Local elections in depth: Stevenage is among the “new towns” that has quietly been turning away from the Labour Party

12 Jan

Source: Election Maps.

Case study: Stevenage

Control: Labour

Numbers: Labour 22, Conservatives 11, Lib Dems 6.

Change since last local elections:  Labour -5, Conservatives +4, Lib Dems +1.

All out or thirds: Thirds

Background: Before the War, Stevenage had been quietly prospering and slowly growing for several centuries. In 1281 it was granted a Royal Charter to hold a weekly market and annual fair, still held in the High Street. Road pricing proved advantageous. The Great North Road was turnpiked in the early 18th century and many inns in the high street of Stevenage served the stagecoaches. 1946 heralded the brave new world. Stevenage was designated the first New Town under the New Towns Act. The modernist plans were not popular as Lewis Silkin, the Minister of Town and Country Planning, discovered on a visit. Some local people had changed the signs ‘Stevenage’ to ‘Silkingrad’. Silkin told the protestors:

“It’s no good your jeering, it’s going to be done.”

It was. Concrete slabs all over the place. A modernist town centre, a modernist clock tower, even a modernist church. It all looks a bit decayed now. But that is a familiar paradox. Classical buildings have a timelessness in their appearance. Modernist ones soon feel outdated. Transient structures to be thrown away and replaced every few decades under the label “regeneration.” A complication is English Heritage is determined to protect the hideous shopping precinct – commending it for its “uniformity.”

Stevenage Borough Council has been run by Labour since the Council was created in its current form in 1973. The Stevenage constituency has traditionally been more favourable for the Conservatives. It includes some lovely surrounding villages such as Knebworth – which comes under North Hertfordshire District Council and is known for its open air pop concerts. During the Thatcher era, it was held by Tim Wood for the Conservatives, in the Blair years by Barbara Follett for Labour. Since 2010 it has been held by Stephen McPartland for the Conservatives. In a previous incarnation, the constituency was Hertford and Stevenage and represented by Shirley Williams.

Results: As with other “new towns” Stevenage has been trending towards the Conservatives for some time. These seats are the precursors to the “red wall”. Working class voters would leave London and other cities to live in them. They would be less likely to be trade unionists – without the large scale steel works, coal mines, or car factories. By contrast, local employers embrace high tech making weapons systems and space satellites. There is also the pharmaceuticals firm, GlaxoSmithKline. They would be more likely to become home-owners. Voters in the constituency voted Leave by a margin of 14 per cent in the EU referendum.

The Conservatives can point to proposals from the Labour council to end free parking in the Old Town – which would harm high street businesses. They also note the failure of the Council to achieve value for money. One example is a refusal to join other councils in a Joint Waste Partnership for refuse disposals that could save millions of pounds a year.

Planning is inevitably a local controversy. The council proposes thousands of unattractive new flats in the town centre. The assumption that high rise is needed to achieve high density is flawed. But easing Green Belt restrictions would certainly make it easier to provide beautiful new homes with gardens. Not that it would be without controversy – a proposal for hundreds of homes of farmland where EM Forster used to live has prompted anxiety about increased traffic.

At present, many of the talented, well-paid employees of the assorted life sciences companies in the town choose to live elsewhere – one of the villages in Hertfordshire is a more attractive prospect. Despite its architectural challenges, Stevenage does have a strong community spirit. The crime rate is low and many appreciate the lack of traffic. But regeneration should be carried out in a way that corrects rather than repeats earlier mistakes. The concrete jungle was yesterday’s future. The way to move forward is to embrace tradition.

David Willetts: Yes, let’s have more white male working class students. And new universities, too – some in the Red Wall.

3 Dec

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science, and His book A University Education is published by Oxford University Press.

The forthcoming White Paper is the crucial opportunity to shape a coherent agenda for levelling up – if Michael Gove, Neil O’Brien and Andy Haldane can’t crack it, then nobody can.

But even before it is published some specific policies are being launched which help to flesh out the idea. The Education Department has just made a really important shift in policy to boosting access to higher education. Its significance for levelling up may not have been fully appreciated. It is a brave challenge to the conventional wisdom that too many people go to university.

Many Conservatives do not approve of Tony Blair’s target for 50 per cent of people under 30 going to higher education. I myself don’t like targets, and it did not apply during my time as Universities Minister. But even without any such target, more and more young people are going to university. For young women, the participation rate has now reached 61 per cent – compared with 47 per cent for young men.

The guilty secret for Conservatives is that in many prosperous Tory constituencies the participation rate is now well over 60 per cent. If there is a social and economic problem of too many people going to university it is most acute in places like Kensington, Guildford, Winchester, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and the affluent suburbs of Sheffield and Manchester – even though these areas don’t seem to be suffering too much as a result.

But meanwhile, there is one group above all who have remained stubbornly resistant to the blandishments of higher education – white working class boys.

The Government has just appointed a new Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students Nadhim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan have followed up with a robust statement about what his priority should be:

‘White British young males who received free school meals are amongst the least likely to enter higher education, with just 12.6 per cent progressing to higher education by age 19 by 2019/20. …We would like to see the OfS rewrite the national targets to better align with this new focus, and renegotiate A&P (Access and Participation) plans with providers to meet these new priorities…”

It is a welcome recognition that higher education can and should boost social mobility. Perhaps the mood in Government is beginning to shift away from just complaining that too many people go.

This initiative opens up the crucial question of how this improved access is to be achieved. If we don’t want to see more people in total going to higher education, then universities will have to cut back on places for other groups. That would means that those traditional Tory areas with high rates of participation are going to have to cut back so as to make more room for students from Red Wall seats with much lower participation.

But somehow I suspect that the Government is not going to embark on such a civil war within the new Conservative electoral Coalition. Instead, the aim will be for this group of white young British males to catch up with higher participation groups. That means more places at university. This has always been the logic of higher education expansion ever since Robbins.

There may be an attempt to say that these young men should do different subjects. We certainly do need to ensure there are good opportunities for technical higher education. But it would be a pity if we restrict the arts and humanities to the middle classes at prestigious universitiesm and assume that young working class men should all be doing technical qualifications.

Nadine Dorries criticises the BBC for being too middle class – she would not find it acceptable if it replied that working class people should train to be engineers and plumbers, rather than journalists and broadcasters: it is hard to see how such an approach could be a basis for our higher education policy either.

Moreover, the British economy is so inter-connected that we need people with a wide range of skills. So, for example, one of the biggest barriers holding up on the Government’s ambitious investment in infrastructure is the need to conduct archaeological surveys of historic sites which are briefly revealed before they are built over. But there is a shortage of archaeologists. It would be wrong to miss out on this rare opportunity to learn more about our history so we need urgently to train a new group of development archaeologists.

The Government’s pressure to boost the shockingly low rates of university participation by young working class men is going to push up total demand for university places. Furthermore, there was a surge in the birth rate during the first decade of the Millennium which is now pushing up demand for higher education. And then there is the surging demand from overseas students – higher education is one of our best export industries, worth £30 billion a year.

Add all this together, and UCAS are expecting a million applications a year for places in British universities by 2025. Instead of pretending there is going to be a fall in student numbers, we need instead to be planning for a substantial increase.

That then opens up another issue: where are all these extra students to go? One possibility is that our current universities grow even bigger. But I’m not sure students want massive universities, and anyway there are physical constraints on their growth in some of our cities.

Instead this era of expansion is an opportunity to create new universities in the places that don’t have them – the cold spots. It is also a fantastic opportunity for innovation with new providers coming in offering a different prospectus.

That is what is happening with the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering at Hereford, which is on its way to becoming a university. Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge is developing a new campus at Peterborough which is planned to become a university. A Further Education College, such as the excellent one in Hartlepool, might expand and aim for university status.

Blackpool resisted having a university so it went to Lancaster instead: now there is an opportunity for them to correct that mistake. Wigan, Wakefield, Grimsby, Yeovil, Doncaster, and Thanet are all places which might aspire to have their own university. The Government could launch a competition to enable places to bid for a new higher education institution perhaps partly funded by local business partners needing to recruit more graduates.

The surge in demand for higher education is a fantastic opportunity to deliver levelling up. The Government should seize it.

Stonewall controversy: More views from Conservative Police and Crime Commissioners

6 Sep

Last month, we reported on Lisa Townsend, the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey, and her comment that Stonewall had become “a well-funded lobby group for a dangerous ideology that threatens the safety of our women and girls.”  Three other Conservative PCCs went public to say that they shared her concerns – Donna Jones, the PCC for Hampshire & Isle of Wight, Marc Jones, for Lincolnshire, and Rupert Mathews, who serves as the PCC for Leicestershire.

Since then, we invited the other Conservative PCCs to give their opinion on the controversy – and several have done so.

Some were strongly supportive of Townsend’s stance.

Tim Passmore, the PCC for Suffolk, responded as follows:

“I think Lisa Townsend is absolutely correct with her desire to stop funding Stonewall. In my personal opinion, Stonewall has changed from an organisation which achieved a great deal in promoting the rights of gay people but it has now become far too confrontational in its approach. Some months ago I gave instructions to our finance department to stop paying any public money to Stonewall. I was unaware at the time that our police force had made such payments. Using taxpayers’ money for supporting political organisations such as Stonewall is at best misguided and in my opinion, plain wrong. I do not believe the majority of our local Council Taxpayers would approve of using their hard-earned cash in this way, especially after several years of above-inflation increases. I am also reviewing any other subscriptions to try and ensure such situations do not occur again.”

David Sidwick, the PCC for Dorset, agreed:

“My belief is that the law should define this issue and sex should be paramount when it comes to risk and safeguarding. It should be safety that is the primary consideration and therefore the interpretation has got to be law based and not lead the law. The police should uphold the law without fear or favour and therefore should not subscribe or support lobby groups with agendas. The issue here are the quite understandable concerns of women in areas such as refuges / prisons and with regard to the offences of sexual assault and rape. I know that there are fervent voices campaigning for self-identification to be the only criteria. I do not hold with that and certainly not in the context of a safeguarding situation. This is not about who people are or how they live their lives – it is about taking a sensible and pragmatic approach. Therefore record both sex and gender.  Lisa my PCC colleague for Surrey is right to make this case.”

Mark Shelford, the PCC for Avon and Somerset, said:

“I think it is very courageous for PCC Lisa Townsend to have spoken out about her position on Stonewall and women’s safety. Such a topic is a very complex and sensitive matter and I fully support her view. I have shared my concerns with the Temporary Chief Constable and I will be formally asking Avon and Somerset Police to consider their use of consultation and advisory services from Stonewall when their contract comes up for renewal this October. I will ask that they either work with Stonewall to change their policies to better reflect the public’s concern regarding the safety of women and girls or end their contract. I want to ensure that any advice taken by the police is inclusive and considerate to all those from communities with protected characteristics but also considers the public safety of women and girls.”

David Lloyd, the PCC for Hertfordshire, commented:

“Lisa is shaping up well to be a brilliant PCC – she recognises that we are in charge of strategy and the chiefs are operational. She also recognises that we have the power to force change in areas where there are divergent views and to take a position. As Paul Goodman says, “the one recently elected for Surrey is going about earning her salary, getting stuck in, campaigning for a cause she believes to be important – and risking the inevitable social media backlash.” I fully concur.”

Others were less emphatic.

Roger Hirst, PCC for Essex, responded:

“It is not an issue which has come up so far in Essex – we don’t have a women’s prison, and the governor of the men’s has told me we have never had a transgender inmate. So I have not had occasion to look into it.”

Philip Seccombe, Warwickshire’s PCC, gave the following reply:

“I am very supportive of efforts to boost inclusion and ensure we have a diverse police service which fully addresses the needs of local people. To do this I think it is vital to work closely with local organisations and representative groups who understand these needs best and can speak more authoritatively about what is happening within Warwickshire, including on subjects such as trans rights. Warwickshire Police does not currently employ Stonewall or make use of its programmes but does engage an extensive network of local independent advisory groups. I remain committed to ensuring local voices have the strongest possible say in how policies and practices are developed and would want to see this approach continue in the future.”

Many thanks to all those who were prepared to comment on this controversial, but important, issue.

Meenal Sachdev: Defeating modern slavery in Hertfordshire

1 Jul

Meenal Sachdev is a Conservative councillor at Hertsmere Borough Council and founding director of the Shiva Foundation, a charity working to fight human trafficking and modern slavery. 

Now that the elections are over, it’s time for councils to show leadership locally and help end modern slavery.

For many newly-elected Conservative councillors across the country, the dust is only just starting to settle from the election. Councils which found themselves with no overall control have finalised their coalitions, with Durham County Council announcing its first ever non-Labour leader only two weeks ago. There can be no doubt that these were hard fought local elections like no other.

However, now that the elections are over, we have an opportunity to work together to address some of the most pressing issues plaguing our local communities. We need to ensure that the often unseen, but incredibly serious, issues, such as modern slavery, are not forgotten in each of our council areas. Our councillors, re-elected or new, can make a real difference.

Over 40 million people across the globe are victims of modern slavery, be it sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic servitude, or criminal exploitation including county lines and forced begging. However, despite the progress made with the Modern Slavery Act, which I’m proud was passed by a Conservative government in 2015, and which was a game-changing first step to define and raise awareness of the issue, many councils continue to overlook the fact that this is something happening on our doorstep. This is despite a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice finding that there could be as many as 100,000 victims in the UK. Make no mistake, there are likely to be victims in your home ward, hiding in plain sight.

If we are to build on our Party’s reputation for leadership on this issue, all Conservative councils and councillors should look to establish modern slavery partnerships, bringing together local organisations and agencies with an aim to end modern slavery in our communities once and for all. Councillors know their constituencies better than anyone and, through local collaboration, may be able to come into contact with a victim and help them escape their exploitation. This is why we must accept our responsibility to address this burning issue locally.

We know that these partnerships work. In 2017, I helped found the Hertfordshire Modern Slavery Partnership, which brings together more than 100 statutory and non-statutory partners from across the county, including representatives from the county, district, and borough councils, the Police and Crime Commissioner’s office, and NHS trusts, to tackle modern slavery. Not only has the partnership led to increased awareness and fostered closer collaboration to address modern slavery, but it has also enabled Shiva Foundation, an anti-slavery charity which I co-founded in 2016, to understand how policies are implemented at a local level and the barriers to victims accessing vital support.

Establishing a modern slavery partnership in every council across the country is both achievable and something we should be striving for. But it’s important to remember that these partnerships aren’t just about saying the right thing. They must foster genuine collaboration and determination to address both the root causes and consequences of slavery in all its forms.

It is also important to understand how the council itself can take steps to address the risk of modern slavery within its operations and supply chains. For councils looking to start this process, signing the Charter Against Modern Slavery, which includes a 10-point plan committing the council to ensure that its supply chains are exploitation free, would be a great place to start. In Hertfordshire, over half of the local authorities have already signed up to the Charter, and we urge other councils across the country to follow suit.

The current UK Government has also recognised the responsibility it has, not only to create national legislation and policy, but with its purchasing power. It drafted a modern slavery statement in 2019 detailing the steps it’s taken to mitigate the risk of modern slavery within its operations and supply chains, as per section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act. The remit of the Act has also been extended to all public bodies reaching the £36 million threshold, and just this month the Government announced the creation of a new workers’ rights watchdog that will be charged with stamping out modern slavery. Councils must now follow the leadership demonstrated by successive Conservative governments, and committing to the Modern Slavery Charter is an excellent way to start taking action. Councillors can also refer to an LGA report here to learn more of what individual role they can play.

This Government has made it clear that action on modern slavery remains high on the agenda. As councils start to build back better from the pandemic, and begin to assess their priorities after the local elections, they must follow suit and take meaningful steps to end modern slavery for good.

David Gauke: Demographic changes in the Blue Wall will work against the Conservatives – they must pay close attention

12 May

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

This is a bit of a postscript to my article from Saturday. In the unlikely event of you not having read it (or that you are not going to rectify this unfortunate omission before proceeding to read this article), in summary I said that the election results were very good for the Conservatives with evidence of a vaccine bounce (the incumbents also did well in Scotland and Wales).

Furthermore, there was a political realignment in English politics that made it easier for the Conservatives to win general elections. A divide along cultural grounds, rather than economic or class grounds, left the Tories’ opponents split and their votes inefficiently distributed.

At the time of writing, we had seen some of the details of how Leave areas were swinging towards the Conservatives (most spectacularly in Hartlepool) but had not seen that much from the Conservative Remain areas, mostly in the south of England.

Now that we have got these results, the data shows that Remain areas are behaving very differently to Leave areas – large swings to the Conservatives in Leave areas, very small swings in Remain areas.

I thought I would take a look at two county council divisions in my old constituency of South West Hertfordshire. Berkhamsted is an attractive and prosperous market town. It is the type of place to which young professionals move from London when starting a family and then never leave.

As is not uncommon in Home Counties constituencies, the Conservatives have generally done better here in general elections than local elections, but Berkhamsted has always returned a Conservative county councillor (except in 1993 when the Conservative vote collapsed across the country), although not always comfortably.

In the last six elections, the Conservative candidate achieved between 40 and 45 per cent of the vote with the size of the majority varying depending up how the other parties’ votes were distributed. In 2016, the ballot boxes from Berkhamsted contained a large majority of Remain votes.

South Oxhey & Eastbury was a new county division which narrowly elected a Labour councillor in 2017.  It is made up of two contrasting areas. Eastbury is affluent Middlesex suburbia and solidly Conservative, but the bulk of the division is made up of a post-War London overspill council estate that has always voted solidly Labour (apart from 2009 when it infamously elected the BNP’s only ever county councillor). South Oxhey voted overwhelmingly for Brexit (“hardly any Remain votes at all” one of the counters told me on the night).

When Thursday’s results were announced, South Oxhey & Eastbury went blue with an eight per cent swing from Labour to Conservative which, looking at the district council elections, seems to have been the consequence of a strong Tory surge in South Oxhey. Meanwhile, in Berkhamsted there was a swing of 12 per cent from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats, reducing the Tory share of the vote to a record low of 30 per cent.

Admittedly, local factors are relevant (there is an unpopular local plan), but the Berkhamsted experience of affluent commuter area deserting the Conservatives was replicated elsewhere in the constituency in Three Rivers Rural and elsewhere in the county in Harpenden, Hitchin, Hemel Hempstead, Bishop’s Stortford and Hertford (all to the Liberal Democrats apart from Hertford which went Green). Looking outside Hertfordshire, places with similar demographics in Surrey, Sussex, Kent, Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire did much the same.

Is this an immediate problem for the Conservatives? Taken in the round, probably not. The Liberal Democrats tend to over-perform in local elections compared to general elections. In individual constituencies, declines in some areas (such as Berkhamsted) were offset in part by advances in other areas (such as South Oxhey) – this is more complex than North versus South. And even if the realignment of British politics puts at risk affluent, well-educated, Remain-voting constituencies, there are far fewer of them than there are Labour Leave-voting seats that now look winnable for the Tories.

At a local level, however, there three reasons to be concerned. First, given that the electoral logic suggests that the Red Wall will be a bigger priority than the Blue Wall, Government policy will prioritise the Red Wall – if necessary at the expense of the Blue Wall (someone is going to have to pay for “levelling up”).

Second, demographic changes in these areas work against the Conservatives. The loyal Conservative vote is often quite elderly and the likely population increase will predominantly be newcomers from London. The pandemic is only likely to accelerate the process of these places becoming more graduate-heavy and small L liberal.

Third, a share of 40 per cent for a Government is very high. No doubt the vaccine rollout has made a big difference and, assuming the Conservatives will still be in office in 2025 (and not many are betting against that), achieving a similar share of the vote would be quite some achievement.

All of this suggests that the loss of a few southern seats on Thursday might not be a crippling wound for the Conservatives, but nor is this temporary.  The Tories will do very well to get many of these council seats back and there may be more to come.

Is the Blue Wall round the Home Counties in danger of cracking?

11 May

Overall, the local elections in England have produced great results for the Conservatives. They have enjoyed high-profile victories for the mayoralties in the West Midlands and Tees Valley, and seen gains in councils across the north.

But whilst they currently benefit from a divided opposition, Tory strategists would do well to remember that a realignment can be a two-edged sword. As the party focuses on broadening its appeal to a new coalition of voters, it risks alienating parts of its traditional base.

This is the basis for what some are starting to call the ‘Blue Wall’: more than 40 constituencies “which have been held by the Conservatives since at least 2010, where Labour or the Liberal Democrats have overperformed their national swing in 2017 and 2019 and where the Conservative majority is below 10,000”, as Matthew Goodwin explains. If CCHQ isn’t careful, these could follow those London seats where the party was competitive, or even won, in 2010 but is deep underwater now.

Some results from the weekend, such as the Conservatives’ loss of control in Cambridgeshire, are already being held up as examples of this trend, which as our Editor reported yesterday were described by one pollster as “big red flashes which under someone better than Starmer could cause chaos”.

But what is the situation in other Tory heartlands, such as the Home Counties?

In Hertfordshire, the party retained overall control but lost five seats – including that of David Williams, the council leader – whilst the Liberal Democrats made gains. It was a similar story in the Isle of Wight, where the Tories lost four seats and their leader.

In Kent, the Tories fell from 67 seats to 61, whilst Labour and the Greens advanced.

Buckinghamshire was electing a unitary authority for the first time, so there is no direct change, but according to the Bucks Herald “their lead over other parties has slimmed down slightly this time”, again whilst the Lib Dems gained ground.

On and on it goes. In Surrey, the Tories fell from 61 seats to 47 at the expense of the Lib Dems and various independents and residents’ associations.

In Oxfordshire they lost seven seats whilst the Lib Dems gained seven, leaving the two parties almost neck at neck at 22 councillors to 21.

They lost three councillors in East Sussex, and eight in West Sussex.

And despite the Conservatives advancing across the North, its a different story in one of the areas where they have traditionally done well: they lost four councillors to Labour in Trafford, cementing the Opposition’s control over what was once ‘Manchester’s Tory council’ by picking up Ashton upon Mersey, Daveyhulme, and the village of Flixton.

Whilst local trends don’t necessarily presage Westminster ones (Watford has a Conservative MP and not a single Tory councillor), Sir Graham Brady’s majority in Altringham and Sale West was halved in 2017 and contracted again in 2019, even as the party made gains elsewhere. Might it be that this prosperous suburban area, which returned a Conservative MP even in 1997, might drift out of the Tory column over the next decade?

Naturally, it doesn’t follow that all of these results are part of some grand pattern. Local issues will invariably be in play, and some of it may be the sort of backlash against a ruling party that one normally expects to see in ‘mid-term’ contests such as these.

For example in Tunbridge Wells, the LibDems caused much excitement by seizing control of the borough council. But all five of the wards at county council levels remained in Tory hands.

But the example of Oxfordshire, where the party held 51 out of 73 seats in 2009 ,but has been on a downward trajectory ever since, suggests that CCHQ can’t take such comforting explanations for granted. And by the time it becomes obvious that a council is properly trending away from the party, the best moment to take action will have passed.

Down the line, this would have implications for general elections if London overspill and sky-high house prices see more seats follow Brighton and Canterbury into the Labour column – a prospect which is reportedly already concerning Tory MPs.

But will it be enough to spook those MPs into doing what’s necessary to fix it? The Government is right to believe that its hold on the ‘Red Wall’ rests on expanding home ownership. But it has so far failed to overcome the self-interest of southern MPs and get them accept the blunt fact that the same thing is true of the ‘Blue Wall’ too. Somehow, ministers need to get sufficient houses built to put home ownership and family formation within reach of young professionals.

It will take much greater study to assess the true nature and scale of the problem. But the party needs to be across it and prepared to act. The sorry state of the Labour Party shows just how badly the voters can punish those who take their homelands for granted.

Rupert Barnes: Councils don’t define our local sense – which comes from the inherited character of where we live

16 Sep

Rupert Barnes is a former councillor on Three Rivers District Council and Vice-Chairman of the Association of British Counties.

Everyone has an opinion about structural reform in local government, apart from the actual voters. On these pages we have seen advocated, the abolition of all district councils, the abolition of county councils, mayors for all, and mayors for none. What is missing is thought about what it is all for.

In Hertfordshire, a three-way struggle has begun: status quo, or one big unitary council, or three. There is no party position. I am therefore asking our group leaders to start a wider discussion, beyond the inner rooms and engaging residents (who will end up paying for it).

I have been wound round local government in several capacities, some mercifully brief: as a normal taxpayer, a junior officer, adviser, lobbyist, writer, opposing solicitor, candidate, and councillor. In each capacity I see different sides of the beast. Each tells me that the structure needs wholesale reform, even to keep it as it is. The statutory basis of local government is a jumble of sixty years of mismatched changes and patches, with square pegs hammered into round holes -and legal fictions used just to save parliamentary time. You cannot build soundly on a chassis held together with strings and gum.

Reform in England therefore must start from scratch: repeal all and replace with a single code which reflects today’s diverse realities, not the preconceptions of 1963 and 1972, with simple, defined concepts. Then we can think sensibly about the functions of each type of council.

In any given area, the choices – unitary versus binary, and the ideal size of any council area – depend on local needs and outcomes. Arguments for unitary councils turn on efficiency, but they lose the local element, and there is no point in a council’s being efficient if means it cannot deliver the right outcome door-to-door. A local council must be nimble, and see the individual needs of each street and part of a street. Giant strategic councils may have too broad a brush.

However efficiency is a good argument. To justify their continued existence, district councils have to save millions, and this needs a fundamental review at local level of the old ways of doing things. They may share functions or pass them upwards, or outsource to the private sector. That is one thing I want our local review to consider.

Behind all this lurks local identity, or rootedness. Council arrangements do not define our local sense, which comes from the collective, inherited character of where we live. Local community identity is independent of bureaucracies. However, the suspicion remains that changes in administrative boundaries are trying to move us to another place and name, so changes are resisted and innovation stifled. It would be easier if there were an uncoupling of the two ideas; place and administration.

In July last year, the MHCLG published a paper ‘Celebrating the Historic Counties of England‘, under their “communities” brief. It recognises the importance of traditional county identities and encourages councils to do more to celebrate them. The noise coming out of the Ministry now re-enforces that. In getting excited about changing things then, we must be sensitive to what remains and what strengthens community ties.

A conscious uncoupling can be achieved in resetting the structure of local government. Strategic functions are carried out by “county councils” largely for historical reasons, but they are not counties as generations understood them, and they increasingly fail to resemble anything one would recognise as a county. In reform, these ‘strategic areas’ need no longer borrow the abused name of ‘county’ and so need not be tied to an approximation of an ancient shire. Local objections to change based on wounded county identity will evaporate: residents will see their historic county is unchanged. We can reform boldly, but also have the confidence to reckon our sense of place not by which passing bureaucracy runs the local tip, but by the heritage of home.

Profile: Olive, sorry, Oliver Dowden, saviour of the arts, bedrock insider – and unknown to the public

9 Jul

By far the greatest power of a Prime Minister is the power of patronage. He or she decides who to appoint to ministerial posts, and the Government prospers or fails largely as a result of whether these people prove able to rise to the level of events.

In February, Boris Johnson made Oliver Dowden Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Dowden is unknown to the wider public, and in ConservativeHome’s latest Cabinet league table is buried two-thirds of the way down the list, among a cluster of other ministers who have yet to become household names.

Leading figures in the arts had little faith he would be able to rescue their sector from the disastrous impact of Covid-19, and were getting ready to go mad at him with rage.

Instead of which he and Rishi Sunak astonished the world of the arts, at the start of this week, with a package of support for the arts which the leading figures queued up to praise.

As Charlotte Gill pointed out on ConHome, Dowden had been underestimated.

Here is a minister who knows how to get things done, including the tricky art of persuading the Treasury to part with the necessary funds.

Dowden is a professional politician, indeed a professional man of government: the kind of person at whom it is easy to sneer, but without whom nothing in Whitehall would move.

He succeeds partly because he does not seek to hog the limelight. There was no sense, as he announced the £1.57 billion support package for the arts, that this was being treated as something that would above all redound to the greater glory of the Secretary of State.

In photographs, it never seems this tall, friendly, fair-haired, respectable figure wants to outshine the other people in the picture.

In the words he uses, there is likewise a complete absence of any discernible urge to shine. “He is not an aphorist,” as one of his colleagues conceded, after ConHome remarked on the absence of a single memorable phrase in the Dowden record.

And yet those who know him well insist he is delightful company. One of them warned:

“I am sure you will not depict him as resembling in any way the dreary apparatchik that he might at first glance appear, having spent so much time behind the scenes at the Conservative Research Department and in the Cameron entourage before landing the safe seat that Cecil Parkinson once represented. He has a lightness of touch and charm that resemble Parkinson.

“His Canadian parents-in-law were at first reluctant to see their clever daughter married to an English politician; he soon won them round.

“He greets comments made to him with an infectious little laugh; I think this a most useful habit to have acquired or to be blessed with since birth: it creates an immediate impression of amiability and allows time to consider how best to reply.

“He is interested in bohemian ways without being drawn to participation in them. His best friend in the Research Department at the 2005 election was much given to cycling round London, drunk and naked, during the night.”

The safe seat in question, won by him in 2015 after he had defeated Sunak and others in the final of the contest to select the Conservative candidate, is Hertsmere, on the southern border of Hertfordshire.

In his maiden speech, he spoke with emotion of “the last unspoiled rolling hills of England before the home counties give way to London”, and said he is “absolutely determined to preserve them from soulless urban sprawl so that my children and grandchildren may enjoy them as I have done.”

He touched also on his constituency’s position “at the heart of the British film industry”, thanks to Elstree film studios in Borehamwood. But he went on:

“What characterises Hertsmere, far more than its landscape or its industry, is the character of its people. They get up very early every morning and from Bushey, Potters Bar, Radlett and Borehamwood they cram on to commuter trains or set off along the M25 and the A1. They are hard-working men and women who make sacrifices to provide for themselves, their families and their community. They know that in this life, we do not get something for nothing; we have to work in order to get something out.

“Growing up locally, I was very much imbued with those values. My dad worked in a factory in Watford, my mum at a chemist’s in St Albans. They worked hard and were determined to give me the very best start in life. That started with the excellent education that I received at my local comprehensive school.”

He was born in 1978 and went to Parmiter’s School, founded in 1681 in Bethnal Green and now at Garston, near Watford. Its motto is “Nemo sibi nascitur”, “No one is born unto himself alone”, and from here he won a place to read law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Dowden played no part in student politics, and decided not to be a lawyer. He taught English in Japan, had a stint at LLM, a lobbying firm set up by Labour figures close to Gordon Brown, and in 2004 became head of the Political Section in the Conservative Research Department.

Soon after his arrival, one of his colleagues recalls,

“He became known as Olive through a typographical error which he embraced with characteristic good humour. It almost sounds wrong to call him Oliver if you’ve known him of old.”

Another friend from that period said this week:

“I will call him Olive or I will call him Secretary of State, but I will not call him Oliver.”

Dowden, as he will continue to be called here, displayed an early flair for understanding how a story would play out in the press. He could see the weaknesses in both the Labour and the Conservative position, so could operate in an attacking role – spotting, for example, the potential of the cash for honours story to embarrass the Labour Government – and also defensively, briefing ministers on the line to take when they went on programmes such as Any Questions and Question Time.

He is an enormously experienced insider, who has helped prepare four successive leaders – Michael Howard, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson – for Prime Minister’s Questions.

Cameron relates in his memoirs that in 2009, during the MPs’ expenses scandal,

“I set up an internal scrutiny panel, a so-called Star Chamber, including my aide Oliver Dowden, known as ‘Olive’, who I also called ‘the undertaker’, since he so frequently brought me the bad news.”

Another witness says:

“During the expenses scandal, CRD had to triage some of the cases, taking what The Telegraph was accusing people of and working out the truth. It was a long, gruelling period, relentless, it went on for weeks and it was bleak work, the team being set against itself.”

He became “a bedrock figure”, as one former minister puts it, “stable, sensible, unflappable, extraordinarily decent”, in the group which saw Cameron into Number Ten and then sustained him there, with Dowden as Ed Llewellyn’s deputy.

Few people understand better than Dowden how the government machine works, or fails to work. He is not an ideologue, or a bold political thinker, or a stirring orator, but he has sound judgement and knows how to get things done. As one colleague puts it,

“He’s one of the most impressive people I’ve ever been in a room with officials with. At the end he will establish what has been agreed and what we are going to do.”

As an MP since 2015, “he commutes in like his constituents – he puts in the long hours”. His website shows him defending their interests with tenacity.

In the 2016 EU Referendum he was a Remainer, but in the immediate aftermath he supported Boris Johnson for the leadership, which infuriated Theresa May’s team.

Not until January 2018 was he permitted to take his first step on the ministerial ladder, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office.

In the summer of 2019, Dowden, Sunak and Robert Jenrick interviewed Johnson for an hour at Jenrick’s house, after which they put their names to a joint piece for The Times Red Box, which appeared under the headline:

“The Tories are in deep peril. Only Boris Johnson can save us.”

This endorsement by three junior ministers, none of whom was suspected of maverick tendencies, helped convince many waverers that Johnson was on course for victory. Collectively they had become significant players, and all three of them are now in the Cabinet.

Dowden is only 41. Will he go higher? Lord Lexden, official historian to the Conservative Party and the Carlton Club, says of him:

“I am rather inclined to the view that he may well establish himself as the Rab Butler of his time, indispensable in any Tory government, but without Butler’s hesitancy if the chance of the premiership should arise.”