“Huge concerns”…”I cannot support this policy”…levelling over green fields with concrete”. Tory backbenchers on the Goverment’s housing plans.

9 Oct

“This is not levelling up. It is concreting out,” Bob Seely wrote yesterday morning on this site about the Government’s White Paper on planning reform, and his Commons debate on the subject later in the day.

His article criticised the algorithm that sets out how many houses are needed in which places – which was originally brought to public notice by our columnist Neil O’Brien.

Would Seely’s colleagues agree with him?  Here are some snap extracts from speeches by Conservative backbenchers who spoke yesterday.

  • Theresa May: “We need to reform the planning system….But we will not do that by removing local democracy, cutting the number of affordable homes that are built and building over rural areas. Yet that is exactly what these reforms will lead to.”
  • Philip Hollobone: “The Government are being sent a clear message by Back Benchers today that they have got this wrong and they need to think again.”
  • Jason McCartney: “I have huge concerns about the supposed new housing formula or algorithm. I think we have all had enough of algorithms this year.”
  • Neil O’Brien: “Ministers should fundamentally rethink this formula so that it actually hits the target. Yes, we should build more houses, but we should do it in the right places.”
  • Chris Grayling: “I regret to say that, even as a loyal supporter of the Government, I cannot support this policy in its current form.”
  • Jeremy Hunt: “In short, I am concerned that these proposals do not recognise serious risks…The Government must think again.”
  • Damian Green: “This will not be levelling-up; it will be levelling over green fields with concrete.”
  • Damian Hinds: “I encourage [the Minister] and the Government to think again about some of these important matters.”
  • Caroline Nokes: “The Housing Minister and I were first elected in 2010 on a manifesto that committed to no more top-down housing targets, and this algorithm looks suspiciously like a top-down target.”
  • Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: “The real flaw in the White Paper is that all it does is concentrate building in the south-east and central south of England”.
  • Clare Coutino: “I seriously worry about centrally designed housing numbers which do not take into account a local area’s capacity to deliver.”
  • Luke Evans: “I am also concerned that the formula does not take into account infrastructure, as has been mentioned, or future plans for generations.”
  • Karen Bradley: “How can it be the case that the Government are now considering any form of central target, because that is exactly what the algorithm looks like?”
  • Laurence Robertson: “As things stand, I think that the housing numbers will take precedence. That is wrong and it goes against what we stand for as a party.”
  • Crispin Blunt: “The presentation that the Government have made is potentially catastrophic for delivering the wider objectives of Government policy.”
  • Harriet Baldwin: “Let us move away from the Gordon Brown approach and the top-down imposition of Stalinist housing targets.”
  • Gareth Bacon: “I urge the Government to heed the words of hon. Members in this debate and to revisit the proposals.”
  • Kieran Mullen: “Why are we going down a route that is likely to cause upset and tear up some local decision making when we could tackle the issue through that existing route?”
  • Laura Trott: The White Paper…says that the green belt will be protected, and that is right, but we see no evidence that this is being taken into account in the algorithm.”

That’s 19 backbenchers critical of important aspects of the proposals.

Furthermore, Scott Mann referred diplomatically to “some challenges within the White Paper”; Gareth Johnson said “it is essential that we bring local authorities with us in proposing these targets”; William Wragg wants to ” abandon the notion that planning is something that is done to communities”, and Richard Fuller, while saying that the Government “is on to something”, also said the targets for his local area are unmanageable.

Only James Grundy spoke from the Tory benches without any criticism of the plans.

No wonder that Andy Slaughter, from the Labour benches, gleefully pointed out that “there are 55 Conservative Back Benchers hoping to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker”.

Chris Pincher, the Housing Minister, pointed out that the proposals are out for consultation, and reiterated (as in his recent ConservativeHome article) that “over the past two months my Department has actively engaged with the sector and is listening to feedback. Many right hon. and hon. Members will know that I too have been listening and discussing carefully”.

In short, he was distancing himself and the Government from the algorithm numbers.  But we think it worth grabbing some highlights from yesterday’s speeches because, on this showing, opposition on the Tory benches is not confined to the algorithm.  Ministers will find a central feature of their plans, top-down housing targets for local authorities, very difficult to get through the Commons, at least as presently constituted.

Luke Evans: While we all hope for a vaccine, we know that we will never return to pre-pandemic normal

22 Jul

Dr Luke Evans is a member of the Health Select Committee, and is MP for Bosworth.

Four months ago, around the start of the Coronavirus lockdown, the Editor of ConservativeHome contacted me to ask whether, as both a GP and a newly-elected backbench Member of Parliament, I would like to write a weekly diary about how Covid-19 would come to affect my constituency.

Of course, as any newly-elected backbench MP would, I jumped at the chance. It would hopefully be a way to give an insight into what goes on at the grassroots of backbench business.

But far more importantly, I saw it as an obvious opportunity to assess Covid-19’s impact on my constituency of Bosworth on a weekly basis.

I would have to step back and think for a couple of hours before picking up my laptop. That’s vital time which helps you to reflect and strategise about what you do next.

A space to breathe in a fast flowing, ever-changing situation.

So as Parliament breaks up for its summer recess, it’s a good time to reflect on the past four months – to ask what went well and, of course, what I could have done better as a new MP.

A chance to gather my office together. After all they have shouldered the load with me, and without their dedication, tenacity and expertise the situation as a new MP would be nearly untenable. Four weeks to simply focus on the constituency; clear the decks, reset, and prepare for the next phase.

Until September an uneasy hiatus, as we’re nowhere near the end of the Coronavirus story I fear.

I recognised right at the very start of these columns that I was fortunate to come from a medical background. I was able to understand the data, the system, the clinical constraints on staff and hopefully ask pertinent questions at the Health and Social Care Select Committee – and in the virtual Chamber of the House – while also raising ideas that were fitting to ministers and their departments, and where possible offering solutions.

That experience as a GP, I hope, meant that I was able to communicate those aspects effectively to my constituents. As we were learning about the virus at a rate of knots I was able to record videos about the differences between social distancing and shielding, and – even now the most effective weapon in our fight against the virus – good hygiene.

But it quickly became apparent that while this period in our history has been driven by a global virus, with far too many lives tragically lost, the medicine has only been one part of a much wider crisis.

Where I was comfortable in discussing the science the role of an MP is seldom that of a specialist. I had to gain knowledge in supporting businesses on the verge of collapse, constituents losing their jobs and – certainly not least – a world-renowned zoo fighting for survival.

Anyone entering politics really does need to know that at base backbench level, to serve your constituents you quickly need to become a problem-solving generalist. It should come a surprise to no one that in the past month I’ve asked as many questions about the economic impact of Covid-19 as I have about the medical one.

But as Parliament breaks for the summer our minds turn to what comes next.

Like everyone else I’m eagerly watching the promising medical breakthroughs that we have heard about in the past two days and hope that they come to fruition. While we all hope for a vaccine, we know that we will never return to pre-pandemic normal – this can be construed as a positive or negative, and we all have an active role in the preponderance to which it is.

Although we all have to be working for the best, we also have to be preparing for the worst. We must be mindful of the economic impact of the virus, how we begin to pay it back and the absolute need to protect younger people who may well bear the brunt through unemployment. All balanced with the plan to deliver on what we promised as Conservatives that lead to a large majority in the House.

I’m proud of how this Government has responded to the greatest threat to us all in living memory. Of course not all has gone to plan, and there will no doubt be lessons to be learned, but to be here with one of the best health services in the world and a growing economy is a huge testament to the work of the Cabinet.

So I leave Parliament for recess with a thought stuck in my head: what do we want our virus legacy to be?

I believe a question the public, businesses, politicians and Government all need to think long and hard about and actively make a choice. As a crisis creates opportunity now is the time to harness it for good.

I hope to return in September, rested, refreshed and ready to articulate a positive future for Bosworth and the country.