Julian Brazier: The Integrated Review is groundbreaking, but doesn’t go far enough in addressing the Army’s weaknesses

19 Jun

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

Recent exposure of the weaknesses in the Ajax light tank further fuel the view that the Army has drawn the short straw in the Integrated Review (IR). Its re-equipment programme is in trouble, while many are focused on the cut in regular personnel numbers.

First some context. The IR is genuinely groundbreaking. It prioritises a more powerful Navy (rightly for an island nation with Britain’s maritime tradition) and Strategic Command which owns key portfolios like cyber, space and special forces.

The Review emphasises transformative technologies and artefacts like artificial Intelligence, quantum computing and drones. It recognises that, with civilian technology rapidly evolving, this can only be delivered through a whole force prism: regular forces, reserves, contractors and civil servants (including GCHQ’s experts and civilian technologists).

Against this template, today’s Army is hampered by a grim legacy. First, the bravery and professionalism of our young officers and soldiers was not matched by the wisdom of its senior commanders in the two major Army-led conflicts of the past generation, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The surrender of Basra, and its recovery by a combined force of Iraqis and Americans, was a national humiliation. The “Platoon Houses” strategy in Helmand flew in the face of established principles of war, cost soldiers’ lives, led to the deaths of many civilians in Helmand, and drove angry young Afghans into joining the Taliban. Again, we had to be bailed out, this time by reinforcements from the US Marines.

The resultant heart-rending trickle of returning dead and maimed young men and women fractured public confidence in the Army’s work. As General Sir Nicholas Carter, the current Chief of Defence Staff, has remarked, the British people sympathise with soldiers but have lost empathy for their job. This was compounded by the outsourcing of recruiting a decade ago to Capita whose dismal performance left the Regular Army thousands short and handicapped the growth of the Army Reserve.

It must be hard for the current generation of generals to listen to lectures in the media from their predecessors who bequeathed them this poisoned chalice.

This legacy is worsened by a third factor. While Royal Navy and RAF investment is mainly concentrated in a few huge long-term programmes from Trident successor to Tempest, as the manpower intensive service, the Army has large numbers of smaller programmes, usually with shorter life-cycles. The result has been that, in successive hiatuses in MoD’s finances over the past generation, the easiest option has been to cancel Army’s equipment, leaving it with an ageing portfolio.

The centrepiece of the Army is its warfighting division. Despite new technologies, our major allies – and potential adversaries, like Russia, China and Iran – recognise that armour remains a key component. Britain plans two future tanks: 148 upgraded Challenger main battle tanks and a family of 589 Ajax light armoured vehicles for armoured reconnaissance roles. Sadly, neither is a good story.

Taking Ajax first, reported weaknesses include excessive vibration leading to an inability to fire on the move, damage to the health and hearing of crews, a de facto speed limit of just 20mph, and an inability to reverse over a 20mm step – all this in a role where agility is critical. Nevertheless, the suite of advanced weapon systems for the Ajax family is remarkable and, if these issues can be overcome, offer an important step forward. It is too soon to give up on Ajax – despite the £3 billion already spent.

In contrast, the proposal to re-turret Challenger, has little upside. Fixing an existing gun, in a new turret, to a tank without the matching turret ring, combines high technical risk with depressingly low technological ambition. If, as it is alleged, only one prototype is planned, and the development and production phases will be telescoped, it will also fly in the face of costly lessons of the past. Furthermore, the projected number is too few to be credible or economic.

It would be better to proceed with only one risky programme, Ajax, accept a trough in main battle tank capability, save money in the short term, and then participate in either the American or German programmes for a new generation of tanks.  If Ajax fails, MoD could up the number of those and top up with an off-the-shelf recce vehicle.

Army reformers have moved forward where they can. Sandhurst is full again and soldier recruiting has recovered. Soldier retention has improved too although for officers it has been damaged by the bizarre Future Accommodation Model (FAM), imposed by MoD.

The latter allocates houses based on family size rather than rank so a private with a large family gets the house which a young company commander would have occupied until recently. This is a system used by no other army in the West and discriminatory to those who cannot have children. (It equally affects the RAF, but not the Navy; with its people concentrated in three large coastal cities; owner occupation for naval families is the norm, an option the others cannot follow).

The new programme of “rangers”, second line special forces, is an important innovation, alongside the shift towards more drones, after the lessons from Armenia. Given the tight financial constraints, the choice of Boxer to replace the Warrior as the infantry’s battlefield taxi also looks sound.

The Army Reserve has rebuilt, and reserve units are now routinely carrying out tasks from armoured recce in Poland to peacekeeping in Cyprus to Covid testing here. The Army has also set the pace in integrating senior reservists into their decision making – a process which the RAF and Strategic Command are now following but the Navy, perhaps emboldened by recent financial victories, has studiously avoided. Not surprisingly, the latter are now falling behind in areas like cyber.

Lord Lancaster’s innovative paper FR30 points to additional ways that Defence can grow capability affordably, but emphasises that individual reserve units need to be larger if they are to play the front line roles they do in our English-speaking allies.  More than half the US Army is in the National Guard and USAR, including most infantry brigades. Moving more capability to the reserves makes sense.

What is urgently needed is to halt the Challenger upgrade programmes before more money is wasted, wait to join the next generation of tanks, fix Ajax, and stem the flow of young officers, not least by scrapping FAM. This would enable a credible regular armoured division, backed by a genuine reserve capability which enabled the fielding of a large, capable army at longer notice.

Britain’s army can become the best again, but only if the land forces element of the IR is revisited.

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.

Jo Gideon: Clean air is a basic need. Not a luxury

26 Sep

Jo Gideon is the Member of Parliament for Stoke on Trent Central

This year, the connection between our health and the environment has never been clearer. We have seen how wildlife trafficking and habitat loss are making animal-borne diseases like Covid-19 more likely. The cleaner air during the lockdown has also made us more cognizant of the harmful impact of traffic fumes. So it is timely that the Environment Bill is returning to Parliament soon, requiring the government to set targets for improving our environment, including the reduction of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) – the most harmful type of air pollution. But ambitious targets must be backed up by action to make it easier for people to choose cleaner forms of transport, such as electric cars or cycling.

Clean air should be seen as a basic need, not a luxury. In the UK, air pollution is the leading environmental risk to our health, and is responsible for between 28,000 and 36,000 premature deaths each year. Public Health England’s conservative estimate of the cost of air pollution to our NHS and social care system in 2017 was £42.88 million, of which £41.2 million was due to PM2.5. This noxious pollutant is made up of tiny particles from fuel, tyres, brake discs and road dust. In the latest World Health Organisation report, 30 towns and cities in the UK exceeded the recommended limits on fine particulate matter, including my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent.

The public wants to see politicians taking action to clean up our air. Polling commissioned by the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) shows that 68 per cent of people in the West Midlands support the creation of car-free zones outside of schools during pick-up and drop-off time, even if this makes the school run less convenient. A majority are also in favour of the government offering incentives for people to change to an electric vehicle, as well as strengthening air pollution laws and investing in walking and cycling.

Accelerating the transition to electric vehicles and active travel will be key to building back cleaner air after Covid-19. Earlier this year, the UK launched a consultation to bring forward the phase-out date for the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2035, and I would urge the government to be even more ambitious by setting the date for 2030 if feasible in line with the Committee on Climate Change’s advice. Electric cars are becoming increasingly popular, with annual sales of new EVs expected to reach 200,000 by 2021, and in the most recent Budget I was pleased that the Chancellor extended the Plug-In Car Grant to help people with the purchase costs.

The mass adoption of electric vehicles will require a nationwide charge point network. A mixture of public grants and private partnerships have enabled some local authorities to install charge points, but uptake is far from universal. The government has made great strides in addressing this issue. Yet at the moment with just nine charging points in total – equating to one public charging point for every 268 local EVs – Stoke-on-Trent is one of the worst areas for EV charging in the country. There’s no shortage of ambition from our council to rectify this, provided they have central government support, however. That’s why I welcomed the £500 million funding announced in March to help the rollout of high-powered, open-access charge points.

The government is also supporting councils to create more walking and cycling infrastructure, with a £2 billion funding package and a new strategy for cycling and walking – setting an ambition for half of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030. The West Midlands is already seeing the benefits of this: the new Starley Network, funded in part by the government’s Emergency Active Travel Fund, will join together 500 miles of cycle routes across the region. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have 18 miles of canal pathways which offer a unique opportunity for cycling routes.

And of course, underpinning all of this, must be a world-leading target to tackle the toxic PM2.5, committing in the Environment Bill to achieving the World Health Organisation’s current air quality standards. This would once again demonstrate the government’s commitment to having higher environmental standards than the European Union after Brexit. Achieving this standard – which is feasible according to the government’s own study – would also deliver annual health benefits of £6.8 billion.

As with our net-zero target for greenhouse gas emissions, the UK would be the first major economy to make such a commitment, and it would complement our climate change target by encouraging the widespread uptake of electric forms of travel and heating.

Leaving the European Union presents us with a historic opportunity to create a healthier environment for ourselves and future generations. Let’s not waste it.

Alexandra Marsanu: Rather than being paralysed by the doom and gloom, we need to seize the new opportunities

7 Aug

Alexandra Marsanu is a Ward Chair at Holborn and St Pancras Conservatives and Deputy Chair for London at Conservative Young Women. She works professionally as a strategy consultant.

There is no doubt that the unprecedented health crisis will have a massive impact for the months and years to come. From heart-breaking loss of life to more than nine million workers on furlough to increasing waves of layoffs and business closures. The numbers show a grim story unfolding, and the economic one has only just begun.

That doesn’t mean however, that we should become completely paralysed by the doom and gloom. Yes, difficult times lie ahead. And yes, a pessimist or cautious take tends to catch the public mind much more easily than an enthusiastic, potentially reckless cheerleader. But as history has shown time and time again, you can always bet on Britain’s strength to survive and turn each challenge into an opportunity. And given the looming economic shifts, a re-think of how businesses are run and what skills are needed for the post-covid economy should start sooner rather than later.

The effects of covid-19 have certainly started laying out the breadcrumbs for the next waves of innovation. ‘Just-in-time’ production and global supply chains have proven vulnerable to disruption. Empty high-streets show an already struggling retail industry in need of massive transformation. Working from home has been more successful than expected as many office workers are reluctant to get back to the Pret sandwich diet or stand on a crowded tube.

A need for change on how we do things is slowly but surely emerging. Take manufacturing and supply chains. Could the flimsy global supply chains experienced in the past few months signify a need for bringing it back home? The shift to the services industry led to manufacturing accounting for just 8.7 per cent of economic output this year, down from 15 per cent in the 1990s. And given the allure of high-paying professional services or finance jobs, this is not surprising.

But as Elon Musk put it best “someone needs to do the real work”. If we don’t produce anything we don’t have anything and empty supermarket shelves and the PPE crisis back in March certainly proved that. A domestic production of basic necessities such as food, medicine and PPE, is not a bad thing to have in times of crisis. A need to speed up decarbonisation can be catalysed by investing in new technologies in such as energy storage, cheaper electric vehicles or small modular nuclear reactors. Automation, artificial intelligence and 3D printing can make advanced manufacturing attractive and help tackle the reshoring headwinds.

The success of remote working is another interesting trend to explore. Ghostly streets in Bank or Canary Wharf flag that Tramsport for London, lunch spots and office rents are in deep trouble. Without workers or tourists roaming the streets some may need to shut down for good. But while some ways of working may come back once a vaccine is ready, technology has proven that many don’t need to. Could this offer interesting opportunities in revitalising the dying high streets in small towns with the same fitness or eat-out facilities you may find in Central London? Or could this finally incentivise many more companies to not concentrate their offices in one location and move to a hub/co-working approach? A hybrid work from home model may be the future.

But given the uncertainty of the economic recovery, how can we know for sure what will change and what will stick? Nassim Taleb offers an intriguing thought in his book on the so-called black swan events:

“The reason free markets work is that they allow people to be lucky, thanks to aggressive trial and error.”

And why not take this approach?

Your typical entrepreneur seems to use this best. A new idea is tried out. The mistakes are learnt from. It is adapted. That tends to lead to better results than massive costly projects. New policies could be tested through small experiments and local community feedback. As jobs become more dispersed, a small town could try out a restructuring of its high street to become a place for entertainment and public services. Local community feedback can easily be gathered. And if it works others will quickly adopt it.

Further Education colleges and work placements can be another quick way to try out a job change and re-skill for the new economy. Instead of having millions of people compete for jobs which may no longer exist, short online courses could be used to learn new things. Digital skills can be learned and tested over a matter of weeks. Or different career paths can be tested out through re-training and short placements for career changers similar to Sunak’s Kick Start Scheme aimed at 16-24-year-olds.

The uncertainty may look numbing, but opportunities will become apparent once the crisis settles and habits change. Now is the time to tinker as much as possible with new ideas. As researchers work day and night to find a vaccine and the furlough scheme puts the breaks on an economic crash, we need to make sure that we don’t emerge unprepared on the other side.

Ed McGuinness: We need more innovation to reopen schools

24 Jun

Ed McGuinness is a former Chairman of Islington Conservative Federation and stood for Hornsey & Wood Green at the general election.

Education is the silver bullet. In the formative years it gives children the skills to interact properly with their peers; as adolescents it delivers the abilities to contribute meaningfully to society; and as young adults it can deliver advanced knowledge to bring about innovation and societal progression. Education is progressive by its very nature; you cannot build the space shuttle before learning your times tables or even learning how to interact socially; the reason why the formative years are so aptly named.

The Government has set criteria for schooling following the much publicised “bubble” principle. Whereby, guided by the science, school class sizes are reduced to a maximum of 15. With average class sizes in England being at 27 this means, on the face of it, there would not be enough teachers or real estate to educate children. But we should not accept this as fait accompli.

For the individual, a Swedish study, found that absence does have a significant effect on average grades in the short term. Whilst studies have yet to prove long term effects conclusively, the penalty, in the labour market, for absences is most profound in those aged 25-30 – precisely the age that most young adults in the UK are beginning the high growth phase of their career.

For society, education not only produces skilled individuals, but also has secondary effects. Education provides a safe environment for children to learn how to interact successfully. Crucially it allows parents of children to be as economically active as possible, whilst school provides a form of secondary childcare. Caring for children at home, whilst attempting to tutor them and be productive at work must lead to a trade-off, most likely in the latter.

With social injustice also so prevalent in the recent news it would also be amiss to ignore the impact that an education vacuum has on the disadvantage gap in England which closed by around ten per cent between 2011 and 2019 – a phenomenal effort from Government and teaching staff. We are now in danger of undoing all that good work. 60 per cent of private schools and 37 per cent of state schools in the most affluent areas versus only 23 per cent of state schools in more deprived areas had the advantage of extra resources beforehand, including online learning portals, which gave them a structural head start. Whilst data is still scarce, in the first week of home schooling (beginning 23 March) pupils from middle class homes were twice as likely to be taking part in daily live or recorded lessons as those from working class households (30 per cent compared to 16 per cent) and with around 50 per cent participation from private schools. The bottom line is that the loss of in-person learning or, at least, supervision could lead to a significant widening of the disadvantage gap once again.

However, we remain fixed by the “bubble” principle. Whilst the Department of Education provides the grand strategy, there are ways councils can step up and take the initiative. A shining example is Wandsworth. Consistently able to deliver value for money for residents, Wandsworth Council has continued its impressive, pragmatic approach to education in its nine-point plan. Three points stand out as innovative.

Firstly, making parks and outside spaces free of charge for schools to use will encourage outdoor learning during the most appropriate months of the year. This new environment also lowers the already low risk to children and teachers of the virus. Making unused council building space available to schools will allow those whose real estate is already tight to expand into a greater space further enhancing safety and allowing greater flexibility to staff and students. Finally, by providing free mental health services to teachers during this period, the council can promote a happier and healthier educational environment. We should remember it is our teachers, heroic even in normal times, who will be facing the additional pressure of explaining complex issues to children, having to enforce unnatural social distancing at times and who genuinely care about the educational welfare of their pupils not being fulfilled to the highest extent.

Whilst not all councils will have the resources of Wandsworth, or necessarily the same micro issues as a London Borough, the broader point is that innovative solutions are needed from all local authorities who are empowered to provide a conducive educational environment.

At the beginning of this crisis, the Government, both centrally and locally, was rightly focussed on its impact on the lives of the public. We saw the huge national effort which has led to a significant increase in NHS capacity, the procurement of much needed ventilators, economic measures which have run into the hundreds of billions of pounds, and a relentless focus on trying to control the spread of the virus. Now it is time to think of the longer term impact. The economic recovery will take many months to get back to pre-crisis levels and years to realign into a more immune position. The educational impact on this nation will last quite possibly for almost a century.

Previous monikers for generations have included “the greatest” and “the silent”. We must innovate if we are to prevent “the lost generation” entering the lexicon of the future.