Judy Terry: West Suffolk is showing the way on apprenticeships

13 Jul

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

Journalists are cynics, but every once in a while you meet someone who restores your faith in strong, inspirational, leadership; someone exuding confidence and commitment, as well as charm and humour, who gets results.

Dr. Nikos Savvas, a Particle Physicist, and Chief Executive of West Suffolk College (WSC) in Bury St Edmunds, and Suffolk Academies Trust that includes One sixth form college in Ipswich and Abbeygate sixth form college in Bury St Edmunds is just such a person.

Over the last seven years, he has developed a series of advanced full and part time training courses, tailored to the needs of local businesses, to make West Suffolk College the largest apprenticeship provider in the region with over 2,000 apprenticeship students.

Winning over 50 awards, and holding 369 major events to engage with prospective students and employers, promoting opportunities to develop specialist skills as an alternative to – or a route to – a degree, the College is earning a prized reputation for excellence at a time when Technical Colleges are finally regaining their rightful place in the education system.

He admits to “being inspired by a disadvantaged young woman who dropped out of education at 14, and then went on to College. It made me want to teach, making a difference to young lives, giving them aspiration and ambition.”

His enthusiasm is infectious, as evidenced by his loyal and talented 1000-strong team supporting delivery, imparting their knowledge and expertise, in a happy and proactive learning environment.

In the last two years alone, Dr. Savvas has attracted millions to invest in new and improved facilities. He has forged strong relationships to support science, technology and engineering skills development across the East, working closely with Cambridge University, the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the National Skills Academy for Nuclear on innovative projects as well as achieving ‘Computer Hub’ status in order to upskill teachers across the region.

A joint needs analysis with the business community has built working relationships with BT, Marshalls Aerospace and EDF (for the existing work at Sizewell B and the planned Sizewell C nuclear project) as well as The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Elstree film studios, using students’ film and creative media expertise on the James Bond franchise and Star Wars.

Across the four campuses the College delivers training in all the Humanities, Health and the Arts, together with Animal and Equine Management, Veterinary Nursing, Beauty Therapy, Hairdressing and Fashion, Building and Construction, Law, Motor Vehicle skills, Performing Arts, Music and Photography, and Graphic Design. Their Hospitality students are trained to a Michelin standard not only in their inhouse ‘AA Highly Commended’ restaurant but in industry

Last year the College opened a new 90,000 sq. ft STEM Innovation Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation which, partly funded by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (NALEP), helps train students design computer games, explore robotic innovations, and scope for new prosthetics enabling rehabilitation for amputees. The College hopes to create a small-business hub for new enterprises alongside this facility, taking mentoring to a new level, sharing experiences as they grow.

Part of the Eastern Colleges Group, WSC also provides “outstanding vocational and academic” post-16 education from Colchester to Norwich, Ipswich to Cambridge for over 12,000 students. The College has also sponsored the creation of a new 6th form college – Abbeygate Sixth Form College, which is now under construction on the Bury St. Edmunds site, for an autumn 2020 opening. Dr. Savvas explains “for me, education and removing the barriers preventing anyone from achieving their true potential is essential if we are to lead fulfilling lives, having jobs with real purpose and prospects.”

Retraining older workers wishing to renew their careers, is another priority. “There is a lot of hidden talent, and we must draw that out.” WSC is committed to giving students support, including financial, for course materials, as well as welfare support for activities inside and outside the College. This approach enhances mutual respect, with students feeling valued, rather than ‘cash cows’, which is the case in some universities, where lecturers’ strikes leave students without vital tutorials, feeling especially vulnerable as they approach their final year exams.

“Our priorities are to support the character strengths evident in every successful individual: qualifications are, of course, high on the agenda, but resilience, curiosity, confidence, ambition and respect are equally important. Businesses want optimistic, self-disciplined recruits with good communication, who are creative, with a ‘get up and go’ mentality, ready and willing to adapt to change.”

Embedding good timekeeping is essential.

Raising awareness of all the opportunities means holding open days at the college, with tours and introductions to tutors and existing students, as well as going into primaries, and secondary schools, to enthuse youngsters – and their teachers – from an early age, with a particular focus on science, engineering, computer technology. Praised by Ofsted, this approach is supported by the County and District Councils and business community.

The annual Festival of Learning is a fixture for the first Friday in July, attracting 1,500 teachers, educational experts and business leaders.

Spending a few hours walking round the site, visiting the various training hubs to meet students and lecturers, and chatting with Dr. Savvas (who stopped every few yards, to pick up litter dropped by the students) was a lesson in how such passion can be transformative. Having three young daughters, he is conscious of the need for equal opportunities for everyone, challenging all forms of discrimination, whether based on sexuality or disability:

“Students are at the heart of what we do, they are drawn to us for our inclusivity and outstanding education, focused on each individual to get the very best out of them. They never cease to amaze me with their determination and willingness to strive for, and exceed, what we expect of them.

“We believe that our responsive curriculum and collaborative approach with employers and local communities is a catalyst for prosperity across the wider region, as our reputation for excellence spreads nationally, and even internationally.” He has certainly spread the word widely overseas, being invited to foreign institutes, and Apple in the United States.

Meanwhile, West Suffolk Council’s ambitious strategy to develop a leisure and business complex, alongside the WSC site, is already attracting investment, with some big names planning further expansion, expressing significant interest in developing close partnerships with the College.

John Griffiths, the Council Leader, says:

“We are proud of how West Suffolk College is contributing to the local economy, with its diverse range of career training opportunities, adding to the vibrancy of our region. We want to attract and retain talent, giving everyone the right career choices. Technology, in particular, moves at such a pace, it’s essential to keep up with the demand for appropriately qualified recruits across all industries, and the College does just that.”

It also undoubtedly helps with securing diverse sources of income from the private and public sectors to ensure its financial stability and sustainability into the long term.

Peter Golds: I’m delighted that outdated election law is being reviewed

10 Jul

Cllr Peter Golds is a councillor in Tower Hamlets. He has served as a London councillor for almost 21 years and is a Board Member of the Conservative Councillors Association.

In May, Chaudhary Mohammed Iqbal, a Labour councillor for the Loxford ward of the Borough of Redbridge was charged with “making false statements in candidate nomination papers” during the 2018 local election. The Metropolitan Police revealed that the charges “relate to false declarations by Councillor Iqbal regarding his address.” From what is so far publicly known, they are very similar to numerous circumstances of false statements that the Metropolitan Police repeatedly failed to investigate in Tower Hamlets.

Following the 2019 general election, the government announced it was seeking to make changes to election law. Select Committees in both Houses of Parliament have examined election law and the Law Commission has made 106 recommended changes to existing law in a report that runs to 204 pages.

In the meantime, the Electoral Commission, which receives almost £18 million per year of taxpayer funding stumbles from one crisis to another. Worryingly, this dangerously flawed body is seeking to have enhanced powers of prosecution. As I will outline later it should be put out of its misery.

Some of the problems faced by the police, who are responsible for law enforcement, and the taxpayer funded Electoral Commission, which acts as a regulator, may be identified in this observation in the report of the Law Commission:

“The legal framework underpinning our electoral processes is ‘complex, voluminous and fragmented’ comprising 55 separate Acts of Parliament and 227 other pieces of legislation relating to elections.”

When one considers that these numerous changes have, in the words of the Law Commission “retro-fitted onto rules from earlier centuries.” Simplifying, updating, modernising, and consolidating electoral law is long overdue.

The last major consolidation of election law was in 1983, almost four decades ago. This was at a time when “fax machines” were a novelty, mobile phones were unknown, and “twitter,” “facebook,” “whats app,” “tik tok”and “snapchat” were not even imagined in sci-fi books, films, or episodes of Doctor Who.

The Law Commission itself describes the need for election law to be framed in precise and yet compelling language. This must be language that can be understood by the regulator, the police, election candidates, election agents, activists, and political parties.

The UK piecemeal approach to reform resulting in far too much diffuse legislation must be avoided. Currently the law identifies corrupt practices, which are done knowingly and illegal practices which may be done accidentally. To a contemporary ear the definition of corrupt practices may seem arcane. They are:

“Bribery, undue influence, treating, personation, unauthorised expenditure and falsification of accounts.”

Trying to prove to the police, let alone a modern court of law, bribery and undue influence, and treating it is a difficult if not almost impossible task. That is before we reach practices which the majority of the contemporary population would regard as illegal – and yet it is almost impossible to get these before a court.

Let me take one example. In 2014 there was much controversy in Tower Hamlets when a car was stopped in a routine police check and over 200 photocopies of completed postal vote applications, which include the applicants signature and date of birth of applicants, were found in the vehicle. The police faced enormous criticism for not arresting the driver. However, under existing election law this is neither a corrupt nor illegal practice, notwithstanding that the electors signature and date of birth are the proof required for a valid postal vote to be registered when submitted. A police officer later told me that had they found 200 applications for credit cards, it would have been a very different story.

Equally, there is no legal requirement for imprints, which identify the producer of the material and the cost centre for the posted material, to be included in Twitter and Facebook.

In 2018, a candidate of Aspire, the latest name of the Tower Hamlets Rahman party, was filmed visiting addresses and pressurising residents to hand over postal votes. The police passed over a file to the CPS who declined to prosecute. Amongst the reasons given for not prosecuting was the long standing get out of “public interest” and the absence of legislation preventing a candidate or agent of a candidate from collecting postal votes. In effect, a defence barrister could have argued that what was taking place was not illegal.

Where do we need change?

Despite the series of successful election petitions identifying corruption in recent years, the police, Electoral Commission, CPS, and election officials, are constantly playing catch up, particularly with regard to social media and digital campaigning and in some cases interpreting an election process that is dated and often (wilfully?) misunderstood.

Changes made by the Electoral Commission to the once simple process, such as the nomination of candidates and the return of election expenses are increasingly complex, involving not easily understood forms and procedures designed by the Electoral Commission. This does not assist transparency or assist voluntary election agents. The Law Commission note this deficiency in their recommendations regarding nomination papers.

The public perception of electoral fraud has increased in recent years. Voting which was once “ a private act in public”  is now, as a result of postal votes on demand, often seen to be “a public act in private.” Unfortunately, politicians appear to be unwilling to rectify this.  As it stands, the law can do little or nothing even when faced with evidence of dubious practice regarding postal votes. The Law needs to be strengthened to reduce levels of corruption.

There is overwhelming support for voters to produce a form of ID when voting. This was introduced in Northern Ireland by the Blair government earlier this century and was one of many changes which added to community cohesion. When joining the Labour Party, ID is required for proof of address and two items of ID are required to attend a Labour Party selection meeting. Why Labour has recently become opposed to voter ID in elections is a matter of curiosity?

In the aftermath of the 2017 General Election, there was a flurry of interest resulting from claims on social media of people boasting how they voted more than once and providing information on this. Unsurprisingly, there was little or no police action with regard to this easily proven voter fraud. Why?

In the modern age, with extensive postal voting on demand, there is no reason why any person should have dual registration for Parliamentary elections.  If an elector is fortunate to have two or more homes then they are entitled to a local government vote for each different local authority. In such a case the voter should indicate where they vote for parliamentary elections. This is not a dramatic change. Many people are surprised that it is possible for some people to choose in which constituency they vote.

The Law Commission has excellent proposals for streamlining the challenging of an election. They do not make proposals as to the prohibitive expense and the financial consequences of challenging an election in the Courts, even when successful. The Tower Hamlets petition was a landmark decision. However, despite winning the case, the petitioners lost huge sums of money. In the circumstances where a petition is not vexatious, and the petitioners are successful, then there should be a treasury fund to underwrite costs, or the petition should be taken over by the CPS.

An increasing problem in inner cities is crowding polling stations by supporters of candidates and parties. This was an issue in the 2014 Tower Hamlets petition and the problem has not gone away. In 2018 the report by Democracy Volunteers in Tower Hamlets noted the numbers of people crowding some polling stations. Below is a paragraph from the report:

“The most problematic polling station was in Poplar, just off Poplar High Street, which we visited during the afternoon. There, a group of around fifteen men, not wearing any party identification, had gathered on the pavement opposite the school entrance. When asked whether they were there for any party, they said they were, but were clearly unhappy to have been asked the question. They made us feel uncomfortable.”

By the time an elector reaches a polling station they must know for whom they are voting. There can be no need to canvass them at the entrance, force literature into their hands, and even as I have seen here and unfortunately elsewhere in London, escort them inside. Legislation should include the uninterrupted passage of voters to polling stations. Nowadays, fewer political parties have tellers collecting numbers and increasingly fewer voters are willing to give numbers where telling still takes place.

Democracy volunteers also express concern regarding “family voting.” This same survey indicated that in 58 per cent of polling stations  they visited they witnessed as many as 19 per cent of voters communally voting. In most cases this involves a male voting for or supervising a female. Women have had the parliamentary vote since 1919 in the UK. The right of women to vote in private must be secured and legislation must reflect this.

Entry to polling stations should be restricted to voters, officials, those permitted by The Returning Officer to attend the polling station (candidates, election agents and polling agents) and anybody escorting a disabled voter. This should not include journalists seeking stories and there should be restrictions as to filming inside polling stations.

It should be illegal to photograph and publish completed ballot papers. The reason for the latter point is a dishonest voter can prove to a candidate or political group how they have voted.

The growth of “social media” has introduced unregulated, brutal, and threatening behaviour into the political process. The threats suffered by women, minority candidates, and political opponents, have scarred elections in recent years. References to rape and physical violence against women are disgusting, yet are the tip of an iceberg floating in a political sewer.

The situation under Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets where his opponents were routinely described as “racist”, “alcoholic”, “unislamic” and “zionist” in social media and spread by his canvassers was an ongoing problem.

Making false statements as to a candidate is covered under S106a of the 1983 Act. This needs to be reviewed and re-introduced with reference to social media and enforced by the law. The Metropolitan Police excuse of “having words” with those who undertake such action is not acceptable. On one occasion I was told by the police that a Rahman activist who had tweeted “Let us salute Hitler the Great,” and a lot worse, was making “political comment.”

Intimidation must be included as an election offence to ensure when reported that it is considered by the police as a criminal activity relating to an election. It must be included amongst those offences which can, as a last resort, be included in an election petition.

Commissioner Mawrey QC ruled that Spiritual Influence was a factor in the 2014 Tower Hamlets election. The evidence was an event at which a gathering of Imans and Scholars stated that it was the “Islamic duty of Muslim voters” to support Rahman. This was published widely in newspapers circulating in Mosques.

Rahman sought to contest this decision of the Court by Judicial Review but he did not proceeded.

This is a problem in which the law needs to be bought up to date and reflect contemporary circumstances to ensure that this does not occur in the future.

Candidates must have recourse to deal with threats and intimidation via social media and the legislative framework should recognise this and cover promotional and negative posts. There is a difference between saying a political party is incorrect or follows the wrong policies and sending deeply personal and threatening abuse to an individual candidate.

Finally, there is the use of false names to abuse opponents via facebook and twitter. In Tower Hamlets during the Rahman era there were numerous postings on social media being directed at local people from a long-term local resident and member of the Labour Party. By mistake the author was identified as a 20-year-old undergraduate, paid by the council to do work for Rahman, using a computer address from his University.

As I completed this article, I read Jon Moynihan’s masterful critique of the Electoral Commission. He is absolutely correct in identifying how the Electoral Commission makes law when none exists.

In 2019, whilst researching a potentially fraudulent voter, I was refused permission, for the first time, by the electoral registration officer to examine archive electoral registers. This change took place without consultation or an alteration to the law. Adrian Green of the Electoral Commission wrote to all local authorities saying that the law has remained “silent on what to do with electoral registers” and this has been unchallenged since 2001. He goes on to say:

“Unfortunately, the law is silent as to what is done with registers that are 2-10 years old. Because the law is silent on this, the Commission have interpreted that libraries and archive services may provide access to registers between 2 and 10 years old, but there is no duty for them to do so.”

So Adrian Green, whoever he might be, decides to change the law without recourse to parliament or even a consultation exercise. Needless to say he was supported by Robert Posner.

For two and half years the country was convulsed over the possibility of a second referendum on membership of the EU. Had such a referendum been called, the Electoral Commission would have played a major part in approving the question, the timetable and deciding who would be the representative body of each campaign. The decisions on this would have been made by a body chaired by Sir John Holmes, who was a fervent and public supporter of one side of the argument and involved a compliance officer who tweeted support for a political party and managed by the hopelessly compromised Robert Posner.

The lawyers would have made a fortune before the campaign even started.

A few years ago I was approached by colleague outside of London with concerns that there was a Birmingham/Tower Hamlets situation in his area. I arranged a meeting with the Electoral Commission. A well presented dossier was handed over but nothing happened.

In the notorious Tower Hamlets election of 2014, the Electoral Commission were repeatedly warned in writing about fraud, intimidation, false addresses, false returns of expenses and the certainty of a chaotic count due to the unsuitable venues and unique counting process. They ignored every single warning, concentrating on a “protocol” which was ignored by everybody concerned including ultimately, the Electoral Commission itself. After the election they never met the petitioners or made any attempt to attend the council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee for our comments.

The Electoral Commission serves no useful purpose and must go.

I have proposed a reduced, renamed body which should exist only to record and publicise political donations to political parties. Jon Moynihan suggests Companies House. That is certainly a possibility.

The process of management of elections should be in the hands of Returning Officers and supervised by governmental departments which can be bought before select committees.

In line with recommendations by the Law Commission, election forms should be made easier and these should be produced by a government department, in line with legislation, as happened prior to the Electoral Commission.

Finally there should be a dedicated unit of trained officers at the National Crime Agency to investigate electoral fraud. One of the problems that has affected police investigations from Birmingham to Tower Hamlets is the lack of understanding by police officers as to how elections are conducted. One officer once wanted to interview me on an election day and could not understand why I would be busy. When I did meet him (three months later) he was more interested as to whether I was legally entitled to a copy of the electoral register than looking into the dubious entries that I had identified.

I am wrestling with three other problems where legislation will be difficult, which will be the basis of my next contribution.

Rough sleeping has fallen sharply. The challenge is to stop it rising again.

9 Jul

Ending rough sleeping poses a particular challenge in a free society. That is because it is not only a matter of making help available, but of persuading those who need it, to accept it. Another complication is that the help required goes beyond accommodation. The lack of a bed to sleep in is invariably a symptom rather than the cause of an individual’s difficulties.

The coronavirus prompted greater urgency for the Government to take action. Ministers had already outlined in February a determination to find a long term solution – with the assistance of Dame Louise Casey.

Though this issue is a moral disgrace and source of national shame the numbers involved are relatively small. The latest snapshot survey for those sleeping rough on one particular night last autumn came up with a figure of 4,266. The BBC gave a figure of 28,000 (based on FOI requests to local authorities) of different people who had slept rough at one stage or another over 12 months.

How many have come off the streets during the coronavirus crisis? 15,000 have been provided emergency accommodation – though not all of those were rough sleepers. Some are from hostels and shelters which have had to close due to social distancing rules. Others will be those who would otherwise have got by as “sofa surfers”. There will also be those escaping domestic violence. However, there might also be around 5,000 who came straight from the streets.

What is impressive is how high the acceptance rate has been from the rough sleepers offered a room. Many have been surprised it has been so high. Only a few hundred are thought to have spurned an offer. It could be the attraction of a hotel rather than a more humble shelter. It could be fear of the coronavirus. Then there is the tough choice that getting food – or the money to buy food – while staying on the streets would be harder. As noted, coercion is not available, but the tone of encouraging people to accept help has been emphatic rather than passive.

Amidst the statistical fog, a couple of points emerge. Firstly, that in proportion to the population, the number of rough sleepers was already tiny. The population of England is 56 million. It follows that accommodating them is a relatively modest claim on the public purse. Providing for others – children, pensioners, the unemployed, the disabled – are vastly more costly items. Secondly, that the already small number sleeping on the streets before the pandemic has fallen substantially.

Dame Louise says in an interview for The Big Issue:

“I was due to do a review into rough sleeping and homelessness but we have all been turned upside down by Covid-19. The primary motivation so far was led by Covid-19 to do an extraordinary thing in unprecedented times, which was to say, “Let’s just get everyone in.” We had everybody getting on the phone to hotels, getting [charities] St Mungo’s, Thames Reach and Look Ahead in London to stand up enough staff to literally in a couple of weeks add to the estate in London by 2,000 beds.

“We were chasing the virus just trying to stay ahead of it. When the inquiry eventually comes saying: “How did you do it? Why did you do it? And what choices did you make?” We just went for it, everybody went for it. We had to get everybody in, we cannot have people dying on the streets. And we cannot have people dying in communal night shelters and that is the prospect that we were facing. We need to be clear that right now we are dealing with this extraordinary situation where 15,000 people have been accommodated at this time.

“I’m not saying that we don’t want to work out how do we not return to the situation that we have seen in the last few years. But our primary purpose so far has been to keep people safe. That will remain our primary purpose, but at the same time we feel that we should see this as an opportunity to think that we can get something extraordinary out of this but that will take an extraordinary effort. The homelessness sector itself and the wider community also needs to think, at this horrific time in our nation’s history, what they can do to help as opposed to what they call on the government to do.”

Jeremy Swain, the Government’s adviser on homelessness, was also interviewed. He said:

“I was involved with Housing First in the 1990s and I’m a big fan, but the problem is there is a slight danger that we think that everybody in those hotels at the moment needs wraparound support and they need it for a long time. What we need to be doing, as well as getting people into housing, is to get people into work. And that is what they are wanting. That’s what they want – when I was at Thames Reach and you put out the questionnaires, 75 per cent of people wanted the services to help them get jobs. Consistently it is bottom of the list for the homelessness sector when for the people themselves it is top of the list.”

That is the tricky part. Amidst Government spending of £850 billion a year, funding an extra 5,000 hostel beds is a footling item. (That’s even before we consider the £10 billion a year we give to charity, often to help the homeless.) Getting those who have taken a wrong turn in life back on the path to proud, independent, and responsible existence is harder. Getting a job would be a pretty obvious ambition. Often that will mean overcoming such afflictions as drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness. When I was a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham I found that very little specialist accommodation was provided – even though the Council had a very substantial Public Health budget which was largely wasted.

Many of those in emergency accommodation have been put up in hotels that would otherwise be empty. It is welcome that hotels are going back to normal business as the economy reopens. That does mean that alternative places to stay are needed – though some hotels are extended their contracts for emergency accommodation. Some universities have made rooms available in their halls of residence – after all college authorities need the money and these rooms would otherwise be empty at present. Some YMCA hostels have single rooms. Then councils have managed to find rooms for some in the private rented sector.

In the long term though, the Government plans new hostel places for 6,000. Much of this will be for specialist housing to cater for particular medical conditions. That will be crucial for these unfortunate souls to have their lives turned around.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste,” declared Winston Churchill. The signs are encouraging with respect to the impact of the pandemic on rough sleeping. A passive response from the authorities to those sleeping in shop doorways and along underpasses is no longer acceptable. Most of those people have already made some reconnection with society and there is every chance that it will not be broken.

Sandy Verma: Labour has let Leicester down

8 Jul

Baroness Verma is a businesswoman. She is a former Energy & Climate Change Minister and a former International Development Minister.

The blame behind Leicester’s return to lockdown continues to be thrashed out. Matt Hancock announced last Monday that my city would be pushed backwards whilst the rest of the country enjoys newfound freedoms that the loosening of the lockdown brought over the weekend. Leicester City Council which is supposed to be led by Peter Soulsby continues to deny that the re-lockdown is their fault, despite local knowledge being ignored.

Even though Leicester is one of the most diverse cities in the country, Leicester City Council still refuses to assist with any English classes for non-native speakers; then in the height of a public health crisis they decide to send a leaflet out to every household in the city on Coronavirus and how to stay safe in Leicester – only in English. This left thousands of residents without a clue about the new measures.

An undercover investigation from the Sunday Times has also shined a light on the total exploitation of workers in Leicester, many have foreign backgrounds, and many do not speak English. The workers are paid £3.50 per hour or less in some cases, told to work even though they feel unwell, and work in conditions where appropriate safety measures are impossible to impose.

This is not the first time that factories in Leicester have been exposed in this way. The Financial Times, Radio 4’s Today programme, and Channel 4 have all previously revealed the malpractice of these factories. With Leicester’s local paper, the Leicester Mercury, regularly covering the extended scandal.

A Labour document that has been brought to my attention shows that the Council have been aware of the problems at some of the factories in the city since 2017. Whichever way the Labour Party locally want to spin this, those factories, those poorly paid workers, have been under their noses for a long time.

We, as a local party, contacted the MPs and councillors in the city back in April, shedding light on how some of the workers in the factories were being treated during the lockdown. We wrote:

“We have had a number of people contacting us in fear that factory owners are flouting the law by appearing closed but with employees still working behind shuttered premises.”

‘This is not only dangerous to the workers in the factories but also the families and wider communities at large.’

And continued:

“We want assurances from you as the elected representative that you are ensuring that these occurrences are reported to the police and trading standards and action taken immediately.”

Despite our best efforts all those we contacted declined to pursue or help those who were vulnerable and at high risk of catching COVID. The Mayor who had our letter forwarded also declined to help. Meaning that those who were most defenceless were let down by those elected to preserve their safety

For context, although my city is ethnically very diverse, the political makeup is anything but. The Council Chamber is made up of 51 Labour councillors out of a possible 53 and a directly elected Labour Mayor; there are three Labour Members of Parliament in the city; and a Labour Police and Crime Commissioner.

The Council must answer why calls of concern from alarmed local Conservatives were ignored by the Labour Mayor and his councillors. It appears that they, alongside other agencies, have been caught short on dealing with matters that are the most important within the city.

In a leaked Labour briefing document, the Labour councillors are now being told to blame the Tory government at all costs; they will not take accountability for their actions. These issues are not new; the Labour Party has held power in Leicester for decades; these communities have been kept poor and excluded. The Council in Leicester must start to support community integration, and share knowledge of rights and access to services, which up to now has been a total failure from the Labour Party. The constant carping and blaming the Conservative Party for their mismanagement and their inability to attract investment has been demonstrated time and time again, however, given that up to now they have had no opposition they cannot be allowed to get away with it any longer.

The local Members of Parliament have also been blatantly silent on the ground for months. Jonathan Ashworth and Liz Kendall constantly would rather further their careers than look after their electorate. Whereas Keith Vaz’s replacement, Claudia Webbe, is more interested in her Council constituents in Islington. What a mess my city is in…

Labour put forward a local councillor to defend its lack of action on this scandal on the local radio on Monday morning. Cllr Malik, who is currently under investigation for anti-Semitism, appeared on BBC Radio Leicester. He said:

“It is unfair (the city is in the spotlight over this) because Leicester is known all over the world for its positive diversity and community cohesion.”

When questioned why nothing had changed despite the extensive media coverage into the sweatshops he continued:

“We cannot say nothing has happened, obviously we are aware of all these practices.”

The pandemic has highlighted so many failings that fall at the door of elected Labour members in Leicester. I am calling for a full industry-wide investigation into these allegations and I believe that the investigation should include whether elected officials knew about the practices and chose not to act.

The people of Leicester are quickly losing confidence in the Mayor who himself broke lockdown rules. His hypocritical followers may try and keep him in place for a little longer but it will be a disgrace to Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour leadership if he doesn’t ensure the back of Soulsby very soon. His credibility will diminish if he doesn’t root out the anti-Semitic hate-mongers that blight the harmony of a city like Leicester. His conviction will be questioned if he doesn’t call for a full investigation into the fashion industry and the politicians behind the factory scandal.

Shaun Bailey: The Tories shouldn’t be afraid of talking about social housing

7 Jul

Shaun Bailey is the MP for West Bromwich West.

I’ve been getting used to being quite a novelty. One of the new Conservative MPs from a traditionally working class, Labour area, and, more pertinently perhaps, one of the few Conservative MPs brought up in Social Housing.

Social housing saved me and my family when we were at our lowest. My Mum had just survived a torrid, abusive, relationship with my father. We spent a year living out of our car, sleeping on the sofas of relatives and not knowing where we would end up next.

My mum’s initial experience of social housing was a tough one. When we were (finally) given somewhere to live, after battling the local authority for over a year, the house my Mum was presented with was battered, dirty, and needed serious work to just make it habitable. My mum did what she’d always done; she knuckled down and she made it liveable. We eventually moved on and found the home that my Mum has now lived in for over 20 years.

The discussion around social housing and socially rented homes often gets confused with the debate around affordable homes. Of course, as a Conservative, I absolutely believe we should ensure that everyone is able to own their home, but the pursuit of our property-owning utopia should not ignore those people who may not be able to (or want to) own their home.

For me, and for the communities I represent, social housing is a bedrock.

For me, it provided somewhere safe, somewhere I could thrive and work, and more importantly it supported that sense of ‘Place’ that is so integral to anyone’s identity and stability. That is why the government is striving to ensure this is re-invigorated, particularly in areas like mine, which have seen their communities disintegrated after years of being overlooked.

There have been some real wins for social housing recently. Last year, housing associations in England built more than 45,600 affordable homes and added an estimated £2.4 billion to the national economy. Notwithstanding the clear economic benefits of a strong social housing network, the residual benefits of providing a strong foundation for some of the most vulnerable in our communities to be able to go out and expand from, goes without saying. Giving people a sense of responsibility and belonging allows all the other aspects of community to flourish. That’s how I went from Social Housing to Westminster and how every little boy like me should also be given that chance.

There is however, still more to do:

A YouGov Survey published last week by the National Housing Federation shows that:

  • More than 1 in 10 people have said they felt depressed during lockdown, because of a lack of space in their home.
  • One in 20 people who said they had a lack of space had also said they had needed medication as a result.
  • Nearly 20 per cent of those in cramped conditions hadn’t been able to get enough sleep due to lack of space.

Clearly, these are problems that need resolving.

I am excited by the Prime Minister’s statement that our recovery will involve “Build, Build, Build” – this is key to our future.

It is now incumbent on politicians like me, representing communities like mine, to ensure that social housing is at the heart of our recovery plan and gets the support that’s long overdue to resolve these problems, which I am sure many of my constituents can relate to.

Yes, this does mean building more homes, but it also means looking at innovative ways that we can sustain and improve our current social housing stock. It means ensuring that we have a social housing system that provides a bedrock for our most vulnerable, and re-building those communities that have been decimated after years of being overlooked.

This will be done by taking the revolutionary and reformative zeal that we’ve seen from this Prime Minister, and if necessary, totally re-inventing and re-thinking the way we provide social housing.

We can start immediately by re-profiling existing commitments to social housing and providing additional tenure and timing flexibility in the current grant programmes. We need to add additional flexibilities in the current grant programmes and extend the existing Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes Programme for an additional year to 2022, with the same conditions as the current programme prioritising new social and affordable homes built by housing associations. It could also be made available for bulk-buying homes from developers at a discount to convert to rent, as long as the homes are high quality, the right size, and in the right places.

We should also use the forthcoming Spending Review to double down on our ‘levelling up’ plan, by setting out a long-term investment programme. This will kickstart the building of a new generation of high quality, beautiful and greener affordable homes for people to rent and buy.

The economic impact of the coronavirus will no doubt hit communities in the north and midlands, hardest. Therefore, it is important that funding is targeted to support those in greatest need and we should adopt a place-based approach to renewal in cities, towns, and communities across the country. The communities in my constituency need this renewal and I hope the constituencies with the greatest need will be prioritised.

Not only would this kind of commitment stimulate long-term investment in modern methods of construction, it will also create jobs, boost productivity and skills.

To do this effectively, it means that the government will need to listen, and then act on the views and concerns of those communities who are directly impacted by social housing, many of them being the communities which lent us their vote in December, giving us the opportunity to form the government they deserve.

We are at the crossroads of an exciting opportunity for social housing. For the first time in a long time the government of the day understands the very communities who rely on this vital social service. I am determined to ensure for survivors and battlers like my mum and the millions of others like her, that Tories are no longer afraid to talk about social housing.

John Slaughter: How housing for older people can support the recovery effort

6 Jul

John Slaughter is the Director of External Affairs at the Home Builders Federation and Chair of the HBF’s Retirement Housebuilders Group

It is widely acknowledged that housebuilding will be vital to kickstarting growth and helping the country recover from the impact of coronavirus. But as we all adjust to the new normal, Minsters should resist taking a business-as-usual approach to building the homes we need. Instead, when he unveils his fiscal package next month, the Chancellor should put specialist retirement housing at the heart of the effort to get the housing market restarted.

The more you examine the evidence, the stronger the case gets for helping more older people access specialist retirement housing in the wake of Covid-19. During the pandemic, older residents in these developments have been much safer than in wider society. More specialist retirement properties would therefore help ensure that vulnerable people are better protected against future pandemics.

Crucially, increasing provision of specialist retirement housing would also stimulate transactions throughout the housing market. Analysis by a former Treasury economist suggests that encouraging more older people to downsize would free up housing for young families looking for a family-sized home with a garden. And, through the chain effect running through the housing market, every specialist retirement property sold results in another two to three further transactions in the chain.

More specialist retirement housing would also assist with attempts to fix the social care crisis once and for all. As people in these properties are less likely to be admitted to hospital and require further care than people in mainstream housing, this type of accommodation can generate fiscal savings to the NHS and social care services of approximately £3,500 per person per year.

Demand for these properties is estimated to be at 30,000 dwellings a year, up from around 8,000 currently. If we could build this number every year for the next 10 years, it would generate additional fiscal savings across the NHS and social services of £1.4bn per year within a decade. On top of this, it could support the levelling up agenda, creating local jobs and boosting high streets through the spending power of the ‘grey pound’.

The shortage of suitable housing for older people is contributing towards a bottleneck at the top of the housing market. Millions of older people want to downsize but struggle to find suitable accommodation. Other older people are put off from making the move due to a range of financial, sentimental, and practical concerns.

The Chancellor could begin to tackle this bottleneck by making buyers of retirement properties exempt from stamp duty in order to encourage downsizing. Such an approach would recognise the benefits that result further down the chain, helping older people, young families, and first-time buyers. Going further, the Government should set a national target of making 10 per cent of all new housing specifically for older people. With Government targets currently set at delivering 300,000 homes a year by the middle of the next decade, this would mean delivering the objective of 30,000 retirement properties per year.

There are other policy solutions available to exploit the full potential of specialist retirement housing and, with the number of older people in England growing significantly, the time to act is now. Across the UK, older households are becoming increasingly common. Looking over the available data, it is immediately evident that the fastest growing household demographic is amongst those over 80, closely followed by the 65-79 group. Meanwhile, the younger household demographic is growing slowest.

Despite this, we currently have a housing supply policy geared towards encouraging the building of first-time buyer homes. Given the issues that young people face around the high cost of housing, this focus is entirely understandable. But the expected dramatic increase in the number of older households, combined with the benefits outlined, above should give the Chancellor and all politicians pause for thought.

In a speech earlier his year, Chris Pincher, the Housing Minister, acknowledged that “we need more housing for older people”. Six weeks ago, the Government gave the housing market the green light to get moving again. When he delivers his fiscal package, the Chancellor should take the opportunity to shift gear in the direction that the Housing Minister has suggested.

 

 

David Chinchen: We need to develop effective operational links between neighbourhood policing teams and our schools

2 Jul

David Chinchen is the Conservative candidate for South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner and a former Chief Superintendent.

I remember it well. Being approached at a school Summer Ball last year by the Chair of the Sheffield Conservative Federation to consider standing as the Conservative Candidate for the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) election. After being selected in February 2020, everything of course changed as the loss of life and challenges of tackling a global pandemic have rightly put campaigning on hold.

I had retired from the Metropolitan Police Service in 2013 as Chief Superintendent and Borough Commander for Wandsworth. Having married a Yorkshire lass we moved to Sheffield and have made this our home with our daughter then studying at Sheffield University and our son now working as a legal apprentice in the city.

I am a newcomer to active politics and the Party but I bring a wealth of professional and life experience to this role. After leaving the police service I worked for several years in UK Visas and Immigration at Sheffield determining visa applications and gaining a valuable insight into the wider UK immigration system.

I come to this challenge with an ambition to make our police service and criminal justice system work better for us all. In 2008 I was appointed the operational lead for efforts to tackle the escalation of knife crime and teenage fatalities in London (Operation Blunt 2). I have seen the reality of violent crime on our streets and driven forward many of the tactics that make a difference. I have also seen much time and public money wasted. Its always useful to point out that the last spike in serious youth violence (2008-10) occurred after ten years of a Labour administration spending huge sums on youth services and related projects.

Whilst it is violent crime that should remain the focus of our collective efforts, I believe we should also be operating to re-build confidence in policing and criminal justice. We often hear of services being ‘victim-focused’ – but that is not the reality that the vast majority of people are experiencing.

This is why my plan starts with the restoration of neighbourhood policing. It is from this bedrock that we are best positioned to deploy most effectively all the capabilities of UK policing. All crimes have an impact upon local neighbourhoods and it is local neighbourhoods that provide us with the greatest opportunity to prevent and detect crime.

Just before lockdown, I attended an interesting round-table discussion hosted by the Federation of Small Businesses. Listening to very familiar accounts from retailers, small businesses, and sole traders, it is clear that our police service has neglected this area for many years. We must talk about ‘victim-impact’ differently. Protecting businesses that employ several people locally, or the tools and transport of a sole trader, should be our concern as the party of business and hard work. As we move cautiously towards a ‘new normality’ over the next few months, this focus on protecting businesses and livelihoods is even more important.

The impact of crime on our rural communities is also something that we should re-focus upon. I’m certainly not advocating a return to chasing down crime types but simply a greater recognition that bringing more offenders to justice will impact across the board – city, suburb, town, and village. UK policing has a reputation for being agile and flexible in its response to new crime threats and national emergencies. The challenge for me has always been about working cross-border and cross-organisation.

Whilst we know that policing and criminal justice is a complex business, I find that people on the doorstep are very traditional in outlook. Many talk about the ‘bobbies’ that everyone knew. They expect this local feel to policing and a service that operates to put things right when they become victims.

Finally, I believe we should be bold in seeking to reform and develop effective operational links between neighbourhood policing teams and our schools. These have worked well in the past where there is a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities.

When introduced in 2012 I was concerned about the PCC role, notably the danger of straying into operational direction for political purposes. I’m pleased to say that my concerns have proved to be unfounded and I can see the value of single accountable role for all matters relating to crime and community safety.

In South Yorkshire, the General Election knocked a huge hole in the ‘Red Wall’ and I don’t think these are borrowed votes. People here are responding well to our PM and a Home Secretary looking to deliver on crime and criminal justice. I have lost count of the times people have said ‘I’ve voted Labour all my life but I’m for Boris.’ When the conversation turns to crime and policing, my previous experience becomes a real asset. I’m convinced that the battle will be all about who the electorate trusts to make the most of the Government’s investment in policing and criminal justice. Whilst we cannot say when traditional campaigning will return, the growth of on-line conferencing and interactive events provide new opportunities to listen and put key messages across. It all bodes well for Thursday 6th May 2021.

Peter Gibson: Set the high street free

2 Jul

Peter Gibson is the MP for Darlington

Nobody can doubt the scale of the challenge facing our high streets and town centres as we look to rebuild our economy following this pandemic.

As many towns bid against one another looking for funds from the ambitious Future High Street Fund, my patch of Darlington included, it is necessary to acknowledge that fundamentally what our town centres lack is people.

The bustling high street of yesteryear, stacked with BHS and Woolworths, will never exist again. We have generations of decisions to thank for that: out-of-town shopping, pedestrianisation making access and collection ever more difficult, and local authority car parking charges, to name just a few. Buttressed by shifts in lifestyles and technology, these changes have led us to a world in which every conceivable item can be purchased online.

Our town centres are firmly rooted in the idea of the marketplace, around which local economies have grown. Yet you no longer need to buy your bread from the baker or your meat from the butcher. Now the supermarket will deliver it. You don’t even need to drive into town because the inner ring-road circumnavigates it.

Planning in more recent times has either been the guardian or, more often, the be-devilment of the beating heart of our town centre. Our current restrictions are not fit for purpose and are damaging the very essence of our communities.

The classification of property into use-classes – tablets of stone that allow town halls up and down the land to tell us what we can and cannot do within our property – are the embodiment of this red tape, blocking the renewal of our high streets. They prevent vacant commercial property from being reclassified as residential property. Our enterprises need flexibility and adaptability in order to innovate and grow. As Conservatives, we should do all we can to unlock that innovation and growth.

At a time where we are seeing more and more vacant commercial properties in town centres, and with speculation rife that in a post-COVID world many more will be working remotely, this means red tape has been getting in the way of an enormous opportunity to build homes.

This is not only bad for city-dwellers, who lose out from housing shortages and get priced out of the market by a lack of supply, but also a missed opportunity for the economy, which could benefit from a low-cost way of mobilising private capital to improve macro-productivity.

Even before this pandemic truly struck our economy, we knew that swathes of our retail landscape were surplus to requirements. In March, figures showed a vacancy rate of 12.2%. And though the Government has provided unprecedented levels of support to our high street businesses – no business rates this year, the furlough scheme, and small business cash grants, to name just a few measures – we know that vacancy rates, sadly, will rise significantly over the next few months as these schemes are unwound and some businesses never return.

Many towns’ arterial roads that were filled with houses that have become shops and offices now see vacant spaces opening up, leaving gaps and sapping the spirit of the town centre. We need to enable those properties to more easily revert to residential use, and as the need for commercial and retail space in the centre contracts we need to ensure that a diverse range of people move in. Not just students, not just starter homes, but homes suitable for our elderly who can easily walk into town, homes suitable for our disabled people enabling them to access services directly, and homes suitable for growing families with children.

While businesses will always rise and fall, our national ‘animal spirit’ will always endure. This is why the planning reforms announced by the Prime Minister this week are so welcome. By removing the red tape around the use of property and brownfield land, we are giving high streets and town centres a chance to be reborn – as a place to live, take your kids, meet your friends, or whatever local people – rather than planners – want.

John Bald: Williamson is right. Pupils should sit in rows facing the teacher.

1 Jul

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice President of the Conservative Education Society.

Gavin Williamson’s statement that school pupils should sit in rows facing the teacher and pay attention, was predictably denounced by progressives as ill-informed, authoritarian, and near-fascist. Unfortunately for those who think he should be accountable to Twitter rather than Parliament, his view is correct, and supported not only by the results of schools such as West London Free, Michaela, and the best academies, but by the most recent evidence on the way the brain forms the neural networks that embody learning. His point about coronavirus spreading more easily if children sit facing each other is important in current circumstances, but the evidence on concentration and learning is permanent, and validates the reforms to teaching and learning made by headteachers and Conservative ministers since the opening of Mossbourne in 2005.

The most important source is the recent book How We Learn, by Professor Stanislas Dehaene, director of cognitive neuroimaging at the French national health and scientific research institute INSERM. Dehaene demonstrates by experiment that, from babyhood, we form working views and hypotheses about the world, which we modify when we encounter something that does not fit them. This continues throughout life, and is consistent with much scientific activity as discussed in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. An example is Galileo’s discovery of the movement of Jupiter’s moons, which was inconsistent with the notion that the universe revolved round the earth. Dehaene sees the same process as the key to developing artificial intelligence, where computers are turned in on themselves to produce the same outcome, albeit less efficiently.

I’ve reviewed the book in detail here, and checked the review with the author. Salient points are his endorsement of phonics as the basis of teaching reading in French as well as English – to establish the alphabetic principle, which is then modified to take account of the respective variations in each language – and the effect of focus and concentration on the development of neural networks. We need, he says, to teach children to pay close attention to the teacher, not to restore the former “magisterial” style, where the teacher simply dictated and pupils copied, but to stimulate brain activity and hence learning. This is what the schools mentioned above set out to do, and the reason why their results have shot up. For the Secretary of State to recommend that others adopt this successful approach is not ideology, but common sense. The progressive “blob”, that still dominates teacher training in most – not quite all – universities does its best to ignore brain research, as it does not fit their goal of using education as a means of reshaping society, beginning with mixed-ability teaching. They would do better to put the evidence of brain research at the heart of their curriculum, and to investigate its application in each subject.

When this happens, the outcome is a happy and successful learning community in which issues of racism do not arise because the atmosphere of shared purpose and teamwork leaves no room for them.

As Katharine Birbalsingh put it on Any Questions:

“You should have seen my teachers on Monday. They were so thrilled. Everyone was beaming… One child who never smiles, and he beamed at me. We were all so excited to be back, and it is, it is lovely to be in school….”

Michaela staff had been working flat out during lockdown, with Zoom lessons – NEU please note – and other online content, but this was not an adequate substitute for school. “Children,” she said, “build a relationship with their teacher, that they have over the year, and that relationship is so important to that child, working hard and delivering for their teacher.”

This is also her solution to the issue of race. Britain, she says has perhaps only Canada as a competitor when it comes to “the best country in the world to live in with regard to race,” and this is one theme of her latest book, “The Power of Culture”. Children at Michaela sing patriotic songs and recite poems precisely to emphasise their full and active membership of society, in direct opposition to current campaigns that present them as victims. In the ten years since she stood up at our Conference and told the truth about the disintegration of education in London schools, Birbalsingh has endured marginalisation and insult – “Coconut” perhaps the most predictable – and has felt that she was swimming upstream. She is now so obviously correct that we may, to mix a metaphor, see the tide beginning to turn.

A footnote on the Huffington Post’s publication of a leaked draft of the DfE’s plans for September, including an apparent proposal to stop teaching some subjects. This is not the way to proceed. Focusing only on English, maths, and science will produce a boring grind, and not only for children whose interests lie in other directions. A better approach, as exemplified in Alex Quigley’s books, Closing the Vocabulary Gap and Closing the Reading Gap, is to build literacy and clear thinking into everything a school does, maximising brain activity and using school to build up the thinking power that highly educated parents develop in their children from birth. Schools that do this – see this 2005 report on Gateway School, Marylebone – close the gap. Those that don’t, perpetuate it.

Andy Street: Our blueprint setting out the economic ambitions of the West Midlands

30 Jun

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

Last week saw the launch of a blueprint setting out the post-Coronavirus economic ambitions of the West Midlands. As a manufacturing heartland, where draftsmen drew up plans for everything from steam engines to Spitfires, blueprints are in our blood. They illuminate our history. This intentionally ambitious £3.2 billion business case draws a clear trajectory to our region’s future.

As Mayor of the West Midlands, it’s my job to attract as much investment as possible. Rishi Sunak’s bold and decisive actions – notably through the furlough scheme – have provided unprecedented economic support for jobs during lockdown. Now, demands on the public purse are high. All investment must be fully justified, diligently used and – crucially – deliver real results. Every penny counts.

Our region was the UK’s fastest growing outside the capital until Covid-19 struck, and as a hotbed of export, manufacturing, construction and professional services, we play a key role in the UK’s economic success. This new blueprint lays out a powerful business case for how continued investment can spark rapid and sustained recovery, not only for us here but for UK PLC.

Our ambition is deliberate because the stakes are high. Research suggests we could be hit harder than most by the lockdown. When coronavirus struck, the West Midlands was in a strong economic position, with record employment figures and productivity growth well ahead of the national rate. However, our economic mix – dependence on manufacturing and business tourism, as well as a significant contribution from universities – leaves us vulnerable.

By following the blueprint we have drawn up, the Government can demonstrate its commitment to ‘levelling-up’ by backing the people of the West Midlands to deliver.

We need to do everything we can to get back on our feet quickly and return to the levels of success we were enjoying before the outbreak hit. That means driving a rapid economic recovery, safeguarding more than 135,000 jobs while building thousands of new homes. It also means learning the lessons of the financial crash of 2008/09, and listening to business.

Investment is crucial. However, while we need significant investment from the Government – £3.2 billion over the next three years – this is broadly in line with the £2.7 billion investment we have secured since 2017, which supported strong economic success here.

Our business plan is to build on our success and on the investment we have already attracted from Government, while leveraging much more private and public sector investment locally, including from our universities.

The blueprint sets out a business case for investments, while outlining the economic benefits they would deliver. For example, it directly supports our automotive sector by harnessing clean technology and electrification. A major investment package, including £250 million towards a Gigafactory producing state-of-the-art batteries, will unlock 51,700 green jobs.

The building of HS2, next year’s Coventry City of Culture festivities and the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games present opportunities to create jobs for local people. By accelerating major infrastructure investment and supporting the recovery of the tourism and cultural sector we can unlock 33,000 jobs.

Then there is the West Midlands’ growing reputation as a hotbed for health research. By investing in healthcare innovation we can protect 3,200 jobs, while improving the health of our population.

Improving transport, housing and digital infrastructure will play a key part in a rapid recovery, while laying the foundations for future economic strength. We can build better transport and digital links to drive productivity and create thousands of jobs in construction. Schemes include extending rail, metro and bus routes, with cash for enhanced digital connectivity and to accelerate fibre connectivity in deprived areas. Reopening long-closed railway stations will better connect people to employment opportunities, attract investment into once-isolated areas and improve productivity.

The West Midlands has pioneered the regeneration of brownfield sites to tackle the housing crisis, while protecting the environment. We even have our own regional definition of ‘affordable housing’ applied at planning level by the West Midlands Combined Authority. We want to build 35,000 new homes – 15,000 of which will be affordable – with a focus on housing key workers. Plans include using a £200m investment package to regenerate derelict eyesores and £24 million for a new National Brownfield Institute in Wolverhampton, which will be a centre of excellence for land reclamation.

Investment to equip people with the skills needed for the future aims to help get them back into work. This includes helping 38,400 young people obtain apprenticeships and work experience, retraining 20,000 workers for in-demand sectors such as health and social care, logistics and business services, and upskilling 24,000 for jobs for the future.

Finally, we want to back the region’s businesses with support schemes – including helping them navigate their way through the post-lockdown world – creating or safeguarding 43,900 jobs.

This ambitious business case is based on our region’s experiences not only of recovering from the last downturn, but on the successes of the last three years. The blueprint has been developed as a team effort between the region’s local enterprise partnerships, universities, business groups and local authorities.  Crucially, some of our biggest employers have also shared their insights about how the region can play its part in securing a strong national recovery, putting central investment to good use.

For the UK to fully recover, all of its regions must recover too – creating a stronger country with a more robust, balanced economy.