Harry Fone: Vague titles and virtue signalling. The municipal “non jobs” are back in force.

7 Sep

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

Continuing the theme from my last column, I’ve unearthed another five council contracts which show that before pleading poverty and hiking tax, local authorities could be rooting out wasteful spending.

Let’s start with a serial offender when it comes to profligacy. Despite being in debt to the tune of £1.5 billion, Croydon Council tendered a contract worth the best part of £10,000 for a “Cultural Transformation Engagement Programme”. If you think the title is suitably vague wait till you read the description:

“The Council is looking for an experienced Organisation Development provider to work with them to co-design and co-deliver a rapid programme of engagement events across the whole organisation to further confirm the culture we are trying to change from and “cross the threshold” into our new way of thinking, being and working”.

Have you ever heard such a load of nonsense? This may be a relatively small sum of money in the scheme of things, but without doubt, Croydon council has more pressing matters at hand, such as finding funds for essential services.

Not to be outdone, Bedford Borough Council put calls out for the provision of “Weight Management Services for Faith Groups”. According to the authority:

“During the Coronavirus pandemic, Bedford Borough Council Public Health team has built relationships with local faith communities and faith leaders. We would like to build on this by offering further support outside of COVID, and focussing on healthy weight”.

Several questions spring to mind. Why is this the business of the council? It certainly doesn’t seem like a statutory responsibility to me. Why is it focussing seemingly solely on churches? Shouldn’t other groups in the community be included? Given the mess that covid has caused, surely Bedford council has better things to focus its time and resources on. It’s not just Bedford though. Nearby Northamptonshire County Council has similar contracts worth £1 million.

Meanwhile, in Essex, the county council has thought it wise to splurge £500,000 of taxpayers’ cash “Tackling Cycling Inequalities”. The contract states:

“Essex Pedal Power scheme is focused on low-income communities where the need is highest, and the benefits of becoming regularly active through cycling are greatest.”

This is a noble cause but is it the role of a county council? Let’s not forget either, that Essex regularly tops the tables in the TaxPayers’ Alliance Town Hall Rich List series. In 2019-20 it had 40 employees receiving remuneration in excess of £100,000 – the highest in the entire country. Axing some of these staff would be a good way to pay for the scheme if it must go ahead.

Of course it’s unfortunate that not everyone can afford a bicycle. But this is something that would be much better left to private charity.

To Waltham Forest now and another contender for “Most Vague Contract Title”. The borough is set to spend over £60,000 on “Consultancy support for a strategic reset” which seeks to:

“Shape [its] strategic activity over the next year, creating a compelling narrative, working with management team to define and agree priorities and establishing the strategic programme that will enable us to deliver our priorities effectively.”

Just like the title, the contract’s description is wishy-washy. The council needs to set clear objectives of what success looks like so that taxpayers can judge the results for themselves. Waltham increased council tax by five per cent this year. One would hope that this “strategic reset” will focus on how to make savings and ramp up efficiency.

In what many would deem as virtue signalling, Lambeth, Brighton, and North Tyneside councils are set to spend a total of £130,000 towards citizen’s assemblies on climate change. In each case, the authorities are seeking the views of residents on how to reduce carbon emissions. Two thoughts spring to mind. Firstly, if they want to get as many views as possible, why not just email every council taxpayer and ask them to complete a simple online form? The costs would be relatively minimal. Secondly, wouldn’t it be better to spend this money on upgrading existing infrastructure? Replacing diesel vehicles with electric or hybrid ones would be a good and obvious way to reduce harmful emissions.

These examples are just a small selection of contracts I found after a few hours of searching. Thousands more are out there, likely containing more unnecessary spending. That’s why I need your help to root them out. Please send me an email with your findings and the TaxPayers’ Alliance will be happy to investigate further.

Judy Terry: Councils must curb their mania for imposing new rules

20 Jul

Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

Recent events have seen trust in politics further eroded; ‘they are all liars’ is an increasingly common (although largely unfair) view, as democracy is replaced by dictatorship. Important decisions, across local authorities and government, have been implemented unchallenged because “social distancing” prevents face to face communication at meetings and in Parliament.

The pandemic seems to have given government a fresh lust for fines: e.g. £10,000 if Covid rules are broken, however unintentionally, whether having one extra person for coffee in the garden, or holding big events. With weddings and funerals restricted, this didn’t apply to the 65,000 people attending the Euros at Wembley, or the G7 international conference in Cornwall, where guests were filmed socialising – without masks.

HS2 continues destroying ancient woodland, whilst the government promises to plant millions more trees, which will take decades to mature! New housing policies will inevitably invade the Green Belt and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including a scheme given permission that overlooks the River Orwell in Suffolk; so what is the point of trying to protect our landscape, when regulations can be so easily overturned, without proper public consultation?

Thankfully, Ipswich Borough Council refused consent for a new house on four acres of woodland at the heart of the town comprising an invaluable habitat for a wide range of species, including hedgehogs, stag beetles, bees, and a variety of birds, thriving because of long-standing Tree Protection Orders (TPO). Appeals were also unsuccessful and it is now hoped that a local primary school can become involved in future preservation and maintenance.

This brings me to Suffolk County Council’s threat to fine residents if a hedge bordering a barely used metre long footpath in the same location isn’t drastically cut back. Subsequent works resulted in the destruction of a blackbird habitat where they had nested for at least 10 years. The hedge was full of flowers attracting bees (a threatened species) and forming berries to feed a range of birds throughout the winter.

Now Ministers are giving councils the authority to fine drivers £70 for minor traffic offences (£130 in London). But will the fines actually be paid by the worst offenders instead of those caught in breach accidentally when the lights change too quickly, or they are lost and take a wrong turn? Are irresponsible cyclists and scooter riders included; and how will they be traced, when there is nothing to identify them?

A year ago one of my neighbours kept receiving threatening letters from the borough council; apparently someone had registered a car at his address although never having lived there, building up hundreds of pounds in parking fines. Despite repeatedly telling the authority it was not his car, and he didn’t know the driver, eventually the bailiffs knocked. It wasn’t until he asked for my advice and I contacted the Chief Executive on his behalf that the situation was resolved. But the driver was never traced and is no doubt still collecting parking fines.

Even pet lovers are now regarded as potential cash cows. This autumn, new legislation to ‘protect’ animals will threaten cat owners with £500 fines if their pets aren’t microchipped. It costs just £20 or £30, and both my middle-aged rescue cats were done on my vet’s advice when I first got them 10 years ago. I’ve always had cats, and can’t understand how such a large financial penalty can be justified.

Will farmers be fined for unchipped cats running wild, reducing mice and rat populations within outbuildings? And will dogs be subject to the same rules? (Let’s hope that both Downing Street’s pets are chipped, otherwise more ‘donors’ will have to pay up.) I’ve always believed that providing information, and incentivising co-operation is the best policy to encourage compliance, so surely there would be more benefit in working with veterinary practices and Cats Protection to organise ‘Vaccination Days’ at a fixed price, with appropriate publicity to support pet lovers, who may be unaware of the need to microchip – or who may not speak English. The difficulties caused by isolation during the last 18 months or so have highlighted the importance of pets in reducing loneliness and helping cope with depression, especially for the elderly and disabled – £500 fines is sheer bullying. And how will such a scheme be managed? Are cat owners to be forced to put collars on their pets, which my own vet advised against because cats are independent; they roam and even elasticated collars can get caught on branches, with the potential for strangling them.

Meanwhile, I and a neighbour could be fined for having some pots, housing bee-friendly plants, in place for more than 20 years on the short footpath on our front boundary, only used by four residents and the postman, overlooking a private car park. They do not block access, but a malicious complaint by someone living nearby for more than 25 years, who never uses the footpath (and never puts her three waste bins away) resulted in the council having to take action and ask for their removal. Even the Cabinet member responsible, who is dealing with similar residents’ challenges elsewhere, agrees this policy should be reviewed to allow discretion in some circumstances.

The authors of these punishments have no idea of the stress they cause to the law-abiding, which accounts for the vast majority of British people. Yet it is they who are the most vulnerable because they respect the law – and feel responsible for other people – unlike those who breach the law at every opportunity in the knowledge that they will never be caught and made to pay up!

The government’s energy should be diverted to protecting the law-abiding, not penalising them at every opportunity to fill its coffers, whilst failing to even chastise – let alone fine or sack – some Ministers and officials for breaching Covid rules and the Ministerial Code. It is increasingly evident that there definitely is one rule for them, and another for the rest of us.

John Macdonald: Jenrick is right to ease the red tape burden on our high street retailers

4 Dec

John Macdonald is the Head of Government Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.

Robert Jenrick is right. We should not give up on the high street. But when formerly hegemonic brands like Arcadia, Debenhams, and topshop are collapsing, it is clear that the vision of it as an expanding retail hub is no longer viable. Even before the pandemic, high streets were in decline, with falling rents and in many cases, excessive retail capacity. The trend towards online sales and automated delivery has whittled away its appeal. This is likely to accelerate given the entire population of the UK has had to shift shopping habits further online.

We should be under no illusions as to the scale of the crisis at the heart of our towns. Another 18,000 high street units could be left vacant this year, nearly double last year’s figures. These are not likely to improve in the very near term, particularly as Government support schemes start winding down around March. It is in times like these that the impulse to do something, to make a grand intervention becomes strong. After all, the high street is part of Britain’s identity, and the Conservatives will not want to be seen letting it fall to ruin.

In the short term, relaxing rules around opening hours will be a welcome reprieve in inhospitable trading conditions. But a barrage of big interventions would be misjudged. As Jenrick says, the rules, for as long as they have existed, have become more complex, more burdensome, costly and complicated. They have held back high streets, forcing them to conform to the misguided idea that they can only exist as yesterday’s retail and entertainment destined to compete against the rapid rise of today’s online sales and streaming services. If the high street is to survive, it must be free to remould itself around our changing needs and wants.

Unfortunately, the National Planning Policy Framework, in its current form, stands in the way. In effect, its guidance encourages local plans to restrict ‘town centre uses’, to make them more competitive by preventing retail development outside the ‘primary shopping area’ of the high street. While retail still has its place, it cannot alone provide a strong offering to residents and visitors. Trying to maintain its presence on the high street through artificial advantage is clearly no longer viable; the collapse of Debenham’s alone will leave behind an empty 14 million square feet on the high street.

Rather than allowing town centres to become mausoleums of empty retail units, Permitted Development Rights should be extended, facilitating the rapid repurposing of commercial into residential real estate. Where this occurs, councils should be allowed to continue to charge business rates to prevent significant revenue losses, although there is certainly a case for lowering them once relief ends next year.

Coupled with fast tracking this, the removal of the requirement to designate primary shopping areas must be removed to allow mixed-use development. This would entail the end of Article 4 Directions, which in principle are for protecting the character of an area, but in practice have often been used (particularly in London boroughs) to strangle development. High streets will be free to develop in the way they need to remain viable. This could also have the added benefit of increasing safety and security in town centres. Given that retail dominated spaces are inactive at night, they can become hotspots for crime. With a greater residential presence comes more natural surveillance and a reduction in crime. The future of town centres could be a return to being lived-in spaces.

To conservatives, I understand altering the rules underpinning the fabric of a beloved part of our culture is bound to raise a few hairs. But it needn’t be that way. With the implementation of a design code, and the replacement of Article 4 Directions with simple, broad minimal requirements for external facade, noise and parking. This is also not to say the high street must completely and utterly transform itself to survive.  For example, waiving the licence fee for a new pub that sets up on the site of a previous licence holding establishment could help preserve that vital staple.

Setting up a battle between the great British high street and large, multinational corporations could be politically expedient for the Tories, but it would miss the point. There is no need for a grand narrative of a struggle between the warm and familiar against the cold and new. As sentimental as we might be about the high street, trying to cling on to it with intervention and regulation will only see it slip further away. Liberalising laws, simplifying regulations, and removing outdated restrictions, will retain the essence of the high street while freeing it from the shackles of a bygone era. If this means a smaller retail presence and more residential space, so be it.

Peter Golds: The skewed enforcement priorities of Tower Hamlets Council

21 Oct

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

Here are two matters of concern taking place on the same road. They give an indication as to why my local authority has problems with the public.

My first example concerns a single mother living in a house with her daughter. She is qualified in both banking and architecture and holds a responsible job with a major corporation. In order to work, she employs a properly registered child-minder and ensures that all tax and national insurance with regard to the child-minder is paid and correctly recorded. She is, by any standard, a model citizen and is both active and popular within her local community.

A while ago, and to her surprise, she suddenly received correspondence from the borough’s council tax that she was living with a person aged over 18. She was quickly able to prove that she lived with her daughter and a dog.

Next, and very disturbingly, she received an early morning visit from two officers from the council’s social services. They were checking allegations of “neglect of her child” and “illegal employment.” This was easily proven to be false, but the resident lost a day’s work. I was approached, as the local councillor, to see where the council stood in this. I got no further than the council has to investigate all allegations.

This was followed by a formal visit from Ofsted investigating a complaint that this resident was operating an “unlicensed child care facility,” where a child was being neglected. This was again quickly proven to be untrue, confirming the presence at the address of a registered carer looking after a single child, at home, whilst the parent was at work.

Then she began to receive, on a daily basis, addressed envelopes with nothing inside. The police were contacted but undertook no investigation despite being made aware that this appeared to be part of an ongoing campaign of harassment of a single woman living alone with a child.

The most recent problem she had was while replacing rear doors and windows. To ensure this was in order she obtained a “certificate of lawfulness” from the council’s planning department and went ahead. One morning recently, a man appeared at her front door, saying that he was from Tower Hamlets council’s building control department investigating a complaint and demanding entrance to view the work. He flashed an official council pass, but would not permit the resident to photograph the pass or take details. After a stand off, she secured the name of the officer. Despite producing the council’s certificate of lawfulness, an inspection took place. It is obvious that somebody, somewhere, aware that planning was completely lawful, complained to building control, who appeared not to work with planning within the same local authority.

This completely law-abiding and popular local citizen, facing continuous harassment and vexatious complaints, then sought information as to the source of these incidents via the Freedom of Information process. This has been refused by Tower Hamlets Council. The question I have asked is how much longer will this continue and how many other council departments will be involved? Equally, the police should be taking this seriously. We have a single, law-abiding woman, living with a child, facing an ongoing and organised campaign of harassment and threats. She deserves more than a CAD number.

Further up the same road is a small housing development called Thames Circle. It includes some flats and a row of town houses around a circle. Within the area is an uncompleted piece of land for which planning permission for a block of flats was given eighteen years ago – but the consent lapsed. For a period, portacabins were placed in this area and used by a local school on a temporary planning consent. The council declined to extend the temporary planning consent for the school and it moved elsewhere.

A few months ago portacabins arrived on the site and a takeaway kitchen commenced operation. This involved preparing food for adjoining residencies and a local Church, and the distribution of the food by car, scooter, and bicycle. The scooters are all badged with an L plate. Thames Circle is off a busy major A road, with bus routes, one of which operates 24/7 and on a curve. Scooters and cycles moving in and out of the development, dodging traffic and ignoring the local speed limit, on top of the emissions and smell from the kitchens do not add to the quality of life.

I met residents and made enquiries of the council who wrote to me to confirm that the site does not have planning consent for the operation of the kitchens. The council has “an ongoing inspection concerning smoke complaints” and no licence has been issued to the operator regarding licensable activities. In addition, I discovered that there is no traffic management scheme. The operator ultimately applied for a retrospective planning application in June but there was “missing information that would be required to be able to make it valid and add to the planning register.”

In short, this is a business operating without planning or licensing, while the council took no enforcement action whatsoever.

We have two important council concerns on the same road, just a short distance apart. There is a completely innocent woman facing a campaign of harassment by a person or persons who are manipulating the council to harass a resident, whilst the same council departments are unable to deal with an illegal operation.

Across the borough, Tower Hamlets Council spent, between January 2019 and August 2020, the sum of £2,660,000 on “liveable streets” projects. Of that sum, £978,000 was spent on preliminary design to “inform consultation workshops.” The result has been chaos in parts of the borough, with roads suddenly closed and concerns about access to emergency vehicles.

Yet on the Isle of Dogs, there is a road where residents lives are a misery due to anti-social behaviour which can be traced to parking bays, and avoided by residents because of drug dealers. Residents, supported by the police, have been asking the council to remove the parking bays and extend the pavement. Despite spending over £2.5 million on “liveable streets” the council response to these residents with genuine problems is – organise a petition…

Neil O’Brien: Planning reform needs to be handled with care

10 Aug

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

The White Paper on planning is out. Will it solve our housing crisis?

Obviously, reforming planning can only be part of the solution.

For starters, half the issue is about demand, not just supply of new homes. The government can shape demand: limiting immigration, using tax and credit policy to encourage funding to flow into businesses, not property speculation.

Likewise, declining homeownership reflects not just undersupply, but a choice to grow the rented sector with tax advantages. Over the decade to 2016 we added 165,000 privately-owned homes a year. But 195,000 homes were transferred into the private rented sector. So more homes were owned privately but by fewer people. We could use tax to increase homeownership instead.

Even on the supply side, planning’s only part of the picture. The Letwin Review highlighted how developers build out slowly to keep prices up. Page 37 of the White Paper promises: “we will explore further options to support faster build-out”.

So this paper only covers one part of the housing picture.

But it’s still important, and there are four big ideas in it.

Most of them I like, but there are risks.

1) Faster, simpler plan making.  

Making a local plan takes seven years on average, involving councils spending loads on consultants drawing up dozens of reports which no-one ever looks at again. With plans up to 500 pages long and supporting documents up to ten times that, we can surely simplify.

The White Paper proposes a time limit on drawing up a plan (30 months) and cutting the number of documents required. Plans will be “two thirds” shorter.

It’s a good idea. The risk is a backlash.  The paper notes that having all three of “Strategic Environmental Assessment, Sustainability Appraisal, and Environmental Impact Assessment – can lead to duplication of effort and overly long reports which inhibit transparency and add unnecessary delays.” But making things simpler without annoying conservation-minded voters will require care.

2) Simpler, more useful, developer contributions and (maybe) more benefit for the community. 

At present “Section 106” contributions made by developers are opaque, and developers spend yonks arguing the toss over how much they’ll pay. For builders, it’s like an Arabic carpet shop where you waste hours haggling just to find out the price.

But residents also lose out, because crazy rules constrain how funds for the community can be spent: so tightly, money is often returned to the developer.

The White Paper proposes replacing Section 106 and the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) – which only half of councils use – with a single, simpler levy. A welcome part of the proposal is that 25 per cent of revenues will stay in the parish they are raised in.

In principle, it’s great. But the detail is key. The paper is ambiguous about whether the new levy should raise more overall. It should: my constituents are driven mad seeing developers making massive windfall profits while dumping onto taxpayers the cost of the necessary infrastructure for new homes.

The paper proposes setting a minimum amount of the levy to be spent on affordable housing. I don’t agree. Councils should be able to choose for themselves whether they want more social housing, or to spend more on new schools, bypasses or superfast broadband instead.

The paper’s lead option is to create a single, nationally-set levy, with one rate for the whole country. Simple, but that would create big winners and losers. The paper keeps open the option of a single levy, but councils still setting their own rate (which sounds more sensible).

Extending the levy to homes created through change of use is questionable: do we want to tax brownfield regeneration?

3) Simpler, faster assessment of need.  

Presently, councils spend ages and pots of cash working out how many homes they need to plan for. Because of the difficult politics and risk of legal challenge, they hire a bunch of expensive consultants (them again) who basically take the ONS population forecast for the area, stick their finger in the air, do some magic, add and subtract a bit for various local factors and… often end up back where they started, around the ONS population forecast.

The White Paper proposes a more standardised formula which will spit out a target number based on population growth, up-weighted for things like demand, but down-weighted for various local constraints like greenbelt.

It’s a bold move, as lots of councils and MPs will argue with whatever figures the national formula spits out for them. The actual formula will be key to whether it succeeds or leads to a backlash: I’ve argued before for increasing the numbers in inner urban areas for environmental reasons and deliverability. It might be wise to have a bit of flexibility as a safety valve to let councils propose their own approaches: some will always have idiosyncratic factors which aren’t in the national formula.

4) Zoning. 

The most novel idea in the paper, “zoning”, is the one that I’m most unsure about. Zoning is common around the world, but means very different things in different countries. Page 25 of the paper proposes a wide range of options.

The basic idea is that sites put in the local plan for development will be taken to have outline planning permission. Many councils say this is unnecessary: they don’t refuse planning permission on sites they’ve put in their plans.

Some campaigners, in contrast, take this as signalling the start of a planning “free for all”. But the paper is clear that councils will be able to set, for each site, outline controls over things like the heights and density of buildings.

My concern is that because it will be harder to say yes or no to a specific design, councils may feel they just have to set more prescriptive rules upfront to control development.

In my experience as a constituency MP, as much of the concern about new homes is driven by (legitimate) concerns about flooding, parking, traffic and construction as the actual new homes. Limiting councils’ discretion in some ways, but not in others, could lead to a lot of fuss for little real change.

The lead option in the paper creates a new middle category of “renewal” areas, where development is not approved or forbidden, but there is a statutory presumption for things like densification. Gentle densification can be good, but I’m sceptical such changes can be waved through in principle, rather than looking case by case.

There are some underplayed aspects of the paper. It notes that 50 per cent of councils don’t have a plan, but doesn’t say much new about handling councils that won’t adopt one. It’s silent on how large developers lock out small builders through opaque land optioning.

More than anything I would welcome more consideration of the underlying reasons why voters oppose new development: that we build piecemeal, on the kind of infill sites on the edges of villages and towns that most annoy people. That we combine some of the least dense cities in Europe and the most geographically unbalanced economy. The housing problem can’t be solved in isolation, and we need a vision of where we are to build, not just a formula.

The White Paper is a radical document. There are some great things in it, but it contains some ideas that need a lot of thought and careful handling.

Howard Flight: Parkinson’s Law revisited

3 Aug

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

An old friend of mine sent me a very interesting article on Parkinson’s Law Today. The theoretical law of the 1950s has changed to a mathematical equation describing the rate at which bureaucracies expand over time. Two different case studies of our times are financial regulators and the NHS. The numbers employed in both territories continue to grow way beyond any practical justification.

There are some fascinating facts supporting the arguments. At a time when the British Empire was in decline, the Colonial Office had its greatest number of staff who were folded into the Foreign Office, due to a lack of colonies to administer! Such contrarian growth is explained by two key factors – officials want to multiply subordinates, not rivals; and officials make work for each other. The number of people employed in a bureaucracy tends to rise by between five and seven per cent a year. That was irrespective of any variation in the amount of work – if any – to be done.

Parkinson also proposed a rule about the efficiency of Administrative Council. He defined a coefficient of inefficiency with the number of members as the main determining variable. This is an attempt to define the size at which a committee or other decision-making Body will become wholly inefficient, if not useless. In Parkinson’s Law, “The Pursuit of Progress”, a chapter is devoted to the basic question of what Parkinson called Comitology – how committees, government candidates, and other such Bodies are created and eventually grow irrelevant, if they are not initially designated as such. Interestingly the world Comitology has recently been invented independently by the EU for a different non-humorous meaning. Empirical evidence is extracted from historical and contemporary government candidates. Most frequently the minimal size of a States’ most powerful and prestigious Body is five members.

From English history, Parkinson notes a number of bodys that lost power as they grew.

The First Cabinet was the Council of the Crown, now the House of Lords which grew from a handful to 29, and then to 50 by 1600 by which time it had lost most of its power. A new Body in 1257 numbering fewer than 10; it grew to 172 members and ceased to meet. The third incarnation was the Privy Council, initially numbering less than 10 members but rising to 47 in 1679. In 1715 the Privy Council lost power to the Cabinet Council with eight members, rising to 20 by 1725. Around 1740 the Cabinet Council was superseded by an inner group called the Cabinet, initially with five members. In the 1950s the Cabinet was still the official governing Body. From 1939 until the 1950’s there was an effort to save the Cabinet as an institution. Membership had been fluctuating from a high of 23 down to 18 in 1954.

Parkinson proposed a detailed mathematical expression for the coefficient of inefficiency, featuring many possible influences. In 2008 an attempt was made to verify empirically the proposed model. Parkinson thought that membership exceeding around 20 makes a committee manifestly inefficient. Less certain is the optimal number of members which is somewhere between three and 20. For a group of 20, individual discussions may dilute the power of the leader. Common sense suggests eight may be the optimum number, but this is not supported by observations. No contemporary Government in Parkinson’s data set had eight members and only the unfortunate Charles 1st had a committee of State of that size.

This territory should merit regular measurement, reviews, and analysis. It is painfully clear to citizens that when organisations become too big, they also become inefficient and vulnerable.

Increases in NHS staff have accounted for nearly all the increase in public sector jobs – numbers now stand at 1.75 million, 32 per cent of all public sector jobs and five per cent of all jobs in the UK. It is surely self-evident to conclude that a monolithic approach to providing and managing healthcare makes no sense and invites bad experience and outturn. Logically the unit size should be broken down to leadership teams of under 20 with sufficient staff numbers to operate the range of services provided by each particular hospital. Staff could be lent to and borrowed by particular hospitals as and when required. Accountability should probably be to the relevant local authority, Cabinet or constituency MPs.

Civil Service jobs hit a record low in 2016 but have been increasing again recently. Currently, they stand at 460,000. There are nearly four times as many people working in the NHS as there are in the Civil Service.

This is the territory which the Chancellor needs to research and examine in detail. It is probable that Civil Service numbers could be reduced by 60,000 to 400,000 with anybody scarcely noticing. This should save of the order £500 million a year. The NHS is a more difficult proposition as a result of the support it has achieved for dealing honourably with COVID-19 patients. My view is that restructuring into manageable sized units is the key to better and greater efficiency and that in time it too could effect cost savings of £50m pa.

Peter Gibson: Set the high street free

2 Jul

Peter Gibson is the MP for Darlington

Nobody can doubt the scale of the challenge facing our high streets and town centres as we look to rebuild our economy following this pandemic.

As many towns bid against one another looking for funds from the ambitious Future High Street Fund, my patch of Darlington included, it is necessary to acknowledge that fundamentally what our town centres lack is people.

The bustling high street of yesteryear, stacked with BHS and Woolworths, will never exist again. We have generations of decisions to thank for that: out-of-town shopping, pedestrianisation making access and collection ever more difficult, and local authority car parking charges, to name just a few. Buttressed by shifts in lifestyles and technology, these changes have led us to a world in which every conceivable item can be purchased online.

Our town centres are firmly rooted in the idea of the marketplace, around which local economies have grown. Yet you no longer need to buy your bread from the baker or your meat from the butcher. Now the supermarket will deliver it. You don’t even need to drive into town because the inner ring-road circumnavigates it.

Planning in more recent times has either been the guardian or, more often, the be-devilment of the beating heart of our town centre. Our current restrictions are not fit for purpose and are damaging the very essence of our communities.

The classification of property into use-classes – tablets of stone that allow town halls up and down the land to tell us what we can and cannot do within our property – are the embodiment of this red tape, blocking the renewal of our high streets. They prevent vacant commercial property from being reclassified as residential property. Our enterprises need flexibility and adaptability in order to innovate and grow. As Conservatives, we should do all we can to unlock that innovation and growth.

At a time where we are seeing more and more vacant commercial properties in town centres, and with speculation rife that in a post-COVID world many more will be working remotely, this means red tape has been getting in the way of an enormous opportunity to build homes.

This is not only bad for city-dwellers, who lose out from housing shortages and get priced out of the market by a lack of supply, but also a missed opportunity for the economy, which could benefit from a low-cost way of mobilising private capital to improve macro-productivity.

Even before this pandemic truly struck our economy, we knew that swathes of our retail landscape were surplus to requirements. In March, figures showed a vacancy rate of 12.2%. And though the Government has provided unprecedented levels of support to our high street businesses – no business rates this year, the furlough scheme, and small business cash grants, to name just a few measures – we know that vacancy rates, sadly, will rise significantly over the next few months as these schemes are unwound and some businesses never return.

Many towns’ arterial roads that were filled with houses that have become shops and offices now see vacant spaces opening up, leaving gaps and sapping the spirit of the town centre. We need to enable those properties to more easily revert to residential use, and as the need for commercial and retail space in the centre contracts we need to ensure that a diverse range of people move in. Not just students, not just starter homes, but homes suitable for our elderly who can easily walk into town, homes suitable for our disabled people enabling them to access services directly, and homes suitable for growing families with children.

While businesses will always rise and fall, our national ‘animal spirit’ will always endure. This is why the planning reforms announced by the Prime Minister this week are so welcome. By removing the red tape around the use of property and brownfield land, we are giving high streets and town centres a chance to be reborn – as a place to live, take your kids, meet your friends, or whatever local people – rather than planners – want.