Stephen Greenhalgh: The pandemic has shown faith groups helped those in need. We aim to foster that spirit.

14 Sep

Lord Greenhalgh is the Minister of State for Building Safety, Fire and Communities.

Over the past year and a half, the response of faith communities to the pandemic has been remarkable and I have been extremely proud of being the Faith Minister during this time.

Up and down the country, faith communities have risen to the challenges created by the pandemic, offering solace to so many people, not only for their spiritual wellbeing, but also by providing a multitude of support services.

Faith groups have been a lynchpin for many, providing pastoral care, support networks for older or vulnerable people, and continuing informal education and enriching cultural activities online.

Faith groups have also been at the forefront of the vaccine roll out, promoting and supporting people to take up the vaccine as well as countering the spread of misinformation – with many vaccines being given in places of worship up and down the country.

I am therefore delighted to share the steps I have taken to ensure we can build on the work witnessed over the past 18 months and strengthen the nature of engagement between national government, local government, and faith groups.

The Faith New Deal Pilot Fund has two elements:

  • £1,000,000 (including £25,000 to aid capacity building in the faith community sector) available through a competitive Grant Fund to support Faith groups to deliver innovative partnership projects
  • Development of a Faith Compact which will set out key principles to aid engagement between faith groups, national government, and local government.

Each element aims to bring in the underutilised capacity of the faith sector to work alongside local public services. I am also seeking to reduce the number of initiatives taking place in silo, and make best use of national, local and philanthropic funding.

It is important to acknowledge two reports from parliamentarians / parliamentary groups that have helped to shape this new policy. Danny Kruger’s report for government, ‘Levelling up our communities: proposals for a new social covenant‘  and the APPG on Faith and Society’s report, ‘Keeping the Faith – Partnerships between faith groups and local authorities during and beyond the pandemic’.

Both reports set out the ability of faith groups to provide innovative solutions to complex problems to make valuable contributions to all parts of society.  I also expect the independent advisor Colin Bloom’s report on the Government’s engagement with faith communities to help me further form this policy – specifically the Faith Compact.

The £1m Faith New Deal Pilot Fund

The pilot fund is a new, competitive grant programme to test and strengthen relationships between public bodies and Faith groups. My intention is for this fund to explore how we build on the way faith groups have partnered with national and local government throughout the pandemic to see how we can forge a ‘new deal’ between government and faith communities to galvanise our energy in the national COVID-19 recovery effort.

The Fund has been designed to provide proof of concept that faith groups can play a significant and effective role in supporting wider communities to solve local problems, levering in additional philanthropic resources and providing match funding from their own resources. The intention for the funded projects is that they support capacity building efforts to develop learning and good practice, documenting the impact of their programmes and their unique role and contribution to civil society.

Faith Compact

The Faith New Deal Pilot Fund will also inform the development of a Faith Compact, a set of partnership principles, to strengthen existing collaboration and inform future relationships. The Compact will seek to promote open working at all levels to give faith groups the opportunity to continue to work constructively and effectively as part of civil society. We will work closely with the APPG on Faith and Society, Danny Kruger MP, and Colin Bloom to determine the most effective way to inform this work.

The time is right to announce this new policy in response to recommendations made from our colleagues in parliament and the exceptional work we have witnessed over the last 18 months. The Faith New Deal will continue to build on the tenets of common understanding and collaboration and the fundamental proposition that by working together, we will achieve more through our common endeavours.

Andy Street: Community ownership can help secure a future for our pubs

18 May

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

Since I was re-elected as Mayor of the West Midlands just over a week ago, my diary has been full – and rightly so. There is much to be done.

Throughout the campaign, my message was always that I was ready to get straight back to work – to start the task of creating 100,000 jobs in the next two years, attracting new investment, and pressing on with our transport and housing plans. Thanks to detailed planning, we were ready to hit the ground running.

This week represents a major step towards recovery, as lockdown restrictions are eased further. For the owners of restaurants, cafes, gyms, fitness clubs, wedding venues, holiday lets, hotels, B&Bs and many other types of business this will be a big few days.

In this column, I want to focus on the sector whose fortunes have in some ways come to be seen as a barometer of recovery – pubs.

Pubs are, quite simply, part of the fabric of British life. That’s why, I believe, my visit to a Wolverhampton pub while on the campaign trail with the Prime Minister last month gathered so much interest. For many, the simple act of being able to go out for a pint has become shorthand for a return to normality.

I want to tell you about a scheme launched here to help protect local pubs, and also how I believe it reflects broader changes across society regarding much-loved community assets, and how the growing social economy can protect them.

The pandemic has had a brutal effect on our pubs. The facts are stark: over 2,500 pubs across the UK closed down in 2020 – an increase of 50 per cent on the previous year, and a figure which represents five per cent of all pubs in the country. While venues lucky enough to have outdoor space have been able to safely serve some customers since mid-April, this week’s easing of indoor restrictions has been long awaited.

Throughout the pandemic, I have battled for extra help for the hospitality industry, but the cruel reality is that at the time when we are most looking forward to visiting pubs again, there will be less of them to return to.

Of course, many pubs will make a strong recovery once lockdown is lifted, but some inevitably will not. That’s why we have launched a scheme to give people the chance to save those pubs by bringing them into community ownership.

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has partnered with Plunkett Foundation, a community business charity, to help community groups establish action plans, build capacity, and raise the finance to take ownership of local pubs. The statistics show that it works, too. Community-owned pubs have a 99.3 per cent long-term survival rate.

An initial £10,000 investment will enable the Plunkett Foundation to support seven community pub groups – one from each of the boroughs that make up the WMCA. Those groups will get tailored business support and advice, online training, peer-to-peer networking and the chance to visit some of the 150 existing community-run pubs in the UK.

Crucially, saving these pubs will also help address issues of isolation, loneliness, wellbeing, work, and training as well as protecting much-loved community businesses and buildings.

But I also believe that this new scheme reflects a broader change across society, where communities are stepping forward to take responsibility for local assets they value.

Sometimes the people involved are volunteers who simply want to ensure that a cherished building looks at its best, sometimes they are organised groups with serious business plans to revitalise services and create jobs. The common factor is that communities across the West Midlands are realising they can help retain much-loved buildings and boost local civic pride.

There are all lots of examples. In Solihull, a group of dedicated volunteers looks after the town’s main railway station. In Sutton Coldfield, the Royal Town’s historic Town Hall has been transferred from Birmingham City Council to a locally-run Trust, who are bidding for funds to give it a new lease of life. In Erdington, a community association is putting together an ambitious funding bid to turn a boarded-up Victorian baths into a community hub. A determined community Trust is campaigning to turn Harborne’s old Royalty Cinema into a mixed-use commercial and community facility too.

The Government also recognises the huge potential of community ownership, with the £150 million Community Ownership Fund set to open in June.

All of this suggests that community spirit is alive and well. As the UK emerges from the pandemic, I believe we will need that social cohesion more than ever. And that means a crucial yet often overlooked part of local life, the Social Economy, will play a vital role in our recovery.

In 2019 I launched the Social Economy Taskforce with the ambition to double the size of the region’s Social Economy within ten years. As a sign of our belief in its importance, the WMCA has pledged to spend at least five per cent of its procurement budget on social enterprises, while we are also urging local businesses to consider them when buying goods or services.

Our new scheme to bring pubs into community ownership adds another important part to a tapestry of social enterprises, charities and organisations that often form the social safety net needed to support those impacted by the tough times we are living in.

If there has been one positive thing to come out of the pandemic, it has been the renewed sense of community spirit born of adversity. As they open their doors this week, publicans will be hoping to see that reflected by ringing tills. By including pubs in the burgeoning Social Economy, we will ensure more can keep their doors open – and we can all raise a glass to that.

Profile: Danny Kruger, defender of Christian conservatism and traditional ideas of virtue

31 Mar

Who now dares to talk about the virtues? Danny Kruger, MP since December 2019 for Devizes, is one of the few parliamentarians who ventures to do so.

In his latest declaration, jointly launched with Miriam Cates, who in 2019 took Penistone and Stocksbridge from Labour, Kruger begins by denouncing the facile assumption that we are all born good:

“What is the job of society? There is a modern delusion that we are born pure, and then corrupted by an unfair world. But surely the plain truth is that we are born greedy, narcissistic and violent. That’s why laissez-faire doesn’t work any more than big government. Left entirely to ourselves, individuals will exploit, slack off, rent-seek, and cheat.”

So we need to be educated:

“The job of society is to teach us to temper these impulses and to train us in a different set of habits. What habits are these? The old times called them the virtues: the practices that human beings are uniquely good at, like courage, temperance, fortitude, creativity, compassion and shrewdness. The virtues make us happy and great, and make life better for everyone else.”

Kruger calls for “a New Social Covenant”, under which “the family, the community and the nation” become our “schools of virtue”, and goes on to enunciate 12 propositions, including:

“The state should safeguard the customs of the country.”

“We need a new ‘economics of place’ instead of the failed doctrine of economic mobility.”

“Marriage is a public institution and essential to society.”

He proceeds to defend these propositions in a reasonable and erudite tone, for he has been working on this for a long time. Kruger was the author of David Cameron’s “Hug a Hoodie” speech, delivered in July 2006 to the Centre for Social Justice.

Cameron had become Leader of the Opposition in December 2005, and needed to show that after three general election defeats, the Conservatives were at last undertaking the fundamental changes that were required.

In April 2006 Cameron signalled the modernisation of environment policy by going to Norway to hug a husky, and three months later he proclaimed, at the Centre for Social Justice, founded by Iain Duncan Smith, his commitment to understanding rather than condemning young people who wore hoodies, an item of clothing which had recently been banned, with Tony Blair’s approval, by the Bluewater Shopping Centre.

Not everyone was impressed by this exercise in compassionate conservatism. According to Kruger, reminiscing in The Spectator in June 2008:

“The day of Boris’s election [as Mayor of London on 1st May 2008] was also the day I stopped work as David Cameron’s speechwriter to go full-time at the charity my wife and I founded two years ago to work with prisoners and ex-offenders. My main claim to distinction in my old job was drafting the speech in which David said something capable of the construction (though not the words, not the words themselves) that the public should all get out there and hug hoodies.

“This speech has gone down in Tory lore as a terrible blunder, but I am still rather proud of it. The nub of it was, that while we should certainly punish people who cross the line into criminality, on this side of the line we need ‘to show a lot more love’.

“Love is a neglected crime-fighting device. But the need for it is powerfully proved in Felicity de Zulueta’s important book From Pain to Violence: The Traumatic Roots of Destructiveness. She argues that violence and hatred are not motive forces of their own: they are the terrible expression of wrecked relationships, of thwarted love.

“Men and women seem to have a yearning for agency, for the ability to affect things. As de Zulueta puts it, the sense of helplessness is ‘a state tantamount to annihilation’; we will do anything to avoid it. Hence self-harm, and what youth workers call ‘self-sabotage’ — the apparently wilful screwing-up of opportunities, the no-show, the walking-away at the moment before achievement. People who feel incapable, feel the need to prove it: failure, at least, is something they can author.”

One sees that for Kruger, all this really matters. Cameron spoke about it as if he too cared deeply about it. But somehow the Big Society, as this strand in his programme became known (Steve Hilton is credited with inventing the name), never quite achieved lift-off.

There are, after all, serious difficulties in proclaiming a manifesto derived from Christian teaching. Fewer and fewer voters regard themselves as Christians.

Nor does any politician with half an ear for public sensitivities wish to adopt a holier-than-thou tone of voice. Piety would be insufferable. The present Prime Minister makes every effort, in his daily proclamations about the pandemic, to avoid sounding preachy.

And the Big Society, with its support for voluntary work in support of civil society, seemed to lack ideological content. Surely a socialist could believe as devoutly in it as a Conservative? Kruger himself suggested as much in an essay which appeared on ConservativeHome in October 2014, lamenting the dropping by Cameron of the idea:

“The Big Society elevated the national conversation to something approaching a moral discourse: what sort of society do we want? What are our own responsibilities, what are others’? What is the condition of my community, and what can we do about it?

“If these weren’t two ridiculous words for a Conservative leader to adopt I would have advised David Cameron to call himself a ‘new socialist’. Old socialism was about using the power of the state to advance the interests and wellbeing of the working class. New socialism is about using the power of society to protect minorities, defend and promote local communities, and create opportunities.”

Essay question for aspiring Conservative candidates: “Is Boris Johnson a new socialist? Discuss.”

Kruger is not a socialist. He is a politician with the moral courage to think for himself.

This he inherits from his father, Rayne Kruger, who rather than do the conventional thing, liked to back his own judgment, as the admirable and admiring obituary of him in The Times made clear.

The elder Kruger, who was born in South Africa and moved while still a young man to London, married first an actress 16 years older than himself – in Pygmalion she had played Eliza to his Professor Higgins – and secondly a young South African woman who had arrived in London intending to make her way as a Cordon Bleu cook.

She was called Prue Leith, and their son, Danny, was born in October 1975, three days after they married. She has since achieved fame and fortune as a restaurateur, with her husband running the business side of things; and is now yet better known as a presenter of The Great British Bake Off.

A friend says of Danny:

“He’s more like his mother than he thinks he is. She just gets stuff done by energy and determination. He’s turning out like that.”

He was educated at Eton, read history at Edinburgh, at Oxford wrote a doctorate about Edmund Burke, and was more inclined to lie in the bath thinking great thoughts than to do the washing up.

He was liberated from this perhaps rather stuffy, old-fashioned mode of life by falling in love with his future wife, Emma, a teacher. She was an evangelical Christian and prayed that he would be converted, which he was. For a time they lived on a council estate. They have three children.

Kruger became the guy who would do the washing up, and in 2005 (after early stints as director of studies at the Centre for Policy Studies, Conservative policy adviser, and chief leader writer on The Daily Telegraph) he and Emma set up Only Connect, a prison charity which they ran for ten years, and which concentrates on helping offenders not to reoffend.

Also in 2005, Kruger was obliged to stand down as the Conservative candidate in Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat) after The Guardian reported that he had declared: “We plan to introduce a period of creative destruction in the public services.”

He is a good friend of Dominic Cummings, and backed Vote Leave.

In the summer of 2019, Cummings brought Kruger to Downing Street as Johnson’s Political Secretary, charged with maintaining relations with Tory backbenchers during the exceptionally turbulent months when the new Prime Minister was striving to get Brexit through.

When I met Kruger in the Palace of Westminster on one night of high drama, he seemed in his imperturbable way to be enjoying himself.

In November 2019, Kruger won selection for the safe Conservative seat of Devizes, after CCHQ had intervened to cut the short list from six to only three candidates.

At the end of his maiden speech, delivered on 29 January 2020, he returned to the Christian roots of our politics:

“I finish on a more abstract issue, but it is one that we will find ourselves debating in many different forms in this Parliament. It is the issue of identity, of who we are both as individuals and in relation to each other. We traditionally had a sense of this: we are children of God, fallen but redeemed. Capable of great wrong but capable of great virtue. Even for those who did not believe in God, there was a sense that our country is rooted in Christianity and that our liberties derive from the Christian idea of absolute human dignity.

“Today those ideas are losing their purchase, so we are trying to find a new set of values to guide us, a new language of rights and wrongs, and a new idea of identity based not on our universal inner value or on our membership of a common culture but on our particular differences.

“I state this as neutrally as I can, because I know that good people are trying hard to make a better world and that Christianity and the western past are badly stained by violence and injustice, but I am not sure that we should so casually throw away the inheritance of our culture.”

On the morning of Saturday 23rd May, just after the story had broken of the visit during the first lockdown to County Durham by Cummings and his wife Mary Wakefield, Kruger leapt to their defence on Twitter:

“Dom and Mary’s journey was necessary and therefore within rules. What’s also necessary is not attacking a man and his family for decisions taken at a time of great stress and worry, the fear of death and concern for a child. This isn’t a story for the normal political shitkickery.”

In the days that followed, Kruger stuck to his guns, telling other newly elected MPs:

“No 10 won’t budge, so calling for DC to go is basically declaring no confidence in PM.”

To make this stand amid such a storm of protest showed fortitude. One of the advantages of believing in a moral tradition is that it may render one less liable to be swept hither and thither by one moral panic after another. Here is Kruger speaking a few days ago in a debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill:

“Our culture historically taught men that they had a duty to honour and protect women. It is a difficult thing to say, because it may appear that I want to turn back the clock to a time when men chivalrously protected the weaker sex, but of course, as I have said, that is not how it always was in the old days, and even if it had been, we do not accept the idea that women need protection by men; they just need men to behave themselves. So let me say emphatically that I do not want to turn back the clock; however, we do need to face the fact that our modern culture has not delivered all the progress it was supposed to. I wonder whether that is because our modern culture has a problem with telling people how to behave—it has a problem with society having a moral framework at all.”

Many voters, not all of them Conservative, will agree with that. Kruger’s arguments are sometimes described as communitarian, but that pallid label does not convey the force of the challenge he poses to an intellectual establishment which supposes it can dispense with traditional ideas of virtue.

Marina Kim and Nabil Najjar: Let’s honour the heroes of the pandemic on the 23rd of March

22 Mar

Marina is communications and public affairs specialist; she set up the UK Community Network to help the most vulnerable people in society during the pandemic. Nabil is a political and international development consultant, and relationships and outreach coordinator for the UK Community Network.

The pandemic has brought out the best in our communities, with neighbours helping neighbours, Covid-19 mutual aid and community support groups taking off, and newfound support and gratitude for our NHS. We have even seen people who have never volunteered before stepping up for the occasion. It’s been heart-warming to see our society springing into action and self-organising on the ground.

As we prepare for easing off the restrictions and the road to recovery after a year of the pandemic, it is time to show our appreciation for people who have been supporting the most vulnerable in our communities across the country. With that in mind, here at the UK Community Network we propose marking the UK Community Day tomorrow.

Numerous cross-party MPs have already supported the idea. We hope many more MPs will be willing to show their support for the UK Community Day by speaking out publicly about it, making their constituents aware that they can take part by taking a pledge to volunteer on the day and, most importantly, making this a yearly event in our calendars.

While for some people volunteering is a way of life, others need more encouragement. Having one day each year dedicated to encouraging people to do something positive in their communities, and celebrating those who have gone above and beyond for others, would be a testament to their work, and a positive legacy from the pandemic.

And the time to do that is now, when the spirit of togetherness is almost omnipresent.

These activities do not necessarily require people to be in a group ,and do not have to be focused on the pandemic-related activities. Even picking up litter on your local beach or a park could be a great way to contribute. You could get involved online by raising awareness about a charity of your choice, donating money, fundraising, or doing a bit of research work for them.

We would also encourage charities to come up with ideas of how they would like people, some of whom might never have volunteered before, to get involved with them for Community Day to try out what the volunteering is like.

Volunteering does not only benefit to the person who is being helped, it can help people make friends and feel less lonely, learn new skills and advance your career, and even feel happier and healthier. It makes living in your local area more enjoyable. The Ipsos Mori research for the Cabinet Office in 2015 highlighted that almost all young participants in social action feel a ‘double benefit’ (93 per cent), in that they say they benefitted personally and considered that other people benefitted from their activities.

People who volunteer even once then get the bug to do so more often, and we are likely to see that spirit of the Community Day manifesting itself again and again for years to come.

This initiative joins together Community Heroes from all over the country. At a time when there are some voices that want the UK to be less united, the initiative to mark the UK Community Day does more than just celebrate the Heroes, it also unites the nation. We were pleased to see nearly a hundred people from Belfast, Manchester, Glasgow and small villages from all parts of the UK being nominated and selected as local Community Heroes, and at an online event on the 23rd, we are looking forward to showing our respect and admiration to them and hearing their stories.

At 8pm on the 23 March we will also be lighting the candles for a minute of silence to reflect and remember those who have been taken from us by the pandemic. The toll would have undoubtedly been worse without the selfless efforts of volunteers. Let’s celebrate our local heroes, support hardworking charities and community groups, and cement the spirit of togetherness. Let’s honour the heroes of the pandemic on the 23 March, the newly-proposed UK Community Day.

Nicholas Boys Smith: Home alone or terraced friendship?

7 Dec

Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets and Chairman of the Government’s Design Body Steering Group.

As the nation prepares to emerge, blinking, from Lockdown II, it is worth asking: what consequence is lockdown having on our relationships with those around us? And does where we live, influence this?

During the first lockdown, Create Streets undertook an indicative survey via social media of 438 people into the relationship between where they live and how connected they felt to their neighbours, both before and after lockdown. It was not a controlled survey so can only be indicative. Nevertheless, the breakdown of home types and locations is a reasonable match for the British population with only a modest skew. We therefore believe that, while not definitive, our findings are helpful particularly as some of them corroborate other findings in different countries and decades. We found that:

  • We came together during lockdown. Our study found that people know more of their neighbours than before lockdown, with 37 per cent of people now knowing six or more of their neighbours, compared to just 29 per cent before.
  • Good fences make good neighbours – terraced houses were the best COVID-beaters. Respondents living in terraced houses spoke to more neighbours than those living in other types of house or in flats. 40 per cent interacted with neighbours more than four times a week as opposed to 33 per cent of those living in semi-detached homes or 23 per cent in detached homes. Those living in purpose-built flats were the least likely to speak to their neighbours. 45 per cent of those living in apartment blocks did not interact with their neighbours in any way (over double the rate for terraced homes).
  • Cars appear to stifle neighbourliness. Those who used cars as their main form of transport were less likely to interact with their neighbours in any form (31 per cent), during and after the lockdown, compared to those who walked (25 per cent) or cycled (13 per cent). Cars are also associated with reduced social cohesion at street level. Fourteen percent fewer of those with properties facing busy streets were likely to interact with their neighbours regularly than those who lived on quieter streets.
  • Denser environments do not always guarantee tighter communities. Rural areas had greater levels of social interaction during lockdown compared to suburban and urban areas. Despite proximity, 32 per cent of respondents from urban areas stated they had no interactions with neighbours during and after lockdown. This was double the rate (16 per cent) of those who had no neighbourly interactions in rural areas.
  • Access to greenery is strongly associated with greater neighbourliness. Our research found that both access to front gardens and access to private gardens were associated with many more neighbourly interactions compared to environments with no outdoor space. Of the respondents with no form of outdoor space, 59 per cent did not have any social interactions with neighbours, during and after lockdown compared to 33 per cent from the rest of the sample.

2020 has brought untimely death to many and economic hardship to millions. And worse is yet to come. However, there is a thread of a silver lining. Lockdown has also helped re-forge bonds of neighbourliness and reminded us of what matters in ways which should perhaps never have been forgotten. As we (please heaven) re-find normality in the months to come, can we try to hold on to some of these modest but important upsides? It is worth it. Knowing more of our neighbours makes us happier. So does living in places we find attractive and safe.

The next few months and years are likely to be a period of flux in the spheres of planning, house-building, and highways design. Amongst the certain or probable changes are;

  • The government’s Gear Change Plan for walking and cycling has provided £2 billion of funding to encourage walking and cycling;
  • The new Highway Code is also expected to encourage more sustainable transport with a ‘hierarchy of road users’ where cyclists and pedestrians are at the top;
  • The new Manual for Streets 3 is expected to support street design which is less car-dominated, building on the important work of Manual for Streets;
  • The Urban Tree Challenge Fund is supporting the planting of at least 20,000 large trees and 110,00 smaller trees in English cities and towns;
  • The new model National Model Design Code (following on from last year’s National Design Guide) is expected to give local planning authorities clearer guidance on the creation of new places;
  • The Government has said it intends to implement most of the findings of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission which I co-chaired alongside the late Sir Roger Scruton and which recommended creating a ‘fast track for homes’ that local people find attractive; and
  • The vision set out in the Government’s White Paper, Planning for the Future, is likely to lead to local plans which are more visual and easier for the affected population to understand.

In this context, our indicative survey has several important suggestions for future highways and planning policy in order to support health, happiness, reduced land use, and public support for new homes. If we want to maximise public health and connectedness, highways policy and design codes should:

  • Create gardens. Local plans and local design codes should require front, back and communal gardens wherever possible (these can be modest in size). These are associated with speaking to your neighbours more which in turns is associated with personal well-being.
  • Create terraced streets. Local plans and local design codes should, wherever possible, support terraced homes. In our COVID survey, these are associated with speaking to your neighbours more than purpose-built flats or semi-detached or detached homes, whilst also being more space efficient.
  • Create quiet streets. Local plans, master-plans, and local design codes should create streets which design out fast speeds. These are associated with cleaner air and knowing more of your neighbours.
  • Support walking and cycling. Local plans, master-plans, and local design codes should create streets on which it is easy, pleasant, and safe to walk or cycle. Making it easy to get about by walking or cycling is associated with more neighbourly interactions.

Let’s escape from lockdown but let’s learn from it as well.

Mary Douglas: Defending freedom of speech as a local councillor was a battle worth fighting.

23 Nov

Cllr Mary Douglas represents the Salisbury St Francis and Stratford Division on Wiltshire Council.

Having served as a local councillor for 15 years, I was accused last November of breaching the council’s Code of Conduct because I disagreed publicly with the LGBT ideology promoted by a local Pride march. I explicitly affirmed the dignity and worth of those involved, explaining that it was not the people but their ideology which I opposed. Nonetheless I was accused of discrimination and told that my views were offensive and should not have been expressed.

I contested the accusation with support from the Christian Legal Centre, to whom I would like to express my heartfelt thanks. After enduring considerable personal abuse and a year-long investigation, I was finally exonerated and my right to freedom of speech upheld.

Was it worth it? Yes.

Why? Because freedom of speech matters.

It matters because it is essential for good relationships and good choices. It matters because it enables us to explore together what it is to be human.

Those who sought to stifle my freedom of speech equated my disagreement with disrespect, regarding it as antithetical to good relations. Yet, as we know from our own lives, the respectful expression of disagreement is essential for a healthy relationship.

The community cohesion to which we all aspire is not achieved by imposing one opinion on all, but by all recognising one humanity. It is not achieved by focussing on what makes us different from others, whether class or ethnicity or lifestyle; but by remembering what we have in common.

We are human beings, created in the image of God, of infinite worth, every one. We share a common humanity, a common responsibility to care for one another and a common search for truth and meaning. Remembering that, as we disagree respectfully and listen carefully, we can explore each other’s deepest values. That is the basis for good relationships.

Those who sought to stifle my freedom of speech disagreed strongly with my views and therefore sought to remove them from the public square. Yet, respectful disagreement in the public square is precisely what is required to make good choices. That is one of the strengths of a liberal (from the Latin liber meaning ‘free’) democracy, the essence of which is the free exchange of ideas.

Successful organisations deliberately seek diversity on their Executive Boards, inviting robust debate between different perspectives in order to reach the best decision. In politics, as we face momentous challenges – covid-19, climate change, endemic disinformation – we need every view to be heard.

Similarly, in our personal lives, we do well to listen to those who think differently from us, to imagine the world from their vantage point. Each of us thinks that our view is correct – why else would we hold that view? Yet, we could be wrong. Even if everyone else we know agrees with us, we could all be wrong; group think is notoriously seductive. So, when someone says something with which ‘we all’ disagree, we owe it to ourselves to let them speak.

Those who sought to stifle my freedom of speech felt offended and hurt, and so regard disagreement as harmful to good relationships and want to silence a view with which they strongly disagree. Yet, respectful disagreement is essential for both good relationships and good choices.

So, why do we stifle freedom of speech when it is so clearly beneficial?

I believe it is because we are deeply unsure of who we are. We do not know what it is to be human, so we define ourselves by what differentiates us from each other, such as our beliefs, sexuality, or ethnicity. Yet such things are not up to such a task. They are part of who we are, but they are not us.

We behave like an orphan who feels that they have no choice but to define themself, to fight for their place in the world, to find comfort and meaning wherever they can.

Yet, we are not orphans. We have a Father, who not only created us but has gone to great lengths to make us His children. In Jesus Christ, the Son of God as a human being, all humanity has been adopted, made sons of God, each and every one. An honour not imposed but offered as a gift, no merit required, simply willing receipt.

We are far more than we had realised, we are far greater than we had dared to imagine.

Why is this seldom said in public discourse?

I suspect it is because we are afraid that we might not be permitted to say such a thing.

What a tragedy if we were to miss our very identity because we had lost our freedom of speech.

As I said, freedom of speech matters.

Jonathan Werran: To build back, we need strong and empowered communities

17 Nov

Jonathan Werran is the chief executive of Localis.

At the outset of this crisis, on March 20th, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said:

“We want to look back on this time and remember how we thought first of others and acted with decency.”

Eight months on, the cumulative impact of the countless acts of local kindness made by myriad groups of individuals and communities who have risen to the challenges of the coronavirus year, simply can’t be overstated.

Showing a degree of courage, wisdom, and compassion for the people they love in the places they live, community groups have sprung into action and continued to exert themselves bravely and vigorously to serve the needs of others. The range of bottom-up initiatives has been truly inspiring in breadth of scope, innovation, and dedication. In this, we see the strong beating heart of genuine local self-government.

This should come as little or no surprise to ConHome readers. “To love the little platoon we belong to in society is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections,” wrote Edmund Burke. “It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love of country and mankind.”

Not wishing to dwell too much on the courtier battles being played out in SW1, but we have surely now reached peak centralism. And the example of our communities in action holds up a mirror to the kind of society we want to be. Independent, family-focused, and resilient, while acting with an awareness of responsibilities and duties to serving neighbours in our midst. Confident of place and proud of identity, yet outward-looking and associative.

If Johnson’s government is looking to reset and pivot to the kinder and greener, exalting the role of community and family as much as ‘grands projets’ and levelling up growth schemes, then we need to think about the social infrastructure that needs to be laid in parallel tracks alongside the billion pound big ticket items.

At Localis, we agree with the findings of Danny Kruger’s ‘Levelling Up Our Communities’ report. Maximising the role played by community groups in the COVID-19 recovery and the government’s levelling up agenda thereafter suggests a space in which hyperlocal organisations should be given freedom to operate. Communities need both powers and resources to step up with a stand alone spirit if they are to create public value. We need to allow communities to self-organise, take back control locally of assets, and deliver unique local services where they have desire and capability.

So, in our report which is published today “Renewing Neighbourhood Democracy – Creating Powerful Communities”, we think back to the pandemic when communities mobilised around local rugby clubs and arts projects as much as in any predefined emergency response committees. And looking forward, we think ahead to what are now the best opportunities for giving our communities the chance to cohere, flourish, and renew our society and economy from the ground up. Here’s how we see it at Localis.

Firstly, the forthcoming Local Recovery and Devolution White Paper offers an immediate point of departure for reform. It should codify the role of councils in a facilitative local state by beginning the process of creating clear, statutory pathways to community autonomy. For example, the white paper should identify areas of service delivery that could be co-designed, run in partnership, or devolved entirely to the neighbourhood-level, particularly if the size of local authorities is to increase with reforms.

In doubling down on devolution, a statutory role should be created in local authorities for managing the process of subsidiarity and community relations, serving as a single point of contact and information for community groups looking to establish forms of local control.

How to glue this together? Firstly the ‘pop-up parish’ or Community Improvement District model should be extended as a statutory community right alongside the previous rights established in the Localism Act 2011. And pathways should be developed for communities to take control of non-core service spending at neighbourhood level through initiatives like the People’s Budget in Frome Town Council.

Secondly, to enshrine the principle of double devolution and expand upon the Localism Act’s establishment of Community Rights, the white paper should extend these rights to give the community greater power over local assets and social infrastructure.

In practical terms, all assets that qualify as having community value under the current system should be designated as social infrastructure. And if a community group decides to take on a community asset, they should be supported, both procedurally and financially, in their endeavours to do so.

The introduction of localised lockdowns has further emphasised the importance of front-line action from community groups. So thirdly, the government should urgently renew and extend financial support for voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations to respond to the pandemic, particularly as the reintroduction of lockdown measures escalates.

To ensure a fast and targeted response, a fund could be distributed to community organisations by local councils in lockdown areas in a manner similar to the distribution of the pandemic-related Small Business Grant Fund. As with the Small Business Grant Fund, the focus should be on rescue at any cost for the sake of national resilience, and the overall fund should be matched to need rather than to a specific cash limit.

Fourthly and finally, in order to strengthen social infrastructure, and properly resource endeavours to empower communities in a manner that is participatory and gets results, central government should commit to establishing a Community Wealth Fund – along the lines called for in Danny Kruger’s idea of a ‘Levelling Up Communties Fund’.

The fund would specifically target the social and civic infrastructure of ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods across the country. It would be an independent endowment that would be distributed over the course of ten to 15 years, to include investment at the hyperlocal level, decision-making would be community-led, and, as part of the package, support would be provided to build and sustain the social capital of communities and their capacity to be involved.

In this way, we lay the foundations for strong and empowered communities and so build back and recover the right way up.

Damian Green: Why a forced choice between a Brexity North and a Globalist South would be a false one – and damage our Party

16 Nov

Damian Green is Chair of the One Nation Caucus, a former First Secretary of State and is MP for Ashford.

2020 has brought many words to the forefront of our conversations: pandemic, lockdown, mask. Suddenly “reset” has become the latest addition to the thesaurus of 2020, as politicians and commentators ponder the future of the Government in the post-Dominic Cummings era. Is Boris Johnson about to head out in a new direction, or would any deviation from the path of 2019 be a politically unwise heresy?

We should start with the Prime Minister’s own favourite self-description. He always refers to himself as a One Nation Conservative. So I take it as a given that he wants to run a One Nation Government: one which seeks to unite, heal and provide opportunity for all. The interesting question is what does this mean for the coming decade, as the country seeks to recover from Covid-19 and make the best of Brexit.

The first change will need to be a simple change of tone. Crossing the road to pick a fight may be a rational strategy in the period of a campaign, especially one which you are not confident of winning, but it is a rotten way to run a government. There are absolutely battles that need to be fought and won, but any administration can only fight on so many fronts at once. If too many people are potential enemies to be denigrated and then crushed, then you rapidly run out of friends. Every government needs loyal friends.

This is a relatively easy reset. The deeper question is whether there also needs to be a significant change of substance. What will a One Nation Government concentrate on, and would that produce a more contented country, and therefore a platform for re-election in 2024?

The short answer is that the Government should re-read the manifesto on which it was elected, and concentrate its efforts on the big promises in it. Brexit has happened – so it should now move on very rapidly to making a reality of levelling up.

Every One Nation Conservative applauds the concept of giving particular help to parts of the country that have been left behind, but also thinks that there are national policies that allow us to do this without creating a competition between North and South.

Much better training and education, both for young people and older workers whose job skills have become obsolete, would benefit everyone, but would have particular effect in towns and cities where jobs have been harder to find.

In health policy, one lesson we have learned from Covid is that it is the co-morbidities that come from poverty and disadvantage that make people more likely to die. So meeting the manifesto commitment to increase healthy life expectancy by five years by 2035 can only be done through reducing health inequality. This in itself would be a One Nation priority, but its practical benefits would be most obvious in the Blue Wall seats.

I observe that there is a rearguard action from climate sceptics against this week’s environmental announcements from the Prime Minister. This takes the form of claiming that no one in the North cares about the environment, as they really want jobs and prosperity.

There are two answers to this. The first is that these policies contain vital measures to make sure that the jobs of the future come to this country rather than others. You can, as I do, want more power generated from wind, and want the people making wind turbines to do so in areas of the UK with traditional manufacturing skills. The second is that to assume that no one in the North cares about the future of the planet is patronising nonsense.

This attack on green policies that were also in the manifesto is a symptom of a wider misconception which is already beginning to spread: that the Conservative Party has to choose between the gritty Brexity immigration-sceptic North and the soft, affluent globalist South.

This is a counsel of despair, as it suggests that there is no way Conservatives can win a stable majority in the long term. More importantly it ignores the capacity of this Government to produce a raft of policies which unite large parts of the country. Strict immigration control (and indeed Brexit) are as popular in my Kent constituency as they are in Stoke, Wigan, or Darlington.

Crucially, though, so are policies which help people into jobs, which preserve a decent welfare system in a time of trouble, and which create the economic conditions that encourage the creation of new businesses. It is not northern or southern (or English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish) to want people to stand on their own and take their own decisions, while being entitled to help from society when they need it. This Conservative version of the welfare state is at the heart of modern One Nation thinking, and our longest period out of power was when Tony Blair and New Labour stole it.

Conservatism needs to be more than libertarianism, and more than small-statism. There are different traditions that come together in the Conservative Party, but what unites them is a respect for our country, out history and our institutions. We will never be “woke” because too much of what passes for progressive politics is transient and illiberal.

But if fighting a culture war from the right involves trashing our institutions, like Whitehall, the judiciary or the BBC, it is dangerously unconservative. A wise Conservative Government will always reform, but very rarely offer revolution. Above all, it should respect the rule of law.

A reset Government will double down on the many excellent promises it made the country last December, knowing that after the worst of Covid has passed it has three years to demonstrate to Conservative voters old and new some visible improvements in public services and communities. The One Nation Caucus is producing a series of policy papers to provide new ideas to help the Government on this course. Let’s hope the new word for 2021 is “recovery”.

Jonathan Hughes: In memory of Jonathan Sacks – whose words and writing contributed so much to British politics and society

9 Nov

Rabbi Jonathan Hughes is the orthodox rabbi to about 700 families in Radlett, Hertfordshire, and lectures widely as a motivational speaker to various audiences in and around the City of London and at secondary schools.

I was acutely shocked and saddened when I heard the news that former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, died in the early hours of Saturday morning. He was aged 72, and only about a month had passed subsequent to a cancer diagnosis.

As a young rabbi serving in his rabbinate, Rabbi Sacks was a personal mentor and role model to me. I can still hear his warm address to me from the synagogue pulpit in Hendon as I was about to embark on a new rabbinic role elsewhere. He was all about empowering those around him, challenging them to fulfil their calling and potential.

Even more memorable was the time when, profoundly disappointed by the actions of someone close to me, I burst into Rabbi Sacks’ home in St Johns Wood where he was addressing a group of youth leaders.

I gave him the details and, instead of indulging my abject despair, he warned me: “never give up on people.” His words have been a game-changer in the way I approach my rabbinic work, and I was particularly proud to have contributed to a book of essays on Jewish law and philosophy presented to Lord Sacks marking his retirement as Chief Rabbi.

Sacks, an orthodox Jew, was born in London in 1948 and, in 1991, became Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – the spiritual leader of the largest grouping of orthodox Jewish communities in the UK. It was a position he held with distinction for 22 years.

A prolific writer of over 30 books and regular contributor to radio, television and social media, Sacks was knighted in 2005, and made a crossbench life peer in 2009. In 2016, he was awarded the Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” He had been described by the Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation”.

Sacks has been universally lauded as an extraordinarily gifted orator, writer and social commentator. Although his inspiration was keenly felt within the worldwide Jewish community, his impact was never limited to his co-religionists. Lord Sacks’ intellect, eloquence and charisma made an indelible impression in the hearts and minds of people from every type of background and belief system.

His was a voice of reason in a tempestuous world of chaos and division, a voice that transcended faction and tribal loyalties. His unwavering moral philosophy was one that revered community, heritage and moderation. He was outspoken in his condemnation of those who committed acts of violence in the name of religion.

His cerebral prowess belied his humble piety. One example ought to be shared to exemplify the simplicity of his faith, clothed as it was in the elaborate raiment of philosophy and scholarship. During his lifetime, Lord Sacks seldom mentioned that he had battled cancer twice before – once in his 30s, and later in his 50s.

When asked why he eschewed publicly reflecting on these ordeals, he responded that he had witnessed his father undergoing many operations and heath problems in old age, and that these had sapped his strength until he was forced to walk on crutches.

Sacks added that his father had not been the beneficiary of much in the way of Jewish education, but did possess enormous faith. He said he used to watch his father in hospital reciting psalms and could see him getting stronger as a result. It seemed that his mental attitude had been: “I’m leaving this to God. If he sees that it’s time for me to go, then it’s time for me to go. And if he still needs me to do things here, he’ll look after me.’”

Sacks said that he had adopted exactly this attitude. During both bouts of cancer he said, “I felt, if this is the time God needs me up there, thank you very much indeed for my time down here; I’ve enjoyed every day and feel very blessed. And if he wants me to stay and there’s still work for me to do, then he is going to be part of the healing and I put my trust in Him. I didn’t feel the need to write a book about it. It was for me not a theological dilemma at all.”

Lord Sacks was a fearless critic of antisemitism and piercingly diagnosed all of its menacing metastases, including obsessive antipathy towards Israel and Zionism. He had a warm relationship with Gordon Brown during the latter’s premiership. However, as Labour moved further towards the radical Left, Lord Sacks felt the duty to speak out. Indeed, recently he had been critical of Jeremy Corbyn, amidst the row over antisemitism in the party.

Sacks’ vision for a more harmonious British society included dignity in difference, and recognising the need for meaning at the heart of the human condition. He was often prescient in identifying the ethical gaps in a secular society that often focused on ephemeral pleasure over spirituality and responsibility. His was a message of selflessness over individualism, and he took pride in his religious Jewish identity without ever sounding dogmatic or arrogant.

Above all, Sacks’ legacy will live on in his many students, congregations and followers, who include leading figures in divergent fields. He has left an historic impression upon religion in the UK and many thousands will feel bereft at the loss of his towering presence and courage. He was taken from us far too early, and is survived by Elaine Taylor, his wife of 50 years, along with their three children and many grandchildren.

Salim Chowdhury: Integration not division offers the best future for British Bangladeshis

29 Jul

Salim Chowdhury is the Founder and President of the British Bangladeshi Caterers Association. He is a former Police officer and a former Conservative Councillor.

Public Health England’s  COVID-19 report showed that Bangladeshi’s had the highest risk of death, a risk twice as high as those from White backgrounds. The challenged plight of the community was echoed in the Race Disparity Audit too, which has British Bangladeshis at the low end of almost all measures of performance in society – from the lowest average wage to the lowest school grades.

Bengalis came to the UK as early as the 17th Century as lascar seamen. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the bulk of the community arrived. I was one of these people, coming from Syhlet like most of the diaspora. This economic migration saw all Bengalis get to work, or at least try to. Many initially found progress in the restaurant industry, creating a British staple in communities in the curry house.

Integration was everything. It was what led me to join the police and serve as a councillor, despite almost nobody from my background following these paths at the time. It is one of the reasons why any Minister engaging with the diaspora goes viral in Bangladesh – because the nation is impressed that its sons and daughters have made the journey to the UK, and in effect, made it. So for all the difficult readings of the RDA, there is actually a huge amount of pride in the community – and we need to tap into that in this recovery.

As the Founder and President of the British Bangladeshi Caterers Association representing thousands of members across the country, I requested that all members running restaurants prioritised free meals for the elderly, vulnerable, NHS staff and care workers. This started on March 18th with the Food for the Most Vulnerable campaign. This has involved all restaurants providing over 9,000 free meals to these groups including special delivery options. Meals were provided to NHS staff across four different hospitals. This included Northwick Park Hospital which was one of the first to be hit hard and is home to a disproportionately high number of ethnic minority patients and staff in servicing Brent and Harrow.

We have seen Britons from all backgrounds come together. We have learned from each other. Tom Moore was the reason for Bangladeshi, Dabirul Choudhury, to also walk for charity – receiving huge coverage across major broadcasters in the UK and Bangladesh. Charity has reflected the best of us. The British Asian Trust’s ‘Big Curry Night In’ was an idea which worked and helped me to sign up 101 restaurants to raise money for those most in need of food and essentials throughout the crisis – and now there are British Bangladeshis participating in and with charities that they might not have done otherwise.

For all the pain caused by the crisis, British Bangladeshis are emerging with pride intact and with immense hope for the future of this country, our home. We are British first. It is up to all of us to deliver a social and economic recovery so that no ethnicity must look at statistics and see large gaps between them and another group, in turn confirming their notion of difference. All lives lost are tragic and won’t be forgotten, but we must look at all the positives, or else we’ll never have a chance to come out of the dangers to public health and the economy.

Our communities are one more than ever. It is an economic recovery, from levelling up to industries like my own in curry houses, that will deliver for our families and in turn provide them with conditions and choice which will not make them so vulnerable to other winds and storms in their lives. We must remember who and what we have got as well as who and what we have lost. My ancestors once navigated rough seas in a more challenging age. If they could, we can.