David Gauke: Demographic changes in the Blue Wall will work against the Conservatives – they must pay close attention

12 May

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

This is a bit of a postscript to my article from Saturday. In the unlikely event of you not having read it (or that you are not going to rectify this unfortunate omission before proceeding to read this article), in summary I said that the election results were very good for the Conservatives with evidence of a vaccine bounce (the incumbents also did well in Scotland and Wales).

Furthermore, there was a political realignment in English politics that made it easier for the Conservatives to win general elections. A divide along cultural grounds, rather than economic or class grounds, left the Tories’ opponents split and their votes inefficiently distributed.

At the time of writing, we had seen some of the details of how Leave areas were swinging towards the Conservatives (most spectacularly in Hartlepool) but had not seen that much from the Conservative Remain areas, mostly in the south of England.

Now that we have got these results, the data shows that Remain areas are behaving very differently to Leave areas – large swings to the Conservatives in Leave areas, very small swings in Remain areas.

I thought I would take a look at two county council divisions in my old constituency of South West Hertfordshire. Berkhamsted is an attractive and prosperous market town. It is the type of place to which young professionals move from London when starting a family and then never leave.

As is not uncommon in Home Counties constituencies, the Conservatives have generally done better here in general elections than local elections, but Berkhamsted has always returned a Conservative county councillor (except in 1993 when the Conservative vote collapsed across the country), although not always comfortably.

In the last six elections, the Conservative candidate achieved between 40 and 45 per cent of the vote with the size of the majority varying depending up how the other parties’ votes were distributed. In 2016, the ballot boxes from Berkhamsted contained a large majority of Remain votes.

South Oxhey & Eastbury was a new county division which narrowly elected a Labour councillor in 2017.  It is made up of two contrasting areas. Eastbury is affluent Middlesex suburbia and solidly Conservative, but the bulk of the division is made up of a post-War London overspill council estate that has always voted solidly Labour (apart from 2009 when it infamously elected the BNP’s only ever county councillor). South Oxhey voted overwhelmingly for Brexit (“hardly any Remain votes at all” one of the counters told me on the night).

When Thursday’s results were announced, South Oxhey & Eastbury went blue with an eight per cent swing from Labour to Conservative which, looking at the district council elections, seems to have been the consequence of a strong Tory surge in South Oxhey. Meanwhile, in Berkhamsted there was a swing of 12 per cent from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats, reducing the Tory share of the vote to a record low of 30 per cent.

Admittedly, local factors are relevant (there is an unpopular local plan), but the Berkhamsted experience of affluent commuter area deserting the Conservatives was replicated elsewhere in the constituency in Three Rivers Rural and elsewhere in the county in Harpenden, Hitchin, Hemel Hempstead, Bishop’s Stortford and Hertford (all to the Liberal Democrats apart from Hertford which went Green). Looking outside Hertfordshire, places with similar demographics in Surrey, Sussex, Kent, Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire did much the same.

Is this an immediate problem for the Conservatives? Taken in the round, probably not. The Liberal Democrats tend to over-perform in local elections compared to general elections. In individual constituencies, declines in some areas (such as Berkhamsted) were offset in part by advances in other areas (such as South Oxhey) – this is more complex than North versus South. And even if the realignment of British politics puts at risk affluent, well-educated, Remain-voting constituencies, there are far fewer of them than there are Labour Leave-voting seats that now look winnable for the Tories.

At a local level, however, there three reasons to be concerned. First, given that the electoral logic suggests that the Red Wall will be a bigger priority than the Blue Wall, Government policy will prioritise the Red Wall – if necessary at the expense of the Blue Wall (someone is going to have to pay for “levelling up”).

Second, demographic changes in these areas work against the Conservatives. The loyal Conservative vote is often quite elderly and the likely population increase will predominantly be newcomers from London. The pandemic is only likely to accelerate the process of these places becoming more graduate-heavy and small L liberal.

Third, a share of 40 per cent for a Government is very high. No doubt the vaccine rollout has made a big difference and, assuming the Conservatives will still be in office in 2025 (and not many are betting against that), achieving a similar share of the vote would be quite some achievement.

All of this suggests that the loss of a few southern seats on Thursday might not be a crippling wound for the Conservatives, but nor is this temporary.  The Tories will do very well to get many of these council seats back and there may be more to come.

Previous success makes the county council elections challenging for the Conservatives

25 Mar

Earlier this week I considered the elections for Police and Crime Commissioner elections and the district councils. As these were last contested in 2016, they offer the potential for Conservative gains. By contrast, the county councils represent a problem of success for the Conservatives. They were last fought in 2017. After Sir John Curtice did some number crunching, he declared that the results equated to a projected national vote share of 38 per cent for the Conservatives, 27 per cent for Labour, 18 per cent for the Lib Dems, and five per cent for UKIP. Current polling suggests a healthy Conservative lead over Labour but not as high as that – the latest one I saw had it at nine per cent. Perhaps that is a crude measure to rely on to forecast local elections over a month away. But it gives a broad indication that the Conservatives will be on the defensive for this electoral category.

Elections will take place in 21 counties – Cumbria, North Yorkshire and Somerset still have county councils but they are being excluded due to proposals to switch to unitary status in those areas. Of those, 19 are Conservative controlled. Two are under No Overall Control. Those two – Oxfordshire and Nottinghamshire – are Conservative-led coalitions with the backing of independents. One would normally expect the Conservatives to be easily winning in Oxfordshire. We shall see if the little local difficulties of four years ago can be overcome this time. The difficulty might be that even if some independents are seen off, the Lib Dems pose an increased risk.

So far as the more general political barometer is concerned, Nottinghamshire is of greater relevance. Along with Derbyshire and Lancashire, it is traditional Labour territory. For Labour to be doing well they ought to be winning these counties outright. It should not be enough for the Conservatives to be doing badly and some hodge-podge coalitions. Yet even for Labour to become the largest party in these counties would require a significant number of gains on four years ago. In Nottinghamshire, we have 31 Conservative councillors with Labour on 23. Derbyshire has 36 Conservatives, Labour on 25. Lancashire saw 46 Conservatives returned last time – only 30 for Labour. If Conservatives managed to win in these counties, even lose a few seats, it will be a good result. Even if they need to come up with a deal with some independents, after negotiations in smoke filled rooms (not that smoking is allowed in council offices these days), they should be relieved. In most of the other counties up for election Labour start with a tally of councillors in single figures.

What of the Lib Dems? They also start from a low base. Even in Devon they only have half a dozen seats. The Conservatives won a huge majority last time. They are denied the chance of a contest in Somerset – which is among the more promising territory for them. If they are guided by their encouraging district council election results in 2017 they will be looking for gains in Cambridgeshire (where they currently have 16 councillors) and Essex (where they are on eight.) It would be surprising if they gained any Council but they might be beneficiaries of some confusing results. If Labour narrow the gap; the Conservatives hold in some places; plus the Green Party and independents pick up some seats; then we could see more hung councils – a situation in which the Lib Dems, with the flexible political approach, would be well placed to adapt to.

But could the Green Party make the electoral challenge for Labour and the Lib Dems harder, by splitting the woke vote? Most county councils do not have a single Green Party councillor. The highest tally is in Suffolk where they have three. Yet some opinion polls have them roughly level with the Lib Dems. April 8th sees the close of nominations so if there are more Green Party candidates than last time, that will give an initial indication that they may be on the up.

Lord Hayward, the Conservative peer and elections expert, says:

“I would certainly anticipate that Labour will make gains. Derbyshire would be their top target. In the elections in 2013 they won it with a big majority. Staffordshire has moved out of their reach but they will be looking for significant progress in Nottinghamshire and Lancashire. The national swing to them since 2017 may be mitigated by the popularity of Boris Johnson in the Midlands and the North but it would still be a surprise if Labour did not make significant gains. For the Lib Dems seeking a breakthrough, the coronavirus restrictions over the last year will have been a particular problem. They still have an edge on other parties when it comes to their local campaigning machine. But the lockdown has prevented them from exploiting that.”

It would be unrealistic for Conservatives not to brace themselves for some setbacks in the county council elections. But there is a good chance that a drubbing can be averted.

James Palmer: How devolution can bost innovation and economic growth

11 Dec

James Palmer is the directly elected Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

The job of combined authorities is to increase economic prosperity for the people they serve. Devolution means powers and money are passed into local control, where, combined with local support and specialist knowledge, it can be put to best use.

As part of our devolution deal in 2017, we signed an agreement with central government to double local “Valued Added” by 2042. As I see it, we also have a responsibility to our entire region, not just the major economic centres that make up the majority of that output; to make sure growth and opportunities are spread evenly and fairly, not just in selected areas.

At the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority, we achieve this through supporting business growth, housing development, better transport, and enhanced education in every corner of the region. Maximising the great potential in areas that could well be described as “left behind” and in major need of “levelling up”.

Our ability to contribute to the UK economy is huge; in 2017 it was measured to be £22 billion. Before COVID-19, we had already seen local growth over and above expected levels because of interventions we have made. Imagine if the output of Cambridge could be matched across the entire Cambridgeshire and Peterborough region?

Last week, I went in front of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee to give evidence on the progress of devolution, where I was asked about the challenges and opportunities that come with Combined Authorities.

Extraordinary national challenges, including COVID-19 and the EU transition, has led to a centralisation of powers and a kick back against further devolution. Despite this, we have managed to achieve exceptional things. Things that would not be possible without a Combined Authority to set a vision and show leadership for the entire region.

By their nature, Combined Authorities are collaborative. Unlike local or national government, decision making requires cross-party consensus. We changed our governance structure so that elected members sit on all our committees, to represent the views of their constituents in co-designing local policies and develop knowledge and expertise in these areas.

We have delivered on our own levelling up agenda by providing more adult education opportunities in the north of the county, typically ‘left behind’ areas of low economic opportunity. We have got spades in the ground and second phase funding from government to deliver a new University for Peterborough, a project which had been going nowhere for over 20 years until the Combined Authority took over, just a couple of years ago. Our pioneering transport projects including the CAM Metro, will better connect the north of the region with the south, helping to crack open the wealth and opportunities that exist there.

Given the events of the Covid-19 response, Government may think Combined Authorities are a problem to manage and be disinclined to trust us further, but I genuinely believe we can be a crucial part of the Covid Recovery. Through partnership working, we can be more agile in meeting the needs of the region.  When Covid-19 hit, we responded quickly in collaboration with our Business Board – formerly the Cambridgeshire and Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership – investing almost £6 million of funding into over 170 small and medium businesses that were just missing out on government schemes. Our action led to the protection of 500 jobs and created a further 270 jobs during the first national lockdown.

At the Committee I was asked my views on what additional powers we need to deliver, particularly fiscal devolution. I believe we could perform even better for the region and contribute more to the UK economy if we were given that resource.

At present, we are required to go cap in hand to central government whenever we need additional funding, which is often only granted on a short term basis. This is understandable; if a Combined Authority is not responsible with its funding, Central Government shoulders the responsibility and foots the bill. Devolution of fundraising powers from central government would provide stable, long term funding, allow us to plan for and deliver on strategic projects that would revolutionise our region and ensure we hold a stake in responsible management of our resources. It is both an opportunity and a responsibility.

It is my belief that because of the strength of the economy and value of land in Cambridge and Cambridgeshire as a whole, we can raise money to deliver on ambitious large scale infrastructure projects such as the Cambridgeshire Autonomous through the power of the Cambridge economy alone. Mechanisms such as Land Value Capture, Tax Incremental Funding, Devolved Taxation Powers and the long-term ring fencing of increased business rates revenues due to growth would allow us to raise billions of pounds in finance that could be invested in better public transport, employment-focussed education opportunities and affordable housing.

If we are to recover the significant economic growth lost to Covid-19 and burst past it, we will need to embrace innovation and deliver differently. The Government must look at the massive opportunities that we have in this country to transform how we deliver major infrastructure.  While I speak of examples in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, this could be replicated across the UK. It is not only a different route of delivery, but a better route of delivery, on things that will improve people’s lives – which is, at the end of the day, the only reason I took on this job.

James Palmer: How we are fighting for jobs in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough

26 Oct

James Palmer is the directly elected Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

While we are now only beginning to understand the wide-ranging impacts of Covid-19, it is clear already that a one size fits all approach to support will limit our ability to build back better.

A support offer that isn’t targeted risks alienating those leaders, workers, and learners who have the power to kickstart our recovery as well as those who have been hardest hit by the pandemic and the ongoing social distancing measures.

The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough economy is incredibly diverse, from the rich agriculture of the Fens, to the technology and manufacturing powerhouses of Cambridge and Peterborough. Being a devolved authority, our local knowledge has allowed us to make data-driven interventions with a real tangible impact on businesses, job seekers, and young people looking to further their education and skills.

The first in a series of interventions made by the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority was a £2.3 million investment in a Covid-19 grant scheme for businesses across our region. The Covid-19 Capital and Micro Grant Schemes offered grants from £2,000 to £150,000 for new capital investment projects, helping companies to strengthen their capacity to survive and build back better. This was open for applications by early April and we were able to get money out to businesses quickly to allow them to make investments with confidence, helping to protecting our local economy.

We received grant bids for all sorts of projects including buying new kit, building new extensions, the updating of production lines, IT infrastructure, and upgrading logistics. It quickly became clear that £2.3 million was nowhere near enough, and we had to find additional funding to keep it going. To date we have paid out over £5 million in grants to over 170 businesses, protecting 500 jobs and creating a further 270 jobs.

Following the success of the grant schemes, we have been working with Metro Dynamics to really understand the impacts of the pandemic on the core sectors that make up our local economy. A report based on analysis conducted in August 2020 provides the Combined Authority with an up to date assessment of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough economy, with a focus on major sectors, business groups, and the labour market.

The report tells us that the economy in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough contracted by £1.39 billion in the second quarter and that this is less than the £3.7 billion fall in output first forecast by the Office of Budget Responsibility in April 2020. Swift targeted interventions to support businesses, combined with the government’s national schemes, has enabled us to maintain this level of output. Had we adopted a one size fits all approach, the results could have been devastating. There is still a lot of uncertainty around how quickly individual sectors will recover and for now I am focused on listening to business leaders to see what support they need from the Combined Authority and how we can empower them to kickstart the economic recovery.

I am currently trying to visit at least two businesses per week to hear directly from people who are steering their enterprises through this crisis. This time for honest conversations is invaluable: it helps us to target resources where we know they will have the most impact. Supporting business leaders is just one part of our strategy. We have secured an additional £500,000 from the Department for Education to support young people struggling to find work in the wake of the pandemic.

The funding will be split between two schemes: sector-based work academies and high value courses. The sector-based work academies scheme is designed to help young people build confidence to improve their job prospects and enhance their CV. Sector-based work academies can last up to six weeks and have three main components: pre-employment training, a work experience placement, and a guaranteed job interview.

High value courses exist to support school and college leavers who are at higher risk of becoming not in education, employment, or training because of Covid-19. The one-year offer includes fully funded Level 2 and Level 3 qualifications to help young people gain skills to improve their future employment prospects. This investment shows just what we can deliver through our devolved Adult Education Budget and is another example of targeted support. Interventions like these make a real difference to school and college leavers in the short term and boost their employability in the long term.

We have other success stories such as the recent £3.16 million Local Grant Fund Combined Authority grant to Stainless Metal Craft to set up to provide training across a range of vocational subjects for between 80 and 130 apprentices per year. Opening in early 2022, this support shows local grant funding can play a huge part in really making a difference and changing lives for the better.

We don’t know what the next few months will bring, but we do know that the only way to build back better is to gain a real understanding of the challenges facing those individuals running a business, looking for work, or trying to further their education.

That is what we have done in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough: an approach that not only protects the hardest hit but that also encourages those with the potential to be the catalyst for building back better.

I am very proud that the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority is big enough to deliver but also local enough to care.

James Palmer: Why I’m backing electric bikes as a safe and healthy way to travel in my region

21 Aug

James Palmer is the directly elected Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

This month, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority became the first region in the country to roll out e-bikes and e-scooters to the public so people can enjoy quicker, healthier journeys as they return to work and school.

Electric bikes and scooters have the potential to revolutionise travel, making fast, clean, and inexpensive journeys possible, and help to ease congestion, reduce pollution, and allow for social distancing.

As an innovative organisation, focused on delivery, the Combined Authority has brought forward this solution by appointing European e-scooter operator, Voi, on a 12-month trial basis. Voi will provide e-bikes across the region and test out e-scooters in the centre of Cambridge where they will be assessed closely for safety and viability in the coming weeks, with e-bikes rolled out in October.

This move follows a recent announcement of £2.9 million, negotiated from central government, to improve cycle and pedestrian facilities across the region to get more people walking and cycling.

These measures are part of a vision for healthier and more sustainable travel across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough post-Covid.

Traditional modes of public transport have been hit hard by social distancing.

In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough bus use is just over a third of what it was pre-Covid in Peterborough and only one-fifth of what it was in Cambridge.

Footfall at One Station Square in Cambridge has fallen from a peak of 18,000 people crossing in March before lockdown, to an average of below 2,000 since. There are signs of people making more train journeys again, with a high of 8,000 footfalls recorded in August.

Meanwhile, average daily car use in some parts of the region, such as South Cambridgeshire, is as much as 24 per cent higher than pre-lock down levels and that is before many people have returned to the office and children to school.

It seems while the threat of Covid-19 remains, many people feel reluctant to make journeys by bus or train and so there needs to be a viable public transport option which allows for social distancing.

Without drastic action and investment in alternative modes of travel, congestion on the roads could reach a critical point very quickly as more people are encouraged to return to the office, and children are expected to return to school. Or, we could have a situation where people are discouraged from returning to public life, opting to remain at home. Both scenarios could have disastrous consequences for our region.

Firstly, for our economy. Recorded footfall in retail locations are down 41 per cent in Cambridge and 34 per cent in Huntingdon to the same point last year. We simply must get people out and about again or our local businesses, restaurants and highstreets will suffer.

And, for our environment. Emissions from cars and emissions per capita are 50 per cent above the national average in Cambridgeshire. On average, 106 deaths per year in the Greater Cambridge region alone can be attributed to air pollution.

During lockdown, carbon emissions dropped by 17 per cent, with Cambridgeshire and Peterborough on track to record a 27 per cent decrease in carbon emissions this year. But with public transport use down by two thirds, and car use going up, we must reverse these trends if we are to meet our target of eradicating carbon emissions by 2050.

Electrically assisted bikes provide a safe and healthy alternative mode of travel to the private car, bus, or train, which enables the user to practice social distancing while also helping to reduce carbon emissions.

E-bikes are likely to be placed at rail stations throughout the region, as well as at Park and Ride sites, and potentially at stops along the guided bus way, so they can be relied upon by commuters for significant parts of their journey to work and by others including students and visitors travelling into cities, towns, and other areas of interest and leisure.

It is thought that 60 per cent of current car journeys are only 1-2 miles in length and e-scooters and other modes of active travel could help significantly reduce unnecessary reliance on cars for these short journeys. E-scooters will allow visitors, tourists, students, and commuters to make quick short journeys across town.

The initiative by the Combined Authority to provide e-bikes and e-scooters will aim to reduce by 400 tonnes of CO2 emissions across the region by August 2021.

Providing e-bikes and e-scooters will also help to prevent the spread of coronavirus by allowing people to make journeys while remaining socially distanced. In addition, handlebars will be covered in Shieldex® Copper-Tape designed to kill 99.98 per cent of coronavirus on contact and all scooters are disinfected every 24 hours.

Along with a decrease in carbon emissions, due to a temporary drop in car use during lockdown, this year has also seen a 200 per cent increase in people using cycle to work schemes. With people enjoying improved air quality and fitter lifestyles, the benefits to a fully integrated active network for our region are clear and our investment shows we are serious about making our vision for greener more sustainable travel, a reality.