as many homes opt for more limited loft extensions under the current system. This means that we will be developing places that are already built on and protecting green fields and other natural spaces. Locals always have the final say and cannot have their wishes overridden by the local council or Westminster.

If the idea works, it will be because it gives full control to the local people who are affected most by development. Instead of bearing only the burden of housing, they share in the benefits it delivers, and control the shape and form it takes. If we give power back to communities in this way, we can create a new generation of homeowners, without letting down our most loyal voters.

Reports of Johnson’s political demise are greatly exaggerated

20 Jun

Vote Leave‘s successor was Change Britain – a name that says much about the country’s decision to leave the European Union five years ago.

Brexit was a vote for economic as well as constitutional change: to shift from a model based on financial services, high immigration and London’s hinterland to one more favourable to manufacturing, lower migration and the provinces.  You might call it “levelling up”

If you doubt it, look at this constituency-based map of the results.  West and South of London, you will find a kind of Remain Square.  Its eastern boundary is Hertford and Stortford, more or less.  Its western one is Stroud.

Its northern frontier ends at Milton Keynes and its southern one at Lewes.  Admittedly, this square has a mass of holes punched into it: much of Hampshire, for example, voted Leave.  And some of the Remain majorities within it, like some Leave ones, were narrow.

Levelling up is a term of art.  It can mean enterprise zones, freeports, better schools, improving skills, devolving power – none of which necessarily imply rises in or transfers of public spending.

But to some in that Remain Square, and elsewhere, it is coming to mean taking money in higher taxes from people who live in the south and transferring it to people who live in the north.

This truth would hold had the Chesham and Amersham contest never taken place.   Obviously, it was a lousy result for the Conservatives – for the Party to lose a by-election without seeing it coming, let alone by some eight thousand votes.

There should be a searching post-mortem. But why would any canny voter back the establishment in a by-election?  Isn’t it best to send it a message – namely: “don’t take our votes for granted”?

In the north, that establishment is still Labour.  Hence Hartlepool.  In the south, it’s the pro-levelling up, Red Wall-preoccupied Conservatives.  Hence Chesham and Amersham.  Now on to Batley and Spen.

Come the next general election, the Liberal Democrats won’t be able to concentrate their resources in a single seat, as they did last week.  Nor will they necessarily be the opposition front-runner in the Remain Square, or elsewhere.

Which suggests that last month’s local elections are a better guide to the future than last week’s by-election.  Crudely speaking, they found the right-of-centre vote uniting behind the Tories, and the left-of-centre equivalent divided between Labour, the LibDems and the Greens.

ConservativeHome will take no lectures from anyone about the potential threat to the so-called “Blue Wall” – to the seats within the Remain Square that we identify.  Henry Hill published an analysis of it on this site on May 11, which we re-ran last Friday in the by-election’s wake.

But the good news for Boris Johnson is that the Blue Wall is crumbling more slowly than the red one.  So time is on his side rather than Keir Starmer’s, which is why we still believe that the Prime Minister will be pondering a dash to the polls in 2023.

The bad news for him is that no party can hold a monopoly on much of the country forever.  Tony Blair had one even more extensive than Johnson.  He got three terms out of it (which will encourage the Prime Minister), but Labour eventually ran out of time and votes.

Its backing melted away at both ends.  In the blue corner, their new-won support from 1997 eventually returned to the Tories or went LibDem.  In the red one, their base was eaten away not so much by economics as by immigration and culture.

The medium-term danger to Johnson should start kicking in – unless inflation speeds the process up – in two to three years, when the vultures from post-Brexit and post-Covid spending really start coming home to roost.  He may well be on a second term by then.

But at that point the Prime Minister could find himself trapped in what William Hague, referring to potential British membership of the euro, described as “a burning building with no exits”.

The cornerstone of Government economic policy to date is “no return to austerity” – which we crudely interpret to mean questionable control of the country’s public finances.

This being so, the only weapon left for Ministers to deploy is tax rises: and the tax burden is already forecast to hit the highest level since the late 1960s – 35 per cent of GDP by 2025/26.

We all have a way of reading into by-election results whatever we want to read into them.  Undoubtedly, HS2 was a factor in Chesham and Amersham.  So was planning.  Above all, Blue Wall voters were asking for what Red Wall ones are getting: a little bit of love and attention.

Beyond that, anti-lockdown campaigners claim that the result was powered by opposition to shutdowns.  Pro-aid ones assert that Buckinghamshire’s voters stand behind the 0.7 per cent.

Those suffering from Johnson Derangement Syndrome, such as Dominic Grieve, claim that Buckinghamshire’s “sophisticated” voters see through the Prime Minister.  But if so, why did they chuck Grieve out of Beaconsfield less than two years ago?

So we make no special claim about what happened in Chesham & Amersham last week, other than to take some of the more exotic claims with a lorryload of salt.

But we do make a forecast about what will happen there and elsewhere within the Remain Square in future – regardless of whether or not the seat, like Newbury and Christchurch and Eastbourne and other Liberal by-election gains of the past, duly returns to the Tory column.

Namely, that the good voters of Chesham and Amersham won’t tolerate more tax rises for long.  Not that voters in Red Wall or provincial English seats would do so either.

But the private sector in the Remain Square is relatively big; employment in public services relatively smaller; exposure to property and pensions taxes relatively bigger.

Sooner or later, Johnson and Rishi Sunak will have to revisit the other side of the financial sustainability ledger: spending control.  With over a third of it going on pensions and healthcare, that will mean tough choices, in Chesham, Amersham – and everywhere else.

As for the Prime Minister’s prospects, we are where we were before. He can have all the Turkmenbashi statues he wants, and more, for getting Brexit done – and for saving the country from metaphorical if not literal Dreyfus affair-style strife.

ConHome believes that he should have his chance to “Change Britain” (with a majority of 80, he has earned it; anxious backbenchers please take note) while having little confidence that he actually will.

What’s left of this term risks being frittered away in bread, summits, and circuses, Roman-style.  The possibility is frighteningly plausible.  We devoutly hope that we’re proved wrong, as we sometimes are.

It’s too soon to judge how the boundary review will impact the next election – but it’s fun to try

8 Jun

There was some excitement in this morning’s papers about the impact of the proposed reforms to constituency boundaries. Suggestions that Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, might lose his seat have made headlines.

Expert psephologists are being rather more cautious about projecting any partisan impact of the changes. These are, after all, only initial proposals. Whilst MPs won’t get an opportunity to vote the Boundary Commission’s eventual map down, the parties do now have an opportunity to feed back.

Historically, the Conservatives have not always handled this process well. Anthony Seldon, in his book Major: A Political Life, noted how in the 1990s: “weak local organisation and coordination led to the fumbling of the opportunity presented by the Boundary Commission review.”

With discipline breaking down as the post-Thatcher era began, apparently there was at least one instance of two associations turning up to a boundary meeting with separate barristers. As a result, an anticipated 40-seat gain for the Tories ended up being a mere five.

There may be a lesson there for today. Not because of a similar risk of association infighting – the process is, like everything else, much more centrally organised these days, and is in the hands of the veteran Roger Pratt at CCHQ. But because there’s also another reason not to jump to conclusions about “the biggest shake-up of boundaries in decades”, which is that the old logic of the reforms has been rather overtaken by the 2019 election.

When the plans were first mooted under David Cameron (alongside the unsaleable intention to cut the number of seats), equalising constituency sizes hurt Labour, which won large numbers of disproportionately small seats, and thus boosted the Conservatives. But with the Tories having broken through in a lot of those seats at the last election, that happy outcome is now much less certain.

And when we examined this question as part of our ‘Securing the Majority’ series last summer, some MPs also warned that a serious boundary shake-up could wipe out the first-term dividend newly-elected parliamentarians often enjoy.

So a full picture of the partisan impact of the changes will have to wait. But it nonetheless interesting to take two snapshots of the battlefield – one in the ‘Red Wall’, and one in the ‘Blue Wall’ – and prognosticate a little. Follow along at home with this very handy interactive map, courtesy of Election Maps UK.

Blue Wall

For the latter, let’s look at true-blue Buckinghamshire. All seven seats here returned Conservative MPs at the last election, and most by comfortable margins. What impact are the proposed changes likely to have?

Overall the county gains a seat, rising to eight. This has been done by carving the new seat of Princes Risborough out of the southern parts of the Aylesbury and Buckingham constituencies.

Despite this Milton Keynes notionally loses one, with Ben Everitt’s seat of Milton Keynes North, already a county constituency, shedding its remaining territory in the town and becomes Newport Pagnell, likely to be rock solid. Meanwhile Buckingham would absorb parts of the old Milton Keynes South to become Buckingham and Bletchley. Given that Greg Smith enjoys a majority of over 20,000, this is unlikely to cost him much sleep.

Milton Keynes South, what’s left of it, becomes just Milton Keynes. As a more urban seat it is likely to be closer to Labour than it was, although Iain Stewart’s comfortable majority of 6,944 ought to see him through.

Aylesbury changes shape quite dramatically, shedding a swath of southern territory. The new seat is much more concentrated on the town itself, and may also therefore be more competitive for Labour.

Both Chesham and Amersham and Wycombe remain roughly the same, although the latter becomes ‘High Wycombe’ – a rare example of the Boundary Commission’s enthusiasm for longer names being a force for good. It is the county’s most marginal seat and will probably continue trending away from the Party. On the other hand, Beaconsfield becomes Marlow and South Buckinghamshire for no obvious reason.

Overall then, little for CCHQ to complain out. These changes might put one or two seats slightly closer to the opposition, but this is probably offset by creating a new, quite safe Tory seat.

Red Wall

Now let’s look at an offensive battlefield: South Yorkshire. The Conservatives made a handful of gains here in 2019, but there is plenty of scope for growth – especially in the wake of the dramatic results at the locals, which saw the Party go from zero seats to 20 on Rotherham Council.

According to local sources, “winning all three Rotherham seats on these boundaries is a decent prospect.” Minor changes to Alexander Stafford’s seat of Rother Valley are unlikely to make much of an impact, Rotherham itself becomes “slightly more winnable”, and Wentworth and Dearne loses the Dearnes (the area with the weakest Tory vote) and is reborn as Rawmarsh and Conisbrough.

Doncaster Central (Labour majority: 2,278) becomes Doncaster Town by taking part of Don Valley that is “very good for us” – in fact local Tories suggest that “on these boundaries we should be looking to win it.” The consequence is that Don Valley itself may be harder to hold, although Nick Fletcher should probably be OK. Likewise, minor changes to Penistone and Stocksbridge are apparently unlikely to cause Miriam Cates much difficulty.

Elsewhere there is churn but less change: the rejigged boundaries in Barnsley will apparently produce broadly similar results to the status quo, as will alterations to Ed Miliband’s seat in Doncaster North (although this remains winnable). Likewise, nobody seems to expect any exciting results from a relatively conservative reshuffling of Sheffield.

On the face of it, a rosy outlook for the Party. But of course, South Yorkshire is an area where the old electoral map survived the last election. There are others, such as South Wales. But the impact of the reforms could be quite different elsewhere.