Labour’s claim that the Towns Fund is skewed for partisan advantage lacks credibility

5 Mar

The 2019 Conservative Manifesto promised to set up a Towns Fund. It pledged “a new deal for towns” adding:

“Our new Towns Fund will help communities make sure their towns are safe to walk in and a pleasure to be in. We want there to be things to do, great places to shop and eat and transport to be easy. Above all, we want the town’s future to be in the hands of the people who live there.”

It went on to give some details:

  • Regenerating towns. The Towns Fund will go to an initial 100 towns to improve their local economy – and they and only they will make the choice about what improvements their local area needs.
  • Thriving high streets. We will cut taxes for small retail businesses and for local music venues, pubs and cinemas.
  • Giving young people a future. As well as our investment in schools and technical education, we will invest £500 million in new youth clubs and services.
  • Safer streets, safer towns. A new Safer Streets Fund will invest in preventative measures like new CCTV or community wardens.
  • New civic infrastructure. We have announced the largest cultural capital programme in a century, of £250 million. This will support local libraries and regional museums. We will work with local universities to do more for the education, health and prosperity of their local areas.
  • Community ownership. We will establish a £150 million Community Ownership Fund to encourage local takeovers of civic organisations or community assets that are under threat – local football clubs, but also pubs or post offices. We will set up a fan-led review of football governance, which will include consideration of the Owners and Directors Test, and will work with fans and clubs towards introducing safe standing. And we will help communities that want to create ‘pocket parks’ and regenerate derelict areas.
  • Community spirit. Through the Cultural Investment Fund, outlined above, we will also support activities, traditions and events that bring communities together. We will support local and regional newspapers, as vital pillars of communities and local democracy, including by extending their business rates relief.”

So there can hardly be an objection, on democratic grounds, that this undertaking is being delivered. As well as the Towns Fund, with a £3.6 billion budget, we have the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund – to pay for infrastructure including regenerating town centre and high streets, upgrading local transport, and investing in cultural and heritage assets.

Nonetheless, there have been complaints that this has been applied in a partisan manner. Bids are locally led.  The Guardian reports that:

“40 of the 45 towns in the first tranche of towns fund spending were represented by Conservative MPs.”

A couple of points should be considered. Firstly, these bids are locally led. If a Labour-run local authority refuses to apply – or to make much effort with the application – that is not the Government’s fault.

Secondly, the Conservatives do have a large majority in Parliament. Yet Labour still dominate in the big cities – London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Bradford, Leicester. By contrast, even during the Blair landslides, the villages and the farmers tended to stick with the Conservatives – the rural areas were still predominantly Conservative. Thus Labour MPs will tend to represent the constitiuencies sent city funding; Conservative MPs will usually represent the seats sent rural funding.

So the towns are the crucial places where elections are won or lost. That broad political point is well established – though there were some impressive results last time in the particular towns where the Conservative gained seats. The simple arithmetic that Labour got trounced overall, but still held large number of seats in the cities makes those figure from The Guardian rather less shocking than they might first appear.

The scandal would be if the application for funding to regenerate (or “level up”) a town had been rejected due to it having a Labour MP – while a rival bid was accepted due to it having a Conservative MP. (Or, a variation on the theme, a Ministerial seat favoured over that of a humble backbencher.) Such conspiracy theories are well established, but strike me as implausible. Apart from any ethical considerations, the Minister who instructed civil servants to skew the process in such a manner would be unlikely to get away with it. It would all cause a bit of a stink.

The problem is that criteria for local government finance are so complicated and impenetrable it makes such claims hard to disprove. There is nothing new in this. During the Thatcher/Major era it would be claimed that Wandsworth Council only managed to have such low rates / poll tax / Council Tax due to preferential funding from central Government. Of course, after 1997 and the Labour Government, Wandsworth continued to have a dramatically lower Council Tax than neighbouring Labour authorities.

This new fund is not about favouring one deprived town over another one. But it is about giving favourable treatment to all such places. That is not unreasonable. Our towns have been neglected. The EU’s structural funds were of little use to anyone beyond those administering them. But the European Regional Development Fund would be skewed to shiny prestige projects in city centres rather than the humbler, more practical needs of struggling towns. Not that cities have been forgotten about in other Government schemes. Liverpool is to become a freeport.

Of course, to say that the Towns Funds spending is likely to be more effective than EU regional aid is setting the bar rather low. But this arrangement does allow local priorities to be recognised. It is for the people of Darlington or Grimsby to decide which road needs to be improved. Not just for Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and his officials to micromanage from the centre. Or for Gillian Keegan, the Skills Minister, to tell them what training programmes are needed, or for Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, to instruct them as to which bits of their town’s heritage should be preserved.

A council leader from the Midlands told me:

“I do like the approach of allowing local decisions on what transport improvements should be a priority. We don’t need devolution – with extra layers of metro Mayors or whatever. We need decentralisation to the local government already in place.”

Therefore, the charges of political favouritism are unconvincing. There is also a reasonable case that if this money is to be spent, then local input should be genuine. Whether the broader approach will succeed is more contentious. Could it not be that state intervention is not the means to levelling up, but an obstruction? It always seems to be assumed that public spending is required for regeneration. Yet so much of the derelict land and buildings are owned by the local authority – or other branches of the public sector. Could these sites not be sold to developers to agree to transform them into beautiful homes and businesses? The price might vary according to location, and the condition the property was in. But surely it would be possible for such projects to be commercially viable, without huge subsidies. If that really is not the case, then the prospects of success would seem slim, regardless of how much public money is poured in.

A Brexit trade deal that takes back control

30 Dec

Brexit is indeed a film, a developing tale over time, not a photo – a state of affairs that will be the same in year ten as it was on day one.  So a question that arises about the trade deal which the UK and EU have agreed is whether that story is set to be what the 52 per cent voted for and the 48 per cent can live with.

Once in that referendum, a second time during the Conservative leadership election, and a third time in last year’s general election, Boris Johnson grasped that Brexit would happen in name only if Britain did not take back control – thus satisfying neither constituency.  The film would show no real change and the crowd would want its money back.

Or, as the Conservative Manifesto put it, echoing the Vote Leave slogan: “the future relationship will be one that allows us to take back control of our laws”.  It is not yet a week since the 1246-page agreement, plus five supporting documents, was published.  And MPs will have less than a day to consider the Bill that proposes to put the treaty arising from the agreement into domestic law.

So we are cautious about delivering a final verdict.  But it does seem that Boris Johnson, David Frost, Michael Gove, Oliver Lewis and the Government’s team truly have ensured that this deal indeed takes back control, because “the meanings of the provisions are autonomous under international law and do not reference EU law or jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice”.

“Nor does the Agreement provide a role for the ECJ (except for EU programmes which the UK chooses to opt into) and the EU approach of provisions having direct effect is excluded”.  Such is the verdict of the European Research Group’s Legal Advisory Committee.  This is the heart of the matter and also the heart of Brexit.

This site believes that our nation’s prosperity is not determined by tariff and non-tariff barriers elsewhere, but by the quality of our workforce, the condition of our schools, the competitiveness of our tax system, the quality of business, the state of our infrastructure and, above all, by a culture whose features include strong families, the rule of law, a sense of fairness and a flourishing civil society.

The economic case for Brexit has always been that it potentially allows for “levelling up” – that’s to say, an rebalanced economy based less on the greater South-East, finance, high immigration, an over-valued currency, and parts of the rest of country in near-permanent recession.  Leaving the EU excludes none of the factors that we list above, and which are indispensable to such a programme.

Nonetheless, this Agreement really does seem to recognise the primacy of politics above economics, both for the UK and the EU.  For the UK, that means escaping the ECJ, because without doing so we cannot take back control; for the EU, it means preserving the integrity of its Internal Market, which is part of its wider political framework.

As our columnist Stephen Booth put it on this site yesterday, there is a price to pay for both parties.  For the EU, it is losing one of its biggest contributors, and an important part of its whole.  For the UK, it is less easy access to the markets of EU member states.  The reason why we believed that a deal was on balance likely is that it seemed that this trade-off could be acceptable to both parties.

If a Soft Brexit is EEA membership, and a Hard Brexit is No Deal, this Agreement leans towards the latter end of the scale, whereas Theresa May’s Chequers plan was nearer the former.  As irony would have it, it was May, not Johnson, who in this case wanted to have her cake and eat it – in other words, both to leave the EU and stay close to the Internal Market.

But for all the new non-tariff barriers, there will be no tariff ones – at least, if the two parties can’t settle any future differences through the arbitration mechanisms.  That suits the UK well and the EU better, given its trade surplus in manufactures.  Remainer diehards will go on to say that we are an economic loser under this deal; leaver ones that we are not always political gainers – pointing to the fishing element.

However, those who declare Britain an economic loser are not necessarily right in the long-term, or always in the short.  For example, while the downside of not having a services deal as part of the Agreement will be more complicated access, the upside is not outsourcing regulation of those services to the EU – which that former Remainer, Mark Carney, warned against earlier this year.

Those who say that the fishing settlement will disappoint much of the fishing industry have a point.  Nonetheless, the adjustment period ends after five and a half years, and Britain is now an independent coastal state.  If voters really want a better deal on fish traded off for a worse one on, say, cars, they can always vote for parties who commit themselves to such a programme.

The deal covers co-operation as well as trade but, rather than probe all its strengths and weaknesses, we want instead to make a point not so much about this Agreement as the one that preceded it – the Prime Minister’s “oven-ready deal”: the Withdrawal Agreement.  The political problems with the Brexit settlement overall lie not as far as we can see with this trade deal but its predecessor.

For it was the Withdrawal Agreement which continued the journey which the Anglo-Irish Agreement began – that’s to say, putting a greater distance between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.  In a nutshell, Johnson’s version was better for Great Britain than May’s, but worse for Northern Ireland, and so problematic for the Union as a whole.

So while this Trade Agreement takes back control, the Withdrawal Agreement did not entirely do so, and there is the threat of leakage from ECJ jurisdiction in Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom.  But that is done and dusted, for better or worse.  The Withdrawal Agreement was the foundation of the Conservative Manifesto.  An election was won on it.  Tory MPs including the ERG voted for it.

The arrangements for Parliamentary scrutiny are so inadequate – the Commons will have only this morning to consider the Bill – that we can’t encourage anyone to vote for it: there may be gremlins in the text of the Treaty that have evaded even Bill Cash and his colleagues.  But the big picture really does appear to be one of a deal that does what it claims.

A slice of that 48 per cent will fight on for a cause that has lost.  But more of it has moved on.  And most of the 52 will be content, if not profoundly satisfied.  Part Two of Brexit is done and the film is rolling.  The odds seemed to be against Boris Johnson getting a Withdrawal Agreement settled, but he got one.  They were against him gaining a general election.  He did it, and won huge.

Once again, he has pulled it off.  Whatever you think of this new Agreement, that’s a personal coup.  He has managed the politics of the EU issue where Theresa May, David Cameron, John Major and even Margaret Thatcher failed.  Churchill walked with destiny.  Today, the Prime Minister, in his serio-comic way, is winking at it.

Amanda Milling: We’re delivering on our promises – and couldn’t do it without grassroots support

12 Dec

Amanda Milling is the Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase and co-Chairman of the Conservative Party.

This time last year Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party secured a momentous election win. It was a win that gave us the majority we needed to end the gridlock in Parliament and move the country forward.

The fact that millions of people put their faith in us, many in seats that had been historically Labour, has allowed this Conservative Government to get the country moving forward by delivering on the promises we were elected on last year.

We promised to get Brexit done, and we left the European Union on the 31st January. We promised to take back control of our borders, and last month we passed the Immigration Act, which will see the introduction of a fairer points-based system with people coming to the UK on the basis of what they have to offer, not where they come from.

We promised to put more money into our NHS, and in March we passed the NHS Funding Act which has provided the biggest-ever cash boost to our frontline NHS services with £33.9 billion a year by 2023/2024. We promised to deliver 50,000 more nurses, and in one year there are over 14,800 more and 6,250 more doctors. We promised to recruit 20,000 police officers and in one year we’ve recruited nearly 6,000. We promised to invest more in education so that young people across the country can have a better start in life. That’s why we’ve delivered a £14.4 billion funding boost for schools over the next three years.

We promised to level up across the country and we’re investing in the biggest ever infrastructure project to link our country by rail and road. Our Towns Fund is providing 101 towns throughout the UK with money to improve their areas increasing jobs and investment.

Even with the fight against Covid-19 – which has seen us put in place a £280 billion economic support package to support jobs and livelihoods, provide over 30,000 ventilators to our NHS, deliver billions of items of PPE, conduct over 40 million Covid tests, and become the first country in the world to roll out a vaccine – we have remained determined to deliver on the promises we made to you last year.

However, none of this would have been possible without the many hours so many of you, our dedicated supporters, activists and members, put into the General Election campaign. In the cold, dark and rain you trampled hundreds of thousands of miles delivering leaflets and knocking on doors to get the Conservative message out there. You spent hours on the telephone asking people to vote.

Without your efforts on the doorstep and the endless nights of telephone canvassing, we would not have defeated Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.

It’s why today the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are hosting a virtual members event to say thank you for your support and mark this momentous occasion one year on.
This is the biggest grassroots fundraiser we’ve ever held and you will be able to ask Johnson and Rishi Sunak questions directly on everything from the election to getting Brexit done and the unprecedented year 2020 has been.

This time last year none of us could have predicted a 2020 like the one we’ve had, but in the face of adversity we stepped up to the challenge and put in place measures to protect the NHS, jobs, and livelihoods. And with the roll out of the vaccine this week there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Next year we have a bumper crop of elections with local, Police and Crime Commissioner, mayoral and elections in Wales and Scotland.

So I hope you’ve got your delivery bags and boots to the ready as we get back out on the campaign trail, abiding by the latest Covid guidelines, working to get Conservatives in charge of your local services and strengthening our union with more Conservative voices in power.

There’s no denying these elections will be tough but I have no doubt that your hard work on the campaign trail will help. Conservative councils, mayors, and PCCs have a proven track record of providing good local services, securing vital investment to boost jobs, and keeping communities safe.

The alternative is Labour wasting taxpayers money and playing politics for their own personal PR rather than working to deliver for the people they represent.

Last year showed that if we work together as one team we can achieve great things. I look forward to joining you as we get out delivering leaflets, following the guidance, and hit the phones to get even more Conservatives into public office.

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”.

Anthony Browne: Are we really going to pass a law that would devastate many of the world’s poorest people?

11 Oct

Anthony Browne MP is MP for South Cambridgeshire, and is Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment.

Would you support a law that could ban imports of tea, coffee and bananas into the UK, devastating many of the world’s poorest economies – and people? Or that effectively bans food imports from developed nations which have a trade deal with us – but allows them from those that don’t?

No, I didn’t think so.

But that would be the impact of last week’s House of Lords well-intentioned but ill thought-out amendment to the Agriculture Bill, coming to the Commons tomorrow, which insists that agricultural imports under any trade deal would have to be produced to the UK’s environmental protection, animal welfare, food safety and plant health standards.

Making sure we don’t allow trade deals to undermine our environmental and animal welfare standards is an issue I passionately support, to the extent I made it the thrust of my maiden speech. I have been environment correspondent of two national newspapers, and am chair of the APPG on the Environment.

I have a rural constituency, and like most MPs, my inbox is flooded with demands – many prompted by Jamie Oliver’s campaigners – that I support this amendment. The Conservative Manifesto is also committed to ensuring trade deals don’t undermine our animal welfare, food safety and environmental standards. I know that the overwhelming majority of my colleagues support this aim.

The amendment sounds entirely reasonable, but its consequences could be utterly unreasonable. It is based on very solid principles which we can all support – but simply legislating for good principles rarely makes for good law.

Even its supporters should accept from the outset that this law is not a preservation of our current standards on imports, but a dramatic raising of them. It creates a potentially vast set of new conditions, which do not exist under any existing EU or UK agreement.

It would be extremely unlikely that trading partners would agree to all requirements; in some cases, it might not even be possible for them to do so. The EU is instinctively protectionist, but even it does not require that all imports have to precisely meet our environmental and animal welfare standards. Do campaigners think EU standards are unacceptably low?

We import bananas from many countries including the Dominican Republic, Belize and Cameroon. We import coffee from Indonesia, Ghana and Vietnam and black tea from Kenya. We do all this under existing (EU) rules.

But this amendment would require all these countries to have processes in place to show that they meet thousands of pages of UK domestic environmental and animal welfare legislation. The cost would be prohibitive and also unnecessary: I can tell you for free that they do not meet the carbon emission targets of the Climate Change Act that are now UK law. If we pass this amendment, pretty much all food imports would be banned from pretty much all developing countries if we signed a trade deal with them.

Developed nations can better afford to provide the evidence that they meet UK standards, but many of them are seriously inappropriate. Our geography and climate mean that we need strict legal controls on nitrate concentration in soils, which are inappropriate for other countries. We have laws (to protect nesting birds) on what time of year farmers are allowed to cut hedges, which would be completely wrong-headed to impose on producers with different eco-systems.

Campaigners would take cases to court to decide what imports are allowed. We were the first major economy in the world to legislate for Net Zero by 2050. Do we ban all agricultural imports from countries without those legal targets? There is a contradiction between us wanting to be world-leading on environmental standards, and then insisting we will only trade with those who have the same standards.

There is also the bizarre unintended consequence that the amendment only applies to trade where there is a free trade agreement. So we could import coffee from Vietnam if we have don’t have a trade agreement, but if we do have a trade agreement we would have to ban coffee imports. Our trade deals would become anti-trade deals.

Like the EU, we should be pragmatic. The detail is so complex, we can’t tie the hands of our trade negotiators with blunt legislation, but rather we should examine in detail whether we support what they are proposing.

That is why the government has agreed with campaigners to set up an independent Trade and Agriculture Commission to advise on how best the UK can seize new export opportunities, while ensuring animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined. I think there are strong arguments to make this commission permanent to scrutinise future trade deals. If you don’t trust the assurances of ministers, Parliament already has the power to reject any trade deal that it does not like.

Debate on this issue often ends up focused on the US’s chlorinated chicken. But there is already a UK law banning any product other than potable water from being used to decontaminate meat. Whatever is agreed in any trade deal, chlorinated chicken could only be sold in the UK if Parliament passes legislation allowing it. As Sir Humphrey would say: that would be very brave.

The overwhelming weight of political opinion is against us lowering our standards. We need to keep the same high standards on food and agriculture imports as we had in the EU. And that is exactly what the Government is doing.

Switching to more unitary authorities and directly elected mayors must be achieved by consent

8 Sep

“More elected mayors and fewer councils to break Labour’s red wall strongholds,” declared the Sunday Times over the weekend. It is already Government policy to encourage more areas to become unitary authorities and for more directly elected mayors to be installed. But this report suggests that a White Paper on devolution, to be published next month, will give these changes more impetus. It says:

Dozens more elected mayors and the abolition of many councils are being planned under a shake-up of local government due to be unveiled next month.

“Ministers want to devolve more power to areas that agree to new elected mayors, who they argue are more accountable and better at boosting local economies. Conservatives have also proved more successful in winning mayoralties in “red wall” areas than they have in winning Labour-controlled councils. However, a fight looms over plans to abolish significant numbers of district councils, many of them Tory-controlled, as part of plans for a slimmed-down local government system.

“Downing Street denied that they wanted to abolish two thirds of authorities by replacing district councils with unitary authorities, and insisted change would happen only with local consent. However, ministers do want to move towards more single-tier council areas, which the County Councils Network estimates would save £3 billion a year.

“District councils oppose the move, saying it would create unwieldy mega-authorities responsible for more than a million people each, far larger than local government units in other countries. A cap of about 600,000 people in any unitary authority is being considered as one way of avoiding this.”

Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayor of Tees Valley, “is seen as the prototype for winning Tory control of local government in the north and Midlands.”

It will be interesting to see what the devolution White Paper comes up with. But if the principle is maintained of local consent, it is hard to see how the change could be as dramatic as the tone of the Sunday Times piece suggests.

A quote from a Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesman in the Daily Telegraph yesterday sought to offer calm:

“We want to devolve and decentralise to give more power to local communities, providing opportunities for all areas to enjoy devolution.

“But there will be no blanket abolishment of district councils and no top-down restructuring of local government. The devolution White Paper, which will be published this autumn, will set out our detailed plans and we continue to work closely with local areas to establish solutions to local government reform.”

The Telegraph report added some welcome news:

“Local communities could also seek to scrap modern municipal area names to give people a better sense of the history of where they live under the plans.

Another Government insider said: “We want to extend devolution to the whole country so that all areas benefit from this. It should not just be the big urban areas, it should be shires too, working closely with local areas to establish solutions to local government reform.”

Campaigners who have been urging the Government to reinstate historic county names welcomed the news. Pam Moorhouse, the British Counties campaign, said: “Traditional county names were taken off us by Edward Heath in 1974 so it is about time they came back because millions want them.”

Under the changes, west Midlands could revert to Warwickshire, Cumbria could be replaced by Cumberland and Westmorland while Merseyside could be scrapped and replaced by a larger Lancashire.”

Last year, James Brokenshire, when he was Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, said:

“Locally-led changes to the structure of local government, whether in the form of unitarisation or district mergers, can – with local support – be an appropriate means of ensuring more sustainable local government and local service delivery, enhanced local accountability, and empowered local communities. This statement today continues the Government’s commitment to supporting those councils that wish to combine, to serve their communities better and will consider unitarisation and mergers between councils when locally requested. However, I recognise that unitarisation may not be appropriate everywhere. I also recognise that it is essential that any local government restructuring should be on the basis of locally led proposals and should not involve top-down Whitehall solutions being imposed on areas. The Government does not support top-down unitary restructuring. This has been the Government’s consistent approach since 2010.”

I suspect that approach will continue. Not least because a significant shift towards unitary authorities is already happening and has been taking place for a number of years.

The Conservative Manifesto last year merely stated:

“We remain committed to devolving power to people and places across the UK. Our ambition is for full devolution across England, building on the successful devolution of powers to city region mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners and others, so that every part of our country has the power to shape its own destiny. We will publish an English Devolution White Paper setting out our plans next year.”

It would be a bit of stretch to take that as a mandate for forced abolition of all the district councils.

There is a strong case for unitary status – with respect to both democracy and efficiency – in terms of ending duplication. The waste and confusion of residents of a town having two sets of councillors, a town hall and a county hall, two local authority chief executives on six-figure salaries… For example, it is not good for accountability that if the county council puts up the Council Tax, but the district council is blamed – because the bills are sent out at district level.

More contentious is the “economies of scale” argument. The logic of this is that the bigger the resulting unitary authority, the better. Ken Livingstone proposed replacing the 32 London boroughs with five “sub-regional partnerships” that would appear by dividing the map of London into slices of cake. That was not inspiring for local identity. But nor is it necessary for efficiency. Councils have alternatives to running everything themselves – such as sharing services or contracting them out to private companies. Flexibility is an example. The tri-borough arrangements for Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster delivered great savings. But offering big contracts can also limit competition by making it harder for smaller firms to tender – I have written for this site about this being a difficulty in terms of school transport for disabled children.

It may make sense for a compromise where, rather than a county council swallowing up all the district councils, we have two or three unitary councils across a district.

Directly elected mayors come in two types. There are the Metro Mayors who run “combined authorities” as an extra layer on top of other local authorities. Examples include Andy Street in the West Midlands and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. They have powers for regeneration and integrated transport. They will naturally lobby for more power and larger budgets. They are a legacy from the Labour Government’s Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 and are almost inevitably a corporatist force seeking greater state intervention.

Then there is the situation where a local authority replaces a council leader with a directly elected Mayor. Examples of where this has happened include Bristol, Middlesbrough, Leicester, and Watford. It has been implemented in several London boroughs – most unhappily in Tower Hamlets. It does provide an opportunity to shake up complacent, monolithic councils – not least by giving a chance for independents with a strong background in business or community service. Unlike the Metro Mayors, these local authority mayors are created (and could be abolished) via a referendum. Why not allow referendums to get rid of the Metro Mayors?

Eric Pickles, was a fearless radical as Communities and Local Government Secretary. Yet before entering Government he told this site:

“I’ll have a pearl-handled revolver waiting in my drawer for the first civil servant who suggests another local government reorganisation.”

Those of us who would like to see more unitary councils and directly-elected Mayors have to persuade others in our communities. However frustrating it might be for those in Downing Street, a different approach would be unlikely to be politically acceptable. Nor would it be justified.

Alison Cork: Entrepreneurs can lead Britain’s recovery if we help them

23 Aug

Alison Cork is an entrepreneur, Ambassador to the British Library Business & IP Centres and founder of not for profit Make it Your Business

Faced with mounting job losses and economic stagnation, we are at a defining moment in our nation’s history.

As a lifelong entrepreneur, I believe this is also a moment of opportunity, when Britain should become a nation that champions people to start a business. Entrepreneurs are the job creators of the future, and we are going to need them.

Whilst Covid has triggered the economic challenges which have resulted in job losses, people are now much more attuned to the idea of working independently. As family dynamics shift there will possibly be an increase in the number of women wanting to work.

Whole industries such as retail and hospitality are redefining how they operate. In many ways, Covid has created a perfect catalyst to encourage self-employment as a viable alternative for people who might otherwise have stuck with traditional employment or role models.

The challenge is how we normalise entrepreneurship. Historically we have tended to view my breed as outliers, and it is true that entrepreneurs are a bit different in the way we think, view risk and spot opportunities. What we need to do now is deliver the correct framework to support that mindset, and to understand what entrepreneurship really means.

So often we focus on the huge businesses, the ‘unicorns’ of our economy. But I’m talking about the ‘acorns’ of our economy, kitchen table businesses which may only generate modest sums, but which make a material difference to the economic independence and self-respect of that person or family unit. Businesses which mean those people are not dependent upon state intervention. Margaret Thatcher got it. The daughter of a grocer, she was the poster girl of self-determination, and inspired people like me to go out and give it a shot.

Encouragingly, our current government has already made a very important contribution to this initiative. In the pre-Covid budget there was a £13 million grant to continue to roll out the British Library Business & IP Centre Network. Originated in London, the BIPC is a business advice and information service which anyone can access free of charge. Spanning market intel reports, IP advice, workshops and even one-on-one mentoring, the BIPC has an impressive track record of success, with businesses that use the resource four times more likely to succeed than those which don’t. It also returns almost £7 into the economy for every £1 of public money spent on delivering the service.

The plan is to use central and local libraries to create a hub-and-spoke model of Business & IP centres around the UK. A brand of trust, an existing physical infrastructure, an important civic building often located on or near the high street and heart of the community, libraries are the perfect impartial and non-judgemental environment from which to support would-be entrepreneurs.

In terms of levelling up, library BIPC’s can reach the parts of the country that other initiatives have never been able to reach. They also have a strong track record in encouraging women and BAME-owned businesses, both currently under-represented. Between now and 2030, we estimate the BIPC service will help establish over 150,000 new businesses, contributing over £1 billion to the economy. That’s job creation.

But if we are truly to become a nation that embraces small business, we need to look further back in the entrepreneurial life cycle, to education. Starting a business and understanding the many skill sets needed to succeed in self-employment should be part of the school curriculum. Perhaps it should even be built into our apprenticeships programme? Moreover, the recent furore over A Level results could ultimately impact on how students view career options, leading to self-employment as a more normal choice for school leavers.

Which brings me back to Margaret Thatcher. There are, of course, pieces of the self-employed jigsaw missing, and funding is one of them. It doesn’t matter how enthusiastic you are about starting a business, personal financial risk is the factor most likely to deter someone from going it alone. So, we might do well to revisit a version of the Enterprise Allowance Scheme introduced by her in 1981.

In a nutshell, the EAS paid a sum of money monthly to anyone unemployed who wanted to start a business. You had to show some savings and a business plan, but there was no vetting of the idea itself, just a no-strings opportunity to try something out and create a job or jobs. ‘What could possibly go wrong?’,I hear you say. But research showed that it created 325,000 jobs and 18 months after signing up, 65 per cent of recipients were still in business, and 25 per cent of them were under 25. Perhaps the library business centres could also administer these grants.

In terms of business-friendly legislation, let’s also look at employment law, to facilitate hiring and firing without fear of unreasonable reprisal; maternity pay that doesn’t disadvantage the self-employed; legislation around business coaches and advice – currently not subject to regulation or insurance requirements – and greater rigour around collection of bad debts and dealing with fraud.

The good news is that we have a government taking steps to deliver on the levelling up promise of the election manifesto. The library Business Centre network is an important part of the delivery of that promise. What we need now is a comprehensive suite of services to be the foundation stone of a truly authentic entrepreneurial culture.

Where is the Conservatives’ Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission?

17 Jul

The Shamima Begum legal proceedings are a culture clash and a timely warning.

The clash lies in the gulf between metropolitan and provincial Britain.  The former’s take is audible, sophisticated and always liable find a sympathetic audience at some point in the courts.

At its core is the conviction that Begum is British – and that she should be tried here for any crimes she is alleged to have committed.

Those who hold it tend also to say that she was a child when she left the country to join ISIS; that she has renounced it, and that she is not a security risk.

The provincial view is less openly expressed, instinctively and reflexively held – and one to which the courts would resist.

It is that Begum betrayed her country when she travelled to support a terrorist group that seeks to destroy our way of life.  She therefore has no human or other right to the citizenship that the Government removed.

That’s not to say that the Supreme Court will necessarily find in her favour when it considers Ministers’ appeal against yesterday’s ruling by the Court of Appeal.

Sajid Javid argued when as Home Secretary he removed Begum’s citizenship that she would not be left stateless because would not be stateless because she could claim Bangladeshi nationality through her parents.

The Court of Appeal ruled yesterday that she should not be sent to Bangladesh or Iraq, where she was involved with ISIS, because she might face ill treatment.  You can imagine how that will go down in the Red Wall and elsewhere.

The Special Immigration Appeals Commission took a different view, and we will now have to see what the Supreme Court has to say.

Javid suggested yesterday that Begum is a threat to national security; that she is unlikely to be prosecuted in the courts if she is allowed back into Britain; that she will become a poster girl for Islamist extremism if this happens.

He also said that “the judgements and precedents set in this case could bind the hands of the Government in managing past and future cases”.

That some British citizens and others who also went to join ISIS have already returned here doesn’t mean that Javid is wrong.  It isn’t hard to see how yesterday’s judgement has wider implications.

It’s claimed that appeals are now likely to be lauched on behalf of 30 British women and 60 British children detained by the Kurdish authorities in Syria.

All of which raises the question of what is happening to the former ISIS terrorists who have already re-entered the country.

Some will be subject to Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (Tpims) – one of which may be slapped on Begum if she returns here.

These haven’t been proved to be watertight: readers may remember the case of Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed, who while disguised in a burka escaped the police tasked with monitoring him.

It’s tempting to believe that were the Human Rights Act to be recast and Britain’s membership of the ECHR revoked, judgements like yesterday’s wouldn’t be made.

The point can’t be proven one way or the other, but we suspect that any British court would be capable of making it whether we were signed up to the ECHR or not.

None the less, reforms to ensure that there is “a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government” would doubtless have an effect on the courts.

The words in quotes are from the Conservative general election manifesto.  We hope that they are acted upon.  Where is the Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission it promised “in our first year”?

At any rate, it is far from certain that Begum will actually return, whatever the Supreme Court decides.  So her story has more chapters to come.

The timely warning is bound up with a point we made only two days ago: today’s papers cover not only Begum’s court case, but Russian espionage claims – that it tried to hack into our Coronavirus vaccine research.

The timing is doubtless connected with the impending publication of the report next week into claims that Russia interfered with the 2016 general election and the 2017 EU referendum.

Our argument was that government shouldn’t focus on the threat to our security from China to the exclusion of those from Russia and Islamist extremists – who, as Gerry Adams once said of the IRA, “haven’t gone away, you know”.

Charlotte Pickles: Ten million people are at risk of becoming unemployed. They must be Sunak’s priority this week.

5 Jul

Charlotte Pickles is Deputy Director and Head of Research at the Reform think tank.

The Chancellor’s economic statement next week may be his biggest test yet. During the last few days, UK firms have announced 12,000 job losses. John Lewis, Upper Crust, Topshop, Airbus, WH Smith, TM Lewin, Easy Jet, Accenture are just some of the household names cutting jobs. Small businesses will be doing the same; you just won’t hear about them.

This is the start of the wave of redundancies Reform predicted back in April when we called on the Government to extend the furlough scheme and make it more flexible. The Government stepped up then; they need to do so again. The alternative is the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression.

Some readers will be sceptical. Great swathes of the economy reopened this weekend. Across the pond, the American economy added almost five million jobs in June, and the rise in the Eurozone’s unemployment rate in May was lower than expected.

At home, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, announced that consumer spending had “risen both sooner and materially faster” than predicted, meaning the GDP hit could be half that predicted in May. Very good news indeed.

However, underneath these headline green shoots is a much starker picture. Haldane also says that the labour market outlook is not as encouraging – that unemployment could be worse than the Bank’s May forecast. As in much of Europe, where more than 40 million people remain supported on furlough schemes, we have no idea if furloughed workers will return to work or join the unemployment rolls.

So while it is promising news that the UK economy appears to be bouncing back, it would be dangerously foolish to assume a jobs recovery at the same pace. Indeed, vacancies last week were down 24 per cent on the previous week.

Next month, businesses are required to start contributing to the cost of their furloughed workers. That’s reasonable, over nine million people have had their wages subsidised and the Government cannot continue this £10 billion-a-month support indefinitely – not least as it risks keeping people in ‘zombie jobs’, delaying their move into new roles and damaging the economy further.

But the phasing out of the furlough scheme will trigger more redundancies. Hundreds of thousands of businesses have gone for three months with little to no revenue. The Government’s loans and grants provided a lifeline for many, but social distancing measures and people’s fear of the virus will mean suppressed revenues for some time.

Expenditure will have to be cut if businesses are to stay afloat – half of companies expect to make redundancies in the next few months.

Which is precisely why the Chancellor must use his statement on Wednesday to announce a comprehensive and ambitious plan for averting mass unemployment.

Because while it might be reasonable to see how consumers respond to the further lifting of lockdown before taking a decision on something like a VAT cut – which would be pointlessly costly if the issue isn’t demand – delaying decisions about investment in employment and skills could be catastrophic.

In a new report this week, produced jointly by Reform and the Learning and Work Institute, we estimate that around ten million people are potentially at risk of unemployment. Those at greatest risk are in areas that already had high unemployment, have low qualification levels and are currently in low paid work. In other words, they will be least resilient to losing their jobs. The result of inaction, even delayed action, will be a levelling down.

The Conservative manifesto pledged to undo the decade-long underinvestment in skills; to help workers “train and retrain for the jobs and industries of the future”.

This recession is unique for its sectoral nature, meaning a large number of workers will not only need to find new jobs, but to switch careers. But it is also unique in that the Government has a direct line to those most vulnerable to unemployment – the furlough scheme.

The Prime Minster should deliver on his manifesto promise with a bold offer to anyone on furlough, or in an at-risk sector like retail or hospitality. This should include universal entitlement to funding for a qualification, or modules of a qualification, up to and including level three, as well as online advice and support.

For those needing to change careers, which we estimate will be up to 200,000 people, the Government should provide a £5,000 learning account for accredited training. They should also receive a time-limited, means-tested maintenance grant to help mitigate wage drops as they start over in a new sector. Eligibility could be linked to an individual’s history of National Insurance contributions.

And to incentivise employers both to hire apprentices and career changers, and to pay living wages, the Government should allow firms to use a proportion of their apprenticeship levy to support wages, with an equivalent grant for SMEs.

On Wednesday, the Chancellor must show the same bold thinking that delivered the furlough scheme. Failure to act now could mean mass unemployment with its sky-high social and economic costs. That’s a legacy the Government should do everything to avoid.