Council tax, parking meters and road signs. The mundane matters to voters. But how will you know in the lockdown bubble?

20 Apr

In “normal”, pre-lockdown life, one thing I have always found very useful for writing about politics is getting out and about, and meeting new people. You never know when you’ll get a new idea for an article, whether that’s a chat with the local barista, or overhearing a conversation about the EU outside a pub (this once happened!). It can tell you a lot about how politics is playing out in the real world.

I’ve missed this during the last year, and have realised I need it. Indeed, my first “real world” chat since lockdown sparked quite a lot of political juices. It was with a delivery driver, who took me back to London after five months at my parents’ house. We spent the journey chatting about this and that, but things became more political as we got into central London. Here we stumbled upon a load of signs reading “Camera enforcement commencing 14 August 2020” (pictured), which block cars from going down roads.

It’s not exactly obvious what the purpose of these signs are – we mere mortals can only guess at the higher thinking behind council decisions – but they were highly inconvenient from a practical perspective. The entrance to my road was blocked, for starters, and so were the roads parallel. So the trip ended up a bit like Frodo’s journey to Mordor (although my flat is a bit nicer), with us having to plot complex, longer routes to avoid more of these signs. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that all this time in the car is not good for pollution, nor the people living on accessible roads, who get the bulk of emissions. And yet, London has been trying to enhance its green credentials. 

The driver told me other things on the journey about the challenges of doing business in London. He said that the move towards environmentalism feels forced and fast; that delivery drivers are having an impossible time simply trying to go down a road (as I saw for myself), and he also talked about the fees he has to pay for parking, which add up when he’s doing multiple short drop offs. It sounded exhausting!

Who is speaking for this man? I wondered after hearing the conversation. I don’t know the intricacies of parking fines, or signs, or any of these logistical hurdles. But it seems like a lot of people feel punished for running a business, while the rest of us are somewhat oblivious.

On a different, but also quite similar note, later that week an electrician came to do some fixes at my new flat. I was relieved to see him as some things needed urgent repair. However the main thing that he seemed to think was “urgent” was how long he had left on the parking meter. It seemed daft, and maybe even worrying at worst, that his main focus was parking when he had an important task to complete. Who is speaking for him? I also wondered.

If these incidents seem a bit mundane, that’s the point (although I do think the road block signs are completely illogical). Since coming back to London I’ve realised I’ve become “out of touch” with the every day concerns of the world. This is something we members of the media get accused of anyway, as we spend so much time on Twitter, but lockdown can make this phenomenon worse. Getting out and about matters, and not just for journalists – politicians get stuck in their own bubbles too. As with canvassing and constituency meetings, there’s a lot to be said for a chat offline.

After realising my “out of touch” ways, I also felt angry about the barriers for delivery drivers – and started to think about other things that could be affecting businesses. For instance, what about the al fresco dinners lots of people enjoy in Soho? How many cars find the repurposed roads in restaurants troublesome? I have no idea.

Isn’t that the point, though? Some of this is because of the way the media works. Generally lots of our debates are at the macro level, from the Green Industrial Revolution to the culture wars to Brexit/ the EU. These are all interesting topics, incidentally, and think they have important implications for society. But there’s also the “in between” subjects that fall down the cracks.

Yesterday, for instance, James Frayne wrote for our site about the scale of the unpopularity of council tax, which he called “staggering”. It bothers a lot of people – including me – but doesn’t really make the headlines. The news cycle is often a projection of what journalists want to read (and I’m guilty of this), while someone else wants to find out about the parking meter, or can they open their hairdressers again?

In short, this stuff really, really matters. Yes let’s debate the macro, but I for one will pledge to get out of my “lockdown bubble”.

The Budget. Sunak’s strong message that operation “level up” is under way.

4 Mar

There were all sorts of striking announcements in Rishi Sunak’s Budget yesterday, from the £5 billion grant scheme to help hospitality businesses in England recover from the pandemic to the less welcome news that the Government will raise the rate of corporation tax to 25 per cent.

The Government will be told it spent too much/ too little; that it shouldn’t have gone for corporations, and so forth. But one thing you cannot accuse it of is forgetting its commitment to “level up” the country, which was a big theme in the Budget.

The Conservatives were elected on this promise – to spread “opportunity across the whole United Kingdom” and move away from being South/ London centric – and Sunak’s speech did not disappoint in this regard.

“If we are serious about wanting to level up, that starts with the institutions of economic power”, he said firmly, before announcing that there will be a new economic campus for the Treasury in Darlington. This means that 750 employees will move from the Capital to that area.

In another interesting development, Sunak announced eight freeport locations in England for East Midlands Airport, Felixstowe and Harwich, Humber, Liverpool City Region, Plymouth, Solent, Thames and Teesside.

While it quickly became obvious (on Twitter, at least) that some people don’t know what a freeport is, let alone have a view on whether they’re a good idea, many councils have been working hard to put in bids for these.

All five council areas in Tees Valley worked together in developing one for Teesside, and it has paid off. Its freeport will be the largest in the UK, spanning 4,5000 acres (2,550 football pitches).

The freeport is expected to increase investment to Teesside, Darlington and Hartlepool by over £1.4 billion and create around 18,000 skilled, good quality jobs within five years. The Government will also be hoping it can boost the chances of Ben Houchen, the Tees Valley Mayor, to get re-elected at the end of this year.

Speaking about his vision for Teesside, Sunak said: “Now, when I look to the future of Teesside I see old industrial sites being used to capture and store carbon. Vaccines being manufactured. Offshore wind turbines creating clean energy for the rest of the country. All located within a Freeport with the Treasury just down the road and the UK Infrastructure Bank only an hour away” (the bank will be in Leeds).

In another part of the Budget, Sunak singled out Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, where the Government is also increasing public investment.

It is putting £225 million into rail stations and the reopening of old railway lines. Government support will also go towards a major housing and commercial development scheme around the upcoming HS2 Solihull Interachange, along with other regeneration efforts.

Responding to these developments, Street said: “The Chancellor has done exactly what we asked for him, and set out clear and wide-ranging support to help West Midlands businesses and the self-employed through the end of the roadmap and into the recovery stage.”

So you can see that, while covering off lots of areas, yesterday’s Budget sent out a strong political message that the Government can hear people outside Westminster (now literally moving departments to other parts of the country).

The Budget may even have an appeal to Generation Rent throughout the UK, as through trying to correct regional disparities, the Government can also help shift demand for housing, which is overly focussed in the South East.

But overall, it was a show that now the Government’s got “Brexit done”, operation “level up” is well and truly under way.

Jenrick warns City of London Corporation to ensure “heritage and tradition are given robust protection”

12 Feb

The City of London Corporation is very much an anomaly in terms of local authorities. In 1965, changes brought about in Greater London saw the creation of 32 boroughs. This was a dreary reform that saw administrative logic sweep aside tradition and local identity. But just as Asterix and Obelix defended “one small village of indomitable Gauls” against the Romans, there was a small exception which resisted the bureaucratic conformity that was fashionable at the time. Such was the importance of the City of London’s status in our island story that an exemption was allowed for the square mile. It was too well-entrenched. All the legal protections granted by Royal Charter.  The pledge in the Magna Carta that “the city of London shall have/enjoy its ancient liberties.”

Thus to the fury of the killjoy Lefties, all the pomp has survived. The banquets and the Lord Mayor’s Show. The sheriffs, the aldermen, the livery companies, the town clerk, the chamberlain, the beadles. The police with their special helmets. The special voting arrangements for its small electorate.

How extraordinary then, that of all local authorities, this bastion should have captured by the forces of wokeness. Last month the BBC reported:

“Statues of two politicians with links to the transatlantic slave trade are to be removed from central London.

The City of London Corporation announced it would remove statues of William Beckford and Sir John Cass from the Guildhall, in Moorgate.

The decision was made by a taskforce set up by the corporation following nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.

A spokeswoman called the move “an important milestone” in moving towards an “inclusive and diverse City”.

The corporation, which looks after the Square Mile in the capital, said it was considering the future of a number of statues and road names with links to the slave trade.”

Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, has written to the Lord Mayor, William Russell, and senior officials calling on them to reconsider. His letter says:

“Our stance on historic statues and sites which have become contested is to retain and explain them; to provide thoughtful, long lasting and powerful reinterpretation that responds to their contested history and tells the full story.”

“These principles similarly apply not just to statues, but other aspects of our heritage, including street names.

“As a unique local authority with unique status compared to others, I hope you will consider this national advice carefully, given you are seen as a leading authority.

“The Corporation of London is itself a product of the City’s rich history. It is in the City’s own interests that heritage and tradition are given robust protection.”

Freedom is not something to be taken for granted. Slavery has dominated in most places across the globe throughout most of history. The unique aspect of the British Empire was abolishing it, in 1833 – with the Royal Navy subsequently stamping out the slave trade by stopping slave ships, not just at British ports but elsewhere. That is a source of pride. But should we really discount the achievements of any monarchs, businessmen, or other public figures, from before that time? Those on “taskforces” set on denigrating our past would seem to think so.

Historic England has produced a checklist for local authorities concerning “contested heritage.” It defines that as “historic objects, structures, buildings or places where the associated stories or meanings have become challenged. The interest in interpretation of our past has never been greater, and when heritage becomes contested, strongly-held views tend to exist on all sides.” It opposes knocking down statues and instead suggests “educational programmes” to provide a balanced account. There would still be plenty of room for dispute about what points should, or should not, be included in any adjoining display cases. But that approach seems reasonable. It is in the spirit of Kwasi Kwarteng’s recent comments that rather then de-colonise the curriculum” the opposite is needed “to learn more about colonialism.”

We might expect an agitprop response to this issue from Lambeth Council – evidently keen to restore its “loony Left” reputation. Yet how extraordinary that the City should need to be protected from a wave of cultural vandalism instigated by the City of London Corporation.

This desperate situation led my colleague Invictus to consider if the Government should respond “by abolishing the thousand-year old Corporation itself and folding its functions into Westminster City Council. After all, the British people might reasonably ask, if you won’t respect our traditions, why should we respect yours?”

The quirky arrangements for local democracy in the City leave it vulnerable. The custom is that party politics are considered infra-dig. So mostly independents are elected. With the assumpion that they will be honoured to be the custodians of its heritage. The difficulty comes when those sneaking in with the “independent” label embark on a mission of self-destruction.

My advice to the City of London Corporation – or any other local authority contemplating an anti-heritage drive – would be instead to devote its efforts to combat modern slavery. The Modern Slavery Act of 2015 included a duty for councils to identify victims. There are estimated to be 10,000 in this country – trapped in domestic servitude or the sex industry. Often the perpetrators are involved in benefit fraud, arranging forced marriages, or providing substandard housing. Would not the most effective application of moral indignation about slavery be to catch the culprits and free the victims – in such districts as Tulse Hill Ward, Lambeth? Rather than fretting about it being named after Sir Henry Tulse, who was Lord Mayor of London in 1684.

How many slaves are trapped in all those awful flats in The Barbican?

Damian Flanagan: Manchester has a central role to play in preserving the UK

11 Feb

Damian Flanagan is Chair of Manchester Conservatives.

While we are all busy trying to make our way – maintaining life and livelihoods as best as we can – through the long ordeal of the Coronavirus pandemic, we might also be grimly aware that our very nation seems to be intractably moving apart.

Calls from the SNP for a second independence referendum – ignoring the understanding that the 2014 poll would be a “once in a generation” event – combine with opinion polls north of the border consistently showing a majority in favour of permanent separation. In Ireland meanwhile the possibility of holding a border poll in Northern Ireland is regularly discussed, inviting opinions ranging from glee at the prospect of long-cherished Irish unity for some, horror at the financial burden for others, and dogged determination to remain part of the UK from Unionists.

As things continue to pull apart, it might appear that our role here in Manchester is simply to act as by-standers to what might yet prove to be the beginning of an end game for the UK, watching London cope as best as it can with these forces of division.

But if you think about things differently, it is Manchester, not London, which stands at the geographical heart of the UK. Indeed, one of the key problems our relatively small nation faces is that, to people in Belfast and Glasgow, London feels distant and out of touch, lost in its own cultural bubble.

Indeed Manchester seems far better equipped than London to sympathise with the economic realities of what is going on in cities far closer to us and often with similar industrial histories and post-industrial problems.

Rather than seeing Manchester as “northern” – a profoundly London-centric view of the world – how about we start seeing Manchester instead as “central”? It is central both in terms of the position we occupy in the country we live in and to the prospects of that nation continuing for another 300 years.

We might ask a bolder question – why exactly does London, tucked away in the south east, have to remain the capital of the nation anyway? True, London has of course the overwhelming economic power and population, but plenty of nations – think Canada, the US, Australia – position their political capitals in places separate from the largest city. A nation’s capital should be placed to reach out to every part of the land. In the UK at the moment, London palpably fails to do that.

Looked at historically, one reason why London emerged as the nation’s capital was profoundly connected to the ruling elite – from the Romans to the Normans to the Tudors – maintaining land interests in continental Europe and needing to stay in close contact with them from a defendable position away from the coast. At the point where Henry VIII finally lost the last vestigial footing in France, the great age of sea trade and worldwide exploration began, making London, positioned on the estuary of the Thames, perfectly placed to be the engine of the nation’s success for another 400 years.

But in today’s new age of “Global Britain”, where we have just decisively cut our ties with the political arrangements of continental Europe and broken free to reach out to the rest of world, why is it necessary for London to remain the centre of UK politics, an arrangement which clearly does not appeal to large numbers of people in the other nations of the UK?

It’s time not for more federalism – the very thing which is driving the UK apart – but for a political reconfiguration that recognises where the centre of the nation we live in actually is. We want a *united* kingdom, with government agencies and institutions operating in Manchester – the second largest conurbation outside London – that help to keep the entire nation together.

Moving to Manchester a reformed upper chamber of Parliament – perhaps elected by proportional representation – would make a healthy start. It would also open the eyes of many of our London-centric legislators as to what the issues facing cities like Manchester, Belfast and Glasgow actually are.

This is our precious nation and we can not just sit on the sidelines while London allows it to drift apart. Manchester, at the heart of the nation, is ready to step up and play its part in its political destiny of holding the UK together.

Rama Thirunamachandran: Modern universities and their graduates are a necessity, not a luxury, in a post-Covid Britain

3 Feb

Professor Rama Thirunamachandran is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Canterbury Christ Church University and Chair of MillionPlus. This is a sponsored post by MillionPlus.

Like every sector, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been felt acutely across higher education in 2020, but through the hard work and creativity of those working on and off campus, modern universities have demonstrated compellingly what we bring to the country and the economy – and how we can help build back better in 2021.

Modern universities have supported our hospitals, the social care system and our schools in this period. From student nurses moving to work in the NHS, to ensuring our frontline services have the equipment and support they needed when they needed it most, every university stood up and played its part in the fight against Covid.

Modern universities, so-called because they gained university status after 1992, make up more than half of UK higher education, teaching over a million students each year. We offer flexible provision, catering not just for those looking for a campus experience but also for those commuting to study, seeking to “learn while they earn” and for those employed as degree apprentices by our industry partners. We also reach out to students both young and mature from a very diverse and wide range of backgrounds including from disadvantaged communities in some of the poorest areas in the UK.

However, alongside the fight against Covid, HE continues to face challenges and criticism from commentators and occasionally from MPs. While I accept that universities must always strive to raise their game by improving every aspect of what we do, much of the media narrative is informed by either outdated thinking – or a simple lack of understanding of what higher education is about in the 21st century.

Take the quality of provision, for instance. Barely a week passes without talk from certain quarters of “low quality” provision when the simple fact is that the UK HE system has one of the most comprehensive and admired independent quality assurance systems in the world, one which many countries have sought to replicate.

It is our moral and professional responsibility to maintain high quality courses while weeding out poor practice. We know we need to continually raise our game on the employment outcomes our programmes generate for graduates. We are far from complacent on the task ahead on ensuring that our graduates gain highly skilled jobs in the challenging post-Covid economic landscape. A big shift is needed here – we are determined to deliver value for students and the taxpayer, who also foots some of the bill.

Another stick all-too-frequently used to bash universities is the idea of “low value” courses. In essence, these are courses that produce graduates who don’t earn high enough salaries to meet an arbitrary assessment of “value”. The blunt tool of using graduate salary to assess the idea of value reduces graduates – another word for which is “people”, with ambitions and hopes for themselves and their families – to a number, a vehicle for economic output, an infinitesimal addition in the nation’s GDP.

By this crude metric, arts subjects are deemed low value. Pre-pandemic, the creative industries were worth more than £100 billion per year to the economy and employing two million people. If only arts graduates were fish in UK waters, perhaps some would take a different view of their value. Unfortunately, this has been laid bare in the recent government letter to the OfS proposing funding cuts to the teaching grant for higher cost creative arts courses.

Even more galling, graduates in the very specialties we have come to rely on like never before since the start of this pandemic are also consigned in the “low value” category: nurses; paramedics and other allied health professionals; physiotherapists, teachers and many more. What’s more, the salaries that see them lumped into this unflattering category are set by government.

As we clapped those working on the frontline we demonstrated that value to society cannot simply be understood in terms of stellar earnings alone.

While universities can ensure that a student receives a high quality course and ensure support is available to bolster a student’s journey there are so many factors that make up what a good outcome is for a student and graduate – not least student choice, and with a higher education system of fees based on that very premise, we need to be very careful undercutting it and inadvertently subverting student choice just because some people don’t like what they choose.

As important as delivering quality courses, is where those courses are found. The Government is right to hone-in on the importance of levelling-up across the country, and on the importance of “place” in decision making.

Modern universities serve communities across the UK that are seen as having been “left-behind”, acting as anchors, providing links and co-ordination with local businesses, conducting “real-world” research projects to boost the regional economies, and in educating and training those who live locally. These are the “blue wall” seats and their hinterland. An old model of HE is passing away: a model that was based on inflexible courses, an expectation to live on campus, and programmes with little connection to the workplace.

Modern universities are emphatically not part of that old model. Offering something different, our members have distributed campuses enabling local learning throughout, for instance, the county of Cumbria, and in towns such as Stoke-on-Trent and Wolverhampton. At my university, Canterbury Christ Church, a teaching campus is based in the deprived area of Medway and a new medical school provides opportunities to those who may not be able to travel from, say, Ramsgate, to central London to train to become a doctor.

Another aspect of that new university offer is the integration of further education colleges within universities “families”. Two members of the MillionPlus group, Bolton University and London Southbank, now have FE colleges and academies as integral parts of their university groups, enabling learners to seamlessly progress from vocational or academic qualifications at the school/college to technical or wider HE study at the university. As such, plans to strengthen sub-degree education in the Government’s Skills for Jobs white paper are to be welcomed and worked on.

Modern universities support moves to boost opportunities for those seeking to study in FE, including for the new T Levels, which MillionPlus members have had involvement in crafting.

The narrative that pervades that HE and FE are in competition, or that more people should attend colleges and fewer universities or that funding should be re-directed from one to the other is unhelpful and simply misses the point. There is ample room in the local educational landscape for both, as we each possess distinctive but complementary educational missions.

Britain cannot claim to have truly recovered from the pandemic until every part of the country is fit and firing, with prosperity and opportunity shared more equitably across the country. For this very reason the UK government’s plan, again outlined in its recent Skills for Jobs white paper, to create a flexible entitlement to all levels of Post-18 learning is also to be welcomed.

MillionPlus has long called for greater flexibility in the access to student loans for high quality HE courses and for measures to be put in place to help people progress to, and from, their A level, T Level or BTEC attainment. Modern universities stand ready to drive that effort and are increasingly working with the Government and other parts of the education sector to do just that.

Our universities are not a luxury to afford, nor a punchbag for political rhetoric – we are part of the fabric of communities up and down the country and only by working together can we make the recovery truly a recovery for all.

George Freeman: The industrial strategy reforms I led helped to deliver Britain’s vaccine success. Now for the next phase.

1 Feb

George Freeman is a former Minister for Life Science and Chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board (2016-18). He is co-author and editor of the 2020 Conservatives book Britain Beyond Brexit.

The combination of Covid-19 and the Crash of 2008 have left this country facing the most serious crisis in our public finances since 1776. Unless we make the post-Brexit, post-Covid recovery a transformational renaissance of enterprise & innovation on a par with that unlocked by Thatcher Governments of the 1980s, we risk a decade of high debts, rising interest rates and slow growth.

We have a truly unique opportunity before us. As a science and innovation superpower, with the City of London now outside the EU’s rules for the first time in nearly fifty years, we can unlock a New Elizabethan era of growth – with Britain a world-leader in global commercialisation of science, technology and innovation. It is what our entrepreneurs have been crying out for. Now is the moment to make it happen.

That’s why I’m delighted to have been asked by the Prime Minister to help set up the new Taskforce for Innovation and Growth through Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) with Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers.

Reporting directly to the Prime Minister & the Chancellor’s Cabinet Committee on deregulation, and supported by a secretariat in the Cabinet Office, the Taskforce will consider and recommend “quick wins” to use our new regulatory sovereignty to unlock high growth sectors of the economy to drive post-Brexit post-Covid recovery.

Rest assured: there will also be no big report or a thousand pages of footnotes to wade through. We will be crowd-sourcing the best ideas from the business community and the entrepreneurs and innovators who are the engine of our economy.

The Prime Minister has asked me to bring my career experience in business starting & financing high growth bioscience technology companies as well as my experience as Minister in Health, BEIS and Transport leading our groundbreaking Industrial Strategy for Life Science which has paid such dividends this year.

The reforms I led in our Industrial Strategy – launching Genomics England, the Early Access to Medicines Scheme, MHRA and NICE reform, Accelerated Access procurement have been fundamental to our ability to lead the world in developing a Covid vaccine.

We now need to make Brexit & Covid the catalyst for bold reforms to unlock big UK opportunities for recovery & GlobalBritain across a range of high-growth sectors such as those I have worked on extensively as both entrepreneur and Minister:?

  • LifeScience: harnessing the potential of the NHS as a research engine for new medicines, unlocking digital health & innovative approaches to Accelerated Access, clinical trials & value-based pricing.
  • Nutraceuticals: health-promoting “superfoods”, cannabis medicines.
  • AgriTech: smart clean green twenty-first farming technology like the blight resistant potato banned by the EU.
  • CleanTech: new biofuels, Carbon Capture & Storage & digital “smart grids” to reward households & businesses for generating more and using less.
  • BioSecurity: harnessing the potential of Porton Down and UK vaccine science for plant, animal & human biosecurity.
  • Digital: removing barriers to UK digital leadership outside the EU GDPR framework.
  • Hydrogen: using the full power of Gov to lead in this key sector as we did in genomics.
  • Mobility: making the UK a global test-bed for new mobility technologies,

Before being elected to Parliament, I spent 15 years working in life sciences around the Cambridge cluster, financing innovation. I saw time and time again how the best British entrepreneurs and their companies struggled to build business to scale here in the UK.

So often we have invented the technologies of the future and failed to commercialise them effectively.

After several years working as the Government Life Science Adviser, I published my report for the Fresh Start Group on The EU impact on Life Sciences: Avoiding the Global Slow Lane.

Three years before Brexit, the report was the first to highlight the growing hostility of the EU to ‘biotech’ and the increasing tide of ‘anti- biotech’ legislation – driven by a combination of the German Green Party, Catholic anti-science and lowest commons denominator regulation by the “precautionary principle” which was having a damaging effect on the Bioscience Economy and risked condemning the EU – and by extension the UK – to the global slow lane in biotechnology.

The report set out how the genomic revolution was beginning to offer untold opportunities across medicine and agriculture to help generate huge economic, social and political dividends for mankind. Billions of people were being liberated from the scourge of insufficient food, medicine and energy. The main threat to that? The EU’s hostile regulatory framework.

This was seen clearly in numerous case studies. At the time, the EU’s hostility to GM led German-based BASF and major U.S firm Monsanto to announce their withdrawal from Europe in agricultural research and development. My report argued that unless something was done soon, other companies would follow suit, with dire consequences for the UK Life Science sector.

The report recommended a shift away from the increasingly widely used risk-based ‘precautionary Principle’ and greater freedoms around data protection, using public healthcare systems to help accelerate early access to medical innovations, and for the UK to be able to ‘go it alone’ in designing appropriate regulatory frameworks for GM crops.

The UK’s departure from the laws and requirements of the EU provides us with a once-in-a-generation chance to redesign and improve our approach.

This new Taskforce, therefore, is emphatically not another long-term Whitehall de-regulation ‘initiative’. Neither is this is about cutting workers’ or environmental rights that we rightly guaranteed in the 2019 election manifesto.

It is of vital importance that the UK maintains the high regulatory standards that we have consistently championed. In some of the fastest growing new sectors like Digital Health, Nutraceuticals and Autonomous Vehicle Tech, clear global regulatory standards are key to investment confidence. By setting the new global standards here in the UK we can play a key role in leading whole new sectors.

But we must think innovatively about supporting businesses to start and grow, and make the most of the cutting-edge technologies and sectors we nurture in our universities for global impact. For example, why don’t we use our freedom to pioneer new disease and drought- resistant crops, and use our aid budget and variable tariffs to help create new global markets for UK Technology Transfer?

We won’t unlock a new era of the UK as an Innovation Nation generating the technologies and companies of tomorrow with technocratic tinkering. We need bold leadership, clear commercial vision and reforms to support innovation and enterprise. The two go hand in hand. We won’t unlock an innovation economy without an enterprise society. So we will need to look at tax and regulatory incentives for high risk start/ups like the “New Deal for New Businesses” I proposed back in 2010 to drive recovery after the Crash.

This is a once-in-a-generation moment. Together we must seize it.

Robert Largan: Cutting Council Tax would do more to level up than cutting Corporation Tax

18 Jan

Robert Largan is MP for High Peak and a Member of the Levelling Up Taskforce Committee. Onward’s report, Levelling Up the Tax System, is available at this link.

At the last election, in northern constituencies like mine, many people voted Conservative for the first time. They did so for three main reasons: to “get Brexit done”; to stop Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister; and because they wanted to see their area “levelled up”.

We’ve left the EU with a deal and Corbyn has been consigned to the dustbin of history. In 2024, voters will judge this Government on its successes and failures in levelling up.

So far, the debate on levelling up has focused on spending, particularly on infrastructure and understandably so. There is a desperate need to invest in infrastructure in places like the High Peak, whether that be our roads and railways or our schools and hospitals or even our digital infrastructure. But this spending is only part of the levelling up equation. We also need to look seriously at how our tax system works and whether the burden is spread fairly across the whole country.

That is why the Levelling Up Taskforce along with the think tank Onward have published a new report on Levelling up the tax system.

The report takes a new approach, analysing the impact of different taxes on different parts of the country. For example, taxes such as council tax and VAT fall the hardest on the most deprived regions, while average council tax per head in London is lower than anywhere else in England, despite house prices being much higher.

We often hear about how London generates £1 in every £5 of tax receipts. But this ignores the fact that London generates less tax than any other region as a share of their GDP, partly because it benefits from much higher levels of commuters than other places. If we’re serious about levelling up, we need to reassess this situation.

The report considers which tax changes might have the biggest impact on helping people in the most deprived parts of the country as we recover from a global pandemic.

Because there are lots more Band A properties in poorer regions, cutting Band A council tax by a ninth would save 54 per cent of households in the North East an average of £147 a year, 43 per cent of households in Yorkshire an average of 146 per year, and 41 per cent of households in the North West an average of 148 per year. This would put more money in people’s pockets quickly.

While another reduction in corporation tax would benefit London most, an increase to capital allowances for plant and machinery or industrial buildings would be of far greater benefit to the North, Midlands and Wales where there are far more manufacturing businesses. Such a change would lead to large savings for businesses in places like Cheshire, Derbyshire, the West Midlands, Teesside, East Yorkshire, Northern Lincolnshire and Cumbria where capital spending is highest.

I’m not seeking to write the Chancellor’s budget for him but I hope that this report can open up a new dimension in the levelling up debate and help inform how we make tax and spending decisions in future. At the very least, the regional impact of different tax measures should be a standard part of Treasury analysis.

We won’t be able to level up the whole country if the Government has one of its hands tied behind its back. The full fiscal firepower of the Treasury is needed if we are going to give real change for parts of the country that have been neglected by Westminster for far too long.

Ian Howells: Hybrids are the key to delivering the Government’s climate transport goals in the UK

13 Oct

Ian Howells is Honda Europe’s Senior Vice President. This is a sponsored post by Honda.

Honda has committed to achieving carbon neutrality globally by 2050, and we fully support the UK Government’s decarbonisation targets. In fact, throughout Europe, we have an ambitious target for 100 per cent of car sales to feature electrified powertrains (EV, plug-in hybrid, advanced hybrid) by 2022.

But, with our global experience and engineering expertise we know that delivering an affordable, decarbonised future cannot rely on just one technology.

A multi-pathway approach is required, in which a broad range of technologies are used to deliver CO2 reductions quickly and effectively, while ensuring that personal mobility remains affordable and accessible to all. This is vital to the Government’s levelling up agenda and underpinning the fundamental principle of personal choice.

Honda’s approach would see battery electric, advanced hybrid and – in time – hydrogen and decarbonised liquid fuels deployed to provide customers with the right vehicle, for the right use, at the right price.

For Honda, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will play a key role in our proposed approach. BEVs provide a significant number of benefits to consumers, enabling zero emissions driving over short distances and within urban environments.

But BEVs are not a silver bullet. Challenges around affordability, infrastructure and technology limitations mean that the Government cannot rely solely on electric vehicles to completely replace internal combustion engines by 2035, if it does not also intend to restrict consumer choice.

An approach that relies only on expensive electric cars risks turning driving into a privilege only afforded to the wealthy, while pricing those who most need it out of personal mobility.

While prices are coming down, BEVs remain expensive in comparison to advanced hybrid and conventional cars. The UK’s own Advanced Propulsion Centre projects that cost parity between electric and petrol cars will not be reached by 2035 – and will take much longer for larger family cars or popular SUVs. The simple truth is that not everyone will be able to afford an electric car and outlawing advanced hybrid alternatives will price people out of essential mobility for work, school, caring and socialising.

Pursuing a battery electric only strategy will create a new inequality between those who have easy access to charging – and those in the Midlands and the North who do not.

Despite welcome additional investments from Government, the UK’s charging infrastructure is far from ready for a full transition to electric vehicles within 15 years. Public charging is unevenly spread across the country, with London, the South East and Scotland seeing the highest levels of public charging infrastructure, with the Midlands and the North much worse served. Wealthier drivers in the suburbs may be able to install off-street charging at home, but people with no access to off-street parking, such as those in tower blocks or dense urban areas, will struggle to find accessible and convenient ways to charge their car.

Current battery technology is nearing the limits of performance – and resource scarcity means there are not enough raw materials for a full shift to battery electric cars.

The current lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars today are reaching the limits of power and performance. These limits mean that EVs cannot be used to replace ICE vehicles in all cases. Whether towing caravans on the family holiday, pulling tradesperson’s equipment, or powering a sports car – battery electric cannot yet deliver the needed performance on its own.

Performance and power cannot simply be increased by installing bigger batteries, as these vehicles would incur weight and cost penalties. Furthermore, there are limits on global cobalt supply, with the European Commission estimating that by 2030, even with recycling, demand will far outstrip supply.

Honda’s advanced hybrid technology is at the heart of a multi-pathway approach that delivers significant emissions reductions, keeps mobility affordable and accessible – and still has scope for significant improvements. Signalling an end to this technology would be counter-productive.

Hybrid technology is far more affordable to a wide variety of consumers. Our new Jazz Hybrid starts from £19,000, which is much cheaper than a similarly sized BEV from other manufacturers – even when government support is taken into account. The price difference is much starker when looking at larger family-sized vehicles or the ever popular SUV category.

By combining compact, efficient, specially designed petrol engines with battery power, Honda’s advanced hybrid technology provides the power and performance that customers need to meet a wide range of needs, ensuring that customers feel confident in moving into low emissions mobility.

Our advanced hybrid products on the market now, are already making a contribution to CO2 reductions. Our new Jazz Hybrid emits 30 per cent less CO2 than its non-hybrid predecessor. In addition, there remains scope for significant ongoing emission reductions as advanced hybrid technology continues to evolve and move towards zero emission.

Decarbonised liquid fuels are an exciting way to further reduce transport emissions, alongside electrification.

The development of decarbonised liquid fuels – produced from renewable energy sources – have the potential to further reduce the CO2 performance of hybrid vehicles, and are a viable route to decarbonising the existing petrol and diesel fleet, again significantly bringing forward the reduction in carbon emissions.

As the Prime Minister said in his 2020 party conference speech – at some point the State must stand aside, and let the private sector take the lead. The role of Government is to set consistent and realistic targets and provide support, but it must let businesses innovate and invest, while enabling consumers to choose the technology that fits their needs.

The challenge of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 is huge. Honda has also embarked on that journey and will dedicate all its global resources to meeting this vital goal. The UK will be at the forefront as we deploy our technologies, and we support the Government’s ambitions of zero emissions mobility. But our global experience and engineering know-how make it clear that we can’t rely on one technology alone – a multi-pathway approach is required.

As ministers finalise their plans for mobility in a net-zero future, they must ensure that mobility remains accessible and affordable for all. They can achieve this by recognising the important role played by advanced hybrids and ensure these can remain part of the technology mix over the long term, as part of a multi pathway approach to our shared goal of clean, accessible and affordable personal mobility.

To find out more about Honda’s advanced hybrid technology, visit our UK website here.

Ed McGuinness: Getting everyone back to work will save the economy

27 Jul

Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation, founder of Conservatives in the City and stood for Hornsey & Wood Green at the general election.

Growth in GDP, from an economic perspective relies on three key areas. The first is labour; both population growth affecting its size and the participation rate. The latter of which will surely take a hit from this crisis. The second factor is capital investment in the economy and with the Government’s long-term investment plan this may very well be somewhat addressed. The third factor is known as Total Factor Productivity, productivity improvement or technological advancement. Normally in economics it is addressed residually (as capital and labour are fairly quantifiable), but generally, whilst we are holed up in our houses, especially the younger generations, the ability to be productive, to innovate as part of a social group, is limited. The bottom line is economic growth may jump around for a few months, but longer term will flat-line.

Boris Johnson’s rallying call of “build, build, build” follows well known and tried Keynesian economic principles, but putting aside that a British New Deal package comparable to that in the 1930s would actually cost north of  £700 billion, “shovel ready” infrastructure projects are rarely so in the United Kingdom. One can only look at the High Speed 2 rail link project which has been ongoing since 2009, the Heathrow expansion project, ongoing since the same year, and even the Channel Tunnel, arguably a huge success, took 18 years from agreement to completion. It would likely take a herculean effort, much like that seen in the early weeks of the Covid-19 response to expedite even the most minor infrastructure projects. Whilst this will be necessary for medium to longer term growth, a short-term booster shot is necessary to mitigate the risks of a permanently smaller economy.

Whilst the levelling-up agenda could perhaps see a step-change in the national economy, the wealth generating ability of London’s financial and multinational corporations is a capability that needs to be protected and nurtured if there is to be any economic recovery at all. London contributes between one quarter and one third of the entire economic output of the country, a population greater than the next 13 largest cities combined, and 11% of the UK’s tax revenue – a considerable and much needed source of cash as we emerge from this crisis. We have already seen some positive news with regards to the future of financial services in the post Brexit City which offers some security, but to get London’s economy firing again, benefitting not just the South East but the rest of the country. We must either adapt very quickly or risk a lasting hit to one of the world’s global economic command centres.

To do this people must get back to work – a simple aim, but complex in execution. The challenges are overarching twofold. First psychological and personal, people are genuinely concerned that they might get ill and naturally do not want to travel in close proximity (as is almost inevitable) in London and other city transport networks. The second, whilst fed and influenced by the first is separate, and is practical and organisational. In order to comply with new social distancing office space and transport has had to readapt to the point where it is impossible at the moment to have 100% capacity. Some offices in Canary Wharf have indicated a 50% capacity cap on open plan offices which seen have seen desks normally fit for six now only fit for one or two.  We must address both these issues when it comes to returning to work. By addressing the latter, a proof of concept is deliverable which will go a long way to alleviating the former, psychological concerns.

It is clear that accepting the current situation as the ‘new normal’ is not a solution. It would see not only resilient industries face collapse, but also highly operationally levered sectors like hospitality; fast food and tourism fall away alongside second order effects of rental and credit defaults. Therefore, the risks must be managed and mitigated. Practically those travelling should be encouraged to wear facemasks, wash their hands and observe social distancing, but we must change our working habits fundamentally, in the short term if we are to succeed.

Younger workers should be encouraged to return to the office more quickly than the manager class. The damage to younger people’s careers from Covid-19 has been highlighted in the potential loss of hospitality, retail and other feeder professions, but younger people who work in an office environment need social interaction and personal networking with colleagues, which is of huge importance to younger staff. Development through social interaction is not just a theory isolated to infants, but extends throughout all growth phases of life. Not only that, but younger people are generally less well paid and as such live in accommodation ill equipped for a healthy working environment lacking the space for a home office or a separate room for working. The active psychological damage of an absence of delineation between work and personal life, alongside the passive damage caused by separation from peers, will have a damaging effect on younger people if they do not return to work imminently.

There also needs to be a reform of the working day. If, as it is at the moment a 9-to-5 day, it is natural that rush hour falls either side of these, considerably so in London and other cities where commuter towns exacerbate the effect. London transport should run a rush hour service, therefore increasing capacity across the system, throughout the day, Companies, particularly those who work in close proximity to one another and are served by a limited number of transport links, for example in Canary Wharf, should collaborate to reassign their working day and stagger start and stop times and more importantly enforce them. An additional point of assistance would be to alter market opening hours from 9.30-4.30 as advocated by the Association for Financial Markets in Europe and the Investment Association, but not accepted by the LSE in the most recent review. This would lose the overlap with Asia, which is arguably not statistically significant, but would retain the lucrative overlap with US market whilst allowing more time, particularly in the morning, for commuter travel.

The Government must remember the importance of London and other cities’ regional influence on productivity – a problem in the UK even before Covid-19 – without which the entire country could level-down. By focussing on only the short-term operational aspect, large office-based London businesses may see a slight recovery, but support industries around them may collapse which will lead to longer term pain. On this occasion, working together to protect the centre is protecting the rest.

Roderick Crawford: We have interests in the rest of Europe, but must be free to run our own foreign policy

6 Jul

Roderick Crawford works on conflict resolution in countries such as Yemen, South Sudan and Iraq, and on Brexit-related matters. He is a former editor of Parliamentary Brief.

One could be forgiven a sense of déjà vu as we enter the second round of accelerated talks, this time in London. The high hopes of breakthrough at the start of last week’s talks were dashed as they broke up on Thursday last. The same sticking points remain: the legal structure of the agreement, level playing field commitments, including state aid, and of course fisheries. Specific details have not been released, so it is hard to comment on why the progress on getting agreement on underlying principles has failed to materialise.

Though working through the underlying principles of the agreement should help identify where the barriers to agreement lie, a look at the overarching principles of the negotiating positions of the two parties may throw better light on the lack of progress.

Last month, Der Spiegel ran an interview with the Anglophile former German Ambassador in London, Peter Wittig; he provided a revealing glimpse into the EU’s perspective on the negotiations. Asked whether, in effect, the EU should accept a hard Brexit and let the UK go, he says, no:

‘We should continue to endeavour to tie Britain as closely as possible to the European Union. Europe can only survive in the competition between the USA and China if it is strong and united. I always thought it was good that the Federal Government was the voice of pragmatic reason in all these difficult negotiation phases. I advise everyone not to think about the short-term effect, but to keep a strategic eye on where Europe should be in five, ten or 15 years.’

The quote is interesting because it is part of an intra-German conversation from a friend of the UK expressing pragmatic views on the big picture in which Brexit sits. While the UK has been caught up in its own arguments and political storms – and of course running ourselves down – we have lost sight of the impact of Brexit on the EU: it has been considerable.

The EU has lost its only global city, its only global finance centre, its most dynamic services economy, 12 per cent of its consumers – more when weighted for income – and its only universities ranked in the world’s top ten. It has lost a major pillar of good governance (the UK was a consistent upholder of the EU’s rules-based system) and a source of sound counsel.

As the EU looks to develop its common foreign policy and defence co-operation, it does so now from a far weaker base. The UK was one of two EU permanent members of the UN Security Council, one of two nuclear powers.

It had the only blue-water navy capable of working with the US; China has just achieved a two aircraft carrier capability – the UK will soon be there, too. It has a battle-tested professional army and air force. The UK alone had the capability of power projection across the world – albeit with limitations – and the will to do so. The Foreign Office, despite its shortcomings, is still world class and the UK’s influence is, arguably, stronger across the world than any single EU member state.

The EU is diminished, while the fault lines on which it sits become more unstable. To its east, Russia is reviving in confidence as its actions in Ukraine, Syria, and its challenges to the West demonstrate. Turkey has become a regional player, outside of the NATO fold, and looks to a future untied to the EU. The Middle East and North Africa are unstable, and a source of potential and probable mass migration to the EU driven by demographics, economic and political failures and climate change.

The UK looks out across the North Sea to Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, and across the Channel to Belgium and France; to our west lie the USA and Canada. It is an envious position to be in, though not one deserving of complacency: we still want a secure and stable EU. We are committed to the peace and security of Europe through NATO; in these respects, our interests and obligation in NATO, we are tied in.

One of the problems in the current negotiations is that the EU has re-written history to build up its own role in keeping the peace of the last half century. One of its foundational myths is that it has been the EU that has kept the peace in Europe. It even claims responsibility for the Belfast Agreement.

But its claims to success are absent of evidence. It is the transatlantic partnership that has kept the peace in Europe; it was the Northern Irish, London and Dublin – with US support – who brought about the Belfast Agreement. The EU forgets its role in the break up of Yugoslavia, and the subsequent wars and civil wars ended only with US engagement. Its diplomatic bungle over Kosovo, when it resurrected the July 1914 ultimatum to Serbia, ended likewise – and at great cost in civilian lives. The EU has not kept the peace in Europe.

The EU’s ambitious partnership proposal is overly ambitious, based as it is on inflated ideas of its own story and present capability; the ideas of uniquely shared values and interests ignore that they are shared with the English-speaking world and beyond. When the myth is removed, and the reality of the EU’s position is seen — its risk levels, its lack of investment in NATO and its own level of defence preparedness, and its poor relations with its neighbours — it is hardly an attractive partner; more of a liability.

The EU, quite understandably, wants the UK as closely tied in as possible to its defence and foreign policy (and economy). The UK, quite understandably, does not. Present commitments through NATO provide sufficient security to the EU’s members and help balance much, though not all, of their security concerns. The UK will do more, through co-operation bilaterally with members and freely alongside the EU too.

The EU and UK can co-operate to secure shared interests, but ultimately, though the UK wants a stable and secure EU and stability and security for its member states, there are differences in interests. The UK must be free to run its own foreign policy, champion alliances that may take precedence over that with the EU and policies that the EU will oppose — even the freedom to support member state interests against those of the EU institutions. It cannot be tied-in to a punitive governance structure to prevent it exercising such choices.

The overarching principles of the EU and the UK as regards governance of the future relationship are in conflict — we can’t be tied-in and free simultaneously; papering over the differences would breed confusion and likely lead to fresh upsets in the future. The UK cannot afford to accept a single overarching governance structure or claims upon it in the field of the EU’s common foreign policy and defence.