Neil O’Brien: The next algorithm disaster – coming to a Conservative constituency near you. This time, it’s housing growth.

24 Aug

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Algorithms have been in the news, not for good reasons. One lesson from the A-levels row is that principles which seem reasonable can lead to outcomes you don’t expect. Another algorithm’s coming down the tracks: the new formula for how many houses must be built in different places. There are few with higher stakes.

I wrote about the housing White Paper in my last column: it proposes not just to change the methodology for assessing housing need, but also to make a standard methodology compulsory for the first time. In other words, if we don’t like the results of the new algorithm, we’ll have blocked off the emergency exits.

The new algorithm is set out here. It’s not particularly easy to read. For example, one of many factors is set out in bullet point 30:

Adjustment Factor = [( Local affordability factor t = 0 – 4 4) x 0.25) + (Local affordability ratio t = 0 – Local affordability ratio t = 10) x 0.25] +1 Where t = 0 is current yearr and t = -10 is 10 years back.

Clear enough for you?

I thought it might be a while before we saw what the new algorithm would produce in practice. But Lichfields, the planning consultancy, has translated the algorithm into what it would mean for local authorities.

The numbers that the formula spits out can be compared to the number of homes actually being delivered over recent years, or to the numbers in the current (optional) national formula. Whichever way you look at it, it’s controversial.

I’ve long argued we should concentrate more development in inner urban areas, for various reasons I’ll come back to below.  But this algorithm doesn’t do that – at least not outside London.  In the capital, the algorithm would indeed increase numbers substantially.

But in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.

Overall, the algorithm proposes a south-centric model of growth for Britain (with some growth in the midlands).

If we compare the algorithm to recent delivery, the South East has been delivering just over 39,000 homes a year, and will be expected to increase that to just over 61,000, a 57 per cent increase. The East of England would see a 43 per cent increase, the East Midlands a 33 per cent increase, the West Midlands a 25 per cent increase and the South West a 24 per cent increase.

For the North East, North West and Yorkshire, the numbers the algorithm proposes are lower overall than the numbers delivered over recent years. But as with A-levels, the devil’s in the detail.

The really controversial changes are within regions, where the algorithm suggests jacking up numbers for shires, while taking them down in urban areas. Comparing the existing national formula to the proposal, we can see this for most large cities.

The number for Birmingham comes down 15 per cent, while the rest of the West Midlands goes up 52 per cent.

Numbers for Leicester go down 35 per cent. The rest of Leicestershire goes up 105 per cent.

Nottingham goes down 22 per cent, the rest of Nottinghamshire goes up 48 per cent.

Southampton goes down 17 per cent, Portsmouth down 15 per cent and Basingstoke down 23 per cent, but the rest of Hampshire would go up 39 per cent.

Wealthy Bristol would see some growth (5 per cent) but much lower than the rest of Gloucester, Somerset and Wiltshire (47 per cent).

It’s the same story up north. Leeds down 14 per cent, Sheffield down 19 per cent, and Bradford down 29 per cent. But the East Riding up 34 per cent, North Yorkshire up 80 per cent, and North East Lincolnshire up 123 per cent.

In the north west the core cities of Manchester (-37 per cent) and Liverpool (-26 per cent) see huge falls, while the areas around them shoot up. In Greater Manchester, for example, the growth is shifted to the blue suburbs and shires. Outer parts go up: Wigan up 10 per cent, Bury, up 12 per cent, and Rochdale up 97 per cent. And areas to the south and north of the conurbation up much further: Cheshire up 108 per cent, while Blackburn, Hyndburn, Burnley and the Ribble Valley together go up 149 per cent.

But it isn’t just that the numbers in the new formula are lower than the old formula for urban areas. In many cases the new formula suggests a lower number than their recent rate of delivery. This is true of Sheffield (12 per cent below actual delivery), Leeds (16 per cent), Bradford (23 per cent), the entire North East (28 per cent), Nottingham (30 per cent), Manchester, (31 per cent), Leicester, (32 per cent) and Liverpool (59 per cent). The new formula seems to assume we are going to level down our cities, not level up.

It’s true that there’s another step between the Housing Need Assessment which this algorithm produces and the final housing target, which can be reduced a bit to account for delivery constraints like greenbelt.

But if we go with this algorithm unamended, outside London most Conservative MPs will be seeing large increases in the housing targets for their constituencies, while many Labour MPs see their local targets reduced. Is this what we want?

Leaving aside the politics, I think not. Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK has much less dense cities.

Places like Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Birkenhead, Hull and Newcastle all had smaller populations in 2017 than 1981, while places like Birmingham and Manchester weren’t much bigger. Our cities have untapped potential, many went through a period of shrinkage and have space, and there are health and environmental reasons to prefer urban growth too.

In dense urban areas, people are more likely to walk or cycle – and in the UK, people in cities walk twice as far as those in villages each year. This reduces public transport costs and improves health.

Denser cities can sustain better public transport and so cut car congestion and time spent travelling. As well as reducing pollution from transport, denser cities reduce energy use and pollution because flats and terraced homes are much more energy efficient.

I’m not sure the draft algorithm is even doing what Ministers wanted it to. The document in which it is set out says that “the Government has heard powerful representations that the current formula underestimates demand for housing in the growing cities in the Northern Powerhouse by being based on historic trends.”

But the algorithm seems to do the exact opposite.

There may be technical reasons why things aren’t working out: there’s lots of ways to measure affordability… differences between residence-based and workplace-based income measures… there were certain caps in the old model, population projections have changed and so on.

However, the bigger issue is this.

There’s no “objective” way of calculating how many homes are “needed” in an area. While there are ways of carving up the numbers that are seen as more or less fair, ultimately a vision is required.

Projections of population growth are circular: the projected population growth for the farmland between Bletchley and Stony Stratford would’ve been pretty low before we built Milton Keynes there.

Likewise the forecast for the derelict Docklands of the early 1980s. While there are real economic constraints, the future need not resemble the past.

Though it took a huge effort, Germany raised East Germans from 40 per cent to just 14 per cent per cent below the national average income since reunification. That’s levelling up.

Do we want to continue to concentrate growth in the South East? Do we want European-style denser cities, or for them to sprawl out a bit more? An algorithm can help deliver a vision: but it’s not the same as one.

Andrew Mitchell: I used to be adamantly opposed to all forms of assisted dying. Here’s why I changed my views.

22 Jul

Andrew Mitchell was International Development Secretary from 2010 to 2012. He is the MP for Sutton Coldfield.

The All Party Group on choice at the end of life – composed of members of both the Commons and the Lords – held its first ever virtual meeting last week.

That more than 60 members of Parliament chose to attend at 9am is an eloquent testimony to the seriousness with which Members of Parliament are examining the issue. At the meeting I agreed to be the co-Chair of the group along with my Labour colleague Karin Smyth, the Member of Parliament for Bristol South.

When I entered the House of Commons in 1987, I was adamantly opposed to all forms of assisted dying. But over the years (perhaps it is part of the ageing process) I have completely changed my mind.

Let me explain why.

It is first and foremost because of my experience as a constituency MP. I have sat in my office in the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield and heard stories from so many of my constituents. Often with tears pouring down their faces, they have given me deeply intimate details of the last days of someone they loved but who died a miserable and sometimes very painful death.

By the end of these meetings, often with tears coursing down my own face, I was invariably left with two overwhelming feelings: the first is that we would not let an animal we loved be treated in such a way and, second, I do not myself wish to go through the sort of end of life experience that my constituents have so often eloquently described.

And just as I would not want it for myself, I no longer want members of my family or those I represent in Parliament to have to navigate so awful an end.

I believe the time is approaching when Parliament must examine this again. This is not a party political issue subject to whipping; it is an issue of conscience where members of the House of Commons hold different views reached entirely honourably on the basis of their own personal beliefs.

Assisted dying could be the great liberal reform achieved by this government. Public support for assisted dying is overwhelming and consistent across all parts of society. Out of the British public, 84 per cent support assisted dying including 86 per cent of Conservative voters. Of Conservative Party members, 67 per cent support assisted dying. It is interesting also to note that 79 per cent of people of faith and 86 per cent of people with disabilities support assisted dying.

Support is also highest in the North East, East Midlands and Yorkshire and Humber. It is lowest in London. So this is not a liberal metropolitan issue; it is one that unites the country.

Assisted dying is legal in 10 states in the United States of America (some for more than 20 years), two states in Australia, nationwide in Canada and likely to be nationwide in New Zealand later this year. It is interesting to note that in no country with legalised assisted dying has the law been repealed. And in Britain we now have the opportunity to look at the differing legislative approaches in all of these countries, evaluate them, and deliver the best possible results for our constituents.

Consider these facts:

  • Everyday 17 people in the UK will die in pain and distress that cannot be prevented by even the very best palliative care.
  • Hospices now acknowledge that some dying people are in so much pain medication doesn’t work.
  • One Britain travels to Switzerland for assisted dying every week at a cost of around £10,000, the expense, the difficulty of traveling when terminally ill and the challenges of obtaining the necessary documentation put this option out of the reach of all but a few.
  • Those who accompany their loved ones to Switzerland run the risk of police prosecution. Ann Whaley, married to her husband Geoffrey for more than 60 years, was interviewed under caution by police officers.
  • Around 300 terminally ill people take their own lives every year behind closed doors. The effect of these suicides on their family and on responders can be devastating. Some of them have gone wrong, which has added to the immense distress. Mavis Eccleston helped her husband of almost 60 years, Dennis, who was dying in agony to take his own life and was later prosecuted for murder. She was acquitted by a jury but only after 18 months of investigation. This brought huge distress to her and her family.

There is also a risk in maintaining the status quo as attitudes among the public change. The increased reporting of cases undermines public confidence in the law. Almost half of police and crime commissioners including five Conservative PCC’s have called on the Government to review the law saying the current law does not protect vulnerable people.

The medical profession’s views are shifting too: the Royal College of Physicians moved its position to neutrality in 2019 and the Royal College of General Practitioners who surveyed their membership this year found a surge in support for assisted dying – 41 per cent compared to just five per cent in 2013.

As assisted dying becomes more established and understood in other English-speaking countries, demands in the UK for the law to change will continue to grow.

Many of us hope that the Health Select Committee under Jeremy Hunt, its distinguished and experienced Chair, might consider an inquiry which took evidence from the various sections of society that are most affected: dying people and their families, police officers, healthcare professionals and coroners, so that the issue can be explored further.

The Health Select Committee will currently be heavily preoccupied with the Covid crisis but perhaps in due course they may feel this is a subject which they are well placed to examine.

So finally, what are the modest changes those of us who want reform are seeking?

  • We want to give people who are terminally ill (and also in the final months of their lives) the option of dying on their own terms. We want this to be an active choice by a rational person to end their own life as they wish.
  • The change in the law we propose would contain stringent safeguards to protect people; it would only be accessible to mentally competent adults.
  • Two doctors would assess the person making the request to ensure that they met the eligibility criteria under the law. They would explain all other care options in full.
  • A High Court judge would examine the person’s request and make sure that it was being made voluntarily – free from any pressure or coercion.
  • Once the request was approved, a doctor would be able to prescribe life-ending medication for the person who would then take it themselves under the supervision of a doctor or another healthcare professional.
  • Healthcare professionals who wanted to exercise conscientious objection would, of course, be able to do so.
  • There would be clear reporting procedures for doctors as well as monitoring through an annual report published by the Government.

The law change that we propose is based on one that has operated in Oregon in America for 23 years. We would like to add additional safeguards built in to make it right for the UK. There have been no cases of abuse of Oregon’s law and no extension of its eligibility criteria throughout these 23 years. This model of assisted dying legislation has since been adopted in nine other US states and passed by lawmakers in Australia and New Zealand.

Wherever you stand on this issue, let us now have a calm and measured debate on the best way forward. I believe this is a reform whose time is approaching.