Tom Hunt: Ipswich needs a northern relief road – here is how we can win the campaign

My experience in Ely has shown me that it can be done – with tenacity, optimism and the broadest possible local backing.

Tom Hunt is the Conservative candidate for Ipswich and the Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

During the selection process to become the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary candidate for Ipswich I made clear my support for a northern relief road for Ipswich. I’m fully aware of how significant this issue is for Ipswich and the benefits that a new road could bring. Since my selection as the candidate at the end of September, I’ve been out and about across the town talking to residents and the importance of the road has been impressed upon me strongly. When I launched my campaign website last week campaigning for the road was listed as one of my top priorities.

However, something I have also picked up whilst discussing the issue with many people locally is the lack of optimism that the project will ever happen. The reality is that the road is long overdue, and I can understand why there is a degree of cynicism. The sense I get from many people I talk to is that it’s great in principle but is unlikely to ever happen.

I know I say this as someone who is coming at the campaign fresh, but I think we need to try and change this mindset. Ipswich needs and deserves a northern relief road and everyone who supports it should look to pull in the same direction and fight for the investment that is needed to make the project a reality.

This does make me think back to my first experience of local government as a 22-year-old in early 2011. I spent a wet and windy Saturday in February wandering around Ely market square collecting signatures for a petition calling for Ely to have a new southern bypass. A much-needed piece of infrastructure that would deal with a key bottleneck that was blighting the City. This is something that I have previously written about for this website. I remember vividly the conversations I had on the day, many who signed the petition did whilst also adding the comment, “It will never happen”. In fact, in the local elections that took place on May 2011, the local Liberal Democrats actually ran on a platform that essentially said: “There is no point campaigning for a southern bypass because it’s never going to happen”. As local Conservatives we were almost branded as being fantasists for leading on the issue.

However, last week I had the pleasure of being at the official opening of the Ely southern bypass. Seven years after I originally started campaigning for it, longer than I would have liked, but delivered nonetheless. There is no doubt in my view that this will be a game changer for Ely and the surrounding area. The reason I raise this is that I’m considering whether there are any lessons for Ipswich in this and how it goes about looking to secure funding for a northern relief road.

I believe there are. I say this whilst appreciating the significant differences between the two projects. The Ely southern bypass cost just under £50 million. If the northern relief road is to be a dual carriage road the cost estimate I’ve heard is around £250 million, the reality is it could well be more. The fact is it’s a bigger project and will cost more.

What made a significant difference in Cambridgeshire was the County Council, LEP, MPs, District Council, City Council and key local stakeholders such as Ely Cathedral speaking together with one voice and very loudly.

Ultimately the funding for the project came from a mixture of the County Council, LEP, District Council, Network Rail and Central Government. It’s clear that to win the ear of Government for significant investment it’s a huge help to have consensus locally.

As a group on the District Council we were relentless in our campaigning. We fought local elections on the issue and set up a number of petitions, one which attracted over 10,000 signatures.

It was this commitment and dedication to the campaign that enabled us to overcome a formidable opponent in English Heritage, a weighty institution with significant clout that was blind to the massive need for the bypass and the universal support for it locally. It was always difficult for me to get my head around national figures from English Heritage thinking they knew more about the setting of the Cathedral within the fens than the Bishop and Dean of Ely Cathedral.

English Heritage ultimately succeeded in delaying the bypass by a number of years which has cost the local economy. Their pressure led to a call in by Sir Eric Pickles, when he was the Communities and Local Government Secretary, that created significant uncertainty. But again, as a local team we were very well organised in making our representations directly to the Secretary of State, making clear the strength of support locally for the scheme and how important it was to the area. Funnily enough, I remember raising the matter directly with the Secretary of State at the Conservative Councillors Association drinks reception during the 2014 Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham. We were delighted when the Secretary of State came down in our favour.

Despite all the challenges and the naysayers Ely now has its bypass. This is proof that these things can happen. What are the key ingredients that are needed to run a successful campaign to deliver a significant piece of transport infrastructure (beyond just a good Benefit Cost Ratio score)?

I’d say:

  1. A clear ask.
  2. All key local decision makers and stakeholders pulling in the same direction.
  3. Evidence of their being significant local support.
  4. Relentlessness and tenacity in making the case and persevering.
  5. Optimism.

As the Conservative PPC for Ipswich and someone who hopes to win the honour of being the MP for the town, I’m determined to play my role in campaigning for a northern relief road. I will work with whoever I can to make it happen. I’ve already discussed the matter with the Leader of the County Council and plan to raise it the Roads Minister over the coming months. What we do know is that in the Budget the Government highlighted the importance of investment into the road network and putt aside £29 billion for the purpose. Let’s make sure we get our fair share.

Barry Wood: In Britain the numbers opting to build a home is way behind other countries. But not in Cherwell.

Over ten years we are providing 1,900 new homes for Oxfordshire. They will be a wide range of properties. That is because we believe in choice.

Cllr Barry Wood is the Leader of Cherwell District Council.

Much has been rightly said recently about housing authorities stepping up to the plate in helping the Government provide 300,000 additional homes every year.

One area of housing provision that cries out for intervention is facilitating those who want to build their own home or customise a shell to their own requirements. I accept that this is not our national tradition, but it is time to think hard about being brave and innovative and to dispel the misunderstanding that this route to ownership is in the “too difficult box”. For too long the proportion of self-building here has lagged far behind other nations.

For Conservative councillors there is a particular opportunity to lead and help provide people with a real choice in buying the house they always wanted to have. The standard delivery models of the big five builders are not for everyone.

At a former army depot in Bicester, Oxfordshire, a brownfield site is now the largest self-build and custom-build housing project in the country. Over a ten year span 1,900 such houses is the ambition and the sales of “golden brick plots” are selling in phases on target.

How this has come to pass has its own controversies around “what is the role of a Council interfering in the market.” But Conservative-run Cherwell has taken the view that helping folk have a choice is a worthy objective, albeit as you would expect with close and proper risk management.

What did we do then?

The Council purchased the site from the Ministry of Defence after it was zoned for mixed use development in the Local Plan. This was not cheap, the Section 106 commitments are substantive.

We then set up an arms-length development company which is a hundred per cent owned by the Council. We long ago changed from being a stock holding authority so this step was essential. The concept is that the company will be profitable but not super profitable. The return on investment for the shareholder is good, and there are exit strategies if the concept falters. I don’t think it will, but safe takes preference over sorry.

The company has a marketing suite in the town centre. It is called the “Plot Shop”. Purchasers are sold a “plot passport” and a “golden brick”. The former gives access to quick and easy planning permission delivered under a Permitted Development Order and the latter gives a serviced foundation slab of the requisite size.

The passport also sets out limitations on height and distance from the road edge and purchasers are time limited on how long they can take, to avoid others living in a building site environment for an unreasonable duration. To date most self builders have chosen standard appearances and materials. However, many people (circa 60 per cent) choose some form of offsite manufacture, rather than a brick on brick approach.  It de-risks the process and gives certainty on cost, while having many of the advantages of traditional self build. Another myth dispelled.

There is a complete range of sizes including apartments and terraces. The obvious and first question visitors to the project ask is “how much is a completed house then, is it cheaper than a standard house elsewhere in the housing market area?” The answer, also interestingly, is that they can be £20,000 to £30,000 cheaper but that actually the self-builders add bells and whistles of their own design that bring them up to average prices. You pays your money and makes your own choices.

If other councils would like a full briefing on our journey to date, don’t hesitate to ask.

Sally-Ann Hart: Becoming a magistrate is a fulfilling way to serve the community – but the number resigning is worrying

Mean gestures like cutting the coffee and biscuits in the retiring room make these committed volunteers feel unappreciated.

Cllr Sally-Ann Hart is the Cabinet Member for Tourism and Culture on Rother District Council.

Magistrates, or Justices of the Peace (JPs), are a body of volunteers drawn from their local communities, which has been delivering the bulk of criminal justice for centuries; magistrates deal with 95 per cent of all cases of adult crime which are brought to court. Many magistrates also sit in the family proceedings courts and youth courts, having received specialist training to do this. Magistrates play an active role in communities and a number of magistrates, like myself, volunteer as school governors, councillors, and so on.

The rewards of being a JP are numerous, including the development of new skills and learning about your local community; a real eye-opener to how local – and national – social, economic, political, and environmental decisions and issues impact upon us and how they might drive human behaviour. This very large dose of realism is what tipped me into politics; to bring about change for the better. In all honesty, who in their right mind would choose to go into politics these days if they were not driven by an uncontrollable force to make things better, particularly for those who cannot fight for themselves.

While they are volunteers, magistrates have the serious commitment of administering local justice; a commitment as important as any paid role. They are an essential resource to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) – and the country. Without them, the court system is likely to grind to a halt. But, over recent years, the number of magistrates has decreased; in 2012, there were approximately 25,000 JPs in England and Wales, but by 1st April 2018 there were only around 15,000 JPs – down 40 per cent across this period of time. This reduction is due to a number of factors, including resignations and retirements, a falling in workload in the criminal courts due to an increased use of out of court disposals and a downturn in recruitment.

Magistrates are core in the administration of justice and the number of resignations should be of concern. It is best practice for Magistrates to sit in benches of three – particularly important when hearing trials – as a majority decision is required. Due to a shortage of JPs, benches of two are becoming more prevalent, which raises problems when two magistrates cannot agree; if they cannot reach a decision, a trial may have to be re-heard, in the interests of justice. This costs taxpayers money. It is also becoming more common that courts are being cancelled, particularly the family courts, where there is a dearth of family qualified magistrates and more challengingly, qualified family court chairs. Again, this costs taxpayers money.

An independent and strong judiciary is essential in a democratic society; JPs play a crucial role in upholding the law and delivering justice. Much has been written elsewhere about court closures hitting morale, which it has done. Many magistrates, particularly from rural areas are now expected to travel further, unpaid, to fulfil their sittings. I have often been asked to sit in Crawley, Horsham and Brighton, which from where I live near Rye, would mean a two hour journey in heavy traffic each way – there is a limit to my dedication. JPs feel that they have lost their connection to local justice in their own community. In addition, far too many magistrates report to feeling undervalued, not only because of court closures, but because of silly little things like cutbacks on coffee and biscuits in the retiring room, which make these committed volunteers feel unappreciated.

The average age of magistrates is around 58 and although they can be appointed from aged eighteen, there are few magistrates under the age of thirty (one per cent). Being a JP is not that easy when you have a job, children and other commitments. Diversity is important as JPs are supposed to reflect the makeup of local communities.

We need JPs; dwindling numbers have an impact on the administration of justice. HMCTS is working with the Judicial Office and other relevant Government departments to develop a strategy for the Magistracy that will aim to improve diversity, including recruiting younger JPs. However, I fear that unless there is a change in national legislation to facilitate wider diversity, improvement will not happen. Legislative change to facilitate wider diversity would compel employers to give time off for their JP employees to carry out their public service. A JP colleague of mine, who works for the NHS, has to take holiday to fulfil her judicial duties. Employers should embrace employing a magistrate as all the skills learnt in administering justice will have a positive effect in the workplace. It is quite absurd that those responsible for administering the bulk of criminal justice have to take holiday to do so. If the Government really values their service, this should be reflected in legislation.

Malcolm Richardson, former chairman of the Magistrates Association, says:

“Magistrates deal with more than 90 per cent of the criminal cases that come to court and they cost one per cent of the HMCTS budget. But we’re getting a bit tired of being treated like the one per cent and not the 90 per cent.” 

This voluntary dedicated body is available at low cost, but priceless in its contribution. Let us treat them accordingly.

Susan Hall: More Londoners are being murdered, but the Khan’s complacency continues

In February there was an extra £5 million for training new police officers, yet the recruitment drive didn’t start for a whole six months. There is no sense of urgency.

Susan Hall is a member of the London Assembly.

The most recent spate of stabbings on the streets of London demonstrates that our city’s violent crime epidemic shows no sign of abating. With these tragic attacks happening on such a regular basis, it is easy to acclimatise to the ‘new normal’ and forget that it wasn’t always this way.

But violent crime in the capital has got worse over the past few years. Overall, knife crime has surged by nearly 50 per cent since September 2015, with knife crime with injury and robbery using a knife up 24 per cent and 39 per cent respectively. Tragically, the number of people murdered reached 100 by August this year; in 2016 there were 101 people murdered over the course of the whole year. Overall the murder rate is up 43 per cent since 2015.

The response to this crisis from London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, can be summed up in one word: complacent. There has been plenty of media coverage around Khan’s claim that it will take a decade to get to grips with this surge in knife crime, but even the Mayor will know that his claim is nonsense. Under Boris Johnson, knife crime started increasing in December 2009 but was falling again by November 2011. When teenagers were dying on our city’s streets, Johnson realised that his approach needed to be akin to a sprint, not a marathon.

Khan is just playing politics with this, albeit badly. The Mayor knows that he is proving incapable of getting knives off London’s streets, and he is simply trying to lower expectations by claiming that solving this problem will take so long. When and if, in 18 months’ time, crime is still going through the roof, Khan will be able to fall back on the erroneous claim he made last week. But Londoners, especially those living in the communities most at risk of knife crime, deserve a Mayor who will get on with the job rather than kicking the can down the road for political reasons.

Khan has a record of complacency when it comes to knife crime, with his solutions to this epidemic often coming too little, too late. Stop and search is a prime example. Like the Home Secretary, I believe that stop and search is an important police tool which can help to catch criminals and keep our vulnerable communities safe. When the Mayor came to office, London’s relatively low crime rates meant that he had the space to reduce the use of stop and search. But this was a complacent and short-sighted move which undeniably contributed to the subsequent rise in knife crime. Since then Khan has had to perform a screeching U-turn, announcing earlier this year that he was going to increase stop and search. However, there has only been a six per cent increase, which is hardly significant.

We have long called for a public health approach to knife crime, so I am pleased that the Mayor has finally set up a new violence reduction unit. But it is disappointing that it took the murder of hundreds of Londoners to spur the Mayor into action. Even now, the plans are at an embryonic stage and a paltry £500,000 has been committed to the project. Khan needs to be taking robust action right now – not in weeks, months or years.

It is clear to everyone that London needs more police officers on our streets. Given half the chance Khan will trot out the predictable and pre-scripted lines blaming the Government for the relative lack of officers, but in reality the Mayor has the means to get more cops on the streets and just hasn’t delivered. There are currently 29,685 police employed by the Met, but a recent FOI shows that the resources are already there for an extra thousand police officers. In February Khan announced an extra £5 million for training new officers – something we all welcomed – yet the recruitment drive didn’t start for a whole six months. As I alluded to at the most recent Mayor’s Question Time, where is the urgency?

While Khan could make more of the existing budget, there is no question that he could find savings within the Met to boost police numbers. The police inspectorate recently said that the Met is failing to spend taxpayers’ money efficiently and it is easy to see why. For example, the force spent £10 million on workshops which determined the ‘colour’ of police officers’ personalities. It’s time to cut the waste and use the money elsewhere; that £10 million could have paid for 166 police officers.

London desperately needs a Mayor who has the drive, energy and experience to get the knives off London’s streets. Khan’s complacency and track record of failing to get to grips with this crime epidemic shows that he’s simply not up to the job.

Phil Taylor: Fire deaths dropped 28 per cent last year, but don’t expect to hear that number being reported

The Grenfell Tower tragedy was a shocking exception to a general trend of improvement in safety. Fire deaths are down below 250 a year, the second lowest on record.

Phil Taylor is a Conservative activist in Ealing.

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy last year, it would be easy to come away with the impression that we have a fire safety problem in this country. We don’t, at least not at the systematic level. Of course, we have problems to fix. Some big ones. But what we do largely works. We should go further.

This chart from Channel 4 FactCheck (using Home Office data) shows that the long term trend of fire deaths is consistently down. Health and safety does have its place, and fire safety in particular is an area where we have made very worthwhile progress in recent times.  Fire deaths are comfortably half of what they were in the nineties. Clearly we are doing something right. Building regulations and our wider fire safety culture are driving the progress being made. Of course, with relatively small numbers – down in the 100s – it is always dangerous to look at a single year, let alone one calendar quarter of data, in isolation. Like many data sets, we should be wary of single data points and even warier of people pointing to large rises or falls in small numbers from quarter to quarter.

It is always worth looking for international comparisons if only as a reality check. It is striking that many EU countries do not track these numbers, for instance, France, Germany, and Spain. CTIF, the international association of fire and rescue services, has a World Fire Statistics Center which tries to keep track of what numbers there are. They are a shoestring operation, and do not have the resources to do more than collate what is published elsewhere. So their work comes with a health warning that different countries do things differently, and the numbers may not be comparable.  But, at first sight, the UK does extremely well on fire deaths being comparable with the Netherlands and Italy, and has half the death rate of the USA.

Of course, the Grenfell fire was an awful reminder that if you cut corners with fire, there will be consequences, and the most terrible of consequences too. This time last year, at Prime Minister’s Questions, Jeremy Corbyn effectively used one data point, the quarter ending June 2017 which included the Grenfell Tower fire, as a stick to beat the Prime Minister with.  He said:

“Under this government, there are 11,000 fewer firefighters in England since 2010, and last year deaths in fires increased by 20 per cent.”

He was trying to link cuts in fire service numbers, which he got wrong citing firefighters rather than overall staff numbers, with an annual figure for fire deaths that had just been pushed up by the then estimate of the Grenfell death toll of 80.

Three months later in February 2018, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) was using the next quarter’s numbers as the basis for this headline:

“Firefighters’ union ‘horrified’ at increase in people dying in fires.”

Go forward another six months and the FBU was trying this line:

“More fires and more fire deaths – yet Westminster continues to cut firefighter jobs.”

Both Corbyn and the FBU know better than this, and that they were being misleading.

On Thursday, the latest fire incident statistics, one year on from the numbers that Corbyn was using, were published by the Home Office. These show a 28 per cent drop in fire deaths in the year ending June 2018.  A large factor in this is the Grenfell numbers dropping out of the year on year comparison, but the numbers are substantially down on 2016 and 2015 as well.

Just as Corbyn and the FBU were being actively misleading to talk about a 20 per cent leap in fire deaths, it is bogus to talk about a 28 per cent drop. What we can say is that the year to June 2018 was the second best year ever, with fire deaths down below 250 and back to where they were in 2014, which was our best ever year.

I hope that we have fewer fire deaths next year, and I also wish that our government, our fire services, and the FBU would collectively make it their aim to eliminate fire deaths from our society altogether. I would like to see planning and resourcing for zero fire deaths. Achieving this would not be about firefighters rushing after fires. It would be about the mundane work of raising construction standards, managing them well, and training us all how to minimise fire risks.

Maybe that is something that Nick Hurd, Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Service, who is responsible for national fire policy, and the FBU can agree on, rather than having an arid debate about cash and staff numbers which are only tenuously related to outcomes – like so much of life.

What the Americans can teach us about local democracy

It should be easier to call local referendums in the UK. Politics is too important to be left to the politicians.

On Tuesday we saw Americans in 37 states vote on a total of 157 “propositions” or “initiatives”. These are referendums on an array of issues. Some are significant – others symbolic or of little consequence. Often there are highly controversial or emotive issues that make it onto the ballot paper. There are other decisions which sound, to an outsider at least, rather tedious and mundane.

Let us take California. This year Californians had 11 different propositions to vote on. (One can see how the queues get rather long when there is a high turnout.) In order to get something put to the vote a petition is needed with a sufficient number of signatures. The tally must come to at least five per cent of the number who voted in the last election for Governor. So that might be around 600,000. Some of us have fond memories of Howard Jarvis’s  Proposition 13 which was passed in 1978 and cut property taxes in California by 57 per cent. (Rather equivalent to the “Proposition 13” in Wandsworth the previous month when the Conservatives gained control of the Council from Labour in the local elections.)

Tax is still a subject which crops up – although generally Californians are less keen on cutting it than they were. This year we had Proposition 5 on the ballot, which I’m sorry to see did not pass. The “California Association of Realtors” (what the Americans call estate agents) had helped gather up the signatures. It proposed allowing pensioners wishing to downsize to pay the same level of property tax. Usually moving involves an increase in property tax as it is based on the amount you paid when you bought the house. So if someone wants to move – perhaps due to disability or to be nearer their relatives – they are penalised. That would also free up the housing market and increase the supply available for others. “Exactly,” responded the critics claimed these “realtors” would benefit from extra commissions. I’m sure they would have – but so what if the change would be of wider benefit? Anyway no point in rerunning the Proposition 5 campaign. I feel it is important to accept the result of a referendum.

Californians also voted against extending rent controls, to increase the amount of space farmers must provide for their hens and pigs, and to allow private sector emergency ambulance employees to be required to remain on-call during work breaks. They voted against cutting fuel tax and to end Daylight Saving Time.

The Vox website reports that among votes elsewhere, Massachusetts saw backing for “transgender rights” – effectively that men who identify as women can use the women’s lavatories and vice versa. Here are some of the other decisions:

“Alabama and West Virginia voters passed measures that cease to recognize and protect a woman’s right to have an abortion, while Oregonians rejected a measure to ban public funding for the procedure. But unless the Supreme Court overrules Roe v. Wade, the restrictions protecting the sanctity of life remain symbolic, since they’re not decided at the state level.

“Florida passed the historic Amendment 4, which will allow up to 1.4 million ex-felons to regain their voting rights. Maryland, Nevada, and Michigan are hoping to enact laws that allow same-day voter registration, automatic voter registration, or both, while Arkansas and North Carolina wish for voter restrictions by issuing changes on voter ID laws.

“Arkansas and Missouri both voted to increase the minimum wage, which will give raises to a combined total of 900,000 workers in the two states. And several states voted on whether to expand the legalization of marijuana: Michigan fully legalized marijuana, while Utah and Missouri voted to legalize medical marijuana, and North Dakota rejected a measure to legalize marijuana.”

Americans for Tax Reform, headed by Grover Norquist, notched up a victory in North Carolina:

“In the Tar Heel State, voters have lowered North Carolina’s constitutional income tax cap, currently set at ten per cent, to seven per cent. Voters passed the Income Tax Cap Amendment with more than 57 per cent of voters approving of the measure.

“The state’s income tax rate stands at 5.499 per cent and is scheduled to drop to 5.25 per cent on January 1, 2019. Governor Roy Cooper and the North Carolina Democratic Party came out against the measure, even though the reduced income tax cap of seven per cent would still permit a more than 33 per cent state income tax increase.”

Voters in Washington, Missouri and Utah rejected various proposals for energy and fuel taxes.

The scale of all this popular decision making is pretty extraordinary. The debate about the respective merits of direct democracy and representative democracy has been with us for a long time – the ancient Greeks agonised about it as do the Americans today. I am not suggesting we should go anywhere near as far as the United States. There would, for instance, be no point having a referendum to legalise cannabis in Enfield – as Enfield Council would not have the power to carry out such an instruction from its residents. In any case it would seem an unlikely idea to decide a matter on such a local basis. Would not the junkies from Broxbourne, Barnet, Haringey and Waltham Forest be encouraged to move in. One of my favourite films, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, is an anti referendum classic.

Yet I would suggest that we should take a few cautious steps in the American direction. Brexit should not only mean more decision-making in the House of Commons but also some powers being passed down to town halls. The existing power to bring in (or remove) the system of a directly elected Mayor offers a chance to shake things up when they are working badly. The effective veto on excessive Council Tax due to the requirement to hold a referendum has worked well – although allowing increases of twice the inflation rate before this kicks in is too lenient. There should also be the power to challenge Council Tax levels that are already extortionate. As with California, it is right that the requirement for signatures on a petition should be pretty onerous. But if such a hurdle is met then residents should be able to trigger a petition to cut the level Council Tax.

What about a referendum on weekly bin collections? Or a planning policy that would ban new tower blocks? The petition threshold is a safeguard against too many issues being put forward – or of them being too frivolous or too complicated and obscure to be understood.

I am familiar with the retort that if people don’t like what their councillors are doing they should vote them out. Should the alternatives not appear much better they can stand themselves. Certainly that is the fundamental remedy. But in much of the country it is not working. Our local politics is ossified. Membership of political parties fluctuates a bit, but is on a long term downward trend. Low calibre councillors are seldom deselected – and so can drift on for years in safe wards claiming allowances. Cynicism has eroded the public service ethos and so good people are discouraged from taking part.

In short, politics has become too important to be left to the politicians. Making it easier to hold a referendum would invigorate the system. Inevitably council leaders will not like having constraints put on their power – especially the amount of our money that they can spend. Rather than undermining council elections, interest and participation would be enhanced. Perhaps some of those motivated to get involved by campaigning on a single local issue might then broaden their interest and become local councillors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what is to be done?

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

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

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

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

Judy Terry: More new homes could be built in Suffolk is the bureaucracy was hacked back

Here is one firm’s account of how unnecessary costs and delay in the planning system holds them back. Timescales promised by councils are not honoured.

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

Building around a thousand new homes across East Anglia each year, Hopkins Homes is a thriving Suffolk-based housebuilder which prides itself on its no compromise approach to design and build quality.

Hopkins Homes delivers a substantial number of houses to meet the region’s housing shortage, yet each property continues to be sympathetically designed to reflect the architecture and character of the local area whilst still offering the convenience and energy efficiency expected of a new build home.

“There is no doubting the need to build new houses to help solve the country’s housing crisis. However, we believe that housebuilders have a responsibility that goes beyond simply providing new homes”, says Development Director, Simon Bryan. “It has always been a challenge, but we use our extensive local knowledge to design developments which reflect the character of their setting”.

However, the Planning process is a growing frustration:

“We have always recognised the importance of working with and listening to communities and stakeholders to explore local views on issues, for example on drainage, travel planning, wildlife and archaeology to name a few, and worked to ameliorate these concerns prior to submitting our application. But planning has become increasingly more bureaucratic, involving a large number of consultees who have growing influence. The expansive range of parties involved in the decision process is only creating significant delays and cost without improving the process. Ultimately it delays the rate at which new homes can be delivered.”

He confirms that some local authorities don’t always appear to understand the benefits which quality, sustainable, new housing can bring to their local economies. Good housing helps to attract new investment, creating thriving communities.

“Most authorities do not have site allocations or an adopted Local Plan. Even when land has the benefit of an outline planning consent, it often requires a high level of pre-application work, demanding more public consultation, exhibitions and more meetings with planning officers. Typically, surface water drainage would be addressed by our engineers as part of an application, but we are now finding some flood authorities are taking an extreme view requiring additional and unnecessary requirements to be met.

“As a result, the level of up-front costs incurred before submitting an application have significantly increased. To prepare and submit an application of a reasonably sized development can regularly cost around £150,000.”

Iain Jamie, the firm’s Land Director, interjects:

“From the time we identify a piece of land, it could be two or three years before we start on site because of the growing bureaucracy we have to contend with. It is only in the final stages of a project that we realise the profit on our original investment.

“Planning should be determined within 13 weeks, but that’s far from reality. It frequently takes a year just to get our application to a planning committee. Even at that stage, some councillors can disregard data from statutory consultees, and even overrule officer recommendations for approval.

“Section 106 obligations should then be a formality, but it can take months to reach agreement after planning consent has been granted.

“Despite the introduction of Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which was supposed to simplify and speed up matters, there is still a tendency to see developers as a cash cow, by making unreasonable demands for local amenities or infrastructure which are too often unrelated to a new housing development.

“This is not conducive to making things happen, leading to unnecessary delays and erroneous accusations of ‘land banking’ because sites cannot be developed without agreement, whilst adding to the pressure on housing.”

From the beginning of October, local planning authorities are no longer permitted to impose pre-commencement conditions. Nevertheless, both directors suggest that, to reduce frustrations and delays, the Government should consider introducing measures to enforce timescales, and authorities should beef up their resources, or perhaps share specific expertise with others to speed up the process.

Simon added:

“Whilst we are fully appreciative of the reduced resources available at many Local Authorities, we are not seeing the same quality in planning service that was evident just a decade ago as there is often a lack of proper management of the application experience process. Furthermore we feel that senior officers should be empowered further to issue decisions, when applications are fully compliant with local and national policies.”

The company prides itself on developing sites which offer a good balance and variety of traditionally built new homes suitable for different types of home buyer, from first time buyers on Help to Buy, to families and downsizers, with two thirds of sites providing bungalows, which are in high demand. “There is definitely a trend for low maintenance, energy-efficient, single storey properties in locations which are easily accessible to public and private amenities.” Some sites offer shared equity homes that are sold at a discount to open market value, which are only available to ‘qualified’ buyers who have local connections and salaries below certain thresholds.

Arguing against the questionable leasehold practices now offered by some developers and management companies, Iain confirms, “We have never sold leasehold ‘houses’, and the ground rents for our leasehold apartments do not exceed 0.1 per cent of the value of the property, giving buyers security that this is fixed for 25 years and then only increasing in line with inflation.”

Increasingly, resident management companies control the communal areas on their completed sites, in the absence of local authorities agreeing to adopt them. “This approach gives buyers comfort, with every householder becoming a shareholder in their community, controlling their environment and the costs incurred. It also brings added responsibility to sustaining high standards”, explains Iain.

To maximise efficiency, the company uses subcontractors for on-site construction, closely monitored by their own management team. “Getting good quality tradespeople is an increasing challenge, and we are aware that some of our subcontractors are going overseas to recruit”, adds Simon.

“In the UK, the building industry isn’t recognised as a profession, yet more young people should be encouraged to learn trades, from plumbing to carpentry, brickwork to plastering, and landscaping. These are world-class skills, paying good salaries, yet all the emphasis is on academic careers, which can leave students in debt, and don’t necessarily bring the same financial rewards over a lifetime of working.”

Meeting with Hopkins Homes is yet another indication that, instead of interfering in what works well, in the interests of taxpayers and the economy, Government and local authorities should reduce bureaucracy – and actually listen to business.

John Bald: School inspection is not a “little extra”

There is no evidence of funding cuts reducing school standards. But Ofsted does need enough staff to thoroughly assess the performance of classroom teachers.

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

Amanda Spielman’s appearance before the Public Accounts Select Committee, and her subsequent letter to it, were not unique – Sir Michael Wilshaw once answered on academy chains – but were certainly unusual. Her normal channel of accountability is, understandably enough, the Education Select Committee. This appearance was triggered by a report from the National Audit Office, saying that Ofsted had no evidence that its inspections were improving education, which, as the NAO knows perfectly well, is nothing new. The purpose of inspection is to report on what is happening – it is up to Ministers and other authorities to make things happen. Inspection can contribute indirectly, by drawing attention to good and poor work, but this is very difficult to prove. It can, conversely, fossilise ineffective, but generally accepted, practices simply by ignoring them.

The accounts committee has a Labour chair, and unions have been pressing Spielman to link what they see as falling school standards to cuts in funding, criticising her roundly for refusing to do so, and calling for the abolition of the inspectorate. Anyone knowing Spielman will understand her commitment to telling the truth as the evidence presents it, and if she says that there is no evidence of funding cuts affecting school standards, that is because, as things stand, there isn’t any.

She was equally clear that this is not the case in Further Education and sixth forms, which, for reasons I’m only now beginning to understand, are funded at lower levels than schools, even though the tasks they face are no less difficult, and in some ways more complex. Schools, she says, have spent a lot of money on teaching assistants, and there is no good evidence that this is effective, a point to which I’ll return in a moment. She might have added that secondary schools have large and very expensive management teams, partly because headteachers are now, in effect, inspectors in their own schools.

A Conservative member of the committee, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, got to the heart of the issue with this question:

“What I am hearing from this whole exchange that we have been having is that your resources have been cut, inspections have been shortened, and the interval between inspections has been extended. Does that not give rise to a regime where the school can game the system by doing things like the Chair has suggested: having a narrower curriculum and not putting pupils in for the more challenging subjects? Isn’t that likely to give us a narrower and narrower education system?”

There is really no arguing with this. In 2005, Labour destroyed the HMI approach to school inspection by removing the independence of inspectors, downgrading them from the top of the professional tree to middle managers, stopping the inspection of subjects, and extending its remit to areas it knew little or nothing about. Inspectors no longer had time to do their work properly, and this situation has got worse rather than better. Take teaching assistants. Prior to 2005, inspectors had time to evaluate their work in classes, and, if they were teaching on their own, to observe them on the same terms as teachers. One assistant, whom I observed teaching reading for the normal 30 minutes, received a top grade and proceeded to train as a teacher. The school as a whole failed, by a large margin, but we were able to pick out and reward her excellence. I doubt whether any such observation has taken place since 2005, and indeed whether Ofsted has any reliable evidence on the effectiveness of assistants at all. If the evidence of their impact on pupils’ attainment is, as Ms Spielman says, “far from clear”, we should be able to look to Ofsted to clarify it.

It is not the fault of Spielman, or her predecessors, that we can’t.

One of them agreed with me when I suggested that they had “played the hand that they’d been dealt,” and, as Sir Geoffrey’s question indicates, that hand does not enable them to carry out their work properly. Since 2010, the government has made major, and for the most part essential, changes in education, while meeting Treasury targets. Cutting quality control at the same time prevented Ofsted from dealing with potential scandals before they broke, and reduced the quality of evidence available to parents. I continue to read reports, and their quality and basis in evidence is showing strong improvement, as in the brilliant report on Michaela Community School and the report on behaviour at Great Yarmouth, whose headteacher, Barry Smith, is to address the Conservative Education Society on Monday.

There is, though, no question that reports do not give anything like the detail they used to, and I don’t rely on one unless I can check it from other sources.

Spielman said at one point that, “Our inspections are now a review of the school’s own work. A school can show us its work however it likes.” It can also choose what not to show. I know of one school that is still rated good despite a note on its last report, some years ago, of a significant weakness in maths. Until this year’s examination reforms, that seat of learning also boosted its results by having teachers write GCSE assessments, a practice which a senior Ofsted official told me was so widespread that Ofsted could do nothing about it.

The special needs issue that I discussed in my previous article is mentioned in reports, but not investigated in any depth, because inspectors don’t have time to find out whether these pupils are making the progress they should be. The campaign on this issue, like that on funding during the last general election, is biting, and will cost votes.

All three of Michael Gove’s successors have served in George Osborne’s Treasury, and their main area of expertise has been finance rather than education. School inspection has become a casualty, and its fate shows how austerity has bitten into essential services as well as eliminating waste. As austerity comes to an end, the government needs to consider giving it the means to inspect schools – and Further Education – properly once again. It would not cost a huge amount, and I can think of at least one quango that could provide a good chunk of the money.

Howard Flight: The best part of a week on, we can see that last week’s Budget was a popular one

The Chancellor has been fortunate that the public finances have improved substantially at a particularly convenient time.

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Philip Hammond has been fortunate that the public finances have improved substantially at a particularly convenient time. Economic growth has been revised up next year to 1.6 per cent; employment has been revised up, with 800,000 more jobs than forecast in 2023; wages will rise above inflation for the next five years.

The borrowing target has been met three years early, with the deficit now down to 1.9 per cent of GDP. The debt target has also been met three years early at a peak of 85 per cent of GDP. Borrowing is £11.6 billion lower than forecast at 1.2 per cent of GDP. This has improved significantly the scope of what the Budget can seek to address.

Overall public spending will increase by 1.2 per cent per annum, between 0.2 per cent and 0.4 per cent less than forecast growth. The improved tax yields have enabled the Prime Minister’s NHS commitment to be fully funded.

The Chancellor presented a pragmatic “micro” Budget, seeking to address virtually all of the issues which came up as needing attention. Yet perhaps its most important ingredient was a significant cut in taxation for the majority next April – increasing the personal allowance to £12,500 and the higher rate to £50,000 a year.

Local Authorities are getting an extra £1 billion of funding and business rates for retailers with rateable values below £51,000, will be cut by a third for two years. A further £1.7 billion each year will be provided to benefit working families on Universal Credit with the work allowance – the amount families can earn before losing credits – being increased by £1000 per annum.

A new two per cent digital services tax to insure that large digital firms pay a “fair share” of tax, is expected to raise £400 million per annum. Schools will get a further 400 million this year and defence will get a further £1 billion this year and next. There is also £160 million for counter-terror police. The national living wage will increase by nearly five per cent to £8.21. The national productivity investment fund will be increased to £37 billion and will be extended to 2024. Large roads will get £28.8 billion for 2020-25, and even potholes will get £420 million! PFI will be abolished, leaving a bill for £200 billion to be honoured.

There was a range of extra funding largely for small business – extending the annual investment allowance to £1 million; extending the start-up loans programme for 10,000 entrepreneurs; delivering the lowest corporation tax rate in the G20; keeping three million small businesses out of VAT; reducing the cost of taking on apprentices by halving the co-investment rate for non-levy payers; £121 million to support cutting-edge digital manufacturing; £78 million to fund electric motor innovations; £315 million in quantum technologies and £50 million for new Turing Fellowships.

Measures to help more people into home ownership include abolishing stamp duty retrospectively for first time buyers of all shared ownership properties of up to £500,000; an additional £500 million for the housing infrastructure fund; committing over £7.2 billion to a new help to buy equity loan scheme to support 110,000 new home buyers and the abolition of the housing revenue account cap controlling local authority borrowing for house building.

There are measures for those keen on the environment and more money for the Transforming Cities fund. Remarkably, the Chancellor has addressed virtually all the issues of concern to citizens and, as a result, I think, the best part of a week on, that this has proved to be a very popular Budget. The one important reform it has not addressed is the confiscatory rates of stamp duty on larger properties in London and the South East. This had led to a freezing up of the market – bad for revenues and for economic mobility.