Caroline Ansell: English language schools are crucial to our tourism industry. But their survival is at stake.

1 Aug

Caroline Ansell is Conservative MP for Eastbourne.

In my constituency, nearly one job in three depends on tourism. That’s why I have been relentlessly lobbying both in Parliament and behind the scenes to support this sector through the pandemic.

You might think that the ending of restrictions means life will return to normal on the pier and in our amusement arcades, shops and cafes, but that’s not the full tourism story for our town and many others.

For now, staycationers have taken the place of the town’s usual tourists, enjoying everything we have to offer, but as international travel reopens for fully-vaccinated British people many may instead choose the guaranteed sunshine of southern Europe.

If that does happen, quarantine regulations will mean a large gap remains in the economy of Eastbourne and many other British towns and cities, a gap usually filled by international students.

It’s a little-known fact that students learning English in the UK are the bedrock of Eastbourne’s tourist economy and many other towns and cities on the South coast and all over the UK. In Eastbourne alone, we have six English language teaching (ELT) centres. Our international students are a vital part of the visitor landscape, whereby each summer the town’s population swells and its average age plummets.

Our international schools are local employers. They provide business for local transport and tourist venues, and pump-prime retail and food outlets. Likewise, importantly, there is secondary income support for the several hundred host families for whom the time in the summer hosting students makes the difference. All of these secondary businesses, and these families, are missing the annual 500,000 students who stopped booking and arriving in March 2020, with little or no prospect of their return while two weeks of quarantine is compulsory.

Sixty per cent of ELT students are teenagers from Europe who come for a week or two: they’re unlikely to come if they’ll spend longer quarantining than on their course. And ELT is a seasonal industry: if our schools – predominantly SMEs – miss summer and Easter peaks, that’s most of their income lost.

That’s exactly what has happened – no significant income since summer 2019, and no prospect of any until well into 2022. Figures from the trade association English UK found a £590m loss for last year, for a sector which normally puts £1.4bn into our economy.

Though Eastbourne’s ELT schools are financially on the ropes, they’ve had more help than many of their colleagues around the UK. Their local authority is one of a small minority which has granted expanded retail discount – basically wiping out business rates – for both last financial year and this one.

They and I am very grateful to Eastbourne District Council for this concession. It makes it slightly more likely that we can preserve UK ELT’s global reputation and expertise, which meant that pre-Covid we taught English to more international students than any of our competitors.

But this industry’s survival is still not guaranteed, which is why with other backbench colleagues I am continuing to campaign for more targeted government help for English language schools and tourism. Our first ask has been for the Government to ensure that all English language schools automatically get business rates relief. While furlough continues, rates are the largest outgoing for many centres: I know of one London school which has received a summons for £137,000 unpaid council tax.

It’s not a mansion, but like most ELT schools needs plenty of space for classrooms and common rooms, and to be in a safe and central location.

Simply extending the business rates relief concession to all language schools would help many to survive until the spring, when we hope students will be booking and arriving once more. Industry estimates are that this would cost just £17m.

But the end of furlough will create new problems as it is likely to be months before bookings begin to flow once more: how many trained and experienced English teachers and other staff will be lost to the industry in the intervening months? How would that affect our ability to attract students from all over the world, as we step into a new future?

It is hugely important that we look at the wraparound to this sector. Anything and everything that could present a barrier or an obstacle, or make us less competitive in the world, we should look at and address to make sure that we are match-fit for the future.

Why is this so important? ELT has been a hugely important export for us, both in its own right and as a crucial part of our £20bn international education jigsaw. This is made clear in our International Education Strategy, which commits to increase our capacity to meet the global demand for ELT, and forge closer partnerships with other sectors in our export drive.

The teenagers who come to Eastbourne, or Bournemouth, or a summer camp in an independent school, are more likely to build a lifetime’s affinity with the UK. They are more likely to aspire to do degrees in the UK, for instance, and research shows 80 per cent of those who have studied here will return for business or leisure. Visit Britain research shows that ELT students stay longer and spend much more than other tourists.

If we wish to retain those benefits of social and cultural enrichment, of inward investment and soft power, I believe the specific calls of the sector need to be debated, just as its deep value to the UK needs to be celebrated.

And when Eastbourne pier is once more thronged with French teenagers, we can heave a sigh of relief.

Alex Morton: We need to boost our brownfield developments. But that doesn’t mean a zero greenfield approach.

21 Jul

Alex Morton is Head of Policy at the Centre for Policy Studies, and is a former Number Ten Policy Unit Member.

You don’t need to live in a town or city to know that Covid has had a shattering impact on their commercial spaces. Offices and shopping centres that once buzzed with activity have been shut down for months on end. Even once we are past the pandemic and pingdemic, it is still not clear how much activity will return.

This represents a profound challenge to the Government’s plan to build back better. Even before the pandemic, many of our high streets had started to look like ghost towns. And the problem is worst in those areas that are most electorally important to the Conservatives: as I point out in a new report for the Centre for Policy Studies think tank, there was a clear correlation between higher rates of retail vacancy and the number of new seats the Tories won in each region in 2019.

If the Government is to revive high streets, a clear and bold approach is necessary – and if that revival is to be in full swing by the next election, it needs to start now.

The Government has already made it significantly easier to convert unused commercial space to residential. This would not only bring new life to commercial spaces, but help tackle the housing crisis. Our new report, Reshaping Spaces, calculates that even before Covid-19 there was space for at least 500,000 homes from recycling surplus retail space into homes and flats.

This is a likely underestimate, since in the wake of the pandemic there will be an opportunity to regenerate entire commercial centres (often at higher density), and since as home working and hybrid working increase, there may be surplus office space that can also be converted (although it is too soon to know if this is true).

Reshaping Spaces makes a series of recommendations to make it easier to regenerate commercial centres. For example, we argue that business rates are no longer fit for purpose and are damaging commercial centres. At the very least, Government should reform the incentives to hold onto vacant commercial space: currently the business rates retention system penalises councils for recycling buildings more than keeping them vacant.

But arguably the most important recommendation is that, as the first step in the new local plans, all councils should put a commercial needs assessment in place by 2022, assessing levels and location of commercial space. Councils should receive additional funding to pay for this, and see a small incentive payment made when this is completed. Where the local council does not do this, Government should step in and complete it, working with local employers and landlords to create such a plan.

Thus by the time of the next election, probably in 2023, every area would have a plan for its commercial centres – the high streets and business districts, the retail parks and out of town office hubs. People could see that there was a plan and action underway following on from it. But, crucially, councils would be able to use this assessment as the foundation of the wider local plan: in essence, the first step would be to reassess the level of brownfield land available, before moving on to the green.

The political advantages of this approach are obvious. There is nothing more frustrating than brownfield sites remaining unused with no plan of action in place, whilst new homes on greenfield are pushed through on appeal. This is partly why the CPS has called for planning permissions to be turned into delivery contracts, so that permissions are actually built out (see here) – something many SME house builders have welcomed.

But there is also a political danger. One of the more seductive myths in the housing debate is that there is enough brownfield land available to satisfy our housing needs.

It is true that there are things that can and should be done to reduce the amount of greenfield development that is needed and to boost home ownership without building more.

As we have pointed out at the Centre for Policy Studies, it is a scandal that, in the decade after the financial crisis, buy-to-let landlords essentially snapped up all of the extra housing stock that was built. Rebalancing the housing stock in favour of owner-occupation should be a crucial priority for Government – hence our proposal for long-term fixed rate mortgages for first-time buyers (see this excellent report), which was taken up in the 2019 Conservative manifesto. The Government could still go further, perhaps by introducing a CGT cut for landlords who sell up.

We also recently published a briefing note that showed how net immigration has a significant impact on the level of new homes needed, particularly in London and the surrounding area. The South and London see high levels of international immigration, indeed without international immigration London’s population would have fallen by 700,000 in the past decade, which in turn would start to relieve pressure on the wider south as fewer people are pushed out by London’s high housing costs. (see here and here).

However, even if immigration falls, there will still need to be greenfield development in England. Even in the South, only 40 per cent of household growth is due to net immigration.

As the planning debates return later this year, there will once again be those who argue that we can do without greenfield development, that high housing costs (particularly in the South) are just caused by low interest rates. They will argue supply has no impact because this is convenient politically.

One of the key misunderstandings is when people argue because there are 23 million households, whether you build an extra 100,000 or 300,000 homes a year makes no difference to overall housing costs – in either case it is just one per cent of the total housing stock and so a negligible increase in supply.

But it is not just total households that matter in terms of house prices. It is the total number of transactions in terms of homes bought and sold. So you should not measure new build homes against total households but against annual transactions. In recent years, transactions ran at around one million to 1.2 million a year (see link).

Assuming a market of one million sales, the difference between 100,000 homes a year and 300,000 homes a year, or 200,000 homes, is an increase in supply of 20 per cent relative to the same demand. Even 1.2 million sales give an increase of around 16 per cent in supply. So an increase in new builds does help to hold down house prices, all other things being equal, and will have a reasonable impact on prices. This is why supply matters and planning reform matters.

A “brownfield first” approach is very different from a “zero greenfield” approach. It is about actually developing on brownfield rather than just rejecting greenfield development. People will accept some greenfield development if measures to minimise it are in place, not if greenfield is seen as the first call.

Government needs to listen on planning reform – yes. It needs to be flexible – yes. The Housing Minister and No 10 are doing their best to do so. But neither Conservative MPs nor conservatives or liberals more widely should fool themselves – a brownfield first policy is both feasible and desirable. But a “zero greenfield” policy is not.

Rachel Wolf: Tests for the delivery of levelling up, and levers with which to deliver it

10 May

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

The Conservatives have won more stunning victories. Why?

First, the approach that drove the 2019 victory continues to deliver.  Second, vaccines and furlough have rewarded sitting governments: they have demonstrated competence, agility, and a willingness to spend.

The next great test won’t come for a while. Boris Johnson is Merrie England: he is the perfect leader for our summer of freedom. The economy will temporarily boom. Furlough won’t be withdrawn until September. Provided it stops raining, everyone should feel good.

But the Government will be acutely conscious that the next six months is also the last window for policies that can deliver by 2024. They will also know that, by Christmas, any lingering effects of what my partner and ConservativeHome columnist James calls ‘furlough morphine’ will have worn off. Some economic scarring is likely.

In other words, ‘levelling up’ now needs to get real. This is clearly the plan in the next few months, starting with the Queen’s Speech tomorrow, and then leading to the Levelling Up paper.

Truth be told, levelling up is a poor slogan. It has never done very well in our focus groups – people find it confusing and then, when it’s explained to them, mildly irritating. They don’t think they’re ‘levelled down’, they think they’re ignored. Equally, they find the idea that in four years they’re suddenly going to become London and the South East bizarre – it’s not what they want, and they don’t think it’s credible.

But the danger of ‘levelling up’ is not that it confuses voters, but that it confuses policy. Too many seem to equate it with transforming regional productivity, affecting every town in provincial England and Wales, within a Parliament. Obviously if that’s what voters wanted, they would be disappointed.

Of course regional productivity and innovation are vital, and longer term work should begin. But there are also shorter-term gains. Here are some important ones, some obvious levers, and ways to measure progress.

The high street test.

People care deeply about where they live. They ‘measure’ decline by their town or city centre. Here’s what you hear time and time again: shops boarded up; graffiti on the cenotaph; drug addicts; no monthly market; no decent playground.

In other words, it’s depressing to be in, feels mildly unsafe, and there’s nothing to do.

  • Levers: Business rates; soft infrastructure (local museums, libraries, playgrounds); events including markets and protecting green spaces; incentives for lower margin, often civic enterprises from soft play to youth clubs to sports. Decent bus services. Core public services in the town centre.

It is crucial that ‘economic investments’ (many of dubious effectiveness) do not trump these. Yes, it becomes easier to sustain this kind of infrastructure when people are wealthier. But it is worth remembering that many of these things existed when people were much, much poorer.

  • Tests: vacancy rates. Footfall. Number of events. And, of course, what people tell you about their town.

The safety test

Under-reporting of crime is a big problem, and there is reason to believe it disproportionately affects the Red Wall. Burglary, shoplifting and vandalism are particular problems.

Fraud, too, is a national problem with unequal consequences. Pensioners in Red Wall seats who may own their own homes but have very modest savings and no private income are particularly exposed to losing their life savings. Meanwhile, specific estates suffer from low police presence, and deprived coastal communities and small towns are the targets of County Lines.

In other words, crime is a particular issue in particular ways in these places.

  • Levers: the extra police will help. We also need to change the way in which Home Office funding is allocated and put more emphasis on localised funds like the Safer Streets Funds (which pays for things people want like CCTV). We need a massive, revived focus on fraud – it is getting insufficient airtime and attention.
  • Tests: the obvious source is surveyed crime, but the government also needs better ways to measure crime than annual face to face interviews,

The Opportunity Test 1: Skills and Jobs. 

Training and apprenticeships are a huge priority for working class people. They want local training opportunities – ideally leading to local jobs. We know there’s huge untapped demand for technical level skills in the labour market, and that many adults want to retrain. It remains one of the great challenges of our system.

  • Levers: the Queen’s Speech will create a proper lifetime learning entitlement. Now it needs more funding and less bureaucracy (which is already blighting other skills entitlements and apprenticeships).

On jobs, big changes will be long-term. As well as incentives for private sector investment, the public sector is an opportunity. People want trained people to stay or return home. A start – and one of the most popular things universities can support – would be incentivising public sector graduates (like teachers, nurses, and doctors) to stay in areas where recruitment is a challenge.

  • Tests: number of adults in retraining. Reduction in skills shortages in ‘technical’ roles. I’d include reduced reliance on foreign skilled labour in specific areas (such as parts of construction, who are presumably going to see investment, and therefore job opportunities through net zero and transport).

The Opportunity Test 2: Schools

Schools perform less well in many Conservative target areas. In the past, I would have said this was a moral imperative, but not an electoral one – school quality wasn’t a big vote winner. But I think there’s now greater desire from parents (and we’ll be publishing a report with the Centre for Policy Studies on this in the near future). They are more aware of how their children are doing, how far behind some of them are, and how differently schools responded to the pandemic.

  • Levers: incentives for teachers to go to underperforming areas. Renewed focus on academies and free schools. Ofsted inspections with a focus on standards. Continuing the drive on behaviour. There should also be new focus on the most gifted through programmes in schools and more academically selective sixth forms.
  • Test: Ofsted ratings (including number of failing schools); percentage getting five good GCSEs in core subjects (called the EBACC).

Finally, an overall measure: retention of people and inward migration – in other words, do people want to stay and move to the towns of England? It is implausible that this will transform in a few years, but you might start to see a little movement towards the end of the Parliament (and post-Covid home working will accelerate this effect if places are nice to live in).

You will no doubt have issue with many (if not all) of these levers and measures. There are some omissions (most obviously health). But my point is that it is possible to generate and measure progress within a few years. The job won’t be done, but people will see the path. That shouldn’t diminish the importance of the longer-term, even harder job of thinking through regional growth and productivity. But if you don’t get these areas right, Johnson and the Conservatives won’t be given permission to carry on.

Presenting ConservativeHome’s Spring Conference online fringe events

17 Mar

We’re very pleased to announce that, following the success of our online fringe events during last year’s Conservative Party Conference, ConservativeHome will be putting on a programme of free, online fringe events during the Conservative Party’s Spring Conference, on Friday 26th and Saturday 27th March.

Click here to see details of our full line-up of speakers and topics. We do hope that you can join us for discussions ranging from the reform of business rates and the future of the asylum system to the Government’s plans to fulfil its promises on levelling up and net zero, featuring guests including Sajid Javid, Robert Jenrick and Paul Scully.

As ever, ConservativeHome’s journalists will also be putting your audience questions to our special guests.

All of our events will be broadcast for free on the Conservative Party’s conference website, the ConservativeHome YouTube Channel and via Zoom. Zoom signup links for all events can be found on our listings page.

Alan Mak: A week on from the Budget, it’s clear that it will boost innovation and productivity

10 Mar

Alan Mak is Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party, Co-Chairman of the Party’s Policy Board and MP for Havant

The pandemic has had a significant impact on the British economy. Over 700,000 people have tragically lost their jobs and the economy has shrunk by 10 per cent – the largest fall on record. And the impact could have been far worse had it not been for the Chancellor’s support schemes that have protected jobs and livelihoods throughout, from the furlough scheme to billions paid out in business grants and loans.

Last week’s Budget needed to continue this support for the economy in the short term. But crucially, it also needed to lay the foundations for building the economy of the future. What this country needs – and what Conservatives can wholeheartedly champion – is a robustly pro-growth, pro-enterprise and pro-innovation economy to turbo-charge our exit from the pandemic and help Britain lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution, all while remaining internationally competitive.

Last Wednesday, the Chancellor delivered, with a series of policies that will ensure technology and innovation are at the forefront of our economy. ConservativeHome readers agreed, overwhelmingly backing the Budget with 58 per cent saying it was “good” or “very good” in this site’s latest survey, as did voters polled by YouGov.

Last July, I proposed an IT scrappage & upgrade scheme to equip our promising start-ups, SMEs and scale-ups of tomorrow with better software and technology, in order to enhance productivity which has historically lagged behind our competitors. For years, governments have needed to target the least productive SMEs which have invested insufficiently in the latest software, automation or information technology. And too often, our brilliant small firms don’t have the time or resources to get the extra skills or technology tools they need to be more productive.

That’s why I warmly welcome the Chancellor’s two new Help to Grow schemes, specifically aimed at boosting the productivity of our small businesses. Help to Grow Management will help SMEs get world-class management training through government-funded programmes delivered through British business schools, with businesses contributing just £750 or 10 per cent of the cost of the course.

And Help to Grow Digital will level up the digital skills of our small businesses with vouchers entitling them to 50 per cent off the purchase of new productivity-enhancing software, up to a total of £5,000 each. Both these schemes are exactly what’s needed to tackle the UK’s longstanding productivity challenge, while laying strong foundations for the pro-growth future economy we all want to see.

The Budget went further by delivering other measures which high-growth, innovative companies should welcome. These businesses account for just one per cent of companies in the UK, but generate an amazing 80 per cent of our employment growth.

That’s why consultations to find ways to improve our research and development regime and reform the Enterprise Management Incentive scheme to support growing companies retain talent, are encouraging. Furthermore, ensuring firms have sufficient access to capital is vital, which is why the new Future Fund Breakthrough initiative, successor to the Future Fund, is welcome support for innovative tech businesses to access finance, match-funded by Government.

As the first MP of British-Chinese heritage, I also believe a global outlook and attracting world-class talent to the UK is pivotal to our future economic success. That’s why visa reforms aimed at making it easier for highly-skilled people to come to Britain are especially welcome. These include a new unsponsored points-based visa, and new simplified processes for scale-up founders and entrepreneurs.

These Budget measures to support our businesses and turbocharge our future economic growth build on the Treasury’s other impressive pandemic support schemes, such as extensions to the furlough scheme; temporary VAT cuts and business rates relief; two more self-employment grants; new recovery loans to help businesses access finance; and Restart grants of up to £18,000 for businesses who have been particularly hard hit. Overall, that’s over £400 billion of support this year and next to protect our economy.

I also welcomed the Chancellor’s frankness about the need to begin repairing our public finances. We cannot maintain the current levels of borrowing and debt and expect to be able to respond with another £400 billion when the next crisis hits. And as Conservatives, we believe in sound money and keeping our borrowing under control hence the Chancellor also explained why corporation tax is scheduled to rise for the biggest, most profitable businesses in two years’ time.

The unprecedented ‘Super Deduction’ policy to encourage companies to invest in capital assets such as new machinery – an effective tax cut worth around £25 billion – will also be key to incentivising our SMEs to adopt the latest productivity-enhancing technology. Last year I wrote about the dampening effect on capital expenditure (capex) and investment caused by Coronavirus already being large and destructive. The Bank of England predicted a 26 per cent drop in business investment for 2020. In 2009, as the financial crisis erupted, the fall was 16 per cent by comparison. The Super Deduction can help reverse the damage to our country’s technology base.

What we needed to hear from the Chancellor was a mixture of realism about keeping the economy going now, plus a dose of optimism for the future, by laying the groundwork for British businesses to lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We received both, building strong foundations for Britain’s growth and recovery.

Richard Holden: We shouldn’t try to win a spending arms race with Labour in this Budget – which we would lose anyway

1 Mar

Fight Fitness Guru, Consett, Co. Durham

During the last fortnight, the white wasteland of frozen fields has given way to the flora of spring in County Durham.  The thaw in the land of the Prince Bishops is being met with a broader feeling in the towns and villages that spring is on the way.  With 20,000,000 vaccinations done and accelerating, as well as the Prime Minister’s roadmap providing clarity for the future, there is a real feeling that the tide is turning.

This week’s Budget must be another step along that road.  However, with so many competing concerns it will be a difficult balance to strike.  To get it right, it’s going to be essential to zoom out and look to where we want to be in a few years’ time.

Our economy has taken a pounding because of Covid-19.  Three hundred billion pounds in extra spending and support, paying people’s wages through furlough and supporting jobs and businesses has been provided.

Three hundred billion pounds extra: that is wartime levels of additional expenditure. For context, it is more than twice the size of the NHS budget annually. It’s an extra £4,500 for every man woman and child in the UK, or about £12,000 for every income-taxpayer in extra spending: money that’s had to be borrowed.

The support has been colossal and necessary. It has protected businesses and jobs and crucially will enable our economy to bounce back as quickly as it can. But this backing wouldn’t have been possible if the Government hadn’t taken the necessary decisions to keep spending under control during the last few years.

Colloquially, this point is made frequently by my constituents, along the lines of: “I’m glad it was you lot in and not Labour. If they’d been in ,God knows what would have happened.”

Which takes me to the political.  One of the biggest gateways to so-called “Blue Wall” voters switching from Labour to Conservative was Jeremy Corbyn. But this wasn’t just because of the terrorist sympathising and antisemitism. Or Keir Starmer’s policy of betraying democracy over Brexit. It was also because of Labour’s economic credibility.

People stopped listening to Labour’s promises when they became increasingly outlandish.  Remember them? Free broadband for all, give WASPI women £30,000 each, cancel student debt and make university education taxpayer-funded. The list went on – all with no plan to pay for it: it was fantasy economics that lacked basic credibility.

This is where we Conservatives now need to be careful, and why Rishi Sunak needs to tread a fine line. We cannot, nor should we wish to, win an arms race with Labour over who can spend more taxpayers’ cash.

We’ve not spent the long, hard yards of the last decade, undoing the catastrophic position Labour left in 2010, to let that credibility go. The reason we’ve been able to support the country through the global pandemic is because we’d had credible spending plans for the last decade. The reason Labour couldn’t win in 2010 is because Labour believed its own hubris about having ‘abolished boom and bust’ and, to nab a much-loved phrase from George Osborne, “failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining.” And the result was the famous note from Liam Byrne, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury: “there is no money left.”

Given such an analysis of where we are, then: what’s next? The budget must focus on three things:

  • Recovery. Allowing the country, especially our hardest hit sectors to bounce back from Covid – and in doing so avoid a massive spike in unemployment.  This week, I led 68 Conservative backbenchers in writing to the Chancellor about support for pubs (massive employers of young people) via keeping beer duty down. It’s vital that he also allows our high streets breathing space regarding business rates. And for families in constituencies like mine, where for so many a car is essential, fuel duty rises, which Conservatives have found hard against for a decade, need to be avoided.
  • Delivery. Keep building towards our key manifesto commitments on public services: more police, more nurses, crucial infrastructure and deliver on the levelling up promise that was made.
  • Credibility. Long-term economic stability with borrowing under control to allow us to keep our debt – and crucially our debt interest payments – under control.  We can’t just hope that interest rates stay this low forever: they won’t. Only a balanced plan will allow the Government the space to deliver on the first two objectives of recovery and delivery.

It’s a tall order, and the Chancellor needs to be clear, honest, and fair in what he spells out. Those who’ve profited during the pandemic and those with the broadest shoulders should take the lion’s share of slack as we now deal with the consequences of it.

As for Keir “Goldilocks” Starmer – naturally, nothing will be ‘just right’.  But he won’t come up with any other real proposals, either. He’s opposed to anything that will raise revenue, but Labour MPs will doubtless demand more spending.  The party is all over the place, with a front bench hopelessly out of its depth, and a broader one so divided as to the way forward that it’s hardly a surprise Sir Keir is unable to get them to agree on anything but to abstain.

So Labour’s economic credibility will remain in tatters. We need ours to remain strong.

This spring in North West Durham and across the “blue wall”, let’s ensure that the growth we see is built to last. Unsustainable borrowing might be Labour’s answer, but it can’t be ours. Without doubt, at some point, winter will come again.

And when it does, we’ll need to respond to it from a position of strength with flexibility – as we have this time.  The electorate will not forgive us is we don’t ensure long-term credibility. Without it we put both a sustainable recovery from the global Coronavirus pandemic and delivery of our manifesto in jeopardy.

Perhaps the simplest way of putting it on the Budget is: it’s all about economic credibility, stupid. Because come 2024, it certainly will be.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: This unbrushed, unkempt PM reckons he can beat the Nats

10 Feb

“I have the confidence to do things my own way,” Boris Johnson’s hair declared.

It was this week messier than ever: unbrushed, unkempt, uncut, as if the Prime Minister had washed it and fallen asleep with it in a wet and tangled mess, so that when he awoke it would stick out in every direction.

Sir Keir Starmer was left to uphold respectability. He invited Johnson to extend business rate relief beyond 31st March.

The PM said business would have to wait until the Budget.

Sir Keir accused Johnson of procrastination: “Let me let the Prime Minister into a secret. He can take decisions for himself and he doesn’t have to leave everything until the eleventh minute.”

The PM does sometimes leave things until the eleventh hour, or even until the last minute, compared to which the eleventh minute sounded quite prompt.

He retorted by mocking the Leader of the Opposition for “a damascene conversion” to the cause of business. Sir Keir said he was “not going to take lectures from a man who wrote two versions of every column”.

This exchange of jibes would have benefited from being conducted in front of a live audience. When the Commons is full, there is at least a chance that PMQs will come alive.

There is then a danger then of things going wonderfully well, or horribly wrong, within the space of a few words. This ghostly Chamber can’t reproduce that threat.

Ian Blackford, appearing for the SNP by video screen from the Isle of Skye, accused the Government of leaving “1.3 million children under five living in poverty”.

Johnson said “we bitterly lament and regret the poverty that some families suffer”, but went on to observe, somewhat unexpectedly, that there is a “a profound philosophical difference” between the Scottish Nationalists and the Conservatives.

The SNP, he suggested, “is morphing into an ever more left-wing party that believes fundamentally it is the duty of the taxpayer to pay for more and more and more. We want to get people into jobs, Mr Speaker.”

Here is a line of which we can expect to hear more during the Scottish elections, when the Nats will be accused of trying to solve every problem by building a socialist state at the expense of frugal, hard-pressed taxpayers.

As if to distract from the seriousness of what he had said, Johnson continued to making teasing references to the Scottish Nationalist Party, instead of the Scottish National Party.

The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, continued to reprove the PM for this, and for going on too long, and on one occasion quite rightly shut him up.

Johnson remained irrepressible. Here is a PM who greatly enjoys being underestimated, and who thinks he can win.

Andy Street: We must do more to save struggling town centres. Tackling business rates is a good place to start.

17 Nov

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

Our traditional town centres and high streets have faced unprecedented challenges in recent times. First, our town centres were impacted by the drive towards out-of-town retail parks. Next, the rise of digital shopping impacted, as doorstep delivery hit footfall.

Then came Coronavirus, and restrictions that have brought town centres to a juddering halt. Now, in what retailers call the “Golden Quarter” – the critical run-up to Christmas – they are coping with another month-long closure.

Through the Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund, the Government is backing town centres, on top of the unprecedented support already shown for business throughout the pandemic. I believe that we must double down on this investment to secure the future of our high streets, but the challenge we face is also reliant on generating fresh ideas and local buy-in. It is not just about money – it is about how we spend it too.

While 2020 has brought unprecedented challenges, I firmly believe in the future of our towns and cities, and evidence suggests that many others do too.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many reconnected with their local high streets. In lockdown, many chose to return to traditional butchers and grocers rather than face supermarket queues. When volunteers mobilised to deliver food to the vulnerable, it was often the local convenience store that provided a base, looking out for their regular customers.

And, when restrictions relaxed, people wanted to reconnect with town centres. Here in the West Midlands, Halesowen Town Centre saw the biggest bounceback in trade of anywhere in the country. Despite all the challenges, towns like this have a future because we are fundamentally a social species. After so long apart, we want to return as soon as possible to culture, to sport, to conferences – social pursuits that are so often in town and city centres.

However, it’s clear that investment is needed. Why? Our high streets matter. They matter because they are the heart of local communities. They matter politically, as they provide a tangible, visible sign of economic success. The Government recognises this, through its Towns Fund investment programme, as it seeks to “level up” the economy and reach out to former “Red Wall”’ areas. But we must think afresh.

Before Covid struck, we drew up our West Midlands blueprint to revitalise local high streets, the ambitions of which are even more pertinent today.

The blueprint aims to encourage a more personal shopping experience – the type you can’t get from a phone screen – while bringing local services into town centres, broadening appeal beyond retail.

We want to encourage more urban living in our town centres, which should also be the natural place for public services. The blueprint also aims to make our town centres greener and cleaner – with more opportunities to cycle and walk – and safe and secure with good lighting, proactive policing and CCTV.

Above all, strong local leadership must drive these ambitions, to build the partnerships and attract the investment needed. A key part of that leadership is pushing for a fairer tax system that levels the playing field between high street and online retailers.

Taxation remains a real issue. If a swift bounceback is evading us next year, then exemptions will be vital – but we must also tackle the long-term problem of business rates. They are simply outdated and, given the financial challenge we now face, the often-suggested online sales tax looks even more attractive.

Investment is also key to repositioning our high streets. In the West Midlands, we are putting millions on the table to back our blueprint.

Schemes vary in size from our £95.5 million investment in the Coventry City Centre South scheme, which will transform the City’s future, to £5 million towards a transformation of Kingshurst, in Solihull, creating a new village centre with shops, medical and community facilities.

Sometimes, it’s about removing eyesores that have blighted places for decades. The demolition of the Cavendish House office block symbolises that the regeneration of Dudley Town Centre is no longer a hope – it’s happening, thanks to regional funding. In West Bromwich, we are pulling down the hideous Bull Street Car Park, reclaiming the site to build new homes in the town centre – bringing much-needed footfall to existing businesses.

We’ve backed opening hotels in Walsall Town Centre and the heart of Coventry, and even helped bring an old rival from my John Lewis days, Marks and Spencer, into Sheldon’s high street in Birmingham.

Targeted investments like these demonstrate a confidence in the future of communities, and we are determined to do more locally. However, I want these investments to be a pilot for securing hundreds of millions from the Government’s Future High Streets Fund and Towns Fund. Across the region we have seen enthused communities, businesses and councils come together to work on their bids for this funding.

Perhaps the most ambitious of these is in the Black Country, where an energised Wolverhampton partnership is pitching for £48 million not just in the city centre, but crucially for high streets in Bilston and Wednesfield too. This funding would go alongside our own investment in the City’s future, like the £150 million new railway station and metro link which is nearing completion.

Elsewhere in the Black Country we have more towns in the running for game-changing investment – Brierley Hill, Bloxwich, Dudley, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, Walsall and West Bromwich – each with their own distinct pitch.

A great example is Brierley Hill – a traditional town centre that was badly hit by the opening of the huge Merry Hill shopping centre in 1990. Now we have the chance to reconfigure the town centre to open it up and ensure that shoppers visiting big retailers like Asda can easily access the rest of the high street. The extension of the West Midlands Metro into Brierley Hill will link it to the wider region.

Communities around smaller suburban high streets are grasping the opportunities of the Future High Streets Fun too. Erdington, in Birmingham, has a brilliant scheme designed not only to boost retail but to make the best of their assets, by opening up the historic Churchyard area to provide better, high-quality open space. They also want to turn the boarded-up Victorian baths into a job-creating business hub.

Too often the debate over “levelling up” is reduced to North versus South. Here in the Midlands, where the Red Wall was first breached, we are engaging with the opportunities to bring investment into our communities that will drive tangible, visible improvements.

The Government is putting in money. But as we plot our way out of the pandemic, it must be ready to double down on this investment, while enthusing communities to play a part in revitalising the civic centres they so cherish.

Matt Vickers: I know from experience why the retail sector matters. So have your say on rates today.

30 Oct

Matt Vickers is the MP for Stockton South.

The debate around the challenges facing the retail sector, and particularly our high streets, isn’t new. Sadly, the current pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. As a former Woolworth’s employee and a keen Pic and Mix eater, I know only too well the high street titans who have been lost in this battle.

While the pandemic has left many industries in a state of flux, it has added to the challenges facing the retail sector rather than acting as the sole source of disruption.

Although we cannot deny that lockdown restrictions in the earlier part of the year were necessary to protect the health of the nation, they have had a devastating effect on the already dwindling footfall that many high streets and retail centres have experienced over recent years.

With people being asked to stay at home, more and more of them have turned to online traders to meet their needs. Complacency has meant that we have learned to live with online and physical retailers living in parallel. While we have known for some time, that online shopping has exercised a greater dominance, Covid-19, it feels, is giving online retailers full superiority.

From the incredible bum-wiping bonanza of 2020 that saw people stocks piling toilet rolls (which they probably still haven’t got through) to the huge demand for hand sanitiser, retail and supply chains were put to the test.

While recent figures from the British Retail Consortium show retail sales to September rebounded since re-opening in June, they remain significantly lower than sales at the beginning of the pandemic.

More worryingly, these figures indicate potentially permanent changes in consumer behaviour, since working from home has been normalised for many, and online sales continuing to boom despite shops being open. City centre retailers in particular have not benefited from increased footfall, as office blocks stand empty.

In less than six months, we have seen an industry worth nearly £400 billion, that directly employs three million people, encounter a seismic shift; the result of which could be hundreds of thousands of livelihoods destroyed.

While we have painted a bleak, yet sadly accurate picture of the retail sector, there are potential solutions to reverse the decline. If we want to see our high streets flourish once again, where our memories no longer drift back to a bygone era of nostalgia of what we have lost, we must be embrace bold, innovative and forward-looking policies.

The Government must cut the burdens that restrict business, and allow the entrepreneurial spirit to blow the wind of change through our high streets.

Our retail workers have been on the frontline in this pandemic, whilst others sought safety in their own home. They alongside our doctors, nurses and health professionals, are the key workers in this battle. And while they battle to supply us with the goods we require, it is sad to see that in recent times an alarming trend has emerged with the number shop workers being abused and assaulted increasing.

A recent British Consortium survey found that more than 400 retail workers face violence and abuse every day, often as the result of staff challenging shoplifters, or more recently trying to implement Covid-19 guidelines.

Locally, in my constituency of Stockton South, I have spent a great deal of time meeting retailers, and even worked a shift in a local Home Bargains (another past employer of mine). I have been delighted to hear how so many of them have benefited from the various support packages since this crisis began, whether that in question has been the business rates holiday or the world-leading furlough scheme.

There is that old adage, ‘the customer is always right’. But while that may be the case, there could be no customers without the staff that work so hard to keep our retail sector going. It really is an industry for the people and run by the people. It is our duty as policymakers to cultivate a supportive environment to ensure the industry has a thriving future.

An integral way in which we do this in the months ahead will be the biggest consultation on the issue that affects the industry most – a fundamental review of business rates and then publishing the terms of reference for the review at the Spring Budget. This call for evidence seeks views on how the business rates system currently works, what issues need to be addressed, ideas for change and a number of alternative taxes.

When the evidence and recommendations come in, we must listen, and we must do all we can to support the heart of the British economy. So have your say today.