Labour’s claim that the Towns Fund is skewed for partisan advantage lacks credibility

5 Mar

The 2019 Conservative Manifesto promised to set up a Towns Fund. It pledged “a new deal for towns” adding:

“Our new Towns Fund will help communities make sure their towns are safe to walk in and a pleasure to be in. We want there to be things to do, great places to shop and eat and transport to be easy. Above all, we want the town’s future to be in the hands of the people who live there.”

It went on to give some details:

  • Regenerating towns. The Towns Fund will go to an initial 100 towns to improve their local economy – and they and only they will make the choice about what improvements their local area needs.
  • Thriving high streets. We will cut taxes for small retail businesses and for local music venues, pubs and cinemas.
  • Giving young people a future. As well as our investment in schools and technical education, we will invest £500 million in new youth clubs and services.
  • Safer streets, safer towns. A new Safer Streets Fund will invest in preventative measures like new CCTV or community wardens.
  • New civic infrastructure. We have announced the largest cultural capital programme in a century, of £250 million. This will support local libraries and regional museums. We will work with local universities to do more for the education, health and prosperity of their local areas.
  • Community ownership. We will establish a £150 million Community Ownership Fund to encourage local takeovers of civic organisations or community assets that are under threat – local football clubs, but also pubs or post offices. We will set up a fan-led review of football governance, which will include consideration of the Owners and Directors Test, and will work with fans and clubs towards introducing safe standing. And we will help communities that want to create ‘pocket parks’ and regenerate derelict areas.
  • Community spirit. Through the Cultural Investment Fund, outlined above, we will also support activities, traditions and events that bring communities together. We will support local and regional newspapers, as vital pillars of communities and local democracy, including by extending their business rates relief.”

So there can hardly be an objection, on democratic grounds, that this undertaking is being delivered. As well as the Towns Fund, with a £3.6 billion budget, we have the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund – to pay for infrastructure including regenerating town centre and high streets, upgrading local transport, and investing in cultural and heritage assets.

Nonetheless, there have been complaints that this has been applied in a partisan manner. Bids are locally led.  The Guardian reports that:

“40 of the 45 towns in the first tranche of towns fund spending were represented by Conservative MPs.”

A couple of points should be considered. Firstly, these bids are locally led. If a Labour-run local authority refuses to apply – or to make much effort with the application – that is not the Government’s fault.

Secondly, the Conservatives do have a large majority in Parliament. Yet Labour still dominate in the big cities – London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Bradford, Leicester. By contrast, even during the Blair landslides, the villages and the farmers tended to stick with the Conservatives – the rural areas were still predominantly Conservative. Thus Labour MPs will tend to represent the constitiuencies sent city funding; Conservative MPs will usually represent the seats sent rural funding.

So the towns are the crucial places where elections are won or lost. That broad political point is well established – though there were some impressive results last time in the particular towns where the Conservative gained seats. The simple arithmetic that Labour got trounced overall, but still held large number of seats in the cities makes those figure from The Guardian rather less shocking than they might first appear.

The scandal would be if the application for funding to regenerate (or “level up”) a town had been rejected due to it having a Labour MP – while a rival bid was accepted due to it having a Conservative MP. (Or, a variation on the theme, a Ministerial seat favoured over that of a humble backbencher.) Such conspiracy theories are well established, but strike me as implausible. Apart from any ethical considerations, the Minister who instructed civil servants to skew the process in such a manner would be unlikely to get away with it. It would all cause a bit of a stink.

The problem is that criteria for local government finance are so complicated and impenetrable it makes such claims hard to disprove. There is nothing new in this. During the Thatcher/Major era it would be claimed that Wandsworth Council only managed to have such low rates / poll tax / Council Tax due to preferential funding from central Government. Of course, after 1997 and the Labour Government, Wandsworth continued to have a dramatically lower Council Tax than neighbouring Labour authorities.

This new fund is not about favouring one deprived town over another one. But it is about giving favourable treatment to all such places. That is not unreasonable. Our towns have been neglected. The EU’s structural funds were of little use to anyone beyond those administering them. But the European Regional Development Fund would be skewed to shiny prestige projects in city centres rather than the humbler, more practical needs of struggling towns. Not that cities have been forgotten about in other Government schemes. Liverpool is to become a freeport.

Of course, to say that the Towns Funds spending is likely to be more effective than EU regional aid is setting the bar rather low. But this arrangement does allow local priorities to be recognised. It is for the people of Darlington or Grimsby to decide which road needs to be improved. Not just for Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and his officials to micromanage from the centre. Or for Gillian Keegan, the Skills Minister, to tell them what training programmes are needed, or for Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, to instruct them as to which bits of their town’s heritage should be preserved.

A council leader from the Midlands told me:

“I do like the approach of allowing local decisions on what transport improvements should be a priority. We don’t need devolution – with extra layers of metro Mayors or whatever. We need decentralisation to the local government already in place.”

Therefore, the charges of political favouritism are unconvincing. There is also a reasonable case that if this money is to be spent, then local input should be genuine. Whether the broader approach will succeed is more contentious. Could it not be that state intervention is not the means to levelling up, but an obstruction? It always seems to be assumed that public spending is required for regeneration. Yet so much of the derelict land and buildings are owned by the local authority – or other branches of the public sector. Could these sites not be sold to developers to agree to transform them into beautiful homes and businesses? The price might vary according to location, and the condition the property was in. But surely it would be possible for such projects to be commercially viable, without huge subsidies. If that really is not the case, then the prospects of success would seem slim, regardless of how much public money is poured in.

Profile: Nadhim Zahawi, vaccines minister and a rising star who also knows what it is like to fall

12 Feb

Nadhim Zahawi is a rising star who has taken a long time to rise. By making him Minister for Vaccine Deployment, Boris Johnson has at last given him a tremendous opportunity to show what he can do.

Robert Halfon, who chairs the Education Select Committee and knows Zahawi well, says of him: “He’d get you mangoes in the Antarctic and brussels sprouts in the desert.”

A minister told ConHome: “He’s a completely under-rated talent and it’s fantastic that he’s been given his head.”

Lord Archer, for whom Zahawi worked in the 1990s, recently told Radio 4:

“What I discovered very quickly with Nadhim was that he was a born organiser. If you said to him ‘I need six taxis, three aeroplanes and a double-decker bus all in 30 minutes’ time’ he went and did it.”

Zahawi’s warmest friends and admirers testify that he is “a wheeler-dealer” whose manner is reminiscent of Arthur Daley. They add that he is “very, very ambitious”, but “his heart’s in the right place” and “he’s a good person underneath it all”.

In 1996 Zahawi delivered the “Rising Star” speech at the Conservative Party Conference, and in February 1997 The Independent on Sunday included his name when it predicted, with wonderful audacity, who would be in the Conservative Cabinet of 2020.

The newspaper tipped Chris Grayling, who served in the Cabinet from 2012-19, and John Bercow, Commons Speaker from 2009-19, and got two other names exactly right: Robert Buckland, a Cabinet minister since 2019, and Boris Johnson, of whom it reported,

“Not shy in clashing with party lines, Boris would ‘renegotiate EU membership so Britain stands to Europe as Canada, not Texas, stands to the USA’.”

Zahawi is as yet no more than a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. Why the slow rate of progress under Johnson, whom he has known for 20 years?

The answer lies in the leadership contest of 2019. Figures such as Rishi Sunak, Robert Jenrick, Oliver Dowden, Grant Shapps and Gavin Williamson who came out for Johnson are in the Cabinet.

In the 2016 contest, Zahawi had backed Johnson, telling readers of The Daily Telegraph:

“You only need to spend a few minutes in the company of Boris and a voter to understand his natural abilities, and the chance he presents to help restore the image of politicians with a cynical public. He can unite our country. Boris is not just a personality who people like, but a real leader…

“I’m absolutely certain he’s the right choice and the leader we need to guide us into a new relationship with our allies. He can be the prime minister who finishes the job, and creates this better Britain.”

Yet in the 2019 contest, Zahawi backed Dominic Raab, attacked Johnson as “a controversial face from the past”, warned friends that under Johnson’s leadership “it could go really wrong”, and told readers of ConHome:

“In Dominic Raab we someone with the skill as well as the conviction to navigate the rocky road ahead. Someone who has the experience of negotiating with Brussels but also the courage to walk away without a deal…

“He’s the right choice, the trusted choice and the serious choice.”

In the second round of voting, Raab came sixth, backed by only 30 MPs, and was eliminated, having been beaten, in ascending order, by Rory Stewart, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Johnson, who already had 126 votes.

Zahawi was observed to look “ashen-faced”. He had committed what one close observer calls “a horrible error of judgment”, and was perhaps fortunate to cling on in government as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Business and Industry, having under Theresa May served since January 2018 as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families.

One way in which he recovered from this setback was by readily agreeing, at various low points in Johnson’s prime ministership, to requests from Downing Street to go on television and radio in order, in the words of one of Zahawi’s friends, “to defend the indefensible”.

The stickier the wicket, the calmer Zahawi sounded. He has the “willingness to go out in all weathers” which in an earlier age was attributed to Charles James Fox.

And he has known adversity. He was born in June 1967 in Baghdad to Kurdish parents, his father a businessman, his mother a dentist.

His grandfather, after whom he is named, was Governor of the Central Bank of Iraq from May 1959 to November 1960: “his signature was on the banknotes,” the grandson has remarked.

In the 1970s, Saddam Hussein tightened his grip on Iraq and began his persecution of the Kurds, which was to culminate in genocide. When Zahawi was nine, his parents fled with him to Britain, where they arrived with £50.

They found their feet and settled near Crowborough, in Sussex. Zahawi became a keen horseman, competed as a showjumper, and was sent to King’s College Wimbledon, an independent school.

When he was 18, his father invested in an American company which had invented a machine called Air Knife, which could supposedly use air to dig up roads:

“In mad entrepreneur fashion my father rang my mum and said, ‘This is going to be a huge success.’ He remortgaged our home, put everything into this thing. Of course you know how this story ends, the company went bankrupt and the bank took our home and everything except one thing: we had a Vauxhall Opel Senator car that was in my mother’s name so they couldn’t take it.”

The family was destitute:

“I had to make a choice whether I went to university or become a cab driver to put food on the table. We had nothing, and had to go on housing benefit and income support. For about a month my dad wouldn’t leave the bedroom because he was so distraught. When you have that level of breakdown, of failure, it really is like a vortex, and our biggest challenge was to get him out of the room and get him to have a shave, go out, and find work.”

All was not lost:

“My mother was a dentist. We had a half-decent education. We were able to sit down and work our way through this disaster… 

“Many of my left-leaning friends will say you can’t tackle education until you tackle the challenge of poverty. I see it the other way round, you don’t tackle inequality and poverty unless you tackle education.”

Zahawi read chemical engineering at University College London, and began a career in business, marketing tee-shirts and Teletubbies merchandise, at first without much success.

He also entered Conservative politics, serving from 1994-2004 as a councillor in Wandsworth, and in 1997 contesting the hopeless seat of Erith and Thamesmead.

In 1991 he had met Jeffrey Archer, who was raising money for the Kurds. In 1998, when Lord Archer (as he became in 1992 on John Major’s recommendation) was preparing to run for Mayor of London, he took on Zahawi and Stephan Shakespeare to help run his campaign.

The following year, Archer was accused of perjury, and had to withdraw from the mayoral race. He was later convicted and sent to prison.

Zahawi and Shakespeare wondered what to do instead. In 2000 they set up YouGov. The polling side of the new firm proved itself by predicting with extraordinary accuracy the result of the 2001 general election, and Will Young’s victory in Pop Idol in 2002.

In the selection in 2004 for the safe seat of Surrey Heath, Zahawi was beaten by Gove, as were many other aspirant Conservative MPs, including Nick Hurd, Steve Hilton, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Laura Sandys.

In 2009 the expenses scandal precipitated the retirement of a number of MPs, and in 2010 Zahawi was selected for the safe seat of Stratford-on-Avon.

He has said how pleased he was, as an ethnic minority candidate, to be selected for such an overwhelmingly white seat. He pointed out to the selectors that if they closed their eyes, he sounded as British as they did.

But his friend Sajid Javid recalled, in the recent Radio 4 Profile of Zahawi, that racism was not entirely absent:

“I remember him saying to me he was handing out leaflets on the street somewhere and someone had screwed it up in front of him and said that if you were on fire I wouldn’t waste my piss on you.”

YouGov had been floated on the stock exchange in 2005 and Zahawi was by now a wealthy man. He admires his former constituent, William Shakespeare, and he has acquired a riding stables outside Stratford.

He soon showed his gift for attracting attention, notably when his tie started playing a tune as he spoke in the Commons.

Along with Matt Hancock, who has since become Health Secretary, he wrote a bookMasters of Nothing: How the Crash Will Happen Again Unless We Understand Human Nature.

And in 2012 he became a leading figure in the successful revolt against the Coalition Government’s plans to reform the House of Lords. He was made a member of the Policy Unit, but received no ministerial preferment while David Cameron was Prime Minister.

Nor did Theresa May feel any urgent need to send for Zahawi. He is an ebullient figure, and in parts of the parliamentary party may well have inspired a degree of envious distrust, by being so rich compared to most MPs, and so outspoken a supporter of the Kurdish cause, a region where by now he had oil interests.

Exotic origins, ebullient self-confidence and love of seemingly lost causes are more congenial to Johnson, who in 2015 visited Kurdistan with Zahawi, and was photographed by Andrew Parsons squinting down the barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle.

Zahawi campaigned for Brexit, making his case on ConHome. In 2017 he was affected by Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the United States, and had no hesitation in attacking it:

“For the first time in my life last night I felt discriminated against, it’s demeaning, it’s sad… I don’t think we should look away when President Trump makes a mistake.”

As minister since November for vaccine deployment, Zahawi has been able to issue a series of wonderfully encouraging progress reports, and is well placed to combat the reluctance of some members of ethnic minorities to take the vaccine.

What will happen to him next is anyone’s guess. He said that when his family fell on hard times, education made the difference. Were there to be a vacancy in that department, he would be an obvious candidate.

Iain Dale: Why would any sensible person even think about booking a holiday in countries with low vaccine rates?

12 Feb

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

On Tuesday afternoon I had my Coronavirus vaccine at the Royal Horticultural Halls in Victoria.

Apparently this is a minor scandal.

Twitter has spoken, and how dare I have a vaccination given that I am 58, not over 70. I’m a queue jumper, it seems. There must be some sort of VIP list, they say. Twitter knows more about my medical state than my GP does, apparently.

There really are some very strange people out there.

I calmly explained that I am a Type 2 diabetic and that that my GP classes me as “clinically extremely vulnerable”. She therefore put me in the shielding group right at the start of the pandemic.

I’ve had letters from the NHS telling me to shield and I’ve obeyed the instructions to the tee.

I haven’t been out of my house since mid December, apart from the odd visit to the corner shop to drop off Hermes parcels.

But, but, but, the Twitter trolls splutter. Diabetics are in Group 6, not Group 4. You’ve stolen someone’s vaccination, they allege.

Deep sigh. No matter how often you explain that if you’re classed as Clinically Extremely Vulnerable you’re in Group 4, it does absolutely no good. I might have killed a first born. If I had jumped any queue or been on a VIP list, I doubt very much whether I’d have had to wait 45 minutes to get through to my GP surgery to actually book the appointment!

Anyway, it all went very smoothly and I was in and out within five minutes.

I tried manfully not to bare as much flesh as Johnny Mercer managed to when he was pictured having his jab, sans chemise. Of course, I also took a camerawoman with me to film the whole thing. It wasn’t for any other reason than I wanted to show any vaccine sceptics how simple the process is and they have nothing to fear.

It worked, judging by the reaction to the video on social media – with several people saying they would now book to get the jab. Job done.

And if you really want to watch me get the jab (it’s a niche fetish market), here you go:

– – – – – – – – –

The latest manufactured row during Covid is whether we should or shouldn’t book a summer holiday either in the UK or elsewhere.

Matt Hancock booked a UK staycation last week but then Grant Shapps suggested no one should be booking a holiday at all until things become clearer.

Frankly, people are intelligent enough to be able to judge for themselves whether it’s wise to book anything at the moment.

Why would any sensible person even think about booking a holiday abroad in a country where very few people have been vaccinated or where the infection rate is still high?

I think it’s highly likely that come the summer we will all be able to travel freely within the UK, but the holiday experience itself may be very different to what we are used to.

Beach holidays, yes. Brisk walks in the Peak District, yes. Alton Towers or Center Parcs? Doubtful.

– – – – – – – – –

Laura Kuenssberg got a bit huffy in an unguarded moment after she had asked her question at the press conference on Wednesday.

“But he didn’t answer the question,” she spluttered into her microphone.

No, he didn’t. Probably because he couldn’t.

As one of my Twitter correspondents said: “How can a government faced with a virus that can easily mutate do other than say the future is uncertain. Get a grip, media!” Quite.

Angus Gillan and Jake Scott: Tunnelling under Stonehenge is a betrayal of Conservative values

10 Dec

Angus Gillan is a political researcher and campaigner with a background in modern politics and ancient. Jake Scott is a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Birmingham and Editor of The Mallard.

The greatest obstacle facing Boris Johnson is the clear lack of a philosophy. As the oldest political party with a record of continued, effectual governing, one would be right to reason that Conservative governments hold coherent beliefs; however, now the party has lost its way, bewildered, and without core principles to guide us.

When such a crisis of confidence ensues, poor policy is the outcome. The desecration of Stonehenge is one such, and it cannot be endorsed. Grant Shapps has overruled the Planning Inspectorate to approve the development of an (upwards of) £2 billion dual-carriageway tunnel under the most famous prehistoric site in Europe.

No practical justification would endorse the fact ‘all archaeology in the construction zones would be destroyed and the A303 would become the largest ever human intervention in an area fashioned and revered by over a hundred generations of our ancestors.’

Conservatism has the messiness of being an operational philosophy; it begins from the real world, born of perspectives shaped by time and place, seeking answers to enduring questions with recourse to equally enduring wisdom. An essence of Conservatism is a rejection of activist or ideological politics based on end-state goals. The Government, following the ‘levelling up’ agenda, is looking to deliver such state goals, as displayed in the Spending Review.

The disregard for the damage that will be inflicted on the World Heritage Site shows the party’s abandonment of its foundational Burkean values. The value of things lies not in their utility but in their history: the vision of life as a social contract.

This levies a duty on the living, to respect the inheritance that has been passed to us and, in so doing, recognise that we living few are not at liberty to judge the value of something. We cannot choose our past and it would be arrogant to think we have the ‘right’ knowledge to judge the value of our past to future generations. Our duty is one of stewardship, of inheriting not only the things passed down to us but the wisdom they hold within them, which cannot be so wantonly cast aside. Those who forget from where they come, will forget who they are.

In order to carry out this task, British intellectual history has regarded institutions as repositories of guiding, not dictatorial, wisdom, and professional warnings that their actions will not preserve millennia-old artefacts should send chills through the spine of any conservative. In opposing the tunnel we are not deferring to bureaucratic agencies, but taking their insight and choose to not deprive the next generation of its discoveries. Without robustly caring for this inheritance, the Government chips away at our social fabric.

Adam Smith noted that societies are held together by a sense of collective worth and personal esteem. From Disraeli’s ‘One Nation’ discourse, to Thatcher’s defence of the Falklands (rejecting commentary that said Britain did not have the energy to fend of half-baked dictator)s, Conservatives have often seen individuals and Britain having latent power within us to achieve more than is expected of a small island in the cold North Atlantic.

As Christopher Berry wrote of David Hume, the conservative views themselves as ‘part of an order that transcends anything he could himself enact’. If we are to level-up with such headstrong abandon that we will cause ‘substantial harm’ to Stonehenge, why not tear it all down? Sadly, this is exactly what is happening with our current state-backed major infrastructure projects; despite commitments to incorporate the Eagle and Tun pub, built in 1900, into HS2’s Curzon Street Railway Station, the century-old red brick building has been demolished, Victorian red brick replaced by ageless glass.

Indeed, this is the problem of the current Conservative Party’s attitude to historical sites: they are not viewed with reverence, valuable as things in themselves, but as roadblocks on the path to a brighter future. But this future is increasingly out of reach. When this social fabric is damaged, it is almost impossible to replace; instead, we are faced with a radical choice of forming a new social fabric or going our own separate ways.

If the historical identity of a people is desecrated, so too is the reason for that people’s future association; Bernard Yack wrote of a nation as a temporal entity, sharing a history embodied in communal things, but if these disappear, so too does the history.

If we are to coldly desecrate heritage sites with statist endeavours, what is this ‘conservatism’? From the bulldozing of Victorian buildings and the cutting down of England’s ancient woodlands for HS2, to this sacrilegious tunnelling, this party is not acting conservative. Long after we are gone, people will sit under old trees and gaze at what we leave behind. If we carry on our path, then they may curse our memory as well.

If you would like to pledge to stop the tunnelling, please sign the petition run by the Stonehenge Alliance, led by historian Tom Holland.

Tony Devenish: Conservatives can be pro-cyclist and pro-motorist

8 Dec

Tony Devenish is a member of the London Assembly for West Central.

Why have we Conservatives got ourselves in such a mess over cycle lanes, both in London and right across the country?

There is near unanimity amongst the various left-wing parties and, more importantly, a unanimity of purpose across the unelected, ostensibly impartial, notionally apolitical, public sector leaders that there is a transport ‘modal’ hierarchy and motorists are last in line. They are pressing for more cycling and walking (which, we should be clear, is a good thing) but their primary objective is more sinister. It is to drive the private motor car and most road traffic – goodbye, white van man – off our roads and tax putatively what remains.

Many actively call cars “the new tobacco”. Londoners who are unfortunate enough to be living in Labour-controlled Boroughs, wonder why they are being ignored in fighting against new LTNs or Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. I’m surprised that the “Nanny in Chief”, Labour’s Sir Kier Starmer has yet to make a speech on this. Perhaps, if he hadn’t knocked a cyclist off his bicycle the other week in his gas guzzler, he would have done.

The excuse offered for these LTNs is that they will improve air quality. This is undermined when air quality fails to improve in London – even during Covid and lockdown – despite Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, exercising every tool at his disposal as if he were trying to hurt motorists, businesses, and tourism. When his policies fail, we are told we must be “more radical”. Why can’t they be smarter instead? I fully support, for example, freight consolidation centres, which were pioneered during the 2012 Olympics and are being trialled in the West End. Or more electric buses. But far too many of the measures being pushed are anti-choice and anti-Conservative.

While the talk is often about discouraging “unnecessary journeys”, who decides which journeys are unnecessary? I have spent plenty of time since Covid struck listening to devastated grandparents who, having been isolated from their grandchildren during Lockdown One, have been shocked to discover that they are being actively discouraged from driving their loved ones to a favourite High Street over the summer months. Most 80-year-olds and the disabled will struggle without a car. I have spent even more time reassuring businesses trying to recover from Covid as authorities actively block motorist customers from visiting struggling shops and offices.

To be clear, retrofitting cycle lanes onto existing road layouts, which in many of our towns and cities haven’t changed since the horse and cart gave way to the car a hundred years ago, is not easy. Many cycle paths have been – the vast majority agree – ill-considered and implemented at counterproductive speed. My own local road surface has had to be dug up and re-laid four or five times in the last four years in order to ensure both traffic and cyclists can coexist. Transport flow is an art not a science.

None of this is new. The final two years of Boris Johnson’s Mayoralty saw an unprecedented growth in cycling provision in London and the numbers of daily journeys by bike was 49 per cent higher when he left City Hall in 2016 than it had been when he arrived in 2008. I had hoped we would have learnt lessons such as that bedding-in cycle schemes needs to be done with great care, taking the time to take the public with us.

If there is one golden rule in politics, it is surely this: to take the public with you. This means that if radical change is necessary or desirable, it needs phasing in incredibly carefully. Many cyclists openly admit it will take 20 years to truly expand cycling demand. In the meantime, the case for building more and more Cycle Superhighways is questionable. When these double-width cycle lanes, which take so much road surface, are imposed in the wrong place (such as the Embankment) it is hard to escape the view that the primary aim under Khan has become to push motorists off the road to accelerate so called “modal shift”. Cycle Quietways are far more in keeping with cycling demand in London.

Public consultation is far too often used as a “tick box” exercise by those such as the Mayor of London, who only accepts real consultation if it delivers the answer he wants. It is shameful that, much to Khan’s gleeful delight, it was this Conservative Government that in July – as a Covid measure – suspended the need for public consultation for up to 18 months. An unprecedented and truly chilling decision. Technology like Zoom shows consultation is actually easier with the nation stuck at home. Please think again, Grant Shapps.

A lack of consultation allowed Khan to increase the Congestion Charge to £15 a day and to expand its hours of operation from 7am-6pm weekdays-only to operating seven days a week until 10pm. Another kick in the teeth for wealth creators. Khan who knows how to tell a blatant lie then blamed the Government.

It took Alexandra Shulman, the former Editor of Vogue, to ask the question “when did being a motorist make you Public Enemy Number One?” I hope we Conservatives will pause, look in the rear-view mirror at the great British public and decide the Nanny State vote is sown up by Labour and the other statist political parties. We Conservatives must U-turn and support choice. We must recognise that for some people and for some journeys it makes sense to drive a motor car – and stop penalising those who make that choice. The PM’s speech on the environment shows the future can embrace electric cars. We should, in parallel, support the sensible expansion of cycling and walking. As the PM is so fond of saying, we can have our cake and eat it.

Truss tops our Cabinet League Table for the first time

4 Dec
  • Whatever happens to Liz Truss at the next reshuffle, whenever it happens, she will go into it as one of the small number of Cabinet members past and present who have topped our Members’ Panel League Table.  The International Trade post sends its occupant out to bat for Britain and away from domestic political turmoil.  The freedom-orientated and ever-combative Truss is making the most it.
  • The key to her achieving pole position is not so much her tiny ratings rate (from 73 per cent to 75 per cent, but Rishi Sunak’s own small fall (from 81 to 75 per cent).  There may be some nervousness at the margins from respondents about future tax rises.
  • Ben Wallace is up from ninth on 40 per cent to third on 66 per cent.  That undoubtedly reflects his success in winning a multi-year defence settlement at a time when other departments have only a single-year one – with enough money to at least get by.  And the former soldier seems a better fit in his department than some other Cabinet ministers.
  • Michael Gove is down from fourth on 54 points to fifteenth on 30 points. That will be a consequence of his support for tough anti-Covid restrictions.
  • The Priti Patel bullying claims – our reading of Sir Alex Allen’s report into them is that it concluded she should resign because she may have broken the code unintentionally – have made next to no difference to her rating, which has dropped by a marginal three points.
  • And Boris Johnson?  He is down by eight points and hovers just below the relegation zone.  Matt Hancock evaded it this month by a sliver.

Shapps has spotted a once-in-a-lifetime chance to give Britain world-class railways

28 Nov

What a wonderful time to be in charge of Britain’s railways. The pandemic both demands and enables a programme of improvements which would otherwise have taken many years to achieve.

Since March, about £10 billion of public money has been spent to keep the trains running. At first sight, that looks like an unmitigated disaster. It is certainly unsustainable.

But it also means the strike weapon has lost its edge. To threaten to bring empty trains to a halt is no threat at all.

Nor can the rail unions divide and rule, as they did when services were divided between different train operating companies, a system which had already collapsed before the pandemic.

This is a moment of central control, when the Government is paying the bills and can insist that the interests of passengers and taxpayers take precedence over the desire of the unions to prevent change.

Ministers recognise this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sweep away the accumulated absurdities, ranging from outdated working practices to the ludicrously convoluted fare structure, which are holding the railways back, and to press ahead with such innovations as the introduction of driverless trains, first seen on the Victoria Line in 1968 and the Docklands Light Railway in 1987.

In March this year, ConHome can reveal, a committee on rail reform was set up within the Department for Transport and began meeting weekly.

It is chaired by Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and attended by the Rail Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, but nobody supposed the DfT could provide the specialised knowledge of how to run a railway.

So the expertise is provided by members of the committee including Sir Peter Hendy, Keith Williams, Andrew Haines and some of the Non-Executive Directors of the DfT, notably Tony Poulter.

Hendy, appointed by Ken Livingstone to run Transport for London, was kept on by the winner of the 2008 mayoral election, Boris Johnson, received a knighthood after the London Olympics of 2012 in recognition of the excellent transport arrangements during the games, and since 2015 has chaired Network Rail.

Williams, a former Chief Executive of British Airways, has since September 2018 chaired the Williams Rail Review, set up to make recommendations for reforming the entire structure of the industry, with the interests of passengers and taxpayers put first. Its work has not been published, but is being drawn on now.

Haines is Chief Executive of Network Rail, a former Chief Executive of the Civil Aviation Authority, and before that was Managing Director of South-West Trains.

The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this week that Shapps has asked Haines to produce a 30-year strategy for the railway called the “The Whole Industry Strategic Plan”.

And earlier this month, The Sunday Telegraph revealed that Haines has been asked by Ruth Hannant and Polly Payne, joint DfT directors general for rail, to report on the future of the East Coast Main Line, and to do so “from the perspective of a neutral single guiding mind”, rather than in his capacity as Chief Executive of Network Rail.

Hannant and Payne have for many years operated a job-share, and before arriving at the DfT in December 2017 were joint Directors of Higher Education Reform at the Department for Education.

One does not have to be Dominic Cummings to reckon this is perhaps not the best way to run a railway. Many in the industry think so too.

But the paucity of deep expertise within the DfT, and its propensity to meddle counter-productively with such matters as the timetable, demonstrate the need for another body, or “neutral single guiding mind”, to be in overall charge.

We require what the press likes to call a Fat Controller, though one cannot help reflecting that the original Fat Controller’s safety record was poor.

The safety record of Britain’s railways has in recent years been good. Some of the credit for that belongs to Mark Carne, Chief Executive of Network Rail from 2014-18, whose previous career at Shell was coloured by the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988.

Nothing, evidently, must be done to put safety at risk. But just as it is no longer necessary to check the oil in a car by opening the bonnet and inspecting the dipstick, for there is a light on the dashboard which will tell you if more oil is needed, so it is no longer necessary for each train to be checked every 24 hours by a driver who walks all round it at ground level, on a path wide enough to keep out of the way of other trains, and well lit enough to be used at night.

The unions insist on this ritual, which has become a ridiculous waste of the highly paid driver’s time, and of taxpayers’ money. Like modern cars, modern trains tell you when something goes wrong.

In the era of nationalisation (1948-93) the railways appeared to be in inexorable decline, and the most famous figure associated with them was Dr Beeching, who proposed to close a third of the network, which is pretty much what happened.

Since privatisation, passenger numbers have doubled, the network has undergone many improvements, there is a lot of new rolling stock and some of the lines closed by Beeching are being reopened.

Lord Adonis has argued with his usual brio the case for doing this, while Larry Elliott has pointed out that without Beeching, which left so many towns cut off, Brexit might never have happened.

One of the great attractions of creating improved railway services is that this cause appeals far beyond the ranks of Conservatives.

Good railways, railways of which everyone can feel proud, are a quintessentially One Nation policy, levelling up in action, and the 2019 Conservative manifesto rightly promised that

“we will restore many of the Beeching lines, reconnecting smaller towns such as Fleetwood and Willenhall that have suffered permanent disadvantage since they were removed from the rail network in the 1960s.”

There is now every prospect that passenger services between Ashington and Newcastle, lost in the 1960s, will soon be restored. The line runs through Blyth, long a Labour stronghold but captured by the Conservatives last December.

Ashington itself is in the constituency of Wansbeck, held last December by Ian Lavery for Labour with a majority of 814, compared to a majority of 10,435 in 2017. Perhaps the new line will help tip Lavery into oblivion.

Beeching was a blunder of Harold Macmillan’s later and less happy years as Prime Minister. It ought now to be undone, along with the destruction of the Euston Arch.

This cannot, however, become an excuse for wasting taxpayers’ money on “fantastically overpaid and inefficient” train drivers, as one source close to the reform committee describes them.

Nor does anyone know how quickly or fully the demand for rail travel will revive. The likelihood is that some commuters will decide they would rather work from home.

And there are many demands on the Treasury’s funds. Rishi Sunak will heed the calls of the NHS, social care and other good causes before he listens to the railways, especially if he thinks the latter are squandering taxpayers’ cash.

So a realistic deal has got to be made with the rail unions. The powers that be are disposed to allow existing drivers, who are mostly quite old, to retain their perks, but not to show the same indulgence to new recruits.

Tim Briggs: The Left are using “Low Traffic Neighbourhoods” as an ideological tool to undermine wealth creation

4 Nov

Cllr Tim Briggs is the sole Conservative councillor on Lambeth Council, and a London Assembly List Candidate for 2021

As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson brought in a number of measures to encourage cycling, and lower car use. His cycling reforms were in line with a Conservative belief that cars should not be replaced, but that technology can make cars greener, less polluting, less necessary, balancing environmental improvements with individual freedoms.

So in May, local authorities in London were given £225 million by Boris Johnson’s government to implement traffic measures, to help achieve the Government’s aim to ‘build back better’ after the lockdown. One of the measures taken by local authorities has been to implement ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ (LTN), closing off roads and residential areas from traffic.

If they did not know before, Ministers are now realising just how ideological Labour authorities in London actually are. Labour councillors in Lambeth were planning to close roads and create Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in January 2020 from Lambeth’s own budget, before the funding offer came from central Government in May. The keenness of Labour councillors to close roads is in line with a left-wing belief, shared with the Liberal Democrats and Greens, that if you create enough disincentives to drive, children can play on empty streets where cars once drove.

Now that Low Traffic Neighbourhoods have been imposed, the reality is different. Residents say that some streets are quiet and unsafe to walk through at night. Traffic is in gridlock on the roads around LTNs, car journeys are longer, and pollution has spiked. Many people in London (disabled, elderly, trades people, people delivering goods and services, key workers etc) simply do not have the privilege of choosing to use a bike in their everyday lives. The ‘consultation’ has been about-face: LTNs have been imposed, and residents now have to beg for them to be removed or changed. The strong support for imposing LTNs shown by Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens is in line with their strangely illiberal, undemocratic sense that being right requires no consultation, because they are the citizens most capable of making decisions for residents, not on behalf of residents.

The Government has pushed back. It warns local authorities not to simply impose changes without consulting residents properly, and that traffic orders “do not turn into permanent measures by default”.

Prior to drafting an Emergency Motion for a Lambeth council meeting on 14th October, I asked residents on the OneLambeth Facebook page to email me examples of problems created by LTNs across Lambeth. The testimonials were alarming.

Residents witnessing road-rage assaults on the road outside their properties, including a baseball bat being used to smash another car. Police stuck in traffic having to leave their vehicle and run up the road to chase suspects. The resident who had a driver spit in his face, unable to move his car forward or backwards on the road due to traffic, his car dented several times. A plumber unable to carry out an emergency job as he could not get to the next street. An ambulance on an emergency unable to get through (there are multiple videos on YouTube of ambulances stuck on Ferndale Road). Six named businesses in one Ward are in danger of closing, partly or directly as a result of the LTN. The Brixton Hill company which can only do 30 per cent of the jobs they have been asked to do, unable to give ‘firm appointments anymore, just a.m. or p.m.’ to assist mental health professionals, police and the ambulance service to carry out mental health assessments. The son visiting his severely disabled mother in Camberwell on a journey that used to take five minutes which is now ‘anywhere up to 45 mins.’ The district nurse in tears as she physically cannot get to all her patients and is late for all of her appointments. Vigilante groups intimidating drivers on Upper Tulse Hill. Women being harassed and frightened on their dimly lit LTN street at night. A fire engine in Oval stuck with its lights flashing, whose crew had to ask directions to leave the LTN, or Ocado stopping food deliveries in Oval and Streatham due to ‘road closures and traffic issues’.

Most alarmingly for a set of Labour councillors that likes to virtue-signal, it appears that ethnic minority businesses have been most affected by road closures, and many are threatened with laying off staff to survive, or closing down. There have been no Equality Impact Assessments carried out that have proper, verifiable data. Traffic and pollution are being displaced onto residential roads such as Coldharbour Lane in Brixton which are disproportionately affected by Covid, with pollution thought to be a factor in disease severity and mortality rates. Therefore even a short term increase in traffic on these roads is likely to be harmful to people of colour, before any mythical traffic evaporation. Compromising health outcomes for specific groups of residents is not a reasonable thing for a local authority to do, even temporarily, in pursuit of potential benefits for which there is little or no evidence.

Road blockages might work to stop a rat-run or protect a school area, but the net benefits on the wider area have to be shown, not assumed. It is common sense that there will always need to be some car use in London, for weekly food shops, for disabled people, elderly people, businesses, for people who need their cars for work or for family, or to travel out of London. Allowing streets to be ‘reclaimed’ by residents so that children privileged enough to live in a Low Traffic Neighbourhood can play on them safely, whilst other residents and their children live in or around gridlocked roads with higher pollution, is unacceptable, and benefits the few, not the many.

The knock-on effect of imposing more Low Traffic Neighbourhoods is circular, because people then want more Low Traffic Neighbourhoods to protect their own areas from increased traffic. Yet if a Council made every non-main road a Low Traffic Neighbourhood, food supplies in London would be disrupted, and law and order would quickly break down. In Lambeth the groups calling for LTNs have been making their case loudly, and for a long time, and have been listened to by Labour councillors in control of the Council. Those supporting other traffic management measures have not.

No-one disputes that more walking and cycling is a good thing. If Councils do nothing to manage traffic flows, bottle necks and rat-runs develop. So whilst too many of the wrong measures can be counter-productive, clearly some traffic management measures are needed. The issue is whether LTNs are a good thing among a host of other alternatives.

Conservative-run Wandsworth Council suspended their LTNs, citing ‘concerns with emergency access and traffic flows… compounded by the changes that TfL [Sadiq Khan] is making to red route roads… [which] has caused confusion and long traffic queues’. Wandsworth councillors also confirmed to me that the emergency services were happy to see the road changes and blockages in Wandsworth withdrawn, after ambulances got stuck in traffic, and the police were unable to get to a high value robbery taking place despite being two minutes away in normal traffic. This evidence contradicts the ‘arguing points’ given to Labour councillors in Lambeth to copy and paste in their replies to concerned residents, that the ‘emergency services have expressed their support for these schemes’.

Chaos-ridden Labour-run Croydon Council has agreed to launch a consultation, with an option to scrap the scheme. The Labour Mayor of Lewisham has promised to announce ‘short-term’ changes to alleviate extra traffic displaced on to surrounding roads when the pressure from residents got too intense, but a week later now refuses to change almost anything. The Labour Mayor of Hackney is on YouTube admitting that LTNs are designed to create traffic congestion on main roads, in order to raise revenue from fines and road charging. Even the chauffeur-driven Mayor of London has removed some cycle lanes from TfL main roads and unblocked some turns into side roads, when the cycle lanes were hardly being used.

When Wandsworth cancels its LTNs, it allows people and capital to flow again. That enables wealth to carry on being created at the same rate, and for individuals and business to be connected as wealth creators, and as consumers of goods and services, at lower cost. Meanwhile Lambeth, with its gridlocked roads and struggling businesses, can only become poorer and more closed off for as long as badly-implemented LTNs are kept in place. Lambeth is already way behind Wandsworth on social mobility.

The concept of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods has become a meeting-point for opposing political ideas about what cities are for, and how city micro-communities flourish or decline. It has become a debate between residents with a pragmatist approach, in line with Conservatives, holding a vision of an open society where people and businesses have the freedom to move around, create wealth and take advantage of opportunity, against a more closed society envisaged by the Left, where wealth creation and opportunities are restricted on behalf of a shared idea of a greater good, but impacting negatively as ever on working people, and people on low incomes. Londoners have suddenly been confronted with the reality that local politics matters, and the reality of being what Shaun Bailey has called Labour’s ‘chosen victims’.

Our Cabinet League Table: Sunak is still top, and Johnson is back in positive territory – just

2 Nov
  • Rishi Sunak’s favourability rating is down from 81.5 per cent to 81.1 per cent – in other words, by so infinitesimal a margin as to make no difference.  In other polls, his soaring rating would be driven by the subsidies that the Treasury is paying out.  In this one, his resistance to lockdowns will be a significant contributor to his popularity.
  • Boris Johnson was marginally in negative territory last month (-10 per cent) and marginally in positive terroritory this month (13 per cent).  We can think of no reason why, given the panel’s decision to mark him down, the late September finding should have been in the red and the October one in the black (or vice-versa had it been case).
  • Matt Hancock slides a bit further into the minus ratings, Gavin Williamson a bit back towards the plus ones.  Liz Truss is up a little and Priti Patel by more, having had a sticky summer over the channel crossings.  All in all, it’s much of a muchness – with Douglas Ross down by about 25 points, now that his Party Conference coverage has faded.
  • These ratings were taken at the end of last week, before the Prime Minister’s emergency press conference on Saturday.  We suspect that it would have lowered his rating and that of the Cabinet; you may disagree; perhaps we will hold a snap survey later this week to find out…

The Conservative Party Conference programme – and which ministers are up and down

30 Sep

With only two days to go, the itinerary for this year’s Conservative Party Conference is upon us. Much has changed, thanks to Covid-19, not least the way events have been formatted. 

Without further ado, ConservativeHome takes a look at who’s doing what, and how events have been categorised – as well as what this could imply for ministers.

The first thing to note is that every MP in the Cabinet is making at least one appearance, albeit in different formats. The MPs taking part in two events are Amanda Milling, Elizabeth Truss and Matt Hancock. The Prime Minister will also be delivering a speech and being interviewed by Lord Sharpe of Epsom.

The events have been categorised broadly into keynote speeches, fireside chats, interactive interviews, panel discussions and training sessions. 

Clearly the most important is the keynote speech, which the following Cabinet ministers will be giving:

  • Dominic Raab (15:00 on Saturday)
  • Priti Patel (15:00 on Sunday)
  • Rishi Sunak (11:50 on Monday)
  • The Prime Minister (11:30 on Tuesday)

Milling will also be opening the conference at 11:30 on the first day.

Next up there’s the fireside chat. There are two versions of this, one involving being asked questions by an interviewer, the other by party members. The latter is arguably a more complex task; ministers are out on their own dealing with questions. The ministers doing this are:

  • Michael Gove (11:45 on Saturday)
  • Alok Sharma (14:30 on Monday)

Fireside chats involving an interviewer include:

  • Robert Buckland (16:00 on Sunday) – interviewed by Ken Clarke.
  • Gavin Williamson (11:00 on Monday) – interviewed by Peter Ashton, a headteacher and his former politics teacher.
  • Matt Hancock (16:30 on Monday) – interviewed by Patrick Stephenson, Director of Innovation and Healthcare at Fujitsu.

There’s also the “interactive interview”. It’s not obvious what makes this different from the “fireside chat”, but the ministers taking part in these are:

  • Liz Truss (14:30 on Saturday) – interviewed by Robert Colville, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies.
  • Matt Hancock (14:00 on Sunday) – interviewed by Nimco Ali OBE, CEO and Founder of the Five Foundation.
  • Grant Shapps (15:00 on Monday) – although it does not say who will interview him yet.
  • Oliver Dowden (15:30 on Monday) – interviewed by Joy Morrissey, MP for Beaconsfield (this is labelled as simply an “interview”).

Then there are the panel discussions. More sceptical Conservative members may notice that a number of fairly high profile Cabinet ministers are taking part in these. They may ask why they have not been put forward for the fireside chat or an interview – instead being accompanied by ministerial teams.

These include:

  • Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence, who’s partaking in the Ministry of Defence Panel Discussion (12:15 on Saturday) with other ministers from the department.
  • Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, who’s chairing a discussion (13:30 on Sunday) with party members and other ministers from the department.
  • Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions, who’s chairing the The Department for Work & Pensions Panel Discussion (11:30 on Monday) with other ministers from the department.
  • George Eustice, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who’s holding a panel discussion (14:00 on Monday) with other ministers from the department.

It looks as though Downing Street has taken a decision to downgrade their profile.

Last up on the agenda are events focussed around increasing participation in Conservative campaigning. It’s clear, in particular, that CCHQ is keen to push for more female participation, with events on Female Entrepreneurs and Training, and Women and the 2021 Elections, alongside training support for young people.