Meirion Jenkins: Birmingham is the largest metropolitan authority in Europe – and one of the worst run

The structure and management of the council needs total reform. I would reduce the current 101 councillors to around 30.

Cllr Meirion Jenkins is the Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources on Birmingham City Council.

Is Labour-run Birmingham City Council the worst run council in the world?  If there was such a contest, then our dreadful Labour administration would be in with a good shout. Birmingham is the largest metropolitan authority in Europe and the country’s second city, with a population of 1.1 million.

The Labour administration lurches from one financial screw-up to another.  Despite various interventions over the years, with the Kerslake Review and the Birmingham Improvement Panel amongst them, the underlying problem, in my view,  remains a lack of sound judgement, a lack of attention to detail, and a political resistance to good house housekeeping and budgetary control by the Labour leadership.  In short, they are just not good enough to run Europe’s largest metropolitan authority.  The problem is compounded by ordinary members not having the power or the time to properly challenge and hold the executive to account.  Far too much power sits with officers, who have a £10m spend authority without needing to seek member approval. I am always left with the impression that the council is run for the benefit of anybody but the people that should be the real ‘bosses’ i.e. the electors. Many of the working practises became outdated in the private sector and other councils years ago. The Birmingham Improvement Panel referred to a “1970s culture.”

Waste collection

After many years of residents complaining about the waste collection service, last year we had a bin strike that lasted 221 days which cost the city more than £6 million.   With an average collection of household waste per normal working day being 1,400 tonnes, the three hour strikes might leave 466 tonnes uncollected each day and that assumes that normal working resumed immediately.  The situation was compounded by the fact that even before the industrial action started on 30 June 2017, there was a backlog of over 2,000 streets across the city awaiting missed collections and the service was already overspent by £2 million.  Whilst this was a fight that needed to be fought, due to lack of judgement and political resilience, after seven months, a high court injunction against the city and the resignation of the Labour Leader, the Labour administration capitulated to the union. They ended the strike by agreeing to the creation of a new job description, enabling waste staff who were otherwise due to be reduced to a lower grade to retain their existing grade.

It was a fudge of which even the EU would be proud.  More damning, a year later these arrangements have only just been implemented.  Even more damning, in the last few weeks an independent report has concluded that the then Labour Leader (who resigned as a result of the strike) acted ultra vires in attempting to agree a binding deal with the union and directly ordering relatively junior staff to override instructions from senior officers.  At one point, the then Labour Leader took separate legal advice (at the council’s expense) to support his case to override the senior officers’ advice, which itself was underpinned by that of a QC instructed by the officers (at the council’s expense).

Further industrial action has now been launched, with the cause of the dispute relating back to the original dispute last year.

Many of the issues around the waste collection service have impacted Birmingham’s equal pay dispute with comparisons between payments made to waste staff and other non-waste staff in the council. Equal pay claims have cost the city more than £1 billion.

Section 24 notices

These are issued by external auditors when a council’s financial position is giving grave cause for concern. These notices are very rare but Birmingham has had two – the only council I know of to achieve this.  As Grant Thornton said “The budget comprises two things – getting it right and delivering it and I think last year you got neither right”. Birmingham has been burning through reserves to meet day to day expenditure. If Labour does not start operating within budget, the city will become insolvent.  With the Commonwealth Games coming to Birmingham in 2022, the need to operate within budget may finally be forced on our financially incontinent Labour leadership.

Payments to departing officers are eye watering.

It’s a matter of public record (published accounts year end March 2017) that a former chief executive received £695,000 after being at Birmingham for just three years.  In the same year, two other officers received £649,000 between them. Over the last four years, there have been three leaders, three finance directors, three chief executives, and six different chairs of audit committee. I have been on audit for most of the time since I was elected in 2012.  There is a continual resistance to proper governance and transparency.  In this year’s audit report, Grant Thornton said ‘As external auditors, we have not always been made privy to emerging issues’.

The auditor also said:

“The Council also has a track record of not reporting governance failures effectively…”

Some discussions are moved into private session which, in my view, would be more properly held in public.  Saving embarrassment for members or officers is not a justification for private session, against which a very high bar should be set.

Lack of transparency

As Labour’s audit chairs come and go, there have even been occasions when officers have refused audit committee access to documents.  For example, current officers deny the audit committee access to details of compromise agreements entered into with departing senior staff – I suspect to conceal the incompetent or overly generous terms agreed, but it’s hard to know when even audit committee are denied knowledge.  In any private sector business, when audit committees are kept in the dark, it may be a good time to consider selling your shares in that business.

Our incinerator contract is operated by Veolia – it was a 25-year contract.  Despite having 25-years notice (and a scrutiny report on the subject three years ago), Labour ran out of time to re-tender the contract and are now proposing to issue a five year extension (subject to a call in as I write). It’s really hard to imagine directors in the private sector keeping their job after such a shocking failure to properly manage contracts.

In my view, the structure and management of the council needs total reform, treating such a large city more like the Scottish or Welsh assembly.  I would reduce the current 101 councillors to around 30, pay enough for members to allow sufficient time to undertake their roles properly, both in power and opposition, and provide members with proper administrative support, allowing members to recruit their own shared staff.

It almost works

Were it not for the backstop, May’s deal would get over the line – with support from an overwhelming majority of Conservatives, including us.

Imagine for a moment that, at some point before Christmas or in the New Year, the backstop was radically amended – that a unilateral exit mechanism were to be slapped on to it.  Then go on to picture the following events.  The revised deal passes through Parliament, and there is no early general election.  And at the end of transition in 2020, a decision is taken about whether or not to extend it. Let’s presume that at this point it is indeed lengthened for, say, six months.  At this point, the backstop duly kicks in.  Then, at the beginning of 2022, the Government leaves the backstop, just in time for the general election of later that year.

During this sequence of events, the first substantial objection to the backstop – that we aren’t free to leave it – would have fallen away this very winter.  The second complaint – that the backstop places a regulatory border in the Irish sea and, given the presence of a backstop within a backstop in the text of the Withdrawal Agreement, a potential customs border too – would last for a mere sixth months or so.  Then the division that it causes within the United Kingdom would end.

From that point, the Government would have the freedom to leave the continuing customs union, and negotiate, sign and effect meaningful trade deals.  For example, the way would be open for it to pursue one with the United States, if it wished: the American Government has made it clear that any such arrangement will be restricted if the backstop is in place.  More broadly, the gains for Britain from May’s deal would at this point no longer be outweighed by the losses.

Let us remind ourselves what these wins would be.  As we wrote in our analysis of the deal after it was agreed, we would regain control of our borders, under its proposed terms, after the end of the transition period, extended or unextended.  Free movement would be no more.  We would also regain control of money.  We would almost certainly want to pay up for participation in specific European programmes.  But automatic payments into the EU budget would come to an end.  A Prime Minister Johnson would be able to tip the entire sum down the gaping maw of the NHS if Parliament so agreed.

There would be a role for the European Court of Justice in relation to EU nationals for eight years.  An arbitration panel would refer points of EU law to the Court, and there is a good case for saying that the panel would then be bound by its rulings.  But it is important not to confuse disputes about the meaning of EU law with those between the UK and the EU more broadly.  These would be resolved by a dispute resolution process.  Meanwhile, the Withdrawal Agreement’s legal underpinning for the backstop would become otiose when the backstop ended.

In short, Theresa May won on borders and money in the negotiation, and minimised the ECJ’s scope on laws, which could reasonably be scored as a points win.  She has won almost no credit for this achievement, first, because she has no media allies or strong public backing, but faces formidable opposition from both second referendum Remainers and UKIP-type Leavers; second, because U-turns and broken pledges elsewhere have bust her credibility and third, of course, because of the backstop.

There is another, big, structural gain from her deal.  Under its terms, we would be tied to developing EU acquis on state aid and competition.  However, we would not be so bound elsewhere – for example, in social or environmental matters.  Some EU27 countries are worried that British governments will be able to undercut their social model in future.  So under the deal’s terms, we will gain freedom of movement for goods – up to a point – without conceding freedom of movement for peoples.  The four freedoms have been prised apart.

Now, there are powerful objections to this rosy scenario.  Frictionless entry to EU for British goods will doubtless be bargained off against permissive entry to the UK for EU citizens, and to British waters for EU fishermen.  Guarantees in the Political Declaration rather than the Withdrawal Agreement lack legal bite.  Even were a unilateral exit to be negotiated from the backstop, we would still have agreed to pay the £39 billion or more agreed under the terms of the agreement – thus reducing our bargaining power during trade negotiations.  Essentially, the EU wants a high-alignment, high-access settlement, and so does our Treasury-led Government.

And the strongest case against our imaginary dropping of a permanent backstop is that it simply isn’t on the table: that the EU will not shaft a remaining member, Ireland, for the sake of a departing one, the UK, as this morning’s news confirms.  We concede the point at once.  Were Leo Varadkar not determined to take a high-risk gamble that the UK/Ireland land border will end up no harder than now – and had the Government rumbled him earlier and treated Ireland more attentively – matters might not have reached this pass.  Still, we are where we are.  This Prime Minister is most unlikely to win any worthwhile backstop concession in the New Year.

Why sketch out this scenario at all, then, if it almost certainly won’t happen?  The answer is: to make a point well worth making – namely, that only a single obstacle prevents May from winning the backing of her Party for her deal.  Most of the hostility to it would collapse were there a uniteral exit mechanism.  The list of objectors would then shrink from the 71 we clocked to a much smaller number: fewer than 20, at a guess.  Most would swallow a limited role for the ECJ, and reject the other objections that we have listed.

Sure, they would say, the EU will seek to gain entry for their citizens and fishermen.  But it would have no automatic right to either – and that’s what the referendum was all about, wasn’t it? – taking back control.  Yes, we would have lose some bargaining power by agreeing to part with £39 billion.  None the less, we would retain some too, because of our power to refuse access to our country and waters.  All in all, a reformed backstop would be allow the Conservatives and Labour to square off against each other on EU policy in future elections.

For were the UK free of the backstop come 2022, the Tory election manifesto would reflect its Eurosceptic centre of gravity, by proposing a Canada-type policy for future trade talks.  Labour’s, meanwhile, would be more Norwegian in flavour.  These two visions would then compete at the polls – at least to the degree that both parties, and voters, wanted to fix their attention on the future of Brexit.

As we say, this won’t happen – at least under this Prime Minister.  Her deal and the backstop march together in step.  And admittedly, even with a right to unilateral exit, this Government would be likely to exercise it if no deal waited on the other side of the door.

None the less, that exit would be there – which, ultimately, is what matters.  We’ve said before that Brexit isn’t a still photo, but a moving film – or should be.  Where Britain will be on day one isn’t where we will be in year ten.  The backstop freezes that film and prevents it from playing.  Provide a sure means of escape from it, and the film begins to roll.  And May’s deal thus becomes acceptable.

Unfortunately, there is vanishingly little prospect of that.  The backstop lies between her and success like a hollow in the path of a runner.  It is so narrow as almost to be leapable. But it plunges many, many miles deep.

Wilf Lytton: Ten years of the Climate Change Act. We need a new target to get net emissions down to zero.

The IPCC’s latest report removes any doubt that upholding the Paris Agreement is in the UK’s interests.

Wilf Lytton is Senior Researcher at Bright Blue.

It has been ten years to the week since the UK signed the 2008 Climate Change Act into law. It remains, as then, a historic and forward-thinking Act of Parliament that has delivered economic prosperity and a safer future for the people of the UK.

The Climate Change Act committed us to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent in 2050, compared to 1990 levels. Since then, a great deal of progress has been achieved to reduce the impacts of human activity on the climate. UK greenhouse gas emissions have continued to fall since 2008 and we’re now over halfway towards meeting our existing target.

Decarbonising our economy has also brought about significant economic benefits. Earlier this month, Greg Clark described how “green energy is, increasingly, [becoming] cheap energy”. Furthermore, the UK is at the forefront of developing low carbon technologies and is now a major exporter of electric vehicles.

Our knowledge of climate change has evolved markedly since 2008. Two new lines evidence have emerged, giving us clearer understanding of the consequences the UK and international community face if we fail to keep global temperature increases below 1.5 degrees relative to pre-industrial levels, and the solutions that are needed to respond to that threat.

Last month’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes clear that bringing greenhouse gas emissions down to net zero before 2050 is necessary for meeting the below 1.5 degree target agreed by the international community at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. It also spells out the risks of exceeding that target: higher incidences of extreme weather; environmental degradation; mass extinctions; and, disruption to the economy and supply chains. The IPCC’s latest report removes any doubt that upholding the Paris Agreement is in the UK’s interests. Indeed, yesterday, Michael Gove said that climate-related natural catastrophes are on the rise.

In our recent report, Hotting Up, Bright Blue called for Government to adopt a new legal net zero emissions target to be delivered by the middle of this century at the latest, based on the overwhelming evidence that deeper decarbonisation is urgently needed in the decades ahead.

New modelling by Vivid Economics tells us that the goal of staying within 1.5 degrees of warming is possible if we determinedly pursue all available options for reducing emissions. This includes taking steps to rapidly eliminate emissions from heat, transport and land use which have, historically, been slow to decarbonise. Unlike the previous 80 per cent emissions reduction target, a net zero emissions target requires all sectors of the economy to have reached virtually zero emissions before 2050.

Next year, when the Committee on Climate Change publishes its advice to the Government on the UK adopting and meeting a new, legal net zero emissions target, there will be an opportunity for the UK to once again be a global leader in deep decarbonisation.

Despite the initial scepticism, it is worth reminding ourselves of the changes the 2008 Climate Change Act has brought about over the course of just ten years, whether that’s through providing jobs in the green economy, improving air quality, or creating new opportunities to export low carbon products to the rest of the world. Many daunting challenges lie ahead for the UK in reaching net zero emissions but, if a decade of experience in reducing emissions has proved anything, it’s that embracing those challenges will pay dividends for the UK for years to come.

No winners or losers yet in Brexit fish fight

Both sides have claimed victory on fisheries access in the Brexit deal.

Both sides are claiming that the deal endorsed Sunday by EU27 leaders hands them victory on the issue of fishing rights.

Theresa May last week told the British parliament that the U.K. has “firmly rejected a link between access to our waters and access to markets.”

“We will become an independent coastal state with control over our waters so our fishermen get a fairer share of the fish in our waters,” said the U.K. prime minister.

Yet French President Emmanuel Macron told journalists Sunday that the deal gives the EU considerable leverage to force the U.K. to grant access to its waters to EU-flagged boats. In particular, he suggested that exit from the Northern Ireland backstop could become contingent on an EU-friendly deal on fishing. That might become a key bargaining chip in talks on a future trade deal.

“We as 27 have a clear position on fair competition, on fish, on the subject of the EU’s regulatory autonomy, and that forms part of our lines for the future relationship talks,” said the French leader.

The winner of the Brexit fish fight won’t be determined until after March 29 next year.

“It is a lever, because it is in our mutual interest to have this future relationship. I can’t imagine that the desire of Theresa May or her supporters is to remain for the long term in a customs union, but to define a proper future relationship which resolves this problem.”

So who won?

Both sides can truthfully claim a victory of sorts because of the vague language in the 26-page Political Declaration, which accompanies the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement.

“Within the context of the overall economic partnership the Parties should establish a new fisheries agreement on, inter alia, access to waters and quota shares,” the text reads.

A ‘Fishing For Leave’ campaign group sign in Brixham, southern England | Robin Millard/AFP via Getty Images

So while the U.K. can rejoice that there isn’t any explicit language linking access to British waters for the European fleet with access to the EU market for U.K. fish products, the wording doesn’t prevent such a condition being added to a future trade deal.

That phrase “within the context of the overall economic partnership” leaves open just such a linkage.

May would prefer to see annual negotiations between the EU and the U.K. over the amount of fish that can be caught by each side. Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands all follow such an arrangement when it comes to fishing rights. Because the words in the Political Declaration are not binding, whether she gets it will depend on future talks.

“We’re not buying any of these stories, neither Mr. Macron’s or even the prime minister’s, until such time as it is signed sealed and delivered,” said the chief executive of the Scottish Fisherman’s Federation, Bertie Armstrong, on BBC’s Good Morning Scotland today.

As with so much else, the winner of the Brexit fish fight won’t be determined until after March 29 next year.

This insight is from POLITICO‘s Brexit Files newsletter, a daily afternoon digest of the best coverage and analysis of Britain’s decision to leave the EU available to Brexit Pro subscribers. Sign up here.


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Judy Terry: To defeat crime, councillors need to listen to youth charities and park friends

Helping others who are desperate to improve their lives is essential. Otherwise we will have more “no-go areas”.

Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

As the number of knife-related deaths in London and other cities continue to escalate, it is important to recognise that the problem is spreading via ‘County Lines’ into smaller towns and rural areas, right across the country.

A couple of days ago, a leaflet dropped through my letterbox in Ipswich. Headed ‘Park News’; it promotes a couple of Labour’s ward councillors who are facing next May’s local elections.

It was also a belated response by the Labour-run council to residents’ concerns about safety in a local park.  This park used to be popular with dog walkers, parents using the play area, and those – like me – using it as an enjoyable walking route to access the town centre and waterfront area.

Close to both the university and college, with hundreds of students coming and going in groups or alone, in the last couple of years the park has become unsafe. I quote from the Labour leaflet, “a growing number of anti-social and criminal incidents, including fly-tipping, drugs, robbery and vandalism”. Yes, we knew that. Even my friends with big dogs – one with a St. Bernard – have refused to use the park for at least a year, as have I.

Anyway, the local councillors, “have met up with officers in the park to make the case for improvements…. Staff and Police have undertaken a sweep of the park to ensure drug related items, and weapons, were found and removed.” Just imagine what damage could have been done to a child, or pet.

They announced plans to remove lower branches of trees to enable a better line of sight across the park, and to cut back overgrown shrubs; the gate to the play area “will be repaired so that it springs shut and the bolt works”.

Although locked at night, criminals still manage to gain access, so it is welcome that park staff increase their daily checks to ensure everyone’s safety, making their regular patrols more visible. With a bus stop located outside the main entrance, waiting passengers can feel vulnerable to potential abuse, especially in the dark, whilst those living nearby are conscious of the growth in potentially dangerous litter in shrubs alongside the pavement, as well as open land to the rear of properties, which are a haven for wildlife, including hedgehogs.

With about 1,800 acres of parks, open space, and allotments, Ipswich suffers similar abuse right across the town, despite efforts by Friends groups, who help to maintain and manage some parks and are powerful advocates for their neighbourhoods. 13 or more drug gangs are estimated to be operating in the town; with growing pressures on police, so the council’s new measures are welcome, if somewhat overdue.

Sadly, there seems to be a disconnect between what is happening on the ground and other decisions made by the County and Borough councils; reducing youth services and closing community centres means troubled young people take to the streets, becoming unwilling victims of the drug culture as they are absorbed into gangs. When they realise what is happening to them, there is no escape route.

Since a teenager was knifed to death in the town a few months ago, the public sector has woken up to the dangers stalking the streets (and open spaces), leaving some no-go areas, with those able to move house abandoning certain locations.

It was evident from the angry public meetings convened in the wake of the tragedy that local residents knew what was going on, but no-one was willing to listen. Borough and County councillors were surprised at residents’ fury that their warnings about the impact of cuts on local youth, and arguments for support were ignored, when volunteers and charities willingly offered help.

Subsequently, the Conservative-run County Council reversed its decision to close the run-down community centre, investing in improvements, whilst the Borough offered free access to its sports centres during the summer holidays. This made a difference, but neither council can think “job done” to appease local residents and the media. They have to make a long-term commitment to work with the community and the Police – to be visible and actually listen.

Councillors may profess to be ‘engaged’ with their constituents, but few actually live in their divisions, so if they are genuinely committed to the people who elect them, they should be fully involved, visiting schools and allotments, talking to people in their shopping centres, monitoring the environment (rubbish is a key issue). They should be organising and attending events, enabling socialising to prevent loneliness, and communicating in person, not just via leaflets and occasional door knocking in the run up to elections.

Being a councillor takes time, and it is not just about politics or town planning; it is about caring. Discovering what goes on behind closed doors can be a shock; few of us understand what deprivation actually means because it manifests itself in so many different ways, not that abuse is confined to specific ‘classes’ of society.

Recruiting people to stand as councillors is no easy task, especially amongst younger generations, who have so many work and family commitments, but helping others desperate to improve their lives and uncertain what to do, is a reward in itself. However, it means actually forgetting your own preconceptions by listening to people, letting them tell you the truth – and taking appropriate action to resolve issues, before disaster strikes, whether that means another teenager being struck down, or a repeat of Grenfell – which could have been averted if lessons had been learnt from previous incidents, both in the UK and overseas.

Martin Parsons: The politically explosive small print in the Climate Change Committee’s report on sea defence

Destroying coastal barriers to “create a new habitat area” would mean leaving our seaside towns and villages to be flooded. People must come first.

Dr Martin Parsons is a former aid worker in Afghanistan and Pakistan and has a PhD in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.

At the end of October the government’s Climate Change Committee published its report on how the UK should respond to sea level rise. Not terribly interested? – well you should be because the small print in this report is political dynamite for some of the most disadvantaged communities, who guess what – overwhelmingly voted for Brexit and include a significant proportion of the marginal seats Conservatives need to hold to win the next election.

The purpose of this article is not take issue with the science – it’s what the report recommends the government does that is so politically toxic. The science is fairly straightforward – sea level has risen by around 15 cm since 1900 (actually if you live south of a line from Middlesbrough to Liverpool it’s probably more due to land sinking relative to the sea). At current rates it is likely to rise by a further 50 cm and possibly 80 cm by 2100 i.e. within the lifetime of children living today.

That means that storm surges will overtop existing sea defences more frequently – and the biggest surges will inundate much bigger areas of land. At the moment around half a million properties, including 370,000 homes are vulnerable to flooding. The report estimates this will increase to 1.2 million homes by 2080.

Higher sea levels also increase coastal erosion and the report estimates the number of homes vulnerable to erosion will increase from 8,900 to 100,000 over the same period.

So what does the report suggest we do about it? Well some infrastructure will need to be relocated – including some roads, railway lines and even three railway stations. Once they get damaged by storm surges on more than a couple of occasions it becomes more economic to move them than repair them.

However, the really politically toxic bit of the report deals with coastal communities. It says, because major urban areas and infrastructure will require better sea defences – and there is only so much money available, that is where money should be spent. However, for coastal communities in towns and villages – it is worse than that. The report recommends that 149-185 km of coast which is currently designated as ‘hold the line’ in shoreline management plans should be redesignated as ‘managed retreat’.

Let me explain what that means. Shoreline Management Plans (SMPs) designate each part of the coast as one of four categories:

  • Advance the line (never used – although significant parts of the coast were reclaimed from the sea by previous generations)
  • Hold the Line (i.e. protect the existing shoreline)
  • No Active intervention (i.e. do nothing – including not repairing any existing sea defences)
  • Managed Realignment (also known as ‘managed retreat’ – deliberately breaching existing sea defences, for example, to allow farmland to be turned into salt marsh)

In other words, the report recommends not simply saving money by not repairing sea defences, but deliberately breaching them. The justification it offers for this is twofold:

“It has advantages in removing long-term financial commitments to maintain defences and in restoring natural environments and processes. Managed realignment can create new habitat area that acts as a natural buffer to coastal waves and is much cheaper to maintain over the long-term.”

However, the advantages it talks of are clearly not for the local community who sea defences are supposed to “defend”. The advantages are in reducing the cost to the Treasury and creating “new habitat”.

Yet the cost to the local community is extraordinarily high. The report gives as an example of the sort of strategy they envisage, a village in Wales of 1,000 people. Despite a consultation having been done on the latest SMP, most of the residents were shocked to discover somewhat later that their village would only be protected until 2025 which would be followed by a period of working towards ‘decommissioning’ the village in 2055.

Can you imagine what that does to a whole community?

It’s far worse than planning blight – at least then there is the possibility of compensation from a compulsory purchase order. However, with ‘decommissioning’ a village to prepare for managed retreat – every house becomes valueless, unsaleable – and there is absolutely no compensation. That’s right – no compensation – if your land becomes part of the seabed you lose everything and no one pays you anything. And your mortgage – well yes you could default on it and let the building society pick up the tab. But if you do then don’t expect to ever get another mortgage. This is a huge social justice issue.

Think it won’t happen? Well – here’s the sting in the tail – the Climate Change Committee’s report laments the fact that:

“Even the modest amount of managed realignment envisaged in the SMPs is not being implemented at the rate set out in the plans.”

To address this it then immediately calls for Shoreline Management Plans to be placed on a statutory basis so that the plans have to be implemented. That means that if the SMP places your village under managed retreat then the Environment Agency would have a legal duty to breach the sea defences and flood it. The report suggests the current environment and agriculture legislation be amended to do this.

Even aside from the massive social injustice this represents let me spell out why else the government should categorically reject these recommendations:

  1. The report itself admits that ‘Many coastal communities are particularly vulnerable because populations in coastal areas are often poorer and older than the UK average.’ Despite this, it effectively recommends removing funding for sea defence repairs from them in order to spend it on large urban areas, which already get more public spending per person.
  2. It justifies this by claiming it will reduce costs and ‘create habitats’. I’m sorry but we’ve been here before – one of the reasons villages in the Somerset Levels remained cut off by floods for a month in 2014 was because the Environment Agency had prioritised nature conservation and so kept the water levels artificially high and not dredged the rivers. Like most Conservatives I am a natural conservationist – but people come first.
  3. The report’s recommendations significantly increase vulnerability to flooding.  This is despite the report itself admitting that coastal flooding will increase to 1.2 million homes by 2080 and that of all natural disasters coastal flooding claims more lives than almost any other event and in the UK there is a long history of coastal floods leading to many deaths.

While breaching sea walls – which is what managed retreat means – may create salt marsh which could act as a temporary buffer to coastal erosion, it also removes significant protection against the much higher risk of coastal flooding. Replacing a 2m sea wall with a ‘sea level’ salt marsh significantly reduces existing flood protection – at a time when sea levels are rising. This itself reveals the ideological bias of the report which purports to be a response to rising sea levels.

However, this is also a politically toxic issue because so much comes down to money. The report actually says that if the government paid for all the existing sea defences (i.e. hold the line) in shoreline management plans at today’s prices – it would cost between £6.9 and 9.2 billion.

Now try telling those seaside towns and villages, a great many of which are marginal constituencies, that they can’t have that money and that some of their villages are even going to be ‘decommissioned’. While at the same time telling these coastal communities most of which voted Brexit – that we are talking about whether to give four or five times that amount of money to the EU in exchange for what may be little more than the promise of talks about a future trade deal. That’s not just toxic – it’s politically explosive for any government…

Desmond Swayne: Weaning parents off disposable nappies

We must look at the benefits that reusable nappies can offer, and promote greater awareness so that people can make an informed choice.

Sir Desmond Swayne is a former International Development Minister, and is MP for New Forest West.

The message from the Budget is clear: consumers have made their views known on plastic packaging. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s empower people to cut down on other single-use plastics to benefit the environment, reduce waste and emissions in our over-stretched waste systems, and support household finances.

Both Defra and the Treasury have spent considerable departmental time and resource exploring how to influence consumer and industry behaviour when it comes to cutting plastic consumption, and rightly so.  For now, Philip Hammond says he is content to rely on industry to drive plastic use down rather than resort to taxation. Industry, especially hospitality and independent food retailers, have taken proactive steps over the last twelve months. I’m pleased to see that extraneous packaging has been banished from the majority of fruit and veg in our supermarkets, and plastic straws have been replaced by waxy paper ones in pubs and bars across the country.

But this is only the start. With a recent UN study finding that we have only twelve years to prevent irreversible damage to the climate, people are only now realising it is their own responsibility to limit their impact on the planet – and that they must do this by making real changes to their daily routine.

The good news is that changes can be made quickly and to good effect – and this is why I was pleased to see the subject of reusable nappies being raised by Michael Gove at Party Conference this year. We’ve targeted straws, cotton buds, balloon sticks and shrink-wrap. Disposables, which currently make up four to six per cent of household waste, are the obvious next step.

The average baby uses 4000 nappies up to potty training, the majority of which will go to landfill: eight million of them every day in the UK alone. As well as taking up a large proportion of limited landfill space and putting significant pressure on our waste-collection services, disposable nappies typically contain around 30 per cent plastic material which can end up polluting land or water resources.

Whilst it would not be a very Conservative measure to ban disposables, especially given the other pressures young families have to contend with, we must look at the benefits that reusable nappies can offer, and promote greater awareness so that people can make an informed choice. The time is right for Government to support this with practical and effective policy. Defra is consulting about how to end the use of single-life plastic straws and plastic-handled cotton buds which is important.

But it should also address two aspects of the use of disposable nappies. First, it should consider how to ensure that the plastics used in disposable nappies are as biodegradable and as harmless to the environment as possible. I understand that is something manufacturers are considering, but the development of a realistic disposable recycling system is still at a nascent stage.

Second, we need to look at how to share adequate information with consumers to enable them to make informed decisions – particularly about the impact that disposable nappies will have on the environment, even when they are responsibly removed to landfill. How long do disposable nappies take to biodegrade? What are the products of that process and what are their effects on the environment? What happens to nappies that are not responsibly disposed of, but end up in our watercourses and seas?

Parents should also know how modern reusable nappies work. I understand that nowadays reusables are light-weight and easy to wash – far removed from the heavy terry towelling models of days gone by. This is information that new parents could receive when they are given their Bounty packs during maternity care. Most importantly, parents need to know that it doesn’t have to be a case of all or nothing. An Environment Agency study found that, if parents swap to just one reusable a day, they can save using 800 nappies over the first 2-3 years of a child’s life, and make significant reductions to their own carbon footprint, not to mention savings to the household purse.

The Government has a tremendous opportunity here: better information for consumers; more biodegradable and safer plastics; less plastic going to landfill; reducing the emissions created through waste management; and a burnishing of the government’s green credentials. This policy initiative would be entirely consistent with the Environment Secretary’s record of green pragmatism and with his determination to make a difference to our environment; a small but impactful step that chimes with the growing traction of consumer responsibility.

Eamonn Ives: No, Brexit will not threaten all creatures great and small

In certain respects, the UK’s leaving of the EU could reap animal welfare benefits on a scale hitherto unimaginable.

Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue.

In case you hadn’t yet noticed, the United Kingdom is currently negotiating its leaving of the European Union. Whilst we do not know exactly where the country will end up after the 29th March next year, it is almost certain that Westminster will have the opportunity to legislate on policy issues which for decades it has offshored to Brussels. Nowhere is this more apparent than with respect to environmental law – of which roughly four-fifths stem from the EU.

This has, reasonably enough, put the proverbial cat amongst the metaphorical pigeons of the environmental lobby. Notwithstanding the fact that just about all of them lament Brexit, it is unsurprising that they regard the country’s vote to leave as a threat to existing standards. When anything could happen, expecting the worst might be an instinctive response. One area in particular which has attracted a considerable amount of attention is that of animal welfare regulation.

Such anxieties are, at the very least, understandable. One cannot deny that there exists a contingent of Brexit supporters – some of whom wield significant political clout – who would happily see current welfare standards watered down. However, I also believe that those fears are somewhat misplaced and overblown, and that in certain respects, the UK’s leaving of the EU could reap animal welfare benefits on a scale hitherto unimaginable.

One of the most exciting aspects of Brexit is the fact that it allows the UK to do away with divisive and much bemoaned Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This byzantine framework for awarding public money to farmers and land-owners based largely upon nothing more than the amount of land they manage has a whole host of drawbacks – none less so than the consequences many, Eurosceptics and Europhiles alike, believe it has had for British biodiversity.

Mercifully, the Government has committed to replacing the CAP. In a move inspired by a report published by Bright Blue last year, future payments look set to be made to recipients for the public goods they deliver. Importantly, things which increase animal welfare (such as measures which reduce antimicrobial resistance – a threat to animals and humans alike) were singled out by the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, as a possible public good which could be rewarded under the CAP’s successor. Thus, the policy rethink which Brexit fundamentally symbolises, played out in this instance as the re-evaluation of funding priorities, could easily lead to improved animal welfare in Britain.

But potential animal welfare gains triggered by changes to agricultural policy do not stop there. If one considers where the majority of animal welfare abuse occurs, an obvious starting point would be with animals which are reared for their meat. Whilst this is not to tar every livestock farmer with the same brush, examples of animal abuse in the industry are undeniable, and are now frequently appearing in the national media as reporting improves.

And yet, society is today closer than ever before to being in a position where it could virtually eliminate all such suffering. Cultured meat, more commonly known as lab-grown meat, has, of late, made great leaps forward in terms of its commercial viability. The costs associated with producing it have fallen exponentially: one start-up which was producing cultured meat at $325,000 per burger in 2013, had it down to a mere $11 just two years later. Venture capitalists and philanthropists are flocking to invest in cultured meat, with industry figures believing it can become cost competitive in just a couple of years’ time.

So where does Brexit play into this? Unfortunately, the EU gives me little reason to think that it will embrace this potentially game-changing technology with the open arms anyone who is interested in animal welfare (and indeed climate change, biodiversity, and much more else besides) might wish it would. The EU’s long-standing opposition to genetic modification, and more recent hostility towards the much less controversial ‘gene editing’, means that one can be forgiven for being pessimistic about the EU forgoing the hyper-precautionary mindset which it has displayed in the past.

Furthermore, given that we know how successful the farming lobby has been in capturing the EU (at its peak, 71 per cent of the EU’s total budget funded the CAP), there is again good reason to believe it could act as a formidable stumbling block to the EU affording cultured meat a favourable regulatory regime. Already, the European farming lobby has mobilised the European Court of Justice to ban plant-based alternatives from using ‘dairy style’ naming words for cheese and milk substitutes: what’s not to say they won’t do the same for cultured meat?

For the arguments expressed above, I believe that the UK’s leaving of the EU does not jeopardise animal welfare – far from it. Brexit gives the UK a golden opportunity to rethink the frameworks which underpin agricultural and countryside management, to the betterment of animal welfare. It also permits the Government to prevent some of the most flagrant examples animal abuse.

Finally, whilst admittedly unclear at present, if we do indeed witness the same proclivity from the EU to regulate against the innovation of cultured meat as demonstrated with respect to gene editing and genetic modification, being outside of that regime can only be positive for animal welfare.

Greg Hammond: Freedom for disruptive technologies v the need for peace and quiet

Clumsy bans are not the answer – but local rules do need to be adapted to cope with Uber, Deliveroo and Airbnb.

Cllr Greg Hammond is a councillor for Courtfield Ward in Kensington and Chelsea.

“This generation are Uber-riding, Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating freedom fighters”, says Liz Truss, Chief Secretary to the Treasury. And she is right that disruptive technologies are delivering consumers new opportunities for services at lower prices than conventional taxis, hotels and restaurants. Such new freedoms are welcome, and are particularly taken for granted by the young generation that does not remember the restricted choices of the pre-smartphone age. Yet are these new technologies an unalloyed good?

In my ward and its neighbours in South Kensington, in addition to enjoying the benefits of Uber, Airbnb and Deliveroo, our residents have been experiencing some unintended second – and third – order consequences of these disruptive technologies.

Uber drivers have found hitherto quiet residential streets in which to hold while awaiting a call-forward for a fare. In some cases, unwilling to pay for parking and with no designated rest areas, drivers are discarding on the curbsides litter from hastily-eaten meals and even drinks bottles re-used for urine. Of course not every Uber driver is guilty of such anti-social behaviour, but as a minimum residents’ parking bays are blocked and extra traffic created in certain hotspots.

Short-term holiday letting is also proving to be much more lucrative than traditional residential letting. Although Airbnb and similar sites apply a maximum limit of 90 days’ letting per year, it is easy for unscrupulous landlords to register with more than one site and let all year round. Instead of being just a means of making some occasional money from a spare room, there are now short-term letting businesses with multiple properties. Indeed there are some entire town houses containing nothing but short-term letting flats. The consequences are hollowed-out communities, a reduced supply of properties for those who want to live in the area, rubbish left out in the streets on the wrong days by people who are not invested in the local community, and increased instances of noisy parties at anti-social hours on what are working days for local residents.

Deliveroo (and Uber-eats) riders meanwhile are congregating near the restaurants whose products they are going to deliver. Increasingly using noisy scooters rather than relatively benign bicycles, large numbers of riders are positioned at peak times near the restaurants. An example of this problem was in an echoey residential mews which also happens to contain the service entrance to a local branch of Nando’s.

So what is to be done?

The answer is certainly not Labour’s instinctive opposition to new ideas that threaten existing vested interests: the type of reaction that was recently demonstrated by Sadiq Khan’s clumsy attempt to ban Uber in London. This is the kind Luddite approach that would still see our cloth made on the Spinning Jenny and steam locomotives on the railways. Something much more nuanced is required.

In Kensington & Chelsea we are having some small successes in addressing these problems. My Ward colleague worked with parking enforcement and an engaged group of residents to address the problem of Uber drivers holding in one particular hotspot. I organised a meeting on site with Deliveroo’s head of public affairs to show her the problem in the mews. Pleasingly, she was proactive in following up by explaining the problems to the riders and setting up a direct email address for residents’ complaints. As councillors, meanwhile, we have encouraged the Council to increase parking restrictions in that mews, but have accepted that the Deliveroo riders have to go somewhere and that the already-busy commercial street is the place. In both cases the problems have been mitigated in the particular hotspots, though these are microcosms of the problem as a whole.

On short-term holiday letting, last year our relevant scrutiny committees launched a proper study into a problem that had been identified by councillors but had hitherto been completely overlooked as an issue by council officers. The study identified that only a quarter of the short-term holiday lettings in our borough were for the classic ‘spare room’, whereas three-quarters were full dwellings and therefore probably primarily business enterprises. The recommended solutions in many cases would require primary legislation. Suggestions included the creation of a mandatory licensing system and registration with the local authority to facilitate enforcement actions against breaches of, for example, the 90-day limit. A more ‘joined-up’ approach to enforcement between different council departments was also proposed.

The actions described are all tentative first steps, and in some cases are hyper-localised. It would be wrong to squash the new freedoms and opportunities offered by disruptive technologies or to give in to vested interests. But we also need to protect our residents from new threats to the quiet enjoyment of their homes and neighbourhoods. Where does the balance lie? There are no easy answers. Constructive suggestions in the comment area would be a useful contribution to the debate.

Robert Halfon: How the patronising metropolitan elites wrinkled up their noses at more money for potholes

Plus: Unsung Conservative heroes. The Centre for Rocket Studies. And: why do we need the traditional, three-year University course?

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Workers Budget

Credit where credit is due, the Budget last week was exactly what was needed. Tax cuts for the lower paid, increases in the Living Wage, a fuel duty freeze, and more money for our NHS.  It was astonishing how the metropolitan classes sniffed at the £420 million for potholes – one journalist argued that it was wrong given the threat to our environment. Given that our town and road infrastructure is riven with potholes, and how small white van businesses and motorists depend on good roads, it was so typical of the anti-car brigade to be so aloof from day-to-day realities.

I welcomed the £200 million for vulnerable youths and the £400 million more for education capital spending – though much more is needed; ideally, a Ten Year Plan, similar to the NHS, if education is not going to become our Achilles heel.  It is vital that the Spending Round next year, sets out the a long term education plan, to ensure our schools and colleges are properly funded and fit for the 21st Century and the arrival of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We need less initiative-itis on education, with a bit of funding tinkering here and there, and a much more strategic view on what education policy and funding should be.

Unsung Heroes

The Conservative Party is full of unsung heroes and one of those is Nonie Bouverat, who most of this site’s readers will have never heard of.  Mrs Bouverat is Chief Executive Officer of the Conservative Foundation, one of whose primary tasks is to raise funds to provide low income parliamentary candidates with bursaries.

This is something I have fought for a long time, and was delighted when Lord Feldman made an initial announcement about this at the 2015 Party Conference.  The website of the Conservative Foundation does not even mention Bouverat, yet it is she who has done so much to get this bursary scheme off the ground.

If the bursary scheme was developed to include supporting councillors and Party members, we could help ensure that low-income members could get a fair deal when they got involved in the Party, especially when standing for elections or travelling to events. Hats off to Bouverat and the Foundation. I hope it goes from strength to strength.

Centre for Rocket Studies

What has happened to the Centre for Policy Studies?  Under its remarkable new director, Robert Colvile, you rarely read a newspaper without hearing about the latest work of the CPS.  Though big under Margaret Thatcher, the CPS later had a few lean years, but now seems to be having a rocket-boosted resurgence, with policy pamphlets a plenty, alongside the great CapX online newspaper promoting Capitalism.

Their latest report, launched by the Prime Minister earlier this week, proposed a £1,000 a month ‘Universal Income’ to raise wages for the lower paid, and a Work Guarantee to ensure that everyone keeps 51p in every extra £1 they earn, partly bu cutting the Universal Credit Taper rate.  Alongside Tory Workers, the CPS are carving out a Conservative-minded, pro-Workers agenda. All power to the CPS-ers!

Universities and value for money

My Education Select Committee published a report this week in which we noted that 49 per cent of graduates are not in graduate jobs.  We need a rethink of Higher Education – more focused on graduate outcomes, more committed to skills and vocational education, and more devoted to really giving the disadvantaged a chance to climb the Higher Education Ladder of Opportunity.

Re-introducing means-tested maintenance grants would help, as well as more Degree Apprenticeships, as these students earn whilst they learn. The number of part-time students has declined by half over the past few years, so why not introduce flexible learning, by which students can hop on and off courses and build up credits? Why do we need the traditional, rigid three year structure?  Of course, excessive Vice Chancellor pay should be curtailed too. That must be a job for the new Office for Students.

1922 Drama (not)

I read every weekend in the Sunday newspapers that the end of the Tory world is nigh.  A week or so ago, we were told by the media that the 1922 meeting with Theresa May would take on the role of some show-trial court of the Prime Minister, with a ‘noose’ in the offing, and the distinguished Sir Graham Brady acting out the role of Judge Roland Freisler.

So I arrived at the meeting on my electronic Segway Rollerscoot (it is always a long walk otherwise to Committee Room 14) expecting great drama.  Many journalists were outside in Commons Committee Corridor with pens and pads – a bit like the old ladies with their knitting needles waiting around the French Revolution’s guillotines for the next execution.

As it happened, it was a good-natured affair, with Theresa May being quite frank about her views (whether you agreed with them or not). Sir Graham was more Rumpole of the Bailey than Roland, as MPs were called to give their views on the EU.  As I left this most august occasion, journos asked me what I thought. I could only reply, that the Prime Minister was ‘honest’.