Roger Gough: Levelling up. We need to move from country deals to county relationships.

1 Dec

Cllr Roger Gough is the Leader of Kent County Council

Levelling up, seen initially as a nebulous, impressionistic concept, is starting to take shape. In his speech in July, the Prime Minister emphasised the importance of counties as well as traditional urban and industrial areas, in achieving it. Michael Gove heads a new levelling up department. The White Paper is reportedly imminent.

The Guardian is not the typical place for a Conservative government’s foundational text, but Neil O’Brien’s October article established four key elements: strong local leadership; growth in the private sector and in living standards; extending opportunity and good public services; and restoring local pride.

Why did the Prime Minister put such a focus on counties? In part, because shire counties, even in the south east, are not homogeneously leafy and prosperous. The ‘core cities’ focus of much development and regeneration policy in recent decades has, whatever the other arguments in its favour, neglected smaller towns, rural and coastal areas.

In addition, counties can operate at a big, strategic scale while carrying a strong sense of identity and accountability. In some cases, though not all, they share boundaries with other major public services. It is a strong combination.

All of this is true in spades for us in Kent. With a peninsular geography, a history stretching back to a Saxon kingdom, its Garden of England identity and a population bigger than eleven US states, it is a big and distinctive place. People take pride in living here. Historic Kent – made up mostly of the Kent County Council area, but also Medway unitary authority – is coterminous with the emerging NHS Integrated Care System as well as police and fire.

And Kent has its own profound needs for levelling up. On most indicators, the county comes close to the national average. However, this average masks a gulf between centres of prosperity (many, though not all of them in the London hinterland) and deep deprivation, especially in a number of coastal communities. By levelling up living standards and life chances within Kent, we can not only provide a huge economic and social boost to local towns and communities; given the size and scale of the county, we can make a significant contribution to levelling up nationally.

So far, the small number of county deals that may be announced at the time of the White Paper have reportedly been quite individual and bespoke (full disclosure – Kent is not one of them, though like most counties we have been exploring the implications of levelling up and county deals with government). The White Paper should, however, establish more common parameters, even if there remain (as there should) elements that reflect distinct local needs and identity.

The building blocks of devolution deals seen in mayoral combined authorities provide a starting point: transport, business support and economic development, adult education. I would extend the latter much further into the wider area of skills; not only is this an area in which Kent has significant gaps to close, but the damaging effects of nationally driven policies and funding streams in undermining local collaboration and generating mismatched skills to the needs of local business are well documented. Locally, we have built strong partnerships that can deliver.

On transport, we need to deliver the shift from counties just being a highways authority to becoming a full transport authority. It is neither fair nor sensible that metropolitan areas are able to fully integrate transport when the need for better integration is starker in more rural areas, where a lack of affordable transport between towns and communities limits connectivity and economic opportunity, and sustains dependency on car usage for quality of life. For both transport and economic development, there is a need to switch to devolved funding settlements over a number of years rather than the current merry-go-round of bidding systems.

Delivery of infrastructure is also vital, even if a little separate from levelling up strictly defined. For counties (and especially a county such as Kent, which has had exceptionally high rates of housing growth) the detachment of planning and infrastructure over the last decade, and the funding and distribution of developer contributions have not worked.

Hopefully, the rethink of housing projections by the new Secretary of State will ease some of the pressure on south-eastern counties; but that remains to be seen, and where development does take place, the need to deliver properly funded infrastructure first, remains a clear articulated demand from our residents. The logical conclusion from all this is the need, not only for changes to the developer contribution regime, but for a more strategic approach to spatial planning.

Delivering on net zero and on climate change resilience and adaptation presents distinctive challenges in predominantly rural areas, ranging from the viability of public transport to vulnerability to flooding. Kent and Medway have developed robust and far-reaching plans, but a comprehensive approach to the issue will have to draw together transport, strategic planning, skills, economic development and more.

Finally, county deals should be the catalyst for a new strategic partnership between national government and local leadership, so that when a matter of local importance also has national significance, the two can address the issue together systematically.

For Kent, that is our border with the continent and the massive volume of trade, as well as passenger traffic that passes through it and across the Short Straits. This has been and remains a point of vulnerability for both the county and the country, seen most sharply (and for some Kent communities, traumatically) when the French authorities closed the border in the days before Christmas 2020.

National and local authorities worked together remarkably effectively to prepare for the end of Brexit transition. Now, however, there is no one deadline to work to, but a series of continuing changes at the border, and an ever-present vulnerability to disruption with some of the special measures and capacity available a year ago no longer in place.

That effective local-national operational partnership to deal with a specific event needs to take on a standing, strategic form. This can then develop the measures (in road and border infrastructure, lorry holding capacity and much else) to reduce the vulnerability of both Kent and the UK to shocks and disruptions in the Short Straits.

None of this simply makes asks of national government; it presents challenges for counties too, above all in terms of governance and capacity.

The first is sometimes taken as code for a directly elected or mayoral model. But it need not be so; some of the arguments (stability, convening power, accountability) seem to be set up against a straw man of weakly-led councils, perhaps under No Overall Control. The reality is that much council leadership is at least as stable and durable as national leadership (and much more so than typical ministerial tenure) and a large strategic authority can convene very effectively.

Less talked about is the question of capacity; that councils are able to discharge a stronger strategic role when they face huge budget and managerial pressures from demand-led services such as adult social care and children’s services. There is no simple answer to this, but councils have to make a conscious choice to commit money, time and thought to this when all those resources will feel more than spoken for already.

The corollary is that county deals have to be a relationship with the whole of government, not simply with individual departments; it is only through this that central government will be able to understand and support the choices that councils have to make.

Sam Hall: COP26 has kept 1.5 degrees alive. But more must be done to keep it well.

15 Nov

Sam Hall is Director of the Conservative Environment Network

After months of media build-up and political focus, COP26 concluded on Saturday with the Glasgow Climate Pact.

The stakes were high, as were expectations. Having agreed high-level goals and a framework for international climate action in Paris six years ago, the Glasgow COP was about action and delivery. But while climate change was never going to be solved at this one conference, the government can justifiably claim that serious, tangible progress has been made on each of their main goals.

Keeping 1.5 degrees alive

Countries were asked to come to this COP with strengthened national commitments to get the world on track for 1.5 degrees – the goal agreed in Paris. Many nations have been publishing new climate plans for well over a year, including, at COP26, India, which committed to getting half its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and reaching net zero emissions by 2070.

As a result of these new commitments, experts believe that we are now on track for between 1.8 and 2.4 degrees’ warming, depending on how effectively countries turn targets into concrete policy. This shows a significant improvement since the UK’s diplomatic efforts began in 2019, when the UN estimated that we were heading for over three degrees’ warming by the end of the century.

Going into Glasgow, the amount by which national pledges would need to have increased was so significant that it was impossible that the gap to 1.5 degrees would be closed completely. China’s refusal to strengthen its 2030 goal of peaking emissions in particular has been a major barrier.

The parts of the final text acknowledging that action this decade needs to be accelerated and committing to reviewing national commitments next year at COP27 are critical, and the UK deserves great credit for leading agreement on this.

Coal and cars 

There has been good progress too on the Prime Minister’s ambitions of ending coal power and the sale of new combustion engines, although these were always going to be difficult areas to achieve complete consensus on.

On coal power, a number of Asian economies, including Vietnam and Indonesia, committed for the first time to stop building new coal plants and phasing out their existing ones. Similarly, South Africa, another major coal polluter, agreed to move away from coal power in return for financial assistance for developing clean energy alternatives and supporting their coal mining communities through the transition.

Impressively, the UK presidency was successful in getting an historic agreement on phasing down unabated coal power in the final agreement, although the language was weakened by India and China at the last minute. Despite China ending its overseas financing of coal plants and India cancelling new coal projects domestically, both countries remain blockers of the global coal phase-out the climate urgently needs.

After COP, car manufacturers responsible for 31 per cent of global car sales have commitments to end petrol and diesel car sales, up from effectively zero at the start of 2021.

In both these areas, the ever improving economics of renewable energy projects and electric cars, which continue to fall in cost and improve in performance, will see the private sector increasingly drive progress rather than governments. New coal projects especially will struggle to attract private investment.

Trees

Probably the highlight of the COP has been the commitment by countries which are home to 85 per cent of the world’s forests, including Brazil, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. This was reinforced by agreements to provide almost £14 billion in finance to protect forests, to eliminate illegal deforestation in supply chains (which the UK has led the way with through the Environment Act), and to tackle the financing of illegal deforestation. Zac Goldsmith and Boris Johnson in particular deserve huge credit for securing this groundbreaking deal.

Cash

While wealthier nations have missed the 2020 deadline for delivering on their commitment to provide $100 billion a year in climate finance for developing countries, it is now believed that the target will be achieved by 2022 (a year earlier than expected), while the final agreement recommits that an average of $100 billion will be provided each year from 2020-2025.

The failure to follow through on this commitment, which was originally made in 2009, has undoubtedly had significant consequences, given the importance of climate finance to unlocking greater commitments from developing countries.

There’s been a welcome acknowledgement that future COPs will need to deliver much more climate finance beyond the $100 billion a year goal, and that private finance in particular will need to be scaled up. Just as we won’t deliver net zero at home just through state spending, the developing world won’t decarbonise and become more resilient to climate impacts without significantly more private capital.

Conclusion 

It’s easy to be cynical about COPs and their impact, but this one has delivered measurable successes. With over 90 per cent of the world’s GDP now covered by net zero targets (up from 30 per cent in 2019) and financial institutions controlling over $130 trillion dollars’ worth of capital now having climate change commitments, the direction of travel has never been clearer and the momentum behind climate action, particularly from the private sector, has never been greater.

Follow-through will be critical to Glasgow’s legacy. Pledges must be translated into policies and actions. Countries must honour and be held accountable for their commitments. And the private sector must not meet their targets through greenwashing.

While there’s no doubt that we’re closer to a greener, cleaner, safer planet after Glasgow, the real success of COP26 will only be determined in the months and years ahead.

Jordan Redshaw: Our party needs a strong pro-cycling measures to rebuild in cities

26 May

Jordan Redshaw is on the Conservative Friends of Cycling’s Executive Committee.

It is not controversial to say that since the beginning of the pandemic there have been some things the Government has got right and some areas where it should have done better.

An often overlooked area in which this Government has achieved outstanding success is in its promotion of cycling. There simply have been no previous governments with such a bold vision. Their proposals are described in the “Gear Change” report: an ambitious plan to get Britain cycling that has been received very positively.

To back up these proposals, the Government has committed to spending £2 billion on cycling and walking over the course of a parliament. They have already published much needed higher standards for safer cycling infrastructure (LTN 1/20). They are helping people get back on their old bicycles with 500,000 repair vouchers worth £50 up for grabs and there are plans to introduce a modern day Cycling Proficiency scheme for people of all ages.

However despite strong actions to promote safe cycling, on the doorstep, the Conservative Party is still seen to have a weaker stance on cycling than its opponents. As a party there is a lot for us to gain by promoting cycling and therefore cementing our rightful position as the party helping people cycle more and with safety.

During the recent local election campaign, we saw many Labour led councils take credit for implementing safe cycling infrastructure using the government’s Active Travel Fund. This £250 million fund has allowed local authorities to bid for grants to improve cycling infrastructure in the midst of the pandemic. This was a missed opportunity for many Conservative-led councils who have not taken advantage of the Active Travel Fund and delivered safe cycling infrastructure to their voters.

We need to trust the Government in its promotion of cycling – after all Boris has a successful record here having implemented the gold-standard of segregated cycle lanes, the “Cycle Superhighways” as Mayor of London. London’s cycle hire scheme is still popularly known as the “Boris bike” scheme by Londoners and tourists alike.

The Prime Minister’s strong cycling credentials helped him win a second term in a city usually dominated by Labour. Shaun Bailey was generally perceived to have poor intentions for cycling and ended up finishing ten per cent behind Sadiq Khan in the final round. It is not good enough for Conservatives to give up on London, when we know we can win in London with a positive, pro-cycling manifesto.

After all, we recently saw Andy Street and Ben Houchen achieve similar success with pro-cycling policies. Street wrote here at ConservativeHome about his ambitions to build 500 miles of cycle lanes in the West Midlands, and Houchen invested £18 million for active travel improvements in the Tees Valley. Conservative councillors across the country could learn a lot from this and achieve similar success by also delivering high-quality cycle infrastructure.

A core right-wing value is giving people the liberty to make their own choices in life. Right now the vast majority of road space is monopolised by one mode of transport – cars. We must ensure everyone has the option of a cheap, safe and efficient alternative method of travel. It is a wonderful thing that anyone can get set up with a bicycle for less than £200 and in many urban areas it is the quickest and most reliable way to get from A to B.

Let us not forget that many cyclists also own cars. The AA recently found a third of drivers have said they will cycle, walk or run more after lockdown. Many of these people won’t cycle for political reasons or even for the environment, they simply want the choice to get around cheaply, safely and quickly.

It is vital that communities are properly consulted when introducing safe cycling infrastructure and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs). All too often last year, Labour councils introduced temporary cycle lanes and LTNs overnight with minimal or no consultation. There has to be decent consultation with local residents to ensure schemes are implemented in the best possible way by considering everyone’s needs.

However, we must not fall into the trap of listening to the loudest voices in our party – or perpetuated myths on Twitter – as reasons for scrapping or never implementing these schemes. Imperial College London found no evidence that cycle superhighways worsened traffic congestion in London. In Kensington and Chelsea, independent polling found just 30 per cent of those surveyed were against the Kensington High Street cycle lane. This is not an isolated case as surveys have consistently found that the majority of residents support LTNs too – perhaps unsurprisingly, as who wouldn’t favour traffic moving from residential streets to main roads?

Polling in March this year shows just 16 per centof people oppose LTNs, whereas 47 per cent support them in London. Supporting cycle schemes is a vote-winning policy and for Conservatives to remain relevant in cities and amongst future generations we must embrace many Briton’s desires to cycle safely.

 

During the pandemic one of the reasons we fared badly, as a country, is because of our obesity crisis. According to the OECD, 63 per cent of UK adults are overweight, meaning the UK is the most overweight country in western Europe. The costs of physical inactivity to the UK are estimated to be in excess of £7 billion every year.

There are clear economic benefits both for individuals and wider society in improving the nation’s health. Regular cycling can reduce the risk of dementia, Type 2 diabetes, some cancers, depression, heart disease and other common serious conditions by at least 30 per cent. Cycling England’s Qualitative Survey on Cycling found in their Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) analysis, for each £1 invested in cycling the value of decreased mortality was £2.59.

This is only taking into account the benefits of reduced mortality, the overall BCR ratio of cycling investment is much higher at 13:1. Whereas motorways often only have BCR’s of 3:1.

Other economic benefits should not be underestimated. Cyclists visit local shops, restaurants and cafes more than users of other modes of transport spending up to 40 per cent more than drivers according to TfL. This higher footfall will help our high streets at a crucial time.

Supporting safe cycling is only going to become more important as we work towards carbon net zero by 2050 – it is not a fad that is going to disappear after the pandemic passes. If we continue to build on the Government’s success at a local level we can ensure this is a golden era for cycling. As a country we will reap huge economic, environmental and health benefits, and as a result the party we will reap the rewards at the ballot box

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.

Sanjoy Sen: Smart motorways need improvements. But there’s no getting away from the self-driving revolution.

8 Feb

Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer in North Sea oil. He contested Alyn & Deeside in the 2019 general election.

Back in 2017, I spoke of little else than my new set of wheels. First, the smug satisfaction of trading a gas-guzzler for a hybrid. Later, the anguished howls as Sadiq Khan cancelled its Congestion Charge exemption.   

But I never got round to explaining the main reason for swapping. Saving money, cutting emissions and even virtue-signalling all had their attractions. But what really got me motivated was good old-fashioned self-preservation. 

The aged tank was serving me well until it let me down twice in rapid succession. Getting stranded on the motorway on both occasions was no fun but at least I had a (hard) shoulder to cry on. I certainly wouldn’t have fancied the same experience in a “live” lane of a smart motorway, hoping everyone would spot me in time and swerve past. With the M1 getting progressively converted, I resolved to investigate scrappage schemes and find more reliable transport.  

By early 2020, there had been 38 fatalities on UK smart motorways. But it’s important to relate this figure to a baseline. Sadly, there are fatalities on all motorways so the first question is whether smarts are safer (or not) than conventionals. But scientific analysis is one thing. Public perception is also highly relevant. This matters when we reflect on how transportation is going. 

According to the stats in the Department for Transport Stocktake and Action Plan, smart motorways are slightly safer overall than conventional ones. That’s said to be because spreading traffic over more lanes and adjusting speed limits to conditions improves driver behaviour, thus reducing moving collisions.  

But what is going badly wrong is the rise in static collisions involving broken-down vehicles. The allegedly smart systems don’t always spot the obstacle (i.e. you) in a “live” lane. And even if they do, they rely on every single road user rapidly bearing down on the stationary object (again, you) and taking evasive action. Worst of all, there’s often no safe means of escape for vehicle occupants before rescue arrives.

Following a 2019 fatal accident in South Yorkshire, the coroner called for an enquiry into smart motorway safety. The local Police and Crime Commissioner has called for their ban as has Claire Mercer, wife of one of the victims. Tellingly, Mercer considers the jailing of the Polish lorry driver who hit her husband’s car as the wrong outcome. And following another South Yorkshire crash, the coroner indicated Highways England may face manslaughter charges

One of these days, when cars are all smart, we can safely have smart motorways. (More on that in a moment.) In the interim, the Government needs a clear plan to reduce accidents and restore trust. 

Right now, there are three types of UK smart motorway. Controlled Motorways (CM) retain the traditional permanent hard shoulder but have a variable speed limit. It’s the other two that raise most concerns: in All-Lane Running (ALR) motorways, the hard shoulder is permanently “live” while, more confusingly, in Dynamic Hard Shoulder Running (DHS) motorways it sometimes is and sometimes isn’t. It’s a (minor) step in the right direction that DHSs are being turned into ALRs.  

Few of us get to pick where to break down but in some cases (e.g. a puncture) it is possible to limp along to the next refuge area. The Stocktake calls for these every three-quarters of a mile but we might need more still in places. And they need to get a bit longer so you can accelerate off them safely to prevent the type of accident already seen. Plus better monitoring to detect stationary vehicles, both via technology and increased patrols.  

But the fundamental question is not whether we can make smart motorways safer (we can) or whether we can eliminate accidents altogether (we can’t): it’s do we actually need them? The short-term and the long-term answers could differ. 

The Stocktake notes motorway traffic has increased by 23 per cent since 2000 and contends smart motorways have helped absorb this. But, like most transport infrastructure, motorways are sized for rush-hour demand. With work patterns set to permanently alter post Covid, that peak potentially flattens. With, say, 20 per cent fewer office workers commuting (analogous to working from home one day per week), that translates into a significant reduction. So, with reduced road use a possibility, we could re-examine our traffic projections. On some motorways, we might discover we don’t need to drive in the hard shoulder, after all. 

Further down the line (but not much further), however, transportation is on the cusp of a revolution. Within a decade, vehicles are not only set to go electric, they’ll also become highly autonomous. Yes, some might write all that off as unrealistic, “woke” nonsense but even the quickest search on what real-world car companies are actually up to suggests otherwise. And when vehicles become smart (and can automatically respond to hazards), smart motorways finally make sense.  

Although UK motorways are among the safest in the world, the traditional hard shoulder has never been without its risks. Such facts are little consolation to those affected by smart motorway tragedies, however. If we’re going to retain public confidence, we need to see improvements. Let’s not lose sight of the big picture: post-Covid traffic patterns are set to change things but nothing like as much as the self-driving revolution will. 

Ted Christie-Miller: Everything must change if Britain is to hit its Net Zero target. How are we going to manage it?

5 Jan

Ted Christie-Miller is a Senior Researcher at Onward and is leading the Getting to zero research programme.

The existential necessity of reducing our carbon emissions, and the level of cross-party consensus in Westminster, can sometimes obscure how hard it is going to be to get there. This is a policy that will require drastic changes to human behaviour, industrial processes and the homes we live in. We need a more grown up conversation about getting to zero.

Politicians, understandably, tend to emphasise the opportunities. The Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan and last month’s Energy White Paper painted an exciting vision of a jobs-rich, cutting-edge future that could benefit Britain’s lagging regions. Voters largely agree: YouGov recently found that a majority of all age groups, regions, genders, party voters and both sides of the Brexit vote want to see Britain leading the world on climate action. Environmentalism is no longer woke metropolitanism but good politics. On the campaign trail last year in Workington, I witnessed a hustings dominated by small nuclear reactors and offshore wind.

But despite the consensus on climate, the sheer scale of the challenge is underappreciated. Over the next 30 years everything needs to change: the food we eat, the cars we drive and the way we heat our homes. As Onward uncovered last year, we need to treble the number of plumbers just to have the capacity to change out old boilers and quintuple the rate of energy efficiency improvements to insulate our housing stock. We also need to build more than 500 electric vehicle charging points a day, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

As with all industrial transformations, the costs will not be evenly spread across the country. As new Onward research out today finds, the regions which have lagged most in recent decades stand to be hardest hit: 42 per cent of jobs in the East Midlands are in high emitting industries, 41 per cent in the West Midlands, and 38 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber and the North West – compared to just 23 per cent in London and 34 per cent in the South East. In total, more than half (52 per cent) of high emitting jobs are located in the North, Midlands and Scotland. The risks of this turning into another North-South divide are acute.

Despite this, much of the existing spending on net zero programmes is going to more prosperous regions. New analysis from Zap Map shows that London and the South East received 45 per cent of new charger capacity in the past year. There are 63 public chargers per 100,000 people in the capital, more than double the average of the rest of the UK. Given the reliance on cars outside of London, and the high levels of public transport investment in the capital, this feels back to front. The Department for Transport itself estimates that people are 27 per cent more likely to have a car if they live in the West Midlands or the North West than in London.

The new BritishVolt gigafactory in Blyth announced last month demonstrates the potential for net zero to be a net positive. Whether it’s offshore wind in the North Sea, carbon capture clusters in the Humber or electric vehicle manufacturing in the North East, there are a sea of economic opportunities to come over the next three decades. But we cannot kid ourselves that this will be a seamless transition, and for many workers the journey from a carbon emitting job to green industry will be tough. If politicians are going to take voters with them, we need to be honest about the trade offs and develop policies to help those who stand to lose out.

This is why the Government’s combined agendas of net zero and levelling up are so crucial. If the synergies of the two missions can be found and the policy is creative, thoughtful and practical, the Government does not have to choose between the two. Net zero can and must be the key to unlock regional growth in the UK and a prosperous future for all of us.

The Deal in Detail 4) The environment and energy

31 Dec

Benedict McAleenan is a Senior Adviser to Policy Exchange’s Energy & Environment Unit. Ed Birkett is a Senior Research Fellow at Policy Exchange.

If you listen to much of the anti-Brexit rhetoric, you’d think that the EU was the sole driver of environmental progress in the UK and its only protector. Given half a chance, the UK would apparently repeal every environmental and climate change policy it could find. Given the UK’s cross-party support for environmental protection and for Net Zero, this risk was always theoretical.

The deal includes substantial provisions on the environment and on climate change as part of the ‘Level Playing Field’ and associated ‘non-regression’ clauses, which will require both the UK and the EU to uphold existing protections.

On energy, the deal introduces new mechanisms for the UK and the EU to cooperate on nuclear power, natural gas and electricity. The deal also looks forward to future cooperation on cross-border energy projects in the North Sea, which, as we’ve previously written, holds the key to a Net Zero economy. It also suggests an intention to cooperate on carbon pricing and hints at a linked Emissions Trading System. On both energy and the environment, this deal is a sensible starting point for longer-term cooperation.

Protecting the environment

On fishing, the big negotiation points were about the business of fishing fleets, not sustainability. So once the fisheries transition period ends the UK will be responsible for managing the sustainability of its own resources. Now that we understand how fisheries will operate with regard to our European neighbours, the UK Government should recommit to its sustainability pledges. This should include the sustainability of ‘shared stocks’, i.e. fish that swim across borders, so we’ll need to collaborate closely with the EU on marine standards.

The level playing field rules allow both sides to diverge on environmental standards. Throughout the Brexit debate, the EU has often been painted as a gold standard while the UK has been presented as quite the opposite. That isn’t accurate: The UK exceeds the EU on a number of protections, from climate policy to animal welfare. Diverging from the EU’s farm policies, for example, will be a major boon for the UK’s environmental wellbeing.

However, membership of the EU provided important environmental oversight. This has helped to address the tragedy of the commons which can arise from more local political trade-offs. The Environment Act aims to fill this void with an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which will replace EU institutions in scrutinising environmental protections.

The Deal’s ‘rebalancing’ mechanism (part of its level playing field provisions) will provide some checks on top of the OEP, but these will be limited. By allowing both sides the chance to impose tariffs (among other things) if the other loosens environmental checks, it may help to prevent backsliding. However, the provisions only relate to how the changes affect trade and investments. That is, if a loosening of regulations can’t be explicitly shown to impact trade, then they won’t come under the remit of the Deal. So, the onus is back on British politicians, the OEP, civil society and voters to ensure the environment is protected. That’s perfectly reasonable within the terms of a trade deal between sovereign nations.

Of course, the UK and the EU have different legal philosophies that govern the evolution of law and regulation. The EU’s French-style precautionary approach jars with the British ‘common law’ tradition. How they will manage divergence is still to be seen.

There’s also a question over devolved administrations. Environmental protections are mostly devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations, so the UK government can’t easily prevent the Welsh, for example, from relaxing environmental rules and potentially affecting trade.

Cooperation on energy and climate

When it comes to energy, the UK and the EU have a lot to gain from cooperation, so it’s not surprising that the deal includes substantial provisions in these areas. The benefits of close cooperation will continue to grow. One area where the Deal is ambitious is cooperation on renewable energy projects, particularly in the North Sea. There’s massive potential for low-carbon energy projects in the North Sea, including offshore wind and offshore electricity grids.

By 2050, offshore wind capacity in the UK’s part of the North Sea is likely to increase tenfold. Both sides have recognised that, to make the most of the North Sea, they need to work together on offshore wind projects and offshore electricity grids.

When it’s windy in the UK, we can export our excess electricity to Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Whereas on cold, still days, we will increasingly import electricity from the continent. This mutual cooperation directly reduces electricity bills by making the most of cheap renewable energy when it’s available.

From January 2021, Great Britain will no longer have access to the automated ‘market coupling’ system that improves the efficiency of trading electricity. However, the deal aims to develop a new system for trading electricity by 2022. In the meantime, electricity bills are likely to rise in both the UK and the EU. Any cost rises will be manageable, but the biggest effect could be felt by customers in Ireland and Northern Ireland, because the Single Electricity Market (which covers ROI and NI) is small and only interconnected to Great Britain.

The Deal also leaves open the possibility of cooperation on carbon pricing. For now, the UK is setting up its own Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) to replace the EU ETS. Longer-term, the UK and the EU could link these Emissions Trading Schemes, as Switzerland has done with the EU. As we’ve previously written, the UK and the EU should also explore cooperation on carbon border pricing, which is critical to decarbonising heavy industry without offshoring manufacturing jobs to countries with higher carbon emissions.

On electric vehicles, the UK and the EU have agreed transitional arrangements that will make it easier for EVs manufactured in the UK to qualify for tariff-free exports to the EU. This is a sensible step that will give UK car manufacturers more time to build up their supply chains for EVs, including battery “gigafactories”.

Under this deal, the UK Government regains control over regulation of emissions from vehicles. This will give the Government more freedom to go further and faster on the rollout of Electric Vehicles, including the ability to legislate to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, which was announced as part of the Prime Minister’s ten-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. We have previously written about how a California-style Zero-Emission Vehicle Mandate (‘ZEV Mandate’) can reduce the cost of the transition to zero-emission vehicles powered by electricity or hydrogen. Under a ZEV Mandate, manufacturers would be required to sell an increasing proportion of electric and hydrogen vehicles each year. Next year’s Green Paper on the petrol and diesel phase-out is the perfect opportunity for the Government to introduce a ZEV mandate and show how we can use new-found regulatory freedom to boost both the environment and industry.

In summary, it’s a good deal, but there’s still work to be done to develop collaborative partnerships on energy systems and environmental protection. From liberal energy markets to legislating on net zero, both parties have been close for decades. The key now is to implement these provisions as smoothly as possible so that we can continue to trade with increasingly sustainable industries on both sides.

This is the fourth in a series of pieces from Policy Exchange looking at specific issues that arise from the Brexit trade deal.

Ryan Bourne: First, Covid-19 lockdowns. Next, climate change ones – rationed car use, no red meat. Coming soon to a country near you?

9 Dec

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

We are at the beginning of the end. Provided vaccines prove as efficacious as trial results indicate, and absent unobserved side effects, the rollout to vulnerable groups should reduce Covid-19 death risks substantially and rapidly.

Inoculations down through the priority list will then put us within reach of a herd immunity robust to ordinary behaviour. Life, it seems, could be “back to normal” by the spring or summer of next year.

I’ve never been a “V-shaper” Panglossian on the economy. You can’t switch economic life on and off without causing permanent damage. But there is nevertheless reason to be optimistic of a robust recovery next year. What is more uncertain are the longer-term consequences of this experience on our collective psyche and politics.

American economists Julian Kozlowski, Laura Veldkamp, and Venky Venkateswaran have warned of a depressive “scarring” effect, as we use the experience to revise our assumptions on the probabilities of major shocks. If we collectively infer that tail-end risks such as global pandemics are larger, then investments become less attractive.

Think alone about the willingness of entrepreneurs to go into the travel, hospitality or leisure industries after this. Then think of the effect of the risk of having to pivot to home working again, generalised across other sectors.

Alongside that are the impacts on the role of the state. Economic historian Robert Higgs’ work has highlighted how crises generate a ratchet of government power. Wars, depressions, and emergencies see powers centralised, before receding again.

But the state never quite falls back to the same size and scope as before. After the Coronavirus, we will see more taxpayer funds for virus-related public health, vaccination research, and the subsidisation of PPE production capacity. Government will also be met with demands to maintain Covid-level welfare benefits and industry-specific stimulus as a tool for future downturns, a la Eat Out to Help Out.

Lockdowns are the obvious area where these two effects could come together most damagingly. Highly crude shutdowns had a strong logic in Spring, given the high uncertainty about the prevalence and risks of the virus, and with Italy highlighting the dangers of overburdened hospitals.

More recent national measures reflect instead an ongoing policy failure to institute better control of Covid-19, but may nevertheless have passed a cost-benefit test given the arrival of vaccines (a case that the Government did not adequately prove).

Whatever your position on the desirability or consequences of lockdowns in this particular crisis, however, it’s clear that suspending economic and social liberties today brings with it the temptation for politicians to utilise such powers again – and for businesses and individuals to suspect that they could.

Given the way that politicians throw around terms such as “emergency” or “epidemic,” it is not an intellectual leap to imagine future leaders demanding similar measures for other ambitions. And therein lies a source of economic discontent—an incalculable drag or doubt for a generation.

Already, the economist Mariana Mazzucato has pitched the idea of “climate lockdowns,” should governments not deliver the green revolution she desires. In the service of mitigating the “climate emergency,” the “state would limit private-vehicle use, ban consumption of red meat, and impose energy-saving measures, while fossil-fuel companies would have to stop drilling.”

Of course, we can avoid all that, she says, if we are willing to “reorient our energy system around renewable energy” and “evict fossil-fuel interests and short-termism from business, finance, and politics”—the goals Mazzucato wants to achieve with her threats warning of what might be needed otherwise.

Now, it might seem far-fetched to imagine a world where one could face fines or jail time for driving too much, or eating steak frites. But before this year, one could have said the same about meeting four households on Christmas Day, or not eating at least a scotch egg with your pint.

Madeleine Grant worries about how the example of this pandemic might normalise health surveillance or screening for colds or flu. But it’s the everyday lifestyle regulations that have been truly novel – including the forced closure of certain businesses and the bans on gatherings. The threat of repeats predicated on the ends justifying the means is what we should be most attentive to.

To mitigate this temptation requires a reaffirmation of the legitimate justifications for government interventions. From an economic perspective, there is a defensible consequentialist claim that governments should act where huge, dangerous externalities result from collective action problems. Yet in doing so they have a duty to both prove the case and to account for these externalities in the least harmful way possible, only reaching for the most extreme measures when the consequences of inaction are grave or imminent.

The climate lockdowns idea is so pernicious not just because the imminent threat is absent. The reasoning presumes that governments should go beyond accounting for the externality, say through carbon taxes or emissions trading schemes, instead using the “emergency” to justify actively ignoring market conceptions of value, threatening vast restrictions on how you live your life unless the planners’ vision of the world is achieved. Mazzucato’s argument is not just about reducing CO2, in other words, but about using the threat of lockdowns to push for abandoning consumer-led markets entirely.

We have seen this type of thinking proliferate during this crisis. Last week, Jenny Kleeman wrote for the Guardian about lab-grown meat, which many see as a useful pathway to reducing the environmental impact of farming and the ethical concerns many have with meat consumption. Rather than embrace these innovations as a way to work with consumer preferences to reduce the impacts of meat eating, Kleeman simply declared it would be preferable if we “simply stopped eating meat, or ate it far less often.” Her inspiration? The sacrifices of the Coronavirus in showing the massive behavioural changes we are “able to make” in extremis.

As we exit this crisis, we must not forget that underpinning a healthy market economy is the idea of the sovereign consumer, who knows what he or she wants, and whose welfare is enhanced by acting on those preferences. The bar for curbing activities that bring us joy or happiness should be very high indeed. And to the extent that economic or social problems do require government interventions, they should work with the preferences of consumers, not treat them with contempt, lest the economic welfare costs spiral.

Lockdowns were a panic button reaction to an acute emergency. Their re-use was a signal of the government’s dismal failure to mitigate the virus in less costly ways. But we must quell talk of them becoming a model for solving future economic and social challenges, or else the expectation of them could itself be economically corrupting today.

Sanjoy Sen: How can the Government accelerate a cleaner, more efficient future for transport?

10 Sep

Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer in North Sea oil. He contested Alyn & Deeside in the 2019 general election.

“It’s a bit like saying we’re banning the sale of steam engines by 2040″. So responded Aston University’s David Bailey to the axing of “conventional” (i.e. petrol and diesel) new car sales. As green alternatives improve and prices fall, which they both are at last, today’s vehicles will become obsolete long before any government deadline.

On the face of it, the road to zero-emission transport ought to be straightforward. Anything too big to lug around massive batteries (lorries, buses) works fine as a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle (FCV). Small stuff (private cars) are well-suited to becoming electric vehicles (EVs). And intermediates (taxis, delivery vans) could be either.

That, of course, overlooks myriad “where” issues: where to source the hydrogen and electricity, where to obtain battery metals, where to plug in. And that’s just one future scenario: the automotive industry is feeling highly uncertain with autonomous (self-driving) technology set to ultimately consign driving and car ownership to history. Furthermore, Covid-19 might fundamentally alter travel patterns, with greater flexibility replacing rush-hour madness.

Here in ConHome last month, Ruth Edwards MP proposed bringing forward the cut-off to 2030 whilst accelerating electric vehicle (EV) roll-out. Although I can’t violently disagree with that, EVs still aren’t an option for everyone yet. Meanwhile, others who could switch remain confused about technology and are wary of legislation changes. So, in the absence of a clear roadmap, how best might the Government help transportation to support the economy – and the environment?

Short-term: all about EVs?

Last year, I made some tentative EV queries. At one leading manufacturer, the UK’s annual allocation had long been snapped up on-line. At another, the dealer had plenty more customers than cars. Whilst I chose to hang back, EVs are fast becoming a practical, affordable proposition for many: it’s supply that can’t keep up until battery production ramps up and new models hit the market.

An increased purchase grant or scrappage scheme would offer manufacturers a much-needed short-term boost. But, as per Norway, could these become largely subsidies for the well-off? There’s only one thing I might contest in Edwards’ article: even Jeremy Clarkson isn’t berating EVs any more, it’s the dearth of plug-in facilities that infuriates him. To tackle the public’s fundamental concerns, government support might be better directed towards the charging network. (And, for that matter, energy storage.)

For many, however, EV prices and charging headaches remain a deterrent for now. But commuting on a small battery backed-up by a petrol engine whenever required might offer a near-seamless transition. So, rather than focussing solely on EVs, let’s see the Government recognise the value of plug-in hybrids and support these also.

But the biggest short-term improvement in urban air quality might be via an early switch towards zero-emission public transportation. Whilst the Government has provided urgent sector support during the current crisis, the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) still favours diesels over FCVs and EVs: an obvious candidate for review.

What does the long-term future look like?

Environmental concerns and new technology put transportation into a state of flux long before Covid-19 did. And no-one seems more uncertain than the automotive industry itself. In Germany, Mercedes-Benz abandoned hydrogen cars just as deadly rival BMW announced its own FCV. Over in Japan, Toyota has long backed hybrids allowing Nissan to forge ahead in EVs, including Sunderland’s top-selling Leaf. Whilst in the States, GM’s Volt competitively-priced plug-in hybrid flopped (Vauxhall Ampera to us) – yet the public just can’t enough of upstart Tesla’s super-pricey EVs.

But there is growing acceptance that autonomous technology will prove a game-changer. Responding to the threat of sector entrants Google and Uber, Volkswagen’s vision of the future is a self-driving, shared-use ‘pod’, summoned up via an app. (So the next time you hear “I’m never buying an EV” or “you won’t catch me driving one of those plug-in things”, you’re probably listening to an enlightened futurist, not a frustrated Luddite.) This is a reality government needs to contend with in years to come, not decades.

Self-driving is often seen in a purely urban context but its opportunities could go much further. In rural areas, bus operators often ditch lightly-used routes uneconomic for a large, manned vehicle. Here, the Government might encourage early adoption of autonomous mini-buses operating in response to real-time demand: the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is a welcome first step in this field. As well as a lifeline for the elderly and the socially-isolated, as we work from home in remote locations or commute at different times, it’s economies with flexible transportation that will emerge the strongest post-Covid.

And what shouldn’t the Government do?

Gone are the days when you could freely drive any vehicle down any street at any time. But let’s not make the future any more complicated than it needs to be. In addition to addressing infrastructure bottlenecks and supporting new technology, the smartest thing the Government can do is not confuse or antagonise motorists.

ConHome regulars will recall my satisfaction at trading an ageing gas-guzzler for an eco-friendly hybrid – quickly followed by indignation at the withdrawal of its Congestion Charge exemption. Clobbering folks nudged into doing the right thing might prove highly counter-productive, creating uncertainty and provoking resentment. Similarly, the Scottish government’s Workplace Parking Levy (a hastily thought-out concession to the Greens) penalises those lacking a public transport alternative, whilst in itself doesn’t reduce emissions.

No-one can predict precisely how the future of transportation is going to pan out. But it’s critical for the Government to consult consumers, industry and experts alike before taking the big decisions. The consequences for getting it wrong are significant. Remember, diesels were once touted as the clean future. And why rolling out smart motorways before the advent of smart vehicles was never going to end well.

Neil O’Brien: The next algorithm disaster – coming to a Conservative constituency near you. This time, it’s housing growth.

24 Aug

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Algorithms have been in the news, not for good reasons. One lesson from the A-levels row is that principles which seem reasonable can lead to outcomes you don’t expect. Another algorithm’s coming down the tracks: the new formula for how many houses must be built in different places. There are few with higher stakes.

I wrote about the housing White Paper in my last column: it proposes not just to change the methodology for assessing housing need, but also to make a standard methodology compulsory for the first time. In other words, if we don’t like the results of the new algorithm, we’ll have blocked off the emergency exits.

The new algorithm is set out here. It’s not particularly easy to read. For example, one of many factors is set out in bullet point 30:

Adjustment Factor = [( Local affordability factor t = 0 – 4 4) x 0.25) + (Local affordability ratio t = 0 – Local affordability ratio t = 10) x 0.25] +1 Where t = 0 is current yearr and t = -10 is 10 years back.

Clear enough for you?

I thought it might be a while before we saw what the new algorithm would produce in practice. But Lichfields, the planning consultancy, has translated the algorithm into what it would mean for local authorities.

The numbers that the formula spits out can be compared to the number of homes actually being delivered over recent years, or to the numbers in the current (optional) national formula. Whichever way you look at it, it’s controversial.

I’ve long argued we should concentrate more development in inner urban areas, for various reasons I’ll come back to below.  But this algorithm doesn’t do that – at least not outside London.  In the capital, the algorithm would indeed increase numbers substantially.

But in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.

Overall, the algorithm proposes a south-centric model of growth for Britain (with some growth in the midlands).

If we compare the algorithm to recent delivery, the South East has been delivering just over 39,000 homes a year, and will be expected to increase that to just over 61,000, a 57 per cent increase. The East of England would see a 43 per cent increase, the East Midlands a 33 per cent increase, the West Midlands a 25 per cent increase and the South West a 24 per cent increase.

For the North East, North West and Yorkshire, the numbers the algorithm proposes are lower overall than the numbers delivered over recent years. But as with A-levels, the devil’s in the detail.

The really controversial changes are within regions, where the algorithm suggests jacking up numbers for shires, while taking them down in urban areas. Comparing the existing national formula to the proposal, we can see this for most large cities.

The number for Birmingham comes down 15 per cent, while the rest of the West Midlands goes up 52 per cent.

Numbers for Leicester go down 35 per cent. The rest of Leicestershire goes up 105 per cent.

Nottingham goes down 22 per cent, the rest of Nottinghamshire goes up 48 per cent.

Southampton goes down 17 per cent, Portsmouth down 15 per cent and Basingstoke down 23 per cent, but the rest of Hampshire would go up 39 per cent.

Wealthy Bristol would see some growth (5 per cent) but much lower than the rest of Gloucester, Somerset and Wiltshire (47 per cent).

It’s the same story up north. Leeds down 14 per cent, Sheffield down 19 per cent, and Bradford down 29 per cent. But the East Riding up 34 per cent, North Yorkshire up 80 per cent, and North East Lincolnshire up 123 per cent.

In the north west the core cities of Manchester (-37 per cent) and Liverpool (-26 per cent) see huge falls, while the areas around them shoot up. In Greater Manchester, for example, the growth is shifted to the blue suburbs and shires. Outer parts go up: Wigan up 10 per cent, Bury, up 12 per cent, and Rochdale up 97 per cent. And areas to the south and north of the conurbation up much further: Cheshire up 108 per cent, while Blackburn, Hyndburn, Burnley and the Ribble Valley together go up 149 per cent.

But it isn’t just that the numbers in the new formula are lower than the old formula for urban areas. In many cases the new formula suggests a lower number than their recent rate of delivery. This is true of Sheffield (12 per cent below actual delivery), Leeds (16 per cent), Bradford (23 per cent), the entire North East (28 per cent), Nottingham (30 per cent), Manchester, (31 per cent), Leicester, (32 per cent) and Liverpool (59 per cent). The new formula seems to assume we are going to level down our cities, not level up.

It’s true that there’s another step between the Housing Need Assessment which this algorithm produces and the final housing target, which can be reduced a bit to account for delivery constraints like greenbelt.

But if we go with this algorithm unamended, outside London most Conservative MPs will be seeing large increases in the housing targets for their constituencies, while many Labour MPs see their local targets reduced. Is this what we want?

Leaving aside the politics, I think not. Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK has much less dense cities.

Places like Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Birkenhead, Hull and Newcastle all had smaller populations in 2017 than 1981, while places like Birmingham and Manchester weren’t much bigger. Our cities have untapped potential, many went through a period of shrinkage and have space, and there are health and environmental reasons to prefer urban growth too.

In dense urban areas, people are more likely to walk or cycle – and in the UK, people in cities walk twice as far as those in villages each year. This reduces public transport costs and improves health.

Denser cities can sustain better public transport and so cut car congestion and time spent travelling. As well as reducing pollution from transport, denser cities reduce energy use and pollution because flats and terraced homes are much more energy efficient.

I’m not sure the draft algorithm is even doing what Ministers wanted it to. The document in which it is set out says that “the Government has heard powerful representations that the current formula underestimates demand for housing in the growing cities in the Northern Powerhouse by being based on historic trends.”

But the algorithm seems to do the exact opposite.

There may be technical reasons why things aren’t working out: there’s lots of ways to measure affordability… differences between residence-based and workplace-based income measures… there were certain caps in the old model, population projections have changed and so on.

However, the bigger issue is this.

There’s no “objective” way of calculating how many homes are “needed” in an area. While there are ways of carving up the numbers that are seen as more or less fair, ultimately a vision is required.

Projections of population growth are circular: the projected population growth for the farmland between Bletchley and Stony Stratford would’ve been pretty low before we built Milton Keynes there.

Likewise the forecast for the derelict Docklands of the early 1980s. While there are real economic constraints, the future need not resemble the past.

Though it took a huge effort, Germany raised East Germans from 40 per cent to just 14 per cent per cent below the national average income since reunification. That’s levelling up.

Do we want to continue to concentrate growth in the South East? Do we want European-style denser cities, or for them to sprawl out a bit more? An algorithm can help deliver a vision: but it’s not the same as one.