Having my phone stolen was bad. But the bureaucracy that followed was almost worse.

5 Aug

On Saturday night I had an experience that has become all-too common among Londoners – and, indeed, other city dwellers. My phone got stolen.

I had been walking home, looking at my phone (stupidly), when a boy on his bicycle snatched it out of my hands. My brain took a second to process what had happened. And then my first instinct was to scream and shout for help.

Although the crime did not exactly warrant screaming – it is not the most serious – I was in effect trying to draw attention to him and encourage someone to come out, stop him and/ or call the police. “F**k you” I yelled down the street, interspersed with screams. I also sprinted after him for about 100 metres. I really, really didn’t want my phone to go.

Maybe the most disappointing thing about this experience was that no one did anything when I screamed. I wonder what if it had been a more serious crime? Victims get blamed when they don’t call for help. But nothing happened when I did.

My neighbourhood is a very woke area. It has signs boasting that it’s anti-fascist – and there are other symbols of social justice. Yet when it came to the crunch, no one was there. Perhaps a more sympathetic explanation is that people are desensitised to petty theft, so frequent has it become.

Afterwards some women stuck their heads out of their windows. “Are you okay?” One said. I clearly wasn’t and was crying. “I’m coming down”, said another. But she didn’t, and I just went home.

Luckily I have an amazing support network. I was able to get help quickly from my parents when I got home and was touched by everyone who checked I was okay. Despite this being such a “normal” crime, people were incredibly empathetic on Twitter and Facebook – and took it very seriously that I was upset.

Too many people replied that this crime had happened to them. They used the words “shaken up”, “gutting” and other terms I, through the hard way, now fully understood. I hate how accepted theft has become. It makes me feel that we’re too soppy about it, generally (“well if only we hadn’t made cuts to the youth club”), and it’s something I have resultantly become more interested in as a political matter.

Part Two

The second part of this piece is about the admin that followed – which was almost worse than the event. On Sunday the following morning I went to my phone store, thinking I could get mine replaced right there and then, in what turned out to be a very optimistic estimate.

When I went in and told the staff what had happened, they came across as nonchalant – as though they needed their morning coffee first – and got me to phone their insurance line. One of the most “catch 22” things about having your phone stolen is that you have to phone for help. As I live alone and cannot borrow a phone, I was reliant on using the shop’s.

Next problem. The phone line at the store was close to inaudible. When I pointed this out to the staff, they told me there was nothing they could do. “But you’re a phone shop,” I replied. For me to just about hear the line, the security guard had to close the store door, turn down the music and let me stand in a corridor next to the staff room.

I went to the phone shop three times in total. After my second trip, I emailed a claim, via my Gmail account, to the insurers. I got a receipt and learnt that it would take two days to process. Then I got a new problem: I got locked out of Gmail, as I have always used two-factor verification – and had no mobile to log in.

So off I went again to the shop – to phone the insurers and tell them to use another email (which I wasn’t logged out of). This time the phone line was even more inaudible, but I could make out the woman who answered telling me that they had not received my insurance claim (a day after I had sent it) – and could I send it again?

I am afraid, feeling very fed up with things, I cried. For the first time, the staff in the phone shop seemed to care. A staff member offered me a tissue and lent me her own phone for the insurers to call back on, which was slightly more audible.

During my time getting this sorted out, I had to listen to another stressed-out woman in the shop (as well as a preacher yelling outside!). I won’t go into too many details of the woman’s complaint, but she had been charged £400, and was – as you might imagine – upset, to the point of threatening she “wasn’t very nice” when she was in this state. Being in the shop for three days honestly made it look more like a counselling service – with customers constantly venting to despondent staff.

Even though I found the staff unhelpful – the man serving coffee outside was more sympathetic to my situation – I don’t blame them for being so checked out, as they were often middlemen/women between angry/sad customers and bureaucracy. So often these companies boast of their social justice credentials – their commitment to climate change and helping people and so forth – but the human aspect of their service has become non-existent.

We hear that banks end up “too big to fail”, but perhaps organisations have also become “too bureaucratic to help”, with staff that lack soft skills – because there is no incentive – and have little impact on the outcome for the customer. Central bureaucracy calls the shots, with the customer ever short of power to get what they need, and ever bewildered by their contracts. With the growth of big tech, I wonder how much further this imbalance will go.

Again, this made me think about matters bigger than my phone (a replacement of which I am still waiting for…).

Jayne Adye: It’s time to move beyond Brussels on financial services

26 Jul

Jayne Adye is the Director of the leading grassroots, cross-Party, Eurosceptic campaign Get Britain Out.

Since the UK finally left the EU at the end of 2020, there has been an almost universal focus on the problems created by the Northern Ireland Protocol, as well as the abandonment of UK fishing communities. However, despite being this country’s single biggest export to both the EU and the rest of the world, the financial services industry has seemingly been entirely ignored.

In the last month Rishi Sunak, Lord Frost, and Andrew Bailey, the Governor of the Bank of England, have all confirmed a deal on financial services equivalence with the EU somehow appears to be dead in the water.

The EU’s justification for the lack of progress is the UK’s refusal to commit to “dynamic alignment with EU regulatory changes” for years to come. Why should we accept these demands when this is not a requisite which the EU has forced on any other countries they have equivalence deals with – for example the USA, China and Singapore – so why single out the UK?

Despite this clear pattern of unreasonable rejection, the UK Government has been unwilling to take any real action to move beyond this stalemate, leaving businesses and investors unable to properly plan for our future.

Yes, the Chancellor tried to get the ball rolling this month with his speech at Mansion House, announcing the world’s first Green Bond (a fixed-income instrument designed to support specific climate-related or environmental projects) ahead of the ahead of the COP26 Climate Conference, scheduled to be held in Glasgow from October 31 – November 12 this year.

Unfortunately, the Chancellor’s detail was limited, with interest rates for the bonds not announced and a greater focus on making sure businesses report the impact they have on the environment. While this is a good start, it barely scratches the surface of the possibilities available to the UK and the Chancellor does not seem to be making any substantial attempts to change the regulations enforced on us by the EU.

Thankfully, because the City of London is such a significant player on the world stage, the stalemate and lack of cooperation from the EU is never going to end the dominance which the UK has enjoyed for so long. To use the mainstream media’s favourite term, “Despite Brexit…”, London is still the top financial services hub in Europe and has even reclaimed the top spot for European share trading which was held by Amsterdam for a short time recently – in spite of the EU attempting to block London-based firms doing business in the EU.

In other words, even though some additional barriers have been created, companies and individuals still want to choose the expertise and experience which exists in London, rather than move to the EU – contrary to what many had claimed.

So, with the UK’s advantages over the EU being so clear, why do we seem stuck in the mud when it comes to implementing the advantages of Brexit? Right now the Government appears to be unwilling to diverge from the EU, seemingly for no other reason than “not rocking the boat” and “upsetting the EU” while we negotiate other areas of concern – primarily Northern Ireland, as the Government announced last week with their ambitious call for a total renegotiation of the NI Protocol.

This tip-toeing over glass on these issues simply cannot continue. Yes, London has maintained its position in the world, but if the Government wants to reach the full potential of Brexit, then this must mean bringing about serious change and not simply accepting the status quo. Nobody stays at the top by doing nothing. As an independent country, we cannot deprive ourselves of opportunities to thrive because it might annoy the European Union.

Quite frankly, anyone who makes this argument for the Government’s lack of action has not been paying attention. We currently seem to be sitting idly by, wasting time by continuing to abide by EU legislation, and in return the EU is not showing us any leniency or “goodwill”. Instead, it is trying to carve off Northern Ireland from this country – recently rejecting our proposals for renegotiation in just three hours; hitting us with multiple legal threats; and now it is demanding an extra £2 billion as part of a “Divorce Bill” (which was only agreed because of the UK’s desire to show goodwill).

The EU clearly has no interest in “playing nicely”, so it is about time we stopped the charades and got on with putting out own interests first – whether that be triggering Article 16 of the NI Protocol or slashing EU financial services regulation.

Companies have flocked to the UK for decades because of their trust in our economic system and the “light-touch” regulation which drives it. This has been diluted through our EU Membership, but it is something we can recover from.

There are swathes of EU regulations governing financial services and investment which we actually opposed at the time of their creation – such as the Solvency 2 laws on investment risks; and the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive – both of these create swathes of bureaucracy which stymie innovation and try to remove any chance of businesses taking risks – risks which help drive an economy forward at a higher rate and create more competition.

No, this doesn’t mean financial services should be an industry devoid of scrutiny or regulation. This is about shaping a system which encourages new businesses and is prepared for the future, rather than being stuck in the past, tied to a sclerotic EU legislative process which lags behind the rest of the world.

The UK has the chance to cement itself “as the most advanced and exciting country for financial services in the world”, as Sunak described at Mansion House. However, the Government must have the courage to reach out, grab this chance and bring about real regulatory change quickly. Whether this is by encouraging FinTech, green investment or digital trade, our exit from the European Union has come at an opportune time when fresh thinking and a new regulatory approach can allow the United Kingdom to reach its full economic potential.

It is clear a “good deal” with the EU is not on the cards anytime soon, so the Chancellor must not lose this opportunity to push forward and really Get Britain Out of the mindset where we worry about how our every move might affect the relationship we already have with the EU. We are now an independent sovereign nation, and it is time this Government started acting like we want to forge ahead to really explore the advantages of a truly Global Britain.

Daniel Hannan: London was always going to be fine post-Brexit. But now we must cut EU rules and allow it to prosper.

7 Jul

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Brexit was never going to kill the City. It is a measure of how demented our culture war became after 2016 that that notion was ever seriously entertained. London gained the top spot through strong property rights, incorruptible courts, secure contracts, light-touch regulation and low taxes. Everyone understood that the system was impartial, that the rules would not be rigged against foreign companies, that all were equal under the law.

Those features allowed London to retain its pre-eminence despite the decline of sterling as a global currency, despite the Second World War, and despite the economic collapse of the 1970s. Companies from around the world recognised that the best and cheapest money markets were disproportionately concentrated in the Square Mile. EEC membership had little to do with it.

Eurocrats never saw things that way, of course. In their eyes, London was a parasite, moving money around while honest Europeans did the more “real” work of making cars, producing chemicals and ploughing fields. Brexit, they believed, was an opportunity to shift jobs to Paris, Frankfurt and Milan, and to divert the accompanying tax revenues to their own coffers.

Emmanuel Macron came to London and pitched directly for companies to relocate. His ministers set up offices to advise on the transition. Frankfurt expanded its English-language schools.

Meanwhile, Brussels set out to be as bellicose as possible. UK-based firms found that the letter of the law was suddenly being forced on them with a perversity that their Japanese or American rivals were spared. At the same time, the EU refused to grant equivalence to British financial services providers.

Equivalence – essentially an agreement to trust each other’s regulators – is a normal courtesy among advanced economies. The EU offers it to Brazilian, Chinese and Mexican companies. Britain, naturally, offers it to the EU. But the EU evidently believed that refusing to reciprocate might somehow asphyxiate London.

It didn’t work. This would have been obvious had it not been for the hysterical tone of Britain’s Europhile broadcasters, determined as they were to show that Brexit had been a catastrophe.

Every relocation of a UK job to the Continent was drooled over with a kind of excited despair, while almost no attention was paid to jobs moving the other way – or, indeed, new jobs being created. When, as a result of EU restrictions, Amsterdam briefly overtook London in the volume of shares being traded, there was terrific excitement; when London reclaimed its place last week, coverage was muted.

The EU’s strategy is self-harming. Protectionism always makes the state applying it poorer. Making it harder for continental firms to access London finance does more damage to the continental firms than to London. It also signals to the world that Brussels discriminates on the basis of nationality, subordinating prosperity to prejudice.

Had the EU been more adroit, it might have sought to make itself more attractive. Instead of denying Britain equivalence, it would have looked for ways to lower its own taxes and to reassure the world that it would not tilt the scales against foreign companies. But, for whatever reason, it cannot bring itself to think that way.

Don’t imagine for a moment, though, that London’s dominance is guaranteed. The City has no automatic right to the top slot. It must earn that place anew every day. Brexit doesn’t just allow the City to make its regulatory regime more competitive; it obliges it to do so.

As Andrew Bailey, the Governor of the Bank of England, put it earlier this year: “I’m afraid a world in which the EU dictates and determines what rules and standards we have in the UK is not going to work”.

There was an argument – a weak argument, in my view, but an argument – for matching some EU standards for the sake of equivalence. But when Brussels won’t recognise even our current rules, which are identical to its own, there is no argument whatever for holding back.

We should begin by repealing those EU rules which were opposed by the industry when they were brought in, even if, having now assimilated the compliance costs, some established actors have lost interest in repeal. We need to think of future businesses as well as existing ones. We should undo the parts of the EU’s MiFID 2 and Solvency 2 regimes that we opposed at the time, and scrap the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive and the short-selling ban.

More broadly, we need lighter-touch regulation. Many of our rules are still aimed at preventing the 2008 crash, rather than at facilitating future growth in fintech, green investment and digital trade. At the very least, we should make competitiveness an explicit part of the regulators’ mandate – certainly no less than stability, confidence or consumer protection. Other regulators, such as Singapore’s, take it for granted that boosting competitiveness is part of their role.

And let’s not be shy about cutting taxes in ways that will attract investment and so, over time, increase revenue. It is hard, on Laffer curve grounds, to justify the bank corporation tax surcharge or stamp duty on share trading. We also need to end the absurd rule which limits bonuses – thus whacking up bankers’ basic salaries and reducing the link between performance and pay.

Some of these reforms might be unpopular. But, with our public finances in the state they are in, we can’t afford to subordinate our recovery to the prejudices of focus groups. Financial services are, to Britain, what tourism is to the Maldives. As our mediaeval wealth rested on wool, so our modern wealth rests on banking, insurance and investment. I’m not asking you to like bankers and hedgies; I’m just asking you to recognise that they pay 10 per cent of Britain’s taxes.

The PM wants to show that Brexit has tangible benefits, and commissioned Iain Duncan Smith, George Freeman and Theresa Villiers to look at ways to raise our competitiveness. Their report in May set out a measured and realistic plan to do precisely this.

But, as anyone who has worked in politics will tell you, the real challenge is turning your vision into hard policies over the head of an often change-averse civil service. “Between the idea and the reality,” wrote T S Eliot, “Between the motion and the act falls the Shadow”. Between the speech and the implementation, between the report and the legislation, between the ambition and the deregulation – falls the Shadow.

George Freeman: This new report shows how we can build on Britain’s vaccine success to make the best of Brexit

16 Jun

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.

Nothing better illustrates the advantages of being outside the EU than the UK’s vaccine success. Our leadership in genomics, vaccine research and development, accelerated access trials and our ability to procure at speed has allowed the UK to lead the world in the battle against the pandemic. This has been a London 2012 moment for UK Life Science.

But it could have been very different. In 2010, the UK Life Science sector was in a decline: Pfizer closed its UK R+D HQ, Astra Zeneca announced it was closing its UK R+D HQ to move to Massachusetts, and other companies were reducing their UK presence.

The UK was falling behind as a global destination of choice. The combination of slower and more expensive clinical trials, slow NHS procurement, lack of leadership in genomics and clinical informatics (data on how new drugs work in patients) set alarm bells ringing.

The new Government responded. Having just been elected after a career in the biomedical research sector, I was lucky enough to be appointed Government Life Science Adviser to lead the UK Life Science Strategy.

We appointed Sir John Bell, launched a ground-breaking ten-year strategic commitment to lead in the genomics and clinical informatics so key to modern research. We unveiled Genomics England, NHS Digital and MHRA parallel approvals. I also launched the Biomedical Catalyst, Accelerated Access Reform to NHS procurement, the Early Access to Innovative Medicines Scheme and the UK Life Science Investment Office. We worked with AZ to persuade them to move to Cambridge UK, not Cambridge Massachusetts.

Over the next five years we pulled in over £5 billion of inward investment. It’s a model of what we can do in other sectors.

Boris Johnson gets this. That’s why I was delighted to accept the Prime Minister’s invitation to help lead the new Taskforce for Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR) with Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers. We came from opposite sides of the Brexit debate – two of us having supported Leave and one Remain – but with a shared determination to make this a moment of profound renewal. The urgency of the post-Covid recovery makes this more essential than ever. Our TIGRR report published today shows how the UK can deliver on the promises of Brexit without abandoning our high standards.

We are living through an extraordinary period of technological change – not just in life science but in host of sectors: from AI to robotics to agri-tech, nutraceuticals, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, biofuels, satellites and fusion energy.

The UK is indeed a ‘science superpower’. But we have traditionally been woeful at commercialising here in the UK. There are many reasons. But, in recent years, the EU’s increasingly slow, bureaucratic and ‘precautionary’ approach – copied in Whitehall – has made the EU and the UK an increasingly poor place to commercialise new technology.

In 2013 BASF, one of the giants of German industry, moved its crop science division to the USA because of EU regulations preventing agricultural genomics which are the key to reducing chemical farming by promoting naturally occurring disease resistant traits. That’s why I wrote the Fresh Start Report in 2014 urging the EU to reform to avoid regulating the UK into the slow lane of global bioscience. And why, as UK Minister for the sector, I pushed for reform and warned the EU that they risked the UK leaving if they didn’t reform. They didn’t. We did.

For years the Brexo-sceptics have cynically sneered that there is no Brexit dividend. There is.

We need urgently to usher in a new era of ‘smart’ regulation. That means ensuring that Britain is once again a global leader not just in science but in commercialisation of innovation. We can do that by harnessing the City to make the UK a global innovation financing capital of the world, and through our trade and aid policies to boost global exports and technology transfer. Now those decisions are back in our hands. Our critics assert that the only regulatory dividend is in abolishing workers’ rights and environmental standards in a ‘race to the bottom’. They are profoundly wrong.

Of course, there are some daft regulations we can get rid of like the EU ban on the blight-resistant potato. In fact, the blight-resistant potato reduces the need for around 14 applications of toxic (and highly carbon intensive) fungicide and could help avoid famine and starvation. We can also do without the lobbyists dominating Brussels corridors for big corporates and promoting regulations which exclude new entrants.

Successive governments have announced ‘bonfires of red tape’. But no one would want a vaccine that hadn’t been tested properly. Or food with E. coli. Or dangerous workplaces with high rates of injury.

The key to smart regulation is to play to our strengths. We must embrace global leadership in smart, agile regulation in the highest growing sectors of tomorrow. Around the world, the UK is still highly trusted as a regulator of choice. We have a chance to build on that.

The TIGGR report published today sets out three big recommendations for post-Brexit regulation.

First, a coherent strategic framework for UK regulatory leadership in an innovation age.

Second, ten high-growth sectors we could unlock NOW with the right regulatory structure and where we must focus our efforts for post-Covid Recovery.

Third, a strong commitment to delivery and proper accountability to Parliament. Taking back control means WE set our regulations in a way that reflects UK values and UK public opinion.

Over the course of the last six months, we have held 75 industry roundtables. The result is a serious plan that ensures we become a pioneer of smart, innovative regulation. Not by abandoning our standards but by improving them. The TIGRR report today shows how it can be done.

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.