Andy Street: How we’re turning the West Midlands into a world city-region

Devolution has given us the chance to solve the long-standing transport and infrastructure problems which have been holding us back.

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

What sets a place apart as a ‘world city’? As West Midlands Mayor, it’s my job to raise the region’s global profile, to ensure it gate-crashes conversations usually occupied by the likes of New York, Berlin, and London.

If it’s diversity, we have it – the West Midlands is a place where you can discover the world in a day. If it’s growth, the West Midlands has shown the biggest increase in productivity anywhere outside the capital. If innovation is the key, more start-ups are choosing us as their new home than ever before.

One critical factor that sets the likes of London, Paris, Berlin, and the Big Apple apart are their world-class underground and metro public transport systems – the Underground, the Paris Metro, the U-Bahn, and the Subway. Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Seoul are also members of the club. These long-established networks are an intrinsic part of local culture.

In the West Midlands, historical under-investment in regional infrastructure is very slowly improving, but as part of Local Industrial Strategy, and the drive to further increase productivity, we need to see that accelerate.

Before devolution created the West Midlands Combined Authority, our region received just one seventh of the capital spending per head on transport enjoyed by those in London. It is illuminating that, despite being the nation’s second biggest city in terms of population, recent analysis by the Guardian concluded that Birmingham was effectively a small city, as a result of its transport challenges.

Now, with decision-making in local hands and more investment, this situation is improving. These are problems that have been talked about for a quarter of a century, and we have finally been able to unblock them in the last two years. But more investment is needed.

Why? Because while we are seeing an economic renaissance here, growth brings its own challenges in terms of congestion, connectivity, and mobility. Recent data has shown that Birmingham is the UK’s third most congested city.

As the crucible of the Industrial Revolution, we once set the standard in public transport. Until 1953, Birmingham boasted the biggest narrow-gauge tramway in the UK. The Black Country boasted a similarly impressive tram system. With the decline in industry, that system was dismantled. Now, with the region’s ambition and confidence resurgent, we are once again building a metro system that befits an economic powerhouse.

The West Midlands already has a good local train network, and we are even reopening stations that have been closed since the 1960s. Passenger usage is well up on last year, in contrast to London and the North.

Our fast-growing Metro system complements those rail services. The rebirth began in 1999, with the opening of the Midlands Metro Line between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. Passenger numbers have been steadily growing, passing the seven million mark for the first time last year.

However, in an enormous region that spans our seven member boroughs of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Solihull, Coventry, Sandwell, Walsall and Dudley, there is still much more for us to do to achieve the kind of transit system we need.

We are currently working on four major extensions to the Metro. In Birmingham, a line is being built from the city centre to Edgbaston, while in the Black Country a £449 million route will join Wednesbury and Brierley Hill. A third extension runs to the new HS2 station at Curzon Street, while a fourth will link to Birmingham Airport.

Over the coming years, our network will triple in size, as a massive £1.3 billion investment programme being spearheaded by the West Midlands Combined Authority and Transport for West Midlands is completed. We are leading the way in building a regional public transport network for the 21st century. This is our Crossrail.

Here are five key lessons we have learned when building our Metro:

Establish consensus

For a transport programme of this magnitude to be a success, everyone needs to be onboard. We have worked closely in a cross-party way with constituent councils, local MPs and Government to ensure that we deliver on these schemes.

Show benefits quickly

Infrastructure programmes bring jobs, and it’s vital the population hears about those opportunities quickly. That means advertising the new roles and apprenticeships which will be available during the construction of the Metro. To spread the benefits of a project like this, you must help local businesses bid to be part of the project. These activities help the public see the benefits long before the first trams are on the rails, and ensures local people feel they are invested in the network.

Manage disruption

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Our Edgbaston extension closed roads including Birmingham’s Broad Street, one of the businesses nightlife destinations in the country. Many party members visiting Birmingham for Conference last year will have seen some of this disruption for themselves. We have spent a lot of time and money supporting the businesses who will be affected by the works, particularly by letting their customers know they are still open for business.

Be innovative

The Government has invested £200 million in reinventing the West Midlands Metro network, but we are determined that we aren’t just reliant on handouts from Westminster and that we use our own resourcefulness to finance these Metro improvements. For the first time, we in the West Midlands will be financing the Brierley Hill Metro extension through prudent borrowing, against future Metro revenues.

Be ambitious

Don’t just go for the small extensions you can afford now and which everyone will agree to. Be ambitious, challenge people to think about a world-class network and what money and routes it would take to make it happen. The new extension from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill has been talked about for twenty five years. I am proud that as a Conservative Mayor, with the support of a Conservative Government, we are set to get the diggers in the ground this year.

Through this approach, we’re building a Metro network to be proud of. We look forward to welcoming you to Birmingham for Party Conference again soon, so that you can try it out for yourself. Passenger numbers show that residents are responding to our attempts to properly link up this densely-populated part of the UK, helping them reach the opportunities that our economic policies are bringing.

As one of the UK’s success stories, we expect the West Midlands to rub shoulders with ‘world cities’ like Berlin and New York. Delivering a world-class Metro system will certainly improve our global standing. More importantly, it will make a world of difference to the people who live and work here.

Andrew Carter: More flexibility in council finances is needed if the target for new homes is to be met

Without a boost to infrastructure and local services, it will not be possible to increase the housing supply.

Andrew Carter is Chief Executive of Centre for Cities

In recent weeks, we have seen a surprising shift in political debate. While much political attention remains focussed on the Brexit high-drama of Westminster, there is now an increasing sense that some politicians are beginning to look at issues closer to home once again.

Earlier this month, James Brokenshire lauded the Local Government Finance Settlement as paving the way for a ‘fairer, more self-sufficient and resilient future’ for local government. After ten years of very large spending reductions this is long overdue. While the belt tightening introduced in 2010 has undoubtedly made local authorities leaner and more efficient, all the evidence now indicates that they are unable to take any further restrictions without it significantly limiting their ability to provide the public services that many residents depend on and expect. This was evident in the responses by MPs on both sides of the House to the Secretary of State’s parliamentary statement setting out the 2019 Settlement.

Urban authorities have felt this pressure most acutely. Centre for Cities’ annual Cities Outlook analysis found that Britain’s urban areas have borne nearly three quarters of all real-term local government funding reductions since 2009/10, despite being home to just 54 percent of the population. This is equivalent to a £386 fall in spending for every city dweller, compared to £172 per person living elsewhere.

The social care crisis adds to this problem. A decade ago, just four cities, out of the 62 we studied, spent the majority of their budget on social care; now half of them do. Barnsley now ranks as both the city that has seen the largest fall in spending since 2009/10 (a 40 percent reduction), and also the place that dedicates the largest share of its budget to social care (62 percent of its budget). This is no coincidence.

These funding pressures are not just bad news for public services, but also bad news for the British economy. The UK’s 63 biggest cities account for around 60 percent of all the UK’s jobs, business starts, and total GVA. Therefore, anything that hampers their development is a handicap to UK plc. In the past decade, strategically important services have seen significant spending reductions in cities. For example, spending on activities to improve their economic performance has fallen in cities by 43 percent. If this continues it will not bode well for the UK’s long-term economic performance. As noted by the National Audit Office recently, cuts to planning services over the last decade means the likelihood of hitting the government’s target to build 300,000 homes per annum is much less likely. As ever thus, a decision taken in one part of government has knock on effects for another part, often in a perverse way.

While the forthcoming Spending Review is an opportunity for the Government to address these challenges, it would be overly optimistic to expect significant amounts of extra funding for local government. Despite the Secretary of State’s warm words, the Local Government Finance Settlement still deals councils a further reduction to their central government grant. However, the good news is that some of the policies that would support city finances to be more sustainable in the long-term could be delivered at minimal cost to HM Treasury.

First, the Government should scrap the current rules stipulating that money raised through council charges in one area can only be spent in the same area. It makes little sense that councillors struggling to keep libraries open or roads maintained are prevented from accessing funds raised in other areas, such as through parking charges. Local leaders are best placed to make decisions about need in their area and the Government should give them the tools to do so.

Second, while it may be controversial, we need to examine the idea of giving cities powers to introduce localised taxes. Following the passing of the Scottish Government’s recent budget, and with significant public support, Edinburgh became the first British city to implement a £2 per night tourist tax. Enabling cities across the country to follow suit would bring them in line with places such as Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin. It would also raise money to spend on public services without a cost to local taxpayers.

Finally, the Government should reform the current local government finance rules that stipulate that councils can only set single-year budgets. This rule encourages short-term thinking in local government and restricts councils’ capacity to reform public services, and fund the up-front revenue costs associated with developing the major strategic housing or infrastructure projects that drive the economy forwards.

There are signs that we are heading in the right direction. Brokenshire has just reaffirmed the Government’s belief in the merits of city devolution in rejecting the One Yorkshire campaign proposals. Local government minister, Rishi Sunak, has also indicated that the government is open-minded about devolving fiscal power to cities. In the next Spending Review, the Chancellor should move this one step further and unlock cities’ economic potential. It is vital for our future prosperity that he takes this opportunity.

 

Nick Hargrave: The capitalism of the future demands a bigger role for the state

Its muscular power is needed to boost share ownership, build houses and tax wealth rather than income. And let’s rule out a No Deal Brexit.

Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street Special adviser where he worked for both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works for Portland, the communications consultancy.

Philip Hammond’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference last October is unlikely to be remembered as a rhetorical classic. But it contains within it an important insight for the political fortunes of the Conservative Party and the long-term prosperity of our country.

Speaking to a less than packed hall, the Chancellor of the Exchequer told delegates that Conservatives of the future must:

“Harness the power of the market economy, taking a model which has evolved continuously down the ages, so that the capitalism of the twenty-first century looks nothing remotely like that of the nineteenth – and adapt it once again to speak to the values of a new generation.”

Hammond was speaking to a truth that Conservatives sometimes forget. Capitalism is not a static construct held in aspic. It is an economic system which flexes to meet the challenges of its time – and in doing so renews its mandate from one generation to the next.

This flexible conception of capitalism has been seen in the differing approaches of Conservative governments since the Second World War.

In the 1950s and 1960s, after a landslide defeat in 1945, our party accepted a greater role for state involvement in the running of the economy; spurred on by a gradual realisation that the laissez-faire approach of the 1930s had been an opportunity lost.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Margaret Thatcher burst onto the scene with an articulation of capitalism that was more libertarian and evangelical about the merits of free enterprise – in keeping with its time and a reaction to the drift and decline inherent in state involvement going too far.

The 1990s and 2000s saw the pendulum swing the other way, and voters demand a gentler articulation of the harder-edged approach of the 1980s – with support for a minimum wage, windfall taxes and more investment in the public realm. On this occasion, our party failed to meet this challenge, clinging doggedly to our post event conception of Thatcherism, and paid an electoral price.

The lesson of history is clear. When Conservatives adapt to generational calls for change on our political economy they prosper and own the terms of debate; more than capable of beating a Labour Party whose competence is usually doubted. When they fail to acknowledge the call for change they lose – and only regain power after a period of painful reflection.

If the events of the past couple of years have taught us anything, it is time for Conservative politicians to once again come up with a coherent answer for how capitalism can renew its generational mandate. Specifically, how it can materially improve the British people’s living standards in an economy that is undergoing a technological transformation; one that is increasingly global, that’s conducted online, that’s moving at pace to automation – and which is increasingly flexible in its conception of the nature of work.

It’s this transformation which is fuelling the rise of identity politics in our country – which for all its short-term attractions is unlikely to end well. It’s fuelling divisions between the upwardly mobile and the educated in our vibrant urban centres who are benefitting from this change – and the many in our towns and communities who feel left behind. Between a younger generation which is finding it hard to amass capital – and an older generation who have assets that have appreciated over the years.  It’s why a lot of public and private polling out there indicates that people feel the country is moving in the wrong direction domestically. And it’s why the main thing keeping the current Conservative voting coalition together is the illusory tiger of a Brexit which can never meet the hype – and one suspects will eventually end in disappointment.

So what’s the real answer for Conservatives in how we reinvigorate capitalism in a way that is relevant for the 2020s and beyond – and in the process renew our own mandate to govern? This could be the subject of several more articles, but here are a few core thoughts as follows:

  • First, in politics you must get the tone and definition right before you get into the policy weeds. The platform must feel upbeat, inclusive, and focussed on the guiding prism of a better future for us all to share. Optimism is infectious. This is where I think in hindsight Theresa May got the balance wrong during the period 2016-17.  The framing of the ‘privileged few’ may have been tactically popular, but it was caricatured and created expectations of a reckoning with business that was self-defeating and ceded political space to Jeremy Corbyn. It’s much easier to have difficult conversations with businesses about their responsibilities in the modern economy if you have an overall macro-message that is supportive. 70 per cent carrot and 30 per cent stick feels about right.
  • Second, I think we are going to have come to terms with a more muscular and high spending state over the next 20 years. Critically, that spending and guiding hand must be prioritised on investment in the future rather than pumping cash hand over fist into resource spending. In Treasury, speak this means more ambitious capital programmes than currently on R&D and science, digital infrastructure and transport. Always remember that the jobs, wealth and economic security of 25 years’ time will come from ideas that we cannot even conceive of yet.
  • Third, people have to feel confident they are benefitting from the system. Rather than using Labour language of ‘fixing a broken market’, focus instead on the positive articulation of what a muscular state can do to promote the holding of capital. Spend much, much more on state-backed programmes to build houses, remodel the corporate tax system with the strategic goal of incentivising employee share ownership – and turbocharge the somewhat limp National Retraining Scheme into a massive endeavour for all people in industries at risk of automation.
  • Fourth, we need to be able to pay for this and remain fiscally credible. There is no perfect way to do this but a shift towards wealth over income taxes is broadly the right way to go. This is hard but inevitable. Most realistically this can only come from a new leader at the height of their political powers.
  • Fifth, there is the question of how we maintain our political definition with Labour. I would strongly suggest we do not fall back into an ideological debate about libertarianism versus socialism (if put like that, Britain over the next 20 years is going to go for the latter). Focus instead on the values and language of economic competence and strong leadership, brought to life in the programme above, and the rest flows from there. With the current Labour frontbench this task is inordinately easier than if we were up against a centre-left leadership.
  • Finally, whatever you do – don’t countenance a ‘no deal’ Brexit. It will detract focus from this generationally important task – and will lead to many more years of austerity. This cannot be emphasised enough.

Stephen Haraldsen: How smaller reactors offer a step forward for nuclear communities

The national network of large, infrastructure intensive projects has stalled, but there is an alternative.

Dr Stephen Haraldsen is a Research Fellow at the University of Central Lancashire and a Cumbria County Councillor. He stood as the Conservative candidate for Copeland in the 2015 General Election.

New nuclear developments in the UK are struggling. From the initial eleven sites suggested in 2008, to the nine later designated as suitable to be delivered by 2025, only one is now being built.

In the past few weeks and months both the Moorside site in Cumbria, and the Wylfa site on Anglesey in North Wales, have had their Japanese backers pull out or halt development.

The major obstacle for these massive nuclear developments is finding the significant amount of investment needed. The Hinkley Point C site is only progressing because George Osborne, when Chancellor, agreed to a 35-year guaranteed minimum price for the electricity produced.

However, while very large reactors are struggling owing to their huge construction costs, there is another option which Government is keen to pursue: Small, or ‘Advanced’, Modular Reactors.

These smaller, modular reactors are intended to use off-the-shelf components to provide much smaller amounts of electrical power and heat for industrial processes. Their smaller size should, in theory, enable them to be more flexibly located nearer to the demand for their output, minimising the need for expensive long-distance grid connections and the associated transport losses.

Through the Industrial Strategy and Nuclear Sector Deal, the Government is putting £44 million into developing designs. There is a significant amount of debate as to whether these modular reactors can achieve a competitive cost compared to other energy sources, and I will leave that to the more economically- and technically-minded. But there is another issue which is significant, which is that at the moment there is no clarity about where they will go, or how the process of planning permission will be handled.

The large gigawatt-scale reactors are designated by Government as a ‘Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project’, and from 2008 there was a Strategic Siting Assessment where sites nominated by landowners and operators were assessed. All but two of the nominated sites were at or adjacent to existing nuclear sites. The two that were further away, Braystones and Kirksanton (both in Cumbria) were not shortlisted as deliverable by 2025 after significant local opposition.

To make small reactors viable in the long-term, they will need to be located near to the demand for the electricity and heat, and in the short-term prototypes will need to be developed somewhere. Existing nuclear sites are generally located in sparsely-populated areas, and while that will be advantageous for initial developments, it may be economically problematic if these are to be deployed widely.

Therefore the issues of siting and planning permission currently on the desk of Richard Harrington, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, are important.

In this difficult time for the British nuclear industry it may be tempting to centralise the whole process, in order to give investors more confidence and reduce uncertainty for wider deployments. I want to appeal to the Minister and department to resist that urge.

Democracy and pragmatism

The sites and planning environment are there already for small reactor development. There are no shortage of nuclear sites in the UK that could play host to the development of new reactor designs, and the National Planning Policy framework already has a favourable environment for low-carbon electricity and heat generation.

The British Government has last year distinguished between sites with single reactors above 1GW and those sites with reactors below 1GW by modifying the National Policy Statement for Nuclear to be only about the large-reactor sites. I hope this is a signal that the small reactors will not be subject to determination by the Secretary of State nationally, but by councils locally.

So, in the short term there is simply no need to centralise. Public opinion towards nuclear developments at existing sites is positive: see the local support for, and then disappointment with, the Moorside and Wylfa developments.

Place-making

In a highly-connected, globalised economy, places are competing with places across the world for investment and prosperity.

Some areas may have specialisms in financial and professional services, like the City of London, and others may have a nuclear specialism. We should be allowing those areas to determine what they want for their future, and as far as reasonably possible allow their locally elected representatives the freedom and power to create the local conditions to achieve their goals.

For low-carbon generation, the NPPF has this to say regarding local planning (p44):

“151. To help increase the use and supply of renewable and low carbon energy and heat, plans should: a) provide a positive strategy for energy from these sources, that maximises the potential for suitable development, while ensuring that adverse impacts are addressed satisfactorily (including cumulative landscape and visual impacts); b) consider identifying suitable areas for renewable and low carbon energy sources, and supporting infrastructure, where this would help secure their development; and c) identify opportunities for development to draw its energy supply from decentralised, renewable or low carbon energy supply systems and for colocating potential heat customers and suppliers.”

Those areas which seek to pursue the research and development in advanced reactors should be looking now to their Local Plan, development policies and the site allocations to make a statement about their willingness to host such facilities.

Rather than wait for government to decide, send a signal now to developers that areas like West Cumbria and Anglesey want to host this new generation of nuclear sites. In the wake of the disappointing developments in Cumbria and North Wales, Copeland Borough Council and Isle of Anglesey County Council should designating land as ‘advanced nuclear development zones’ and state clearly in the Local Plan their support for attracting and developing these new technologies.

Indeed, the timing is good, as many local plans are currently being updated, and have to be at a minimum every five years (although there is nothing stopping councils taking account of changing circumstances and altering their Local Plan at any time).

The news for these communities, the industry, and the Government has been challenging recently. Government is putting the money in to advanced reactor research, and while these will never match the jobs and investment that would have come from the larger nuclear sites, local areas like Copeland and Anglesey should seize this opportunity now to send a clear message to government and the industry that they are nuclear communities, and despite the difficulties they are open for business.

French ports find favor in Brussels for post-Brexit trade

Council and Parliament agree to Paris’ demands after Commission snub.

French ports including Calais, Dunkirk and Le Havre are set to be included in a valuable EU trade corridor after Brexit following protests from the country’s politicians.

The European Parliament and EU capitals have met France’s pleas for its terminals to be earmarked to ship freight from Ireland to the Continent after the U.K. exits the EU, after the European Commission left the country out of its plans.

As POLITICO reported exclusively in August, a proposal to redirect the EU’s strategic transport corridor sought to connect ports at Dublin and Cork with the Belgian harbors of Zeebrugge and Antwerp, and Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

EU countries Wednesday agreed to amend that plan, with two diplomats stating French ports would now be included. Countries also want terminals at Amsterdam and Ghent to be included as they meet the EU’s “core port” classification, one diplomat said.

“The Council mandate amends the Commission proposal in particular regarding the selection of ports to ensure the EU27 link to Ireland in the North Sea-Mediterranean core network corridor,” said the Council in a statement.

The new routing for the North Sea-Mediterranean corridor will see billions of euros worth of trade, which currently moves overland through the U.K., redirected, with designated ports eligible for money from the EU budget.

French Green MEP and chair of the Parliament’s Transport and Tourism Committee Karima Delli already secured support in Parliament for her plan to allow French terminals to access the EU funding.

Delli met negotiators from the Council Wednesday evening for initial talks on the final text, with the next meeting scheduled February 7. A Council spokesperson declined to confirm which ports have the backing of EU countries.

The Commission said in the summer that its proposal was based on existing traffic flows through core ports — with services already running from Dublin and Cork to Rotterdam, Antwerp and Zeebrugge.

However, that prompted a heavy lobbying effort from Paris. Xavier Bertrand, the president of the Calais region in France, said the plan was “scandalous and unacceptable,” and Transport Minister Élisabeth Borne said it “must be reviewed.”

Some 80 percent of Ireland’s exports to the EU currently flow through Britain.

“There could be contingency routes like Dublin to Antwerp, but the closest country becomes France after Brexit,” said a Parliament official. “Ports in Brittany are the closest to the big harbors of Ireland. For us, it’s as obvious as it gets.”

The existing EU trade corridor runs from Edinburgh and Ireland through the British ports of Liverpool, Southampton, Felixstowe and Dover, before crossing to Calais and Dunkirk, in addition to Zeebrugge, Antwerp and Rotterdam.

In its preparations for a no-deal Brexit, the British government has targeted emergency ferry services from the U.K. to ports in France, such as Roscoff and Cherbourg, as well as Ostend in Belgium.

Earlier this month, the French government made €50 million available to harbors and airports for no-deal contingency work to be carried out.


Read this next: European Parliament recognizes Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president

Steve Double: May has misread the mood of the country over free movement. Now is the time to drop hostile rhetoric.

There is a now a window of opportunity for a better, more sensible and cross-party debate than the one we had in the referendum campaign.

Steve Double is MP for St Austell and Newquay.

Since the nation voted for Brexit in June 2016, our resolve to respect the results of the referendum by leaving the EU and the European Single Market has been unwavering. Talk of a second referendum has dominated the airwaves lately, but there is scarcely any evidence this would deliver a decisive result – the kind that some politicians are seeking in order to rethink Brexit – were we to have another vote tomorrow. If anything has changed, it is the way the British public views migration – its importance and its impact on our economy and communities.

Bringing an end to freedom of movement, one of the four indivisible and fundamental freedoms of the EU, has been a priority for the Prime Minister in her negotiations. Migration ranked highly among the reasons for the people’s vote to leave the EU. “We have no control over migrants coming in”, “open borders has not worked”, “they are putting a strain on local infrastructure and services” – these were the concerns many of my colleagues and I heard time and again on the doorstep and at town hall meetings, and the more-than-unexpected results of the referendum spoke volume about the extent that these concerns were felt across the country.

While it is certainly true that leaving the EU presents us with a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a fairer and more effective migration system that meets our needs and returns control of migration policy from Brussels to London, Number Ten would be misguided if they thought nothing has changed. Public attitudes have changed in profound ways and these changes have taken place on three levels.,

First, the Brexit vote has given rise to a more positive view of migration. Fewer people think that there are too many migrants in the UK, as Britons increasingly recognise the benefits that migrants bring to the country and are assured by the government’s commitment that there will be a reduction in migration levels.

Recent evidence from the National Conversation on Immigration has shown that our citizens are ‘balancers’, on the whole, who see the gains and pressures of migration when weighing up its impact. They appreciate the skills they bring in, the jobs shortages they fill and their contribution towards public finances. They understand that there are realistic trade-offs when it comes to controlling migration and know what is at stake for British businesses. There is also a broad consensus for a fair and humane migration system that places the welfare of families and individuals at its heart: The vast majority of us are ashamed of the treatment of the Windrush generation and none of us want to see administrative failures and incompetence lead to a repeat of the scandal.

While it is true that controlling migration remains to be an issue of concern for Leave voters, it is no longer the case that migration is seen by the public as the most salient issue. Two weeks before the nation went to the polling booths to decide our future with the EU, a YouGov Most Important Issues poll found that 56 per of those surveyed saw “Immigration & Asylum” as the most frequently-cited issue facing the nation – more than 10 points ahead of any other issues including the Economy, NHS and Public Health, Defence and Terrorism. This figure was most recently recorded at 29 per cent.

Third, with employment rates hitting record levels and virtual full employment across many sectors, businesses have raised legitimate concerns that they do not want an oversimplified approach to migration which will leave them worse off with fewer workers. Removing the numerical cap on Tier 2 skilled workers visas would be a good start, but any salary-based threshold must be driven by evidence and not imposed arbitrarily.

Furthermore, the importance of certain lower-wage roles for our economy and society needs to be adequately considered. In my constituency of St Austell and Newquay in mid-Cornwall, for instance, the seasonal nature of our visitor economy as well as fish stocks, fruits and vegetables mean that a flexible and dynamic migration system for temporary low-skilled labourers will be absolutely crucial to ensuring the continued success of the Cornish economy.

It appears quite clear that the approach from Number Ten has been that as long as we stop free movement people will view that as delivering on the referendum. However, regaining sovereignty over our own laws and trade has instead become a more important issue. The notion of ‘control over our own borders’ has moved away from a debate around migration to one focused on the so-called backstop and the integrity of the union.

The Prime Minister has misread the mood of the country by overemphasising and prioritising the stopping of free movement of people. The draft Withdrawal Agreement has not captured the shift in public mood with regards to migration, and fails to keep our commitment to regain sovereignty to the UK – a precondition to any true Brexit that delivers on the result of the referendum.

In a rare admission of fault, the Prime Minister told MPs recently that she was wrong to have referred to EU citizens as “queue jumpers”. Though she might have been able to get away with that kind of language in 2016, the British people have since moved on and have come to better appreciate what is at stake in the migration debate and migration’s impact on our country.

Despite the many irreconcilable differences that exist between Remainers and Leavers over Brexit, there is a now a window of opportunity for a better, more sensible and cross-party debate around migration than the one we had in the referendum campaign. The public wants us as politicians to lead the way in improving the quality and quantity of discussions on migration.

It is absolutely right that as we leave the EU we do take back control of our borders. But having control over our own migration policy is not the same as stopping all migration. We should be able to manage migration in a way that suits our own economic and social needs and concerns whilst having a compassionate approach to those fleeing war, persecution and oppression. We should also be able to better ensure we have the infrastructure and services to meet any increase in population and protect those communities who have in the past felt overwhelmed by migration.

With the Immigration White Paper now published, the time is now to drop this hostile rhetoric against those who come legally to our country to contribute in our workplaces and communities, and begin a more mature and measured conversation around how we can put together a post-Brexit migration system that works for everyone.

John Downer: Scrapping HS2 wouldn’t help the North, it would cut a vital lifeline to the regional economies

Crucial investment in local rail infrastructure isn’t an alternative to the new line, it depends on it.

John Downer is a Director of High Speed Rail Industry Leaders (HSRIL), a group of companies and organisations which is committed to supporting the successful delivery of a world-class high speed rail network in Britain.

Every few months – and more often recently– comes the call to scrap HS2 and spend the money on something else.

And we’ve had it again this week on these very pages, reiterating previous suggestions that the Midlands and the North would be better served by investment in regional transport links.

But, however tempting it might be to spend the budget of a few billions per year on something else, there is little more the Government could do to jeopardise the economic prospects of cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds than scrap a project which is so fundamental to their future economic development.

For the most important thing to understand about HS2 is that it is not just a railway. It is an economic regeneration project (and the most important economic regeneration project in Britain for decades) which is catalysing a whole host of other investments in its wake.

What holds Britain back today is not the connections from big cities to London, but poor connections between the other big cities. Services between cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, and Newcastle are slow, unreliable, and overcrowded – and HS2 is absolutely integral to tackling this.

Remember your visit to Birmingham for the Party Conference in October? The cranes and building works were everywhere. Just outside the conference centre you saw the new headquarters of HSBC. Around the corner PwC is building their Midlands base, their biggest single investment outside London.

In Leeds, you have major new investment from Burberry and a whole South Bank regeneration for which HS2 is intrinsic. There are similar stories in Manchester and Liverpool too. And then ask the city leaders, from all political parties, how important HS2 is to triggering that investment, and unanimously they will tell you it is vital. Indeed, the project has no greater champion than Andy Street, Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands.

HS2 is about giving our great cities of the Midlands and the North the springboard to be the economic powerhouses of the future. Put harshly, without HS2, Britain has no strategy to grow our regional economies and no industrial strategy worthy of the name.

For HS2 trains won’t just reach those cities where the new line is being built. They will link into the rest of the network too, meaning that the services will reach 8 of the 10 biggest cities in Britain, reaching places like Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh that are far from the construction of the line itself.

That’s not to say the other transport investment people call for isn’t needed too. It is. And the Government is to be supported in the priority they are attaching to the Northern Powerhouse Rail project to improve east/west links across the north. But far from being an alternative to local transport investment, HS2 is a pre-requisite for it to be successful.

To take one specific example, the West Coast Mainline is presently jam-packed. Passenger numbers on the route have more than doubled since it was last upgraded just 15 years ago, and there is simply no space to add new trains whether for commuters and inter-city travellers or for more freight off the motorways and onto rail. Building HS2 will move the inter-city traffic onto the new line, freeing up capacity for vital local, regional, and commuter services, so passengers in places like Milton Keynes and Coventry will benefit from HS2 as it will improve their commutes into London and Birmingham respectively.

More widely still, the benefit of HS2 supply chain contracts are already being felt across the UK. Nus Ghani MP, the HS2 Minister, is hosting an event in Parliament next week to meet HS2 suppliers, and they come from far-and-wide, not just from the line of route.

Already more than 2000 companies have worked on HS2. There are archaeologists from Bristol, ecological experts from Cardiff, and earth-moving contractors from Buckinghamshire. There are already two suppliers in Northern Ireland, 25 in Scotland and 65 in the South West. HS2 is a truly national project with truly national benefits, and those benefits will only grow over the coming years.

For these businesses, the costs of cancelling HS2 right now would be enormous. Over 7,000 people are working on the project already, and that will become tens of thousands over the next couple of years, with 70 per cent of those jobs outside London. Cancelling it now would literally mean filling-in the freshly dug holes in Birmingham and Euston, and laying off all the apprentices working on site. Is that a serious proposition?

All things considered, HS2 is about joining Britain back together again, after a number of years when our divisions have been more prominent than our unity. It is essential for the UK, and even more vital still for the Midlands and the North which stand to gain the most.

The project is underway. The train has started its journey. Let’s makes sure it reaches its destination and that taxpayers wring every last ounce of benefit from it.

Lord Ashcroft: Special Report: St Helena – the island of fading hopes and dreams

It is an attractive destination, with a friendly population and a fascinating history, but it has been badly let down by officialdom.

The breath-taking view during the last half-mile of the short taxi ride from St Helena Airport to the heart of Jamestown is one that I will never tire of admiring.

On each side of a steep valley are cliffs that soar to more than 600 feet while, at the bottom, the streets of the island’s capital are full of charm and character as they lead down to the sea. Beyond the promenade are scores of boats of all shapes and sizes bobbing in the usually sheltered waters of James Bay.

The view is also a signal that I am about to meet arguably the world’s friendliest local people: “Saints”, as the islanders like to be known, are warm-hearted, hard-working and family-orientated.

However, last weekend, on my third visit to the island, the numerous locals that I met were not their usual cheery selves. In fact, I detected an overwhelming mood of weariness, frustration and, at times, even burning anger.

“The island is at an all-time low. There are no tourists, no money. Morale is not good: everyone is feeling the pinch and hurting,” said Patrick Henry, 53, who along with his partner, Lucille Johnson, 44, owns V2 Taxis, which I use for my shuttles to and from the airport.

They, like other islanders, invested their life-savings into businesses on the basis that the new airport, built with £285 million of taxpayers’ money and which finally opened to passenger flights 14 months ago, would bring unprecedented numbers of visitors to St Helena and, with them, economic prosperity.

The couple now have three businesses: an 18-vehicle taxi fleet, a pub, and a café – but not enough customers to justify the “huge amount of money” that they have invested.

St Helena, about a third the size of the Isle of Wight, is a British Overseas Territory that became famous as the location where Napoleon Bonaparte, the defeated French emperor, spent the majority of his exile until his death in 1821.

As a volcanic island that erupted out of the South Atlantic 15 million years ago, it is one of the most remote places on earth: some 1,200 miles from the African mainland and 1,800 miles from Brazil.

The island has a population of less than 4,500 who earn an average wage of little more than £7,000 a year. Yet inflation is running at 4.1 per cent and the average cost of goods and services are said to be 14 per cent more than in the UK due to the additional bills that remoteness brings.

The airport was built to replace the Royal Mail Ship St Helena as it reached the end of its life. The “RMS”, as it was affectionately known, took five days to reach the island from Cape Town. However, after various flight safety issues, St Helena now has only one regular weekend return flight from Johannesburg, with each flight capable of carrying less than 100 passengers.

The cost of a return economy flight from Johannesburg is typically around £900 and many flights have been delayed, in some cases by several days, due to weather problems. Several potential tourists have even returned home with bills running to thousands of pounds for flights and hotels without ever landing on the island.

I first came to St Helena with my parents when I was a toddler, while I came for the second time in January 2017. The purpose of my third visit, last weekend, was to speak to those who help to run the island, those entrepreneurs investing in it and also the man – and woman – on the street.

The biggest inward investor on St Helena is Hazel Wilmot (pictured, below), who has spent nearly £3 million buying and renovating both the Consulate Hotel in Jamestown and a 17-acre farm inland.

Her spending was based on the anticipation that the airport, originally due to open in 2012 before the opening was delayed twice more for safety reasons, would result in riches for entrepreneurs. Yet, in the run-up to the airport’s actual opening in October last year, Ms Wilmot says she went nine months without a single overnight paying guest.

Ms Wilmot, 62, was reduced to tears as she told me of her exasperation during her decade on the island after moving there from Botswana. She says her losses since December 2008 total more than £700,000 – an average of over £70,000 a year.

“Tourism has not generated the income that we were expecting or that we were promised,” she said, adding that islanders were even encouraged to invest long after the Department for International Development (DFID) and the St Helena Government (SHG) learned that strong unpredictable winds – known as “wind shear” – would endanger flights.

“We are basically being told ‘hang in there, sweetheart, and it’ll come right’. Well, I am surprised a few of us haven’t hung ourselves never mind just hung in there.”

Before the airport opened, official figures predicted that the tourist numbers to the island would increase from around 1,000 a year to 29,000 a year by 2042. “It’s completely pie in the sky,” said Ms Wilmot.

“The only way I am going anywhere is if you carry me out in a box,” she added. “But I am finding it very difficult at the moment.” Then the tears flowed before she added: “I don’t see any end in sight.” She now plans to seek a judicial review in the UK in order to seek compensation from DFID for its alleged incompetence and deceit.

Lyn Thomas (pictured, below), who has lived on the island all her life, is married with a stepson, two daughters and seven grandchildren. Along with Larry, her husband, and Tara, her daughter, Mrs Thomas, aged 54, owns two companies that operate seven shops and employ 40 people.

She told me of her frustration at waiting seven years for the SHG and the Environment and Natural Resources Directorate (ENRD) to make a decision on whether she can buy or lease a plot of land to build a retail centre that incorporates activities for young children and teenagers.

“I have gone round and round and round. If you don’t move your business forward, it starts to slide back. It’s the frustration of begging and kowtowing, and I am not very good at it. There are times when I lose my patience, but I will carry on,” said Mrs Thomas.

Mrs Thomas, who was formerly the Chairman of the Bank of St Helena, added: “Sometimes subsidies breed inefficiency so I don’t l like the word ‘subsidy’ but people can need a hand up to get fully functioning and financially viable.”

Many people on and off the island are desperate to have a direct flight link to Europe, in general, and the UK, in particular. Atlantic Star Airlines, headed by British pilot Richard Brown, remains keen to operate such a service but without public and/or private funds, flights to and from the island would be too costly. Furthermore, Atlantic Star could only operate such a service with permission from SHG, which, for now at least, has only one flight contract, with South African operator Airlink.

Gregory Cairns-Wicks, 54, is a married man with two children, who has lived on the island for 36 years. He owns and/or runs a 275-acre beef farm, three shops, and an importing business.

Mr Cairns-Wicks told me that in recent times taxes, import duties and freight charges have all increased, while targeted subsidies to the island have fallen and wages remain low.

“One way or another, things are not looking good,” he said, adding that some islanders are looking to move to the Falkland Islands, Ascension Island and the UK in search of higher wages and the means of eventually being able to afford to build their own house on St Helena. “When we lose young families, then that is a significant knock to the economy,” he said.

He said that unreliable flights meant that tourists, who have a choice of any number of destinations around the world, would not risk booking holidays on St Helena. “Unless something technical can be done with the airport to improve reliability, it’s going to be very, very difficult to build the economy – like trying to light a fire with a box of wet matches.”

Basil George (pictured, below), 82, a former teacher and the island’s former Director of Education – who now runs a tour company, Magma Way, with his son Kevin – is full of knowledge about the island. He believes that St Helena needs to maximise its resources, including its fishing and farming, while also diversifying.

“It’s a hugely difficult period. We need to manage this, going through this very difficult transition,” he told me. “The status we have as a self-governing territory and with a very small population really puts us in an impossible situation.”

During my two-day visit, I was a guest at Mantis St Helena, situated a stone’s throw from the sea in the heart of Jamestown. The hotel is stylish, well-run and well-staffed. In short, it has everything that anyone could wish from a 30-room, four-star boutique hotel except…a steady flow of guests.

The hotel, which opened its doors earlier this year, is managed, rather than owned, by the Mantis Collection, and is heavily subsided by SHG which saw the need to get an international-standard hotel on St Helena if it was to attract wealthy tourists. Yet, due to the island’s problems, the hotel’s occupancy rate hovers at between 15 and 20 per cent.

The Mantis Collection, founded and chaired by Adrian Gardiner, a successful South African businessman, had originally hoped to expand its interest on the island but now, like many other businesses, its confidence is waning in that the current airlift is not conducive to a successful tourist destination or other business opportunities.

DFID and SHG must never forget that international investors can look to operate anywhere in the world and so St Helena’s rulers must offer them assistance, encouragement and hope.

Already massive investment opportunities on the island have been missed. I am told that Shelco (the St Helena Leisure Corporation Ltd,) whose former chairman Sir Nigel Thompson like me has links to the island going back more than half a century, “lost the will to live” over countless delays to the first phase of its £120 million hotel and country club development for the island.

As a result, it recently sold a controlling stake in the company to Paul O’Sullivan, a successful businessman who also has ambitious development leisure plans for the island but who will never be foolish enough to sink in tens of millions of pounds of investment until the airport and other problems have been sorted out.

Mr O’Sullivan, who is the CEO of St Helena Corporation Plc, has 40 years’ experience as a pilot and therefore knows a thing or two about “next gen” (next generation) navigational aids.

He has told me that he believes St Helena’s current GBAS (Ground Based Augmentation System), fitted at a cost of some £2 million, can be adapted to enable planes to land on the island in most weathers. “It’s a major issue and if it’s not fixed soon, it will consign the island to a bleak future,” he said.

Mr O’Sullivan, who visited the island earlier this month, remains confident that, with a positive approach from DFID and SHG, he will invest more heavily on the island, and he has already built a show house there. “We did not go there to ‘loot and scoot’, we’re in for the long-haul and prepared to be patient,” he said.

Everyone on the island has thoughts on how it could prosper. Mike Olsson is the owner of the St Helena Independent newspaper which, along with Saint FM radio station, I sponsor to ensure its editorial independence. He believes that improved banking facilities and obtaining a new fibre-optic cable link are essential to the island’s future prosperity. There are moves to ensure that a fibre-optic cable running from South Africa to Brazil, which would provide super-fast internet speeds and other benefits, can branch off to St Helena.

Mr Olsson also favours “residential tourism”, particularly from northern Europe, so that long-term visitors during the northern hemisphere’s winter would not be so dependent on the weekly flights. Such a move, with numerous tourists staying on the island for months rather than days, would, however, require a big increase in medical facilities for the elderly

During my visit, Governor Lisa Honan, who has been widely praised for improving SHG’s transparency, was off-island due to work commitments. However, I spoke with others who help to run the island and manage its economy.

Lawson Henry (pictured, below), who has been a St Helena councillor for five years, is a member of the five-strong island Cabinet and chairs the economic and development committee.

“St Helena has real potential to be a tourist destination,” he told me. “It is only a small island but the diversity of what we have to offer could make us a good tourist destination.”

However, Councillor Henry was deeply critical of the decision to have the current airport “hub” – for flights to and from St Helena – in Johannesburg rather than Cape Town, where Saints have strong historic links and where tourists feel safer and keener to visit than crime-ridden Johannesburg. “We have to have a re-look at the hub and people have to be able to reach the island from different points of origin…If we don’t make these interventions, I think tourists will eventually stop coming.”

Councillor Henry added: “This has been a huge investment by the British taxpayer in this island and if the British Government doesn’t support us in doing some really fundamental other things, then it is not going to work.”

“There is a lot of frustration here on the island at this time…And there is a lot of pain in the community because of the state of our economy…There is a real lack of understanding of how a small isolated island has to operate.”

In recent years, St Helena has received around £30 million a year in Government subsidies from DFID but the ambition remains that, with a vibrant economy that includes a strong tourism sector, the island eventually moves towards self-sufficiency.

Dr Dawn Cranswick, who is Chief Executive for Economic Development, told me that it was “disappointing” to hear that entrepreneurs on and off the island had criticised the official support they received.

Little more than three months into her role, it would be unfair to expect her to come up with overnight solutions to problems that others have taken years or even decades to try to solve.

Dr Cranswick (pictured, right) said: “I think that as time goes on all of us, including tourism businesses on and off the island, will develop a stronger knowledge and understanding about how unique, niche destinations such as St Helena emerge as tourism destinations.

“I think there is a lot of very good work that has been done already but of course there is more to do. We now have around 50 international tour operators marketing the island. One of the things we are learning is the time it takes for a tour operator to come to know a destination and get it into their plans.”

Amid the disappointments and the criticisms, it should never be forgotten what an attractive destination St Helena is for the more adventurous traveller or how easy it is, once you have finally reached the island, to get around it and see the wonderful sights. St Helena offers an attractive climate, a rich history, stunning scenery, a unique wildlife, great walking, friendly locals and much more besides.

I broke off from my interviews for a couple of hours one afternoon to tour the island and remind myself of all it has to offer. I visited Longwood House, where Napoleon lived for six years. It is also the location where, aged just two, I fell into the goldfish pond (pictured, below) fully clothed while I was with my parents en route to Nyasaland, now Malawi.

I also visited Jacob’s Ladder (pictured, right) where, during the same visit in 1948, my late father Eric, then a fit young man, carried me up all 699 steps that had been cut into the hillside by the military in 1829 so that ammunition and other supplies could be carried up the cliff.

Furthermore, I was invited to Plantation House, the Governor’s official residence, where I had an interesting off-the-record conversation with Acting Governor Louise MacMorran before seeing Jonathan, the giant Seychelles tortoise. At 186 years old, he is the oldest tortoise in the world and possibly the oldest land animal, too.

I have no intention of investing in St Helena. My involvement is, by writing a lengthy blog and making a short film on my visit, to make a small contribution towards a greater understanding of the island’s problems and perhaps even to help find some solutions.

I hope that Saints and others will feel that my interviews with such a wide-range of islanders, rulers and investors leave me equipped to offer a few thoughts for others to ponder.

There is no doubt that insufficient research, including test flights, went into the airport before it was built, but the island will never have a second airport so it now needs to make the most of what it has. My well-informed contacts tell me that “wind shear” and cross winds are not, in fact, the major problem.

Instead, with an airport built at nearly 1,000 feet (pictured, below), it is low cloud that is largely causing the flight delays. I am no aviation expert but DFID, as a matter of urgency, needs to provide the island, at whatever the cost, the best equipment to enable planes to land regularly whatever the cloud conditions.

St Helena’s infrastructure, particularly its costly and unreliable communications, needs to be improved as a matter of urgency and its leaders need to be more welcoming and supportive to both local entrepreneurs and major outside investors.

I encountered red-tape from the moment I arrived when immigration officials insisted on myself and my small team filling in arrival forms, as well as providing immediate proof of our departure flights and health insurance. Why not follow the South African example of, upon entry, only needing a compulsory passport and optional smile?

Furthermore, I believe there should be a completely independent, strategic review of the island with nothing deemed “off the table”, including the island’s relationship with the UK. Saints would probably not want to be fully independent of the UK nor fully integrated into the UK, but everything needs to be assessed by experts who are devoid of any agenda.

Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, recently aired the possibility that a small number of senior overseas diplomatic posts could be filled by experienced businessmen or women.

Just days before I landed on St Helena, it was announced that the new governor of the island will be Dr Philip Rushbrook, who takes up his role in May.

I mean no disrespect to Dr Rushbrook, but surely St Helena presented the perfect opportunity to put a business leader, rather than a career civil servant, in the role. It would have been a controversial move but it might well have been a bold and wise move too.

As I headed back to the airport by taxi at the end of my two-day visit, I felt sad that Saints have become so despondent about their uncertain future. Their savings are dwindling, their resilience is weakening and their dreams are fading. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions but this tightly-knit community, which will always have a special place in my heart, deserves better.

>Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is an international businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For more information on his work, visit www.lordashcroft.com