Alexandra Marsanu: Working from home – and why we need evolution, not a revolution

6 Sep

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.

A polarising debate has been taking place recently.  On one hand, there is a rare alliance between the Government, media and auxiliary businesses denouncing the impact of homeworking on highstreets, career growth and the mental health of the workers themselves. On the other, you see a majority of workers perfectly content to keep calm and carry on.

No more squeezing on the tube at rush hour; no more money wasted on soggy sandwiches and coffee; no more interruptions or time lost in pointless chitchat over what you did last weekend. An era of high productivity and improved home life is upon us. But would it really be that easy?

Rather than an expected gradual shift to flexible working driven by innovation in collaboration tools, an increase in the ‘gig economy’ or drive for decarbonisation, we have not been given time or choice.

Over the course of a few unusual days, offices were shut down and kitchen tables were seized for the new digital future of the 2020s. We have made do so well with Zoom and Teams and home-made banana loaf that office life seems from a bygone era – not fit for the modern days of self-driving cars and 3D printed buildings. But let’s not forget that they say ‘good things take time’ for a reason.

Although our homes may be packed with monitors and Amazon boxes, many business owners are looking at the empty chairs and aisles and wondering for how long they can still go on. The furlough anaesthetic is due to wear off, and with money quickly running out many are in for a tough autumn.

And for some, it may indeed be time to close shop. Why should taxpayers prop up a chain business just because they hire many people? For many others, it may be difficult to see the value in what they offer. Why would we need to go out and spend our hard-earned money on overcrowded trains and £3 coffee?

Of course, it is difficult to empathise with businesses. After all, the free market will take its tool eventually. But with a £2 trillion debt and still many months of uncertainty to come, there is a case for the economics that has worked so well until now.

Through the measures seen so far, the Government seems to be doing just that. Taking a page out of Keynesian economics, it’s looking to maintain today’s supply for when demand recovers, hopefully next year. And given how symbiotic our economy is, nothing makes more sense.

Many professional areas can be taken as examples. In consulting, banking and legal services the mix of industries needing support is under a constant shift. Where public sector work may be building up in the short term for areas such as consultancy, the impact of huge retailers or automotive companies shutting down is already playing out, and will do so during the months and years to come

Similarly, jobs supporting the most affected industries ranging from marketing to accounting may take a hit as cuts to the frontline are slimming down operations. Even a coveted career in technology may not be completely safe, since technology changes take years to implement and big players such as Accenture or IBM are already reporting job cuts in the past few months. If the impact is big enough, one way or another thange will reach all of us.

So what is there to do? Isn’t the Government’s job to save jobs? Is it really up to each of us to dash to the office so we can put yet another plaster on the economy? After all, we have already eaten our way towards the hospitability recovery last month.

Well, the fact of the matter is that we can’t just go back to the old ways. You see, there wouldn’t really be the space for all of us to go back in the office due to social distancing.

But we can’t expect that the world we see today is here for the long run. Not in an economy which is 30 per cent based on consumption. Unemployment benefits and a significant decrease in tax receipts will only divert from spending which can help make public services better or ease the debt for future generations. Considering a phased or rotational return to the office may be our best contribution until the tourists are back or workers can re-skill.

An exciting ‘future of work’ revolution is already here – one where we balance our work and home life in hybrid working patterns fit for a highly productive economy. And it may indeed be a useless pursuit to spend the money today in saving something that won’t be required tomorrow. But no revolution comes without pain and time to rebuild is what’s needed now.

Nat Wei: Forget moving Parliament to York. It should go fully virtual and innovate to save money.

24 Jul

Lord Wei is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He is a co-founder of Teach First, a social entrepreneur, and a former government adviser.

There has been a lot of talk about sending Parliament to York, as a means to reconnect with the public. While it is only right to review the cost of moving Parliament out for refurbishment, my sense is that moving to York is actually not radical enough given what we now know is possible – having moved to hybrid sittings as a result of Covid-19.

Shifting to York, a fairly affluent city in the North, would be costly, at a time when the country can little afford it. Whether it will allow people to feel closer to their politicians is not clear.

What might be better, cheaper and more radical would be to enable Parliament to meet virtually using future technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, wikis, breakout lobbies and Committee rooms that the public can visit, observe and participate in.

These technologies will mature in the coming five years or more, and will be much cheaper to implement than a temporary or permanent move to elsewhere in Westminster, York, or anywhere else.

In fact, why not go a step further and harness this opportunity for the Mother of Parliaments to find new ways to engage the public – not just every five years or through the mob that social media can currently represent, or even through petitions?

Why not use this season to accelerate, incubate, and innovate around concepts such as mass participatory budgeting, or betting with real or fake money on what policy ideas will work, or on mass legislative amendments clearly marked with explanations by those in the country and those who need to convey what they think the impact of law and legislation might have on their industry, geography, or lives?

Such lawtech or regulationtech could in turn be harnessed to enable other countries, places and movements to experiment with democracy in different forms, whether representative or direct, whether by seeking to explore whether ideas would be popular, or whether give those ideas a high probability of succeeding or not.

Data, where shared, on whose predictions and votes were actually accurate or prescient, indicating a high degree of judgement, could highlight which citizens might do well to become MPs or peers in future, rather than just relying on the current party selection processes which can be too much of a closed network at the best of times.

Where the private sector has established what are called prediction markets, where – say – employees at a firm bet on the quarterly sales figures of that company weekly or monthly, the market overall learns over time to get to within about two per cent accuracy.

Imagine how many billions could have been saved if there had been such a prediction market in place when Gordon Brown or another leader claims to be able to use tax credits to halve child poverty by 50 per cent by 2020?

Imagine if some of the funds saved could be used to establish low-cost smartphone and Internet-of-things-based ways of assessing if policy actually worked after it has been implemented – so we can all make smarter decisions in future, and learn in real time even where ideas haven’t worked.

Moving Parliament full stop physically could be a costly mistake.

Let’s go online, and have revolving pop-up events around the country if you must (Foster and Partners modular pop-up Parliament concept previously submitted might be modified to enable this) but accelerate the development of the technology so that we can get as close virtually to really being physically together as much as possible.

By using bottom-up innovation this wouldn’t need to cost more than £50 to £100 million to develop. It would certainly cost many, many billions less than moving everyone to York or somewhere else and back.

Tony Smith: In over 40 years of Home Office experience, I can’t recall a time when our borders have been under so much pressure

17 Jul

Tony Smith is a former Head of the UK Border Force and Director of Ports and Borders in both the UK and Canada. He is now Managing Director of Fortinus Global Ltd, an international border security company, and Chairman on the International Border Management and Technologies Association.

In 2017, Charlie Elphicke, then MP for Dover and Deal, posted in these pages about how Britain needed to be Ready on Day One to meet the Brexit borders challenge.

At that time, he expected Day One to fall in March 2019 – allowing us around 18 months to commence work on the biggest border transformation programme ever seen in this country. He advocated a range of measures, particularly in the port of Dover and the Channel Tunnel, which account for 40 per cent of our trade with the EU.

Many of Elphicke’s proposals for new investment in roads, lorry parks, port infrastructure and IT upgrades in Kent were foreseeable from the day Britain voted to leave the EU in June 2016. I worked closely with him and others to develop a workable border transformation proposal at that time, which we submitted to Ministers and presented to an APPG in Parliament.

Yet four years have elapsed – and only now are we seeing any real commitment from government to invest to upgrade our ports and borders to cope with the huge challenges ahead. This week, Michael Gove announced a £705 million spending package to help manage Britain’s borders to prepare for Brexit as the transition period (and free movement) ends on 31 December this year.

It has been criticised by Labour as being “too little too late”. In response to industry concerns and COVID-19 delays, the Government has also announced that “full import controls” will be “phased in”, and not fully implemented until July 2021; prompting claims from Liz Truss that the UK could be left open to legal challenge and smuggling.

Meanwhile, we have seen a record daily total of irregular migrants crossing the channel from France, and Priti Patel has announced a new “points based” immigration system, which is set to commence on 1 January next year, requiring EU citizens to get permission to enter and remain in the UK for the first time in 40 years.

In over 40 years’ experience in the Home Office, I cannot recall a time when the UK Border has been under this degree of pressure on all fronts at the same time – immigration policy, customs infrastructure, and border security.

The only saving grace for the Border Force is the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced traffic at our ports to a trickle, at a time when we would simultaneously be facing up to new record volumes and the usual criticisms from ports and airports about queues and delays at the UK Border.

Even so, the hasty implementation of a quarantine measure at the UK Border – and the rapid relaxation of it to cater for the holiday season – has not inspired confidence, either from the transportation industry or from the Border Force officers themselves.

Brexit and the ending of free movement provides the Government with unparalleled opportunities to build the “world class” border that it aspires to. But border transformation programmes take time and require careful handling. We do not have a great track record of delivering major IT and infrastructure changes at the UK border.

Key factors identified in the past that have led to programme failures include a lack of clear vision and direction, inconsistent leadership, ineffective public/private sector engagement, and governance. It is vital that we learn these lessons now.

Of course, this commitment to fund new infrastructure at our major ports of entry is welcome; and better late than never. The opportunities available for turning our major ports into global trading hubs, building freeports, implementing “drive through” and “walk through” borders based on advanced data analytics and risk assessments are all within reach. But it would be wrong to underestimate the enormity of the challenge ahead.

Setting out a vision is one thing; turning it into an operational reality is another thing entirely. Having been Senior Responsible Owner for the UK Border Agency’s London 2012 Programme for over three years, I know that this will only work if the government can build a cross Whitehall Programme that actively engages with the myriad of Departments and Agencies with a stake in the UK Border, ranging from the Home Office and HMRC through to Transport, Health, DEFRA and the like.

Of course, there will be the familiar tensions between facilitation and control; people and goods; compliance and regulation. These were always there. But taking a narrow view that HMRC “does goods” and Home Office “does people” no longer works, especially in the UK where we have a joint Border Force doing both.

There are some encouraging signs that the Cabinet Office is taking greater control over border-related projects, rather than simply acting as a co-ordinator between departments. But the fact that HMRC has issued a “Border Operating Model” claiming to cover “all of the processes and systems, across all government departments, that will be used at the border”, without any cross reference to an announcement from the Home Office on the same day setting out the “Border of the Future” “with new processes, biometrics and technology” as part of the new points- based immigration system is a case in point.

If we are to retain a single UK Border Force to operate the new rules, then we need to consolidate the strategic, policy and programme arms behind them.

To succeed, Whitehall will need to galvanise the very best people, systems, and processes into a fully functional Border Transformation Programme. This means bringing the key contributors to economic revival including the ports, transportation companies, traders and the world class technology suppliers to the table; and uniting them behind a common purpose to end free movement and implement to build the world class border we all want.

And to expect to deliver all this against a specific “Day One” deadline set by politicians – be it in January or June 2021 – is prone to failure, as history has shown us.

Neil O’Brien: No, more economic prosperity doesn’t depend on more social liberalism

13 Jul

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Danny Finkelstein took issue with Boris Johnson’s idea of “levelling up” in the Times the other day. He reviewed the work of Richard Florida, a thinker dubbed the “patron saint of avocado toast” for highlighting the role of bohemian urbanites in driving economic regeneration.

Danny concludes from his work that, “Social liberalism and economic prosperity go together.” He argues that: “in order to match the success and power of metropolitan areas, non-metropolitan places need to become more… metropolitan.  The problem with the metropolitan “elite” isn’t that there is too much of it. It’s that there aren’t enough members of it, drawn from a wide enough background and living in enough places.”

I hesitate to disagree with one of the smartest columnists on the planet. But economic growth and social liberalism don’t always go together.

What about the Victorians, combining breakneck growth with a religious revival and tightened public morals? What about Japan during their postwar decades of blistering growth and conservative “salaryman” culture? Over the last 70 years, Britain has become more socially liberal as our growth rate has slowed.

Even in Britain today, it’s highly questionable. London is the richest and fastest growing part of the UK.  But where is opposition to homosexuality and pre-marital sex strongest? London. Where is support for censoring offensive speech highest? London.  The capital mixes liberal metropolitan graduates with religious immigrants. Its success is shaped by both.

Danny’s other argument has more important implications. Is it really the case other places must emulate London to succeed? Like other capital cities across Europe, London has grown faster than the rest of the country since the 1980s. The shift to an economy based on “office jobs” over has favoured the centres of larger cities.

But we shouldn’t get too carried away by the idea that hipster-powered megacities are sweeping all before them. For starters, there are successes elsewhere. Cheshire has high tech in a rural setting, with productivity and wages above the national average.  Milton Keynes likewise, because it’s easy to build there. Productivity in Preston has grown faster than average because it’s a transport hub with advanced manufacturing.

On the surface, large cities outside London have done well.  Since 1997, our 16 largest cities grew their GDP faster than their surrounding areas: Leeds grew faster than West Yorkshire, Manchester faster than Greater Manchester, and so on.

But on average, those cities saw also slower growth in income per head than their surrounding areas. In other words, people became more likely to work in city centres, but that growth was fuelled by people commuting in from smaller places around them. Their growth has been powered more by smalltown commuters than flat-cap wearing uber-boheminans.

It’s right that there are cities outside London that have things in common with it, and might benefit from similar investments. Lawyers in London will soon get Crossrail. So why have lawyers in Leeds waited 20 years for a tram?

But too often Richard Florida’s work leads politicians to focus on shiny cultural facilities. A cool art gallery in West Brom.  A national museum of pop music in Sheffield. It’s not just that these projects flop and close. It’s that they distract from two bigger issues.

First, most people aren’t graduates – so we need a plan to raise their productivity and wages too.

Second, places outside urban centres are perfectly capable of attracting high-skill, high income people – with the right policies.

Britain’s economy is unusually unbalanced compared to other countries.  Pre-tax incomes in Greater London are nearly 60 per cent higher than the national average, but more than 20 per cent below average in Yorkshire, the North East, Wales and Northern Ireland.  These imbalances mean our economy is overheating in some places and freezing cold in others, slowing growth overall. There are no major economies that are richer per head than Britain which have a more unbalanced economy.

But these imbalances don’t represent pure free market outcomes. It’s true that low-skill, low wages places can get stuck in a vicious circle. True that some places on the periphery have very deep problems. Nonetheless, the British state doesn’t do much to stop that – in fact it does a lot to unbalance growth.

Consider how we spend money. Capital spending on transport infrastructure in London is nearly three times the national average. Research funding per head is nearly twice the national average. Nearly half the core R&D budget is spent in Oxford, Cambridge and London. Spending on housing and culture per head in London is five times the national average. We’re “levelling up” the richest places.

We’ve rehearsed these problems for years, but not fixed them. Instead of chasing flat white drinkers, we need to find a cool £4 billion a year to level up R&D spending in other places to the levels London enjoys. Fancy coffee can come later.

Consider our tax system. Overall, the tax rate on business in the UK is about average.  But we combine the lowest headline rate in the G20 with the lowest capital allowances. The combined effect of this is a huge bias against capital intensive sectors, particularly manufacturing.

That in turn has a regional impact, hurting places more dependent on making things: manufacturing accounted for only five per cent of London’s productivity growth since 1997, but nearly 50 per cent in the north west. A hostile tax system is one reason Britain has deindustrialised more than any other G20 country since 1990, and why manufacturing’s share of the economy is half that in Germany or Japan.

Manufacturing should be a key part of levelling up outside cities: it needs space, not city centre locations. In English regions outside London, wages in manufacturing are about nine per cent higher than in services, and manufacturing productivity grows faster than the economy as a whole.  But Britain’s excessive focus on professional services makes it harder to grow high-wage employment in non city-centre locations.

Consider where we put our key institutions. In Germany the political capital was Bonn, and is now Berlin. The financial capital is Frankfurt. The Supreme Court is in Karlsruhe. The richest place is Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen. There are major corporate HQs spread across the country. TV production is dispersed because central government is banned from running it.

In Britain, all these things happen in just one city. We’ve talked about this for years, but made little progress.  In recent years, we managed to move one chunk of Channel 4 to Leeds, and a bit of the BBC to Manchester. But that’s about it. Whitehall only wants to move low-end jobs.

The debate on levelling up is frustrating, because we know some things work, but we don’t do them. “Regional Selective Assistance” boosted investment in poor places with tax breaks and subsidies.  Thanks to evidence from natural experiments, we know it boosted growth. Yet it was allowed to wither.

I don’t want us to be just another government promising the world, then not delivering. Politically, it’s vital we deliver. Lots of people who haven’t voted Conservative before put their trust in us last year. It’s telling that the centre point of the seats we won is just outside Sheffield.

We won on a manifesto combining centrist economics, (50,000 more nurses) mild social conservatism, (ending auto early release) and national self-confidence (Getting Brexit Done).  Levelling up is central to all this. We promised voters steak and chips.  We could serve up avocado toast instead, but we shouldn’t be surprised if the voters don’t thank us.