Sam Rowlands: Welsh local councils need change, and only the Conservatives can deliver it

20 Apr

Saw Rowlands is the Welsh Conservative Member of the Senedd for North Wales and Shadow Minister for Local Government

Voters in Wales are facing a simple choice when they head to the polling stations to decide who they want to run their local authority on May 5th. They can choose to extend the ongoing record of failure from Labour and Plaid Cymru. Or they can vote  for meaningful change to build stronger and safer communities with the Welsh Conservatives.

When we launched our campaign in North Wales, we were proud to announce that we are fielding the largest ever number of candidates in the upcoming local election. With nearly 670 local Welsh Conservative champions campaigning to win seats up and down the country, more people than ever before will be able to vote Welsh Conservative – building on our record number of MPs and MSs.

For far too long, our hardworking councils have been neglected and starved of much-needed financial help by Labour – something I’ve seen first-hand as a former council leader. The Welsh Conservatives have a clear plan to empower local people, enable businesses to thrive, create a healthier Wales and deliver fair funding for local authorities.

We want to see local people take control of the future of their communities. We understand that they are the best placed to decide what their area needs – not the government. After more than two decades of devolution, many people – the Welsh Conservatives included – fear that power is being trapped in Cardiff Bay or undemocratic regional bodies, rather than being relinquished to councils.

That needs to change. We want to see communities come together and create Local Neighbourhood Plans so that local people can take the lead on where new housing and services should be built. A council controlled by the Welsh Conservatives would work hand-in-hand with communities to protect local services and give residents a chance to save their local pub, library, and shop from unwanted development through the Community Ownership Fund.

Many people explored areas of their towns and villages that they never knew existed throughout the pandemic. Previously neglected parks and beauty spots were bustling with people. People should be proud to live and work in their communities, but all too often our towns are blighted with anti-social behaviour. That’s why the Welsh Conservatives would work with the police to tackle problems such as fly-tipping, graffiti and dog mess – which would in turn attract more investment and entice more visitors.

Roads plagued by potholes and cracked pavements are major problems in many of our towns which leave people with damaged cars and sometimes serious injuries. Welsh Conservatives believe it’s high time we started investing in our roads and pedestrian areas to make sure they are up scratch.

Local businesses are at the centre of our communities. They boost the economy by providing jobs for people and giving residents somewhere to meet. But they have been persistently let down by Labour. Our high streets are being left to go to wrack and ruin under the pressure of the highest business rates in Great Britain.

We want to see businesses thrive – not just survive – and our essential tourism sector boom as we start to build back from the pandemic. We would look at scrapping car parking fees at weekends so those who cannot use Wales’ crumbling public transport network are supported and not ignored.

Over the last two decades, the cost of living has increased with council tax in Wales rising by nearly 200% – adding a huge £900 to the average household bill. At the same time, pay packets have only gone up by 78%, widening the gap with weekly pay packets for Welsh workers £60 lighter compared to other parts of the UK. Welsh Conservatives, both at a national and local level, have long campaigned for action for fairer funding across Wales to stop Labour from financially depriving communities.

There is no doubt that council staff and councillors went above and beyond throughout the pandemic to ensure vital services carried on running. Despite the unprecedented challenges, and against a backdrop of historic underfunding, our councils pulled out all the stops to help local communities. It’s only right that councils across Wales are properly financially equipped to deal with the ever-increasing pressures they are faced with.

In the Senedd, the Welsh Conservatives have made repeated calls for the current funding formula to be reviewed as it is simply not fit for purpose as it stands. Unfortunately our calls have been ignored, but that won’t stop us pushing for change. Welsh Conservative councillors would work with our colleagues in the Senedd to carry on the campaign while also ensuring value for money for taxpayers.

A Welsh Conservative council would deliver the essential services residents rely on and work with neighbouring authorities in a bid to cut costs and improve services. For far too long, Labour– and their nationalist pals in Plaid – have taken Wales for granted and think that they know best – rather than trust local people.

It’s crucial that voters remember these elections are about local issues. It’s about making sure bins are collected, potholes are filled, dangerous pavements are repaired, and people receive the education and social services they deserve. The Welsh Conservatives want to work with residents, businesses, community groups, and other partners to build stronger and safer communities across the country.

It’s time for change, and only by voting for local Welsh Conservative champions on May 5th can people take control of their communities’ future.

Faye Purbrick: A new beginning for Somerset

1 Apr

Cllr Faye Purbrick is the Cabinet Member for Education and Transformation on Somerset County Council

On March 18th 2022, the statutory change orders (SCO) that represent the final piece of the puzzle in creating a new unitary council for Somerset passed through the House of Commons and the House of Lords. With the legal boxes ticked, Somerset (along with colleagues in North Yorkshire and Cumbria) will see local government structures from 1974 fall away on the 1st April 2023 as we make a once in a generation step change in the way that services are delivered and decisions made across our county. Some may ask “what’s the big deal?”; others will have been living in unitary areas for years and will not see what the fuss is about – but for us, in Somerset, 2023 marks a new beginning.

It aligns with government policy and ambition around levelling up (West Somerset was the second-lowest area for social mobility when opportunity areas were rolled out last decade), builds on the opportunities of devolution (enabling economic development and inward investment to be driven from the heart of Somerset, not the heart of government) building on the successes of Hinkley C and the Gravity Smart Campus; and it provides a platform for the whole area to build back better as we recover from the pandemic with our communities at the heart of decisions, delivery, and ambition.

A 2019 report titled The Future of Local Government in Somerset (FOLGIS) highlighted key challenges for the county: challenges for disadvantaged children; an underperforming economy marred by high housing costs; poor connectivity and low productivity, skills and wages; environmental challenges from flooding to the drive to carbon-neutral; education, housing and wellbeing challenges for young adults; and a growing older population with health, care, and isolation issues. Now most councillors I know across the country will say they face the same challenges in their area; ever more so as we slowly emerge from the COVID pandemic – but what Somerset had before it was a solution. A solution that could free-up millions of pounds to invest in frontline services and improvements that could work to address these challenges. A solution that could bring services and support together in a way that was logical for residents and businesses, not civil servants, starting from a place of what is possible, not what have we always done. And finally, a solution that could build on the strengths of our communities that had become so apparent during COVID and support those communities in a way that best meets their needs, their ambitions, and their resources. Not a one size fits all, but a one council solution that was large enough to manage strategically, whilst being hyper-local to adapt to community needs.

When we sat down in February 2020 to build our case for a new Somerset, our communities were at the heart of our ambition. Addressing those challenges identified in FOLGIS was essential but we knew it was time to look at things differently. Looking at colleagues who have preceded us on the journey from two-tier to unitary, a number of opportunities and risks became apparent, but the biggest opportunity lay in an ability to take a county-wide ambition and strategy and deliver it in the right way, with the right priorities in our communities. We saw amazing examples of this work in other counties, known as Area Boards in Wiltshire and Community Networks in Cornwall – we weren’t looking to reinvent the wheel, but we were going to customise it, for Somerset, for our community needs and for the best possible solution to deliver levelling up across our county.

We called these utopian entities Local Community Networks (LCNs). And, in the best examples of doing what it says on the tin, these were imagined to be networks of communities across Somerset bundled into local groups. These LCNs will remain part of the unitary council but be spread out across the county in communities, driving the conversation about what a place needs and drawing on the services of the council alongside town and parish councils, health, education, police, and voluntary sector partners. They will act as a voice for the community into these organisations and a conduit for support, services, and enablement back into those communities to address the wider FOLGIS challenges and their local nuances.

Some remain uncomfortable that, with 12 months to go until the new council is formed, these LCNs are not fully formed and mandated. For me, this is the essence of them. When we were writing the business case for a unitary Somerset, it was clear that we must work together to address the challenges and opportunities ahead. I ask you this: if a community voice is key is shaping and delivering services in a new council, how can that voice not be a part of shaping how these LCNs will work? Don’t get me wrong, this is the South West not the wild west, so there are clear principals and a vision for what they will deliver, as I’m often heard to say “it’s in the business case”, but their boundaries and operating models will be set in conjunction with the people of Somerset.

Our new advisory board are already starting to help that shape and ambition. And no, the advisory board is not just another group of councillors tasked to find solutions – it’s open to everyone from our partners in the voluntary sector, health, education, police, town and parish councils and every business and member of the public in Somerset – all views are valid, all views are welcome, and I invite anyone from Somerset reading this piece to get involved with shaping the future of our Somerset Council. There is no doubt that there are challenges to be faced in the coming decade; there is no doubt that there are amazing opportunities for our county to drive our ambition and level up across Somerset; and there is no doubt that the future starts now.

Elections to town, parish, city, and the new unitary council (following a year of sitting as county councillors) take place on May 5th. All those elected will serve a five-year term overseeing and implementing the new local government structures and ambitions for Somerset. Everyone, from parish councillors to the unitary leader, has a key role to play in shaping Somerset for a generation. So, take a look at the business case, think about how you want to be involved, and step into this once in a lifetime chance to deliver real change, real vision, and real success.

Chris Skidmore: Ministers need a place-based approach to skills

11 Mar

Chris Skidmore is MP for Kingswood and was Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Minister 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Very soon the Skills Bill will become law. This is a welcome development, since the bill is a jewel in the crown of the Government’s ambitions for levelling-up. Robert Halfon, the Chair of the Education Select Committee, has praised the Bill as a clear step towards achieving a full-blown ‘skills revolution’ for the UK.

Yet, I am concerned that the Bill in its current form does not go far enough in addressing a common problem in our education system – the centralisation of skills and opportunities in a small cluster of towns and cities, and the broad ‘hollowing-out’ of other areas as a result.

For far too long, the UK’s school leavers have faced a stark choice: stay in their home communities, or leave to pursue opportunities for training, education, and professional advancement elsewhere.

Some are lucky enough to grow up in prosperous towns and cities that are home to thriving industries and well-established university and college campuses – but not enough. For most ambitious 18-year-olds, moving on up means moving out.

Often, the places where they undertake their post-18 training and education are where they end up settling once they finish it. They feel the magnetic pull of one of a major city like London, Manchester or Birmingham. Returning home becomes an occasional familial formality.

Of course, it is only right that learners should strive for excellence, and pursue the best options for skills training and scholarly education available to them. But we need to recognise that this comes with a cost, both for them and for the places they come from.

For learners, it is the cost of dislocation. They are uprooted from their intimate networks of families and friends. Leaving behind the areas where they grew up is a natural wrench. And that pain is only compounded by the social and financial burdens of re-establishing themselves in a new place.

For the areas themselves, it is the cost of a ‘brain drain’. Local communities are starved of the eager innovators and determined talent they need to grow and develop. Their economies stagnate, their industries atrophy, their labour markets shrink, and their high streets fall silent.

This is an unsustainable situation. If levelling up is to achieve its aims for spreading prosperity and opportunity across the UK more evenly, it has to reconcile the interests of learners and communities.

new report by the Lifelong Education Commission and local partners in Doncaster could provide a roadmap for doing just that. The report explores the concept of a Talent and Innovation Ecosystem (TIE); a model that would pool all learning assets into one place to create a borough-wide community of learners, employers, and educators.

Essentially, this would be a partnership whose stakeholders would be tasked with devising new learning programmes in response to pressing local problems. However, key policy changes are needed if TIE is ever to get off the ground.

Firstly, local authorities must be awarded new place-based budgets, giving them the flexibility and accountability needed for skills and education spending to be redirected to areas most in need of development. Furthermore, a statutory ‘right to retrain’ should be given to all learners, regardless of which qualifications they have previously achieved.

The Skills Bill set out its vision of lifelong learning through the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE), which is now the subject of a sector-wide consultation. However, without a structural underpinning, this policy will fail to tackle the fundamental problem of regional skills inequality.

At the moment, LLE resembles a leaky bucket – built to carry resources to the places that need it, but with enough holes that whatever investment is poured in ultimately trickles away before it reaches its destination. Plugging those leaks will require a systematic model for local skills which ensures that Government investment is channelled towards local areas and local problems. The Doncaster report provides just such a model.

The Government has the chance to make the UK world-leading in place-based learning. Places like Doncaster have set a gold standard for how local learning ecosystems should work. Local authorities everywhere in the UK now need to be empowered and entrusted to follow its example.

Chris Skidmore MP is a former Universities Minister, and Chair of the Lifelong Education Commission hosted by ResPublica. He is on Twitter as @CSkidmoreUK

Helen Barnard: Place-based philanthropy should play a starring role in levelling up

27 Jan

Helen Barnard is Associate Director at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Research and Policy Director at Pro Bono Economics.

Next month we expect the publication of the long-promised Levelling Up White Paper (political drama allowing). Discussion tends to focus on the role of the public sector and how to attract private investment but this overlooks the crucial role that civil society must play if levelling up is to be a success.

Many places in most need of transformation lack civil society organisations and miss out on the philanthropic giving which supports them. The white paper must include proposals to remedy this if it is to deliver on its ambition.

Past attempts show civil society is central to successful regeneration

Previous attempts at regeneration have shown that strong civil society involvement is crucial to success. Places with more civic assets and community participation saw the biggest and most sustained falls in deprivation under previous programmes. Failures often followed a lack of community involvement.

Civil society organisations provide unmatched insights into community issues, helping design schemes that truly meet local needs. Participating in civil society builds social capital, neighbourliness and trust. Communities that gain control over resources and decisions invest in spaces and services that nurture community life and pride in place.

Examples abound from the Big Local programme. On the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, a resident-led partnership has reinvigorated community life, with holiday play schemes, employment support, projects to tackle loneliness and improve mental health, as well as establishing a community hub as a shared place for advice and activities.

Polling for the Law Family Commission on Civil Society found that people in levelling up areas prioritise living standards, good jobs and decent pay. Achieving these requires civil society organisations. They employ nearly a million people and disproportionately unlock opportunities for those furthest from the labour market. Charities provide many of the mental health, social care and social prescribing services which boost people’s health and wellbeing, support employment, bring down reoffending and reduce pressure on GPs and hospitals.

But many deprived places lack a thriving charitable and philanthropic sector

Deprived places have fewer charities and voluntary organisations than less disadvantaged areas. Research by NPC shows there are 28 per cent fewer local charities per 1,000 people in Levelling Up Fund priority one areas compared to the lowest priority areas.

Recent research by Pro Bono Economics uncovers funding patterns that help to explain this. Looking at self-assessment tax records, people in the wealthiest parts of the country make seven times as many donations to charity as those in the most deprived areas (excluding London). Other research by New Local shows charitable grant funding disadvantages ‘left-behind’ communities. A University of Southampton study found charities in the most deprived local authority areas lost a fifth of their income from local government in recent years, while those in the least deprived places saw little change.

So how do we boost place-based philanthropy?

Pro Bono Economics research highlights significant opportunities to increase charity funding through philanthropy. A declining proportion of the public give to charity, high earners have become less generous and too few donations claim Gift Aid. Closing these giving gaps could raise nearly £3 billion for the country’s charities. This wouldn’t necessarily ensure greater funding flows to the places which most need it, but there are plenty of ways to achieve this.

“Diaspora philanthropy” was suggested by Danny Kruger in his 2020 report for the government. Many wealthy people now live in London or the South East but grew up in or near places in need of funding. Encouraging them to direct their philanthropy towards their former home turf could help fill the gap. Examples include Jonathan Ruffer in the Northeast and Andrew Law (also the funder of the Commission on Civil Society) in Sheffield who has donated to the University of Sheffield to fund student support and medical research.

There are risks in this approach, however, as Rob Williamson, Chief Executive of the Tyne & Wear and Northumberland Community Foundation, points out. Many places in most need of support don’t have connections with a wealthy donor, and the places donors feel most attached to won’t always be those that are most deprived. In addition, donors are more often motivated to give to specific causes rather than to a place. Community Foundations and giving circles, or cause networks, can play a crucial role in bridging between these interests.

Giving circles or cause networks connect donors with others who are interested in a particular issue. Many have links to one or more of the 47 Community Foundations around the UK. The Foundations bring together multiple funders and donors with local charities and other partners, creating connections between the needs of a local area and the interests of donors and funders.

Building on this, the Law Family Commission on Civil Society is exploring the idea of establishing local Philanthropy Champions, particularly in areas where civil society is weak. Metro Mayors could nominate a Philanthropy Champion to encourage giving by their peers, the business community, and wealthy individuals who grew up in their area. The champions could also spread best practice and work with mayors, councils, MPs and expert local organisations to understand local need and connect it with interested donors.

Wealth advisers could also play a much bigger role in raising awareness of and encouraging philanthropy and place-based giving. Currently, only one in five wealth advisors raise philanthropic giving with clients, and only half of higher and additional rate taxpayers are aware of Gift Aid.

Match funding schemes have a good track record in supporting philanthropic giving, particularly through increasing the amount donated and directing it towards particular appeals or causes. Matched donations are an average of 2.5 times higher than unmatched donations. Over a third of respondents to the Big Give survey said they gave to a matched funded appeal because of the matching contribution. These schemes are most successful when they have broad objectives and a flexible approach, enabling local variation and tailoring to donors’ interests.

Just as importantly, the Charities Aid Foundation highlights (from its experience delivering the Government’s Growing Place-based Giving Fund) the importance of developing local civil society infrastructure and capacity, not just handing out money. Long-term funding for core costs, particularly staff, is at the heart of this. Without this, money tends to flow into places which already have such infrastructure and capacity, rather than those which have most need of it. A new Levelling Up Match Funding Scheme could be designed to redress geographical imbalances by limiting it to certain areas or offering a higher level of match funding in levelling up priority areas than elsewhere.

The political landscape is mired in uncertainty, but we can be sure that the pressing need will remain to increase opportunity, living standards and the quality of community life in places that have long been neglected. Achieving that ambition will require serious and sustained policy focus and the full participation of a thriving social sector.

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.