Alice Babington: Let’s make high streets the hubs in our rural towns

26 Mar

Alice Babington is a member of Conservative Young Women South West.

For generations, the high streets of our rural towns have been in decline. The increasing competition posed by online shopping, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has caused smaller high street shops to struggle. Before the pandemic, high streets had suffered a ten per cent decrease in footfall over the prior seven years. With the onset of the pandemic, the high street suffered an average 39.1 per cent decrease in footfall over the course of 2020.

The pandemic has also demonstrated how many jobs can be done remotely, with much of the population having worked from home for the past 12 months. Home working during the pandemic has highlighted the huge waste imposed by long commutes to cities. For workers, the commute is a waste of time and expense and damages their wellbeing. For businesses, home working has shown much of their office overheads to be an unnecessary expense that eats into profits. Furthermore, with the Conservative Party’s “Green Industrial Revolution” in sharp focus, millions of daily commutes only serve to harm the environment and frustrate attempts to tackle climate change.

It has thrown traditional routes to employment into question. No longer is university necessarily the preferred choice for school leavers and many would prefer to stay in their hometown and move straight into a job. Businesses based in small towns, devoid of job centres and links with local schools, struggle to recruit from the local population or convince suitable candidates to commute long distances from nearby cities.

Providing local, flexible, workspaces can help to solve these issues for workers, businesses, students, and the environment.

During a recent ‘Tell Number 10’ meeting hosted by Conservative Young Women South West, chaired by Jenny Rackham and attended by Alice Babington, Dan Brown and Samantha Dennis, the idea of developing “High Street Hubs” was proposed. These hubs could be implemented in rural towns to provide a community for agile workers, tackle environmental pollution associated with city commutes, incorporate an independent careers advice and mentorship service for local students, and boost failing high streets.

It will be interesting to see, in the rapidly approaching post-pandemic world, how many businesses encourage their employees to work from home, either partially or permanently. An increase in remote working will undoubtedly lead to demand for local hot-desking space, both from those who do not have room for a designated workspace at home, and for those who prefer to not mix work and home life so intimately.

The use of the proposed High Street Hubs could be incentivised by the provision of National Insurance/Working Tax Credits for employers and employees who make use of these hubs. For reference, it’s currently the case that an employee on a remote working contract pays five per cent less in national insurance contributions.

The presence of High Street Hubs would boost the everyday footfall on high streets, and focus consumer power in our regional towns, not just the largest cities. They would encourage businesses focused on services for workers to open nearby, providing the high streets of our rural towns a new lease of life.

In many areas of life, a return to the status quo is what we crave after this difficult pandemic period. But when it comes to the British high street, and the health of our regional towns, the status quo just won’t do. High Street Hubs could provide people with the chance to work in a thriving community environment; improved mental health and well-being; reduced environmental pollution and improved careers advice.

This is a collaborative article following a Tell No. Ten Policy Forum hosted by Conservative Young Women South West on 18th February 2021.

Dehenna Davison: We need to dig deep to understand why more women don’t go into politics – but quotas are not the answer

21 Dec

Dehenna Davison is MP for Bishop Auckland.

Women are outnumbered in Parliament and local government by two to one. So what’s the answer to getting more into politics and retaining them? Networks like Conservative Young Women.

The 2019 General Election returned the highest number, and proportion, of female MPs ever recorded and a new record of female Conservative MPs, me included. I firmly believe that, if any party is doing the most to get women elected into public office, it’s the Conservatives.

While admittedly it is the Labour Party that still has the most female MPs elected, that is predominantly because of the use of all-women shortlists or quotas, something any self-respecting meritocrat could never support.

I certainly didn’t want a better chance of being selected because I was a woman. I just wanted a fair chance at getting there. And, in the end, the Bishop Auckland selection final comprised of two blokes and me. I have the confidence of knowing that I won fair and square based on merit, and not because of my gender.

Besides, regardless of Labour’s use of all female shortlists, it has still failed to produce a single female leader, whereas the Conservative Party delivered not only the first female party leader, but the first two female Prime Ministers.

It can’t be denied that tools like quotas can be useful for getting women through the door. However, if we are serious about getting more women into politics, it has to be more than just cosmetic. We have to dig deeper into the reasons why women aren’t already getting involved. That means looking into, and addressing, the cultural and working practices that exist in Parliament and local government, which create and maintain significant barriers for women.

A recent study by the University of Bath suggested there are three factors that prevent women from getting into elected life: social and cultural barriers, structural and institutional barriers, and knowledge and information barriers.

The social and cultural barriers are, to some extent, the hardest to change. Politics has long been thought of as a man’s world or a boys’ club. I am confident that almost every political woman, of any party affiliation, could name multiple examples of going to a political event and being the only woman in the room. For some people, this wouldn’t pose a problem – I certainly never felt put off because of such experiences.

However, for other women I have spoken to, it can be very offputting walking into a room full exclusively of men in suits, particularly if this happens during someone’s very early political experiences.

Paradoxically, the best way to tackle these cultural barriers is by getting more women elected. But not just women – people of all demographics from all walks of life. The more the makeup of elected politicians reflects our society, the easier it will be for people from non-traditional political demographics to picture themselves in positions of power and consider standing for election. The 2019 General Election saw the most diverse Parliament ever elected, and we must continue this trend.

The structural barriers have been changing in recent years, with measures put in place to make Parliament more parent-friendly. An in-house nursery and more sociable working hours are all part of these steps. And we have seen excellent female MPs like Chloe Smith, Juli Lopez, and Kemi Badenoch taking maternity leave while doing Ministerial jobs.

On the knowledge barriers, training is key. Groups like Women2Win and the Conservative Women’s Organisation have long played a crucial role in providing training opportunities for women interested in political life.

The pipeline of good candidates is paramount, and that means making sure we have excellent younger women ready to take on leadership roles in their communities when they arise. That is why I am delighted to take on the role of Honorary President of Conservative Young Women this year.

Conservative Young Women is for those aged 18-35, meaning that despite officially being too old at 27 to be a Young Conservative I am still thankfully well within the bracket! CYW is laying the groundwork to deliver change to the often perceived masculine character of Westminster.

Now a central feature within the party, the organisation this year has gone from strength to strength and, despite the challenges the Coronavirus pandemic has thrown at the world, the organisation has delivered a number of fantastic events remotely.

If we are to achieve 50/50 representation without the use of quotas, it is vital that we connect young women in the Conservative Party so that they can share their resources to learn more about political life, and understand the opportunities available to them.

Confidence in conviction can sometimes be all that holds back a woman and visible representation of women in power is key in ensuring women are empowered to stand for election. With representatives from across the UK (including the devolved nations) and events for young women to connect and network, the Conservative Young Women’s organisation is the backbone of the effort to get more women into political life.

In my role as Honorary President, I will be working with Conservative Young Women closely over the next 12 months to see how best we can tackle some of those earlier mentioned barriers. I am excited to work alongside Ella Robertson McKay and the new committee of talented women.

One of the things I’m really excited about is the CYW Policy Essay Competition, which we launched last week. We’re asking young women to write a short essay about a policy to tackle one of the key challenges facing our nation. As well as a cash prize, the winners will get to pitch their idea to senior leaders from the Number 10 Policy Unit and the Conservative Party Board. To find out more, go here.

Despite incredible progress in recent years, there is still a long way to go to encourage more of our talented women to consider going into politics, and sharing their skills and expertise for the good of our society.

But it is a challenge that I and Conservative Young Women stand ready to tackle.