Selaine Saxby: The South West is a region of stark inequality

8 Sep

Selaine Saxby is MP for North Devon.

“Levelling Up” must benefit the whole country. While plenty has been written discussing “Levelling Up the North”, far less attention has been given to what it means to “Level Up the South” and in particular the South West, the region I represent. This is perhaps because, taken as a whole, the South West sits around the average on many of the indicators of success that the levelling up agenda may target when compared to the rest of the UK.

But dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that there is vast intra-regional inequality in the South West on a level barely seen elsewhere within the country. As I set out in a new report for the thinktank Onward today, this makes broad-brush regional comparisons and traditional indicators of success unhelpful in discussing the unique position of the South West, and the challenges we face in trying to grow the regional economy. A good example is employment: our unemployment is low in the South West, but this headline statistic hides the prevalence of part-time work (some 27.1 per cent of people) and the relative low pay of those at the bottom of the income spectrum, particularly the level of those on minimum wage.

Indeed, while some 90 per cent of constituencies in the South West have part-time employment above the UK average, the bottom 60 per cent of part-time workers in the income distribution in the South West earn less than their correspondingly-ranked part-time workers in every other region. This is despite the fact that workers here consistently work longer hours than in other regions like the South East. Importantly, this abundance of poorly paid, part-time work is driven by our area’s reliance on accommodation and food services, industries which were particularly hard hit during the pandemic.

In the South West, we also suffer poor digital connectivity, something I know well as Chair of the APPG on Broadband and Digital Communication, and poor physical connectivity, with few jobs within a reasonable drive of people’s homes. The number of jobs within Devon and Cornwall reachable within 60 minutes is two times below the median, and some five times below the median number of jobs within 90 minutes. With public transport, the picture is slightly better, but people in Devon and Cornwall can still reach some 37per cent fewer jobs than the median within 60 minutes on public transport, and 54 per cent below the median at 90 minutes.

This picture may be somewhat unfamiliar to those in the more urban conurbations in the South West, but to those of us in North Devon or other rural and coastal areas, often long distances from any city or motorway, these are very real concerns. With few jobs available within commuting distance, and connectivity in many places too poor to even consider a job requiring an average speed internet connection, people will continue moving away and our skills gap will widen further.

This complex picture of regional average versus intra-regional inequality is further reflected in skills. The South West is roughly average in the UK for qualifications successes, yet in Devon less than a quarter of 20-29 year-olds have a degree, despite the presence of Exeter and Plymouth. The picture is repeated in Cornwall, where the number is some 10 per cent below the national average of 35 per cent. With the South West’s over-reliance on a few low productivity and low wage sectors – retail, accommodation, and food services – this may not appear an obvious short-term problem, but left untackled it stands stark in the face of the Government’s Levelling Up ambitions.

The story of the South West is one of complex inequality that is not easily reflected in traditional interregional figures, particularly around the coast. If the Government is to truly make a difference and level up the country as a whole, the south west cannot be ignored, and indeed deserves a special focus in its own right given the unique situation within which it finds itself.

Selaine Saxby: Lib Dem-run North Devon Council declared a “climate emergency” in 2019. But has failed to do anything.

20 Aug

Selaine Saxby is MP for North Devon.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “emergency” as “something dangerous or serious, such as an accident, that happens suddenly or unexpectedly and needs fast action in order to avoid harmful results.”

So why have so many local councils declared a Climate Emergency, which amounts to little more than a statement on their website? A Freedom of Information (FOI) request did not get me very far, with my local Liberal Democrat District Council merely saying:

“The Council’s Sustainability and Climate Officer for both North Devon Council and Torridge District Council confirms that they are currently working on a Carbon Action Plan for North Devon, therefore at this time the Council does not have one in place.”

This is the same Liberal Democrat council that declared a Climate Emergency in June 2019. As a councillor since May 2019, I remember the meeting well. I registered my own concerns at the time, and that as a good first step, maybe the air conditioning could be turned down.

Furthermore, our flag-waving Lib Dems have failed to reduce their own carbon emissions, failed to reduce their own energy consumption, failed to provide any incentives for electric cars, and failed to switch any of their fleet vehicles to electric.

I appreciate that our hardworking council officers have been very busy with the pandemic, and the staff have really done a fantastic job, but you would hope that the “Lead Councillor” responsible for the environment could have seen a way to at least install some solar panels.

Emergencies and crises by their very names invoke something of a helplessness in many as it seems to be someone else’s problem. But if we are to address climate change and achieve net zero, there is a need for everyone to feel they can take action now, and not wait for another unhelpful “plan”.

The pandemic taught us the importance of collaboration between local and national government. Devon County Council has also declared a climate emergency, and launched their own plan. But plans need to be actioned if they are to have any effect.

In North Devon, we have already done so much work towards addressing climate change, from increasing electric charging points to introducing the first rural e-scooter trial at our local further education college. However, because these improvements are not in the Liberal Democrat “plan”, they have dropped off the radar of progress.

If we are to encourage individuals that every step they take is important and matters, then we cannot ignore the good steps that people are already making, independent of any local authority “plan”.

There is more we could and should all be doing, and there is no need to wait for further “emergencies” to be declared or “plans” to be published. We can switch to renewables, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, use less electricity at home, recycle more, and all be a part of the solution. We need to share our individual successes so that everyone feels part of the solution.

That is not to say that there is no place for plans. For example, Amber Valley Borough Council has a great plan. We should not let people think they can only make a change if it is part of a plan.

I support Let’s Go Zero and in June wrote with Lord Knight of Weymouth to raise awareness of how tough the pandemic has been for children and for young people. According to NHS Digital, probable mental health disorders nearly doubled after the first lockdown. As we said at the time, the last thing children need is another crisis they feel powerless to change. We must flip the climate emergency into an opportunity for our young people to drive the change to a carbon zero UK.

Time is of the essence, and we need not reinvent the wheel. We should look where solutions currently exist, and work to implement them. UK100 brings together local authorities across the country to devise and, crucially, to implement plans for the transition to clean energy that are ambitious, cost effective, and garner support.

I have spoken at their events and seen how effective their solutions would be. I am a big supporter, and urge others to join. Their Knowledge Hub offers excellent ideas for how local leaders can work to hit net zero, which is available here.

Declaring a “Climate Emergency” suggest that it is someone else’s problem. We need Climate Action, and we must work together in driving this action, rather than waste precious time discussing the misguided and unhelpful Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, something that I regret even my own Conservative county council is doing.

This Conservative Government is a world leader in fighting climate change, and we have introduced the legislative tools to enable and encourage individual leaders and businesses to take action. We as individuals, business leaders, and as councillors need to get on and actually do what we can to make change, rather than producing unhelpful plans that do not in themselves solve the problem.

Selaine is hosting the North Devon Climate Summit on Saturday 18th September, 10am-1pm. Lord Deben, Chair of the UK’s independent Climate Change Committee, is keynote speaker, with three subsequent panels focusing on “The road to COP26 and where to next”, “The role of education”, and “Blue Carbon”. Secure your ticket now.

Debbie Flint: Winning the social media war in Devon

17 Dec

Debbie Flint is Conservative Women’s Chair and Deputy Chair, Fundraising & Membership, for Torridge and West Devon.

The left-wing Twitter bubble may have got it very wrong at the last election, but we still face an uphill struggle against them online, as Conservatives fight to cut through on social media. No point responding directly to try to put right their ceaseless mantra of uncaring Conservatives. No point reacting to name-calling. Instead, we must be cleverer.

In our history, I don’t think we’ve ever faced such vitriol due to relentless Tory-bashing. Many of us don’t even confess our political leanings amongst our peers. Especially if you work in certain industries where it’s totally out of favour to praise Boris Johnson. So it’s time for a newer approach. By and large, doorstep campaigning is out. So in Devon we are starting to play social media on our own terms.

In Torridge and West Devon, Geoffrey Cox’s constituency, we have been identifying heart-warming human interest stories to report on in our Association posts, but leading with the human angle, in the style of an anecdote told by a neighbour or a friend. That way, more likes, more shares, more “traction.” Our councillors’ name recognition should be greater in the May 2021 county council elections as a result. .

We also exploit the many behind-the-scenes tools Facebook offers, thereby maximising these new contacts. For instance, using the one-click ‘invite’ button to anyone who likes a post to invite them to like the page; following up a comment with a reply if needed, and being sure to ‘like’ all positive comments; crucially using other tools which deter too much trolling. And training our candidates and current councillors to use all these tools and to pepper their pages with more touchy-feely pictures and stories, getting their personality across and avoiding a timeline jammed full of dry statistics and graphics.

Linda Hellyer leads the way. County councillor for Bideford East, she spearheads our “close the digital divide – donate a laptop” scheme. She has already been pictured on posts with grateful recipients – deserving local students who couldn’t otherwise learn online and don’t mind being featured. (Please note that yet more students have received theirs away from cameras – it’s not just done for the PR.) We’re collecting laptops aged up to five-years-old to be refurbished – voluntarily – by Holsworthy Computers, any replacement small parts being covered by our fundraising. Laptops are delivered personally by our councillors once they identify a keen student, or their parent. Linda said several people came up to her in the street, saying they didn’t even realise she was a councillor. The word-of-mouth follow-on about these real-life case stories is priceless, and more valuable and far-reaching within a community than any online criticism. Her laptops post gained a reach of 2,255 and 120 engagements – all positive – far exceeding her more standard posts.

It got further coverage when Radio Devon and local papers got in touch, taking her exposure even further.  They were then perfectly placed to cover Linda’s next initiative – a compassionate treatment of the challenge faced by the blind during COVID. How? She put on a blindfold and had three of the locals guide her around the town so she experienced exactly what they face on a daily basis. She pounded their uneven pavements, and encountered their unexpected obstacles – sometimes literally – made worse by Covid restrictions – guide dogs don’t do social distancing. The payoff-ending to this social media tale is that she took massive action, got ‘tactile pavement slabs’ installed eg next to the quay, with more tweaks planned. Original, human, #conservativesCaringintheCommunity.

Holsworthy district councillor David Jones‘s run of the mill tale of a Tory installing a bin, was told from the angle of the local resident in her 80s who explained in enthusiastic detail how it impacted her life and daily journeys. As a side benefit, she immediately joined the Conservative Party – she was so impressed with David and his hard work.

Chris Edmonds, County councillor for Tamarside in West Devon, helped provide a post on our Facebook page about the local businesses he’s helped, with form filling for COVID grants, but from the human angle and with more examples and fewer generalisations. We boosted the post but targeted his local area only, with the hope that it caught voters’ eyes more than any colourful graphic about policy could do for him.

The ‘over the backyard fence’ approach we use in my day job, in television sales, translates well for getting cut-through amongst Facebookers who are only too used to three second attention grabbers. And we are aiming to use much more video, because the algorithms of Facebook automatically give them more exposure.

In the December 2019 election campaign, I helped provide a constant video presence for our MP – the first election where social media has been as important as leaflets. Geoffrey became adept at being filmed – short pieces to camera with action, interesting local backgrounds, and always making a pithy point.  Some posts did well and got boosted – ads and the ‘boost post’ button can help us reach new constituents. They’d rarely sit down and read a detailed A5 leaflet but respond well as they scroll through their daily updates on Facebook, to the human side of their MP, and sometimes his dog.

For the brave, doing live Facebook posts could garner even more attention.

We will be able to provide a bit of training for this as well. Debo Sellis, County councillor for Tavistock, a self-confessed technophobe, is game, having embraced the need to do this with gusto. “It’s just got to be done,” she says, “even though I would have run a mile from all this a couple of years ago.” Her posts are gaining good reactions and her consistency is key.

Specific help from an outside paid expert can also be fundamental – Alfie Carlisle was used by our chairman, John Gray, when he stood in Exeter during the election. Alfie also guides us through the maze of how to place ads and surveys on Facebook – and we’re all learning something new every day. Like the fact that Facebook ads must now display who paid for them, making careful identity clearance essential. Confusing for some, but Alfie has a map.

We post regularly, not just sharing the important updates from CCHQ, but many local stories like these and even a ‘Friday funny.’

It’s not natural territory for many Tories – this social media lions’ den. So last month we hosted a Zoom ‘how-to’ on Conquering Facebook and Winning Elections. Organiser, Julian Ellacott, leads us volunteers as Chair of the South West region and is planning a second session in the New Year. We recorded the training for those who missed it, and can provide a PDF of the bullet points. By spring, most of our councillors will hopefully have their own pages and be following the above recommendations…

Creating solid back-up is the flip side, for when the anti-Tory gang pile in, with newly formed support groups on Whats App, or ‘closed’ (private) groups on Facebook, will not only share links to each other’s pages and increase a councillor’s following. They will also help alert each other to swiftly post positive comments to provide balance, should somebody get trolled. Julian’s so-called ‘Jedi’ groups will come into their own by Spring.

Shaun Bailey’s team in London have a ‘Shaun’s sharers’ What’s App group too, and more. We’ll have some ‘momentum’ of our own.

Hopefully our leaflets will follow suit and be more chatty too – Julian is keen on more white space and more pictures – for the three second brigade.

Other recommendations for priming connections on social media include this from a very forward thinking, Sarah Codling, a councillor in Weston, who presented the Zoom session with me. She took the initiative early on and set up a local community group for Weston that now has 2,000 members. Getting involved in a non-political way on your local groups helps people know who you are. We get more likes with this approach – our equivalent of puppies and kittens – showing with undeniable examples, our compassionate conservatism.

In a year where there seems to have been a never-ending blitz against the very ethos of being a Conservative, and the lack of communication at the top has been in the spotlight, it’s up to us to spread the word. And don’t get me started on Instagram – our future is doomed if we can’t get through to the youngsters, and that may be the next port of call. No idea about Tik Tok – maybe I’ll ask Jacob Rees-Mogg about that.

Please contact me on Fundraising@torridgeandwestdevonconservatives.org or fundraising@debbieflint.com and check out the many CCHQ PDFs on the various social media topics.

Neil O’Brien: Introducing the new Levelling Up Taskforce – and its first report on how we can measure progress

7 Sep

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Were you still up for Penistone? One of joys of election night last December was winning so many seats we’ve not held for decades.

The constituencies we won over in 2019 are quite different from the party’s traditional base, in the deep red bits of the map above. Seats we gained last year don’t just have lower earnings than the seats we held, but earnings five per cent lower than Labour seats. Of the bottom quarter of seats in Great Britain with the lowest earnings, more are now held by us than Labour. Compared to seats we gained, homes in Labour constituencies are a third more expensive.

Many of the places we won have felt neglected for a long time. And led from the front by the Prime Minister, the new Government has committed to “levelling up” poorer places. But what does that really mean? How can we measure if we are succeeding? How can we get the private sector growing faster in these places, making the country stronger overall?

To help the Government answer these questions, I and 40 other Conservative MPs have formed a new Levelling Up Taskforce.

Our first report is out today, looking at how we can measure progress. It also examines what’s been happening in different parts of the UK economy over recent decades.

Income per person in London (before paying taxes and receiving benefits) grew two thirds faster than the rest of the country between 1997 and 2018: it’s now 70 per cent higher in London than the rest of the country, up from 30 per cent higher in 1997.

While the divergence seen since the 90s has been a story of London pulling away from all of the rest of the country, it follows decades in which former industrial areas in the north, midlands, Scotland and Wales fell behind. Between 1977 and 1995 South Yorkshire, Teesside and Merseyside saw GDP per person fall by 20 per cent compared to the national average, and most such areas haven’t caught up that lost ground.

Why does this matter?

It matters, first, because opportunity is linked to the economy. There are fewer opportunities to climb the ladder in poorer places. Not just fewer good jobs, but less opportunity in other ways.

In London, over 45 per cent of poorer pupils who were eligible for free school meals progressed to higher education in 2018/19. Outside London there were 80 local authorities where richer pupils who were not on free school meals were less likely than this to go to university. Overall, more than 60 per cent go to university in places like Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster. But less than a third go places like in Knowsley, Barnsley, Hull, and Thurrock.

It also matters because more balanced economies are stronger overall. In an unbalanced economy, resources like land and infrastructure are overloaded in some places, even while they are underused elsewhere. This might be particularly true where cities have seen population shrinkage, and have surplus infrastructure and land. If there are greater distances between workers and good job opportunities that makes it harder for people to get on: not everyone can (or wants) to move away from family to find a better job.

More balanced is stronger overall, but on a wide range of measures the UK is one of the most geographically unbalanced economies. In Germany 12 per cent of people live in areas where the average income is 10 per cent below the national average, while in the UK 35 per cent do. It is very striking that there is no industrialised country that has a more unbalanced economy than the UK and also a higher income, while all the countries that have a higher income have a more balanced economy.

What are we going to do about it? Well, that’s the question our new group will try to answer.

The answer isn’t any of the traditional Labour ones: pumping public sector jobs into places, or subsidising low wage employment, or trying to hold back successful places: we’re interested in levelling up, not levelling down.

Different things will work in different places.

For example, transport improvements might make a bigger difference for remote areas. The ONS defines certain places as “sparse”: the north of Devon and Cornwall, most of central Wales, Shropshire and Herefordshire, most of Cumbria and the rural north east, along with large parts of North Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and North Norfolk. In these places income levels are 17-18 per cent lower. Even controlling for the qualifications and age of people living there, these sparse areas have income levels between £600-£1,300 a year lower, likely driven by poor connectivity.

In other places, the answers are different. I’ve written before about how the way we spend money on things like R&D, transport and housing is skewed towards already-successful areas, creating a vicious circle. We should change that.

But tax cuts could also play a bigger role in helping poorer areas. There’s actually been convergence between regions at the bottom end of the earnings distribution, driven by things like the National Living Wage, tax cuts for low income workers, and things like Universal Credit, which have reduced the differences between places by levelling up the poorer areas more. In poorer places, more people benefit from these policies.

The reason there are growing gaps between areas overall is divergence higher up the income scale.
Looking at the gap between earnings for full-time workers in London and the North East, the pay gap shrank for the bottom 30 per cent of workers, but grew for those higher up. For those at the 10th percentile the pay gap between the two places shrank from 32 per cent to 20 per cent. But for richer folks at the 90th percentile, it grew from 62 per cent to 88 per cent.

So how do we get more good, high-paying jobs into poorer areas? There are a million different specific opportunities, but one that’s relevant in a lot of Red Wall seats is advanced manufacturing.

Over recent decades, Chancellors have tended to cut capital allowances (a tax break for investment) in order to lower the headline rate of corporation tax. I’m not sure that was a good idea: Britain has a lower rate of fixed capital investment than competitors and our tax treatment of investment is stingy. But either way, this change has had a pronounced regional impact: it favours services over manufacturing, so helps some areas more than others.

One way to blast our way through the current economic turmoil would be to get businesses investing again by turning capital allowances right up (“full expensing” in the jargon). That would be particularly likely to help poorer areas. Indeed, when we have tried this in a targeted way before it worked.

Government should think more about how tax and spending decisions can help us level up. It should produce geographical analysis of all budgets and fiscal events, setting out the different impact that tax and spending changes will have on different areas. The Treasury’s Labour Markets and Distributional Analysis unit should have geographical analysis added to its remit.

This whole agenda is exciting. But a lot of people are cynical, because they heard New Labour talk the talk – but not deliver. We’ve got to deliver. So let’s hold ourselves to account, and set ourselves some ambitious goals.

Let’s get earnings growing faster than before in poorer areas. Let’s get unemployment down in the places it’s worst. They say that “what gets measured gets managed.” So let’s “measure up” our progress on levelling up.