Charlotte Gill’s Podcast Review 10) Chatterton with Bindel, Freeman and Harrington, and Hope with O’Brien

9 Feb

Every fortnight, ConservativeHome will compile a handful of podcast recommendations – content that has been published in the weeks preceding – for its readers. Although these will mainly focus on podcasts for conservative listeners, we will try to include other options – should they be particularly interesting. Sometimes this feature will contain other types of media.

Title: UnHerd Live
Host: Sally Chatterton
Episode: Where does feminism go next?

Duration: 1:08:49 hours 
Published: February 3

What’s it about?

In this fascinating event, Sally Chatterton, Editor of UnHerd, chairs a discussion between Julie Bindel, Hadley Freeman and Mary Harrington on the future of feminism. Each have unique takes on where the movement is going wrong, and right (but mostly wrong), with the discussions spanning a huge number of areas, from gender identity, to sex work, to surrogacy and motherhood.

Some teaser quotes:
  • Bindel: “Feminism is vibrant, and it is moving forward, because women have had enough. We’ve always had enough, but we’ve particularly had enough now.”
  • Harrington on growing anti-natalism: “Somehow it’s as though a collective decision has been taken by at least some of the generation or so younger than me, that ‘let’s just draw a line under this; we’re not going to do this any more’; a sort of collective human death wish”.
  • Freeman: “There’s so much ageism that I see now among younger women, which I find quite shocking and also incredibly Freudian. The disdain that I see expressed about, for example, Mumsnet, I think largely cause it’s got the word ‘mum’ in it. And this disgust that I see from young women when women talk about things like breastfeeding and childbirth.”

A brave discussion, full of thought-provoking commentary.

Title: Chopper’s Politics
Host: Christopher Hope
Episode: Just what is ‘levelling up’?

Duration: 41:59 minutes
Published: February 5

What’s it about?

In this interview, Christopher Hope sits down with Neil O’Brien, Minister in the Levelling Up department and co-author of the Government’s white paper on Levelling Up, to talk about – guess what? – all things levelling up. The MP for Harborough, Oadby & Wigston takes listeners through the process of putting together one of this government’s most important visions. Towards the end of the podcast, Hope speaks to Sebastian Payne of the FT about what the white paper means for Johnsonism, and Lisa Nandy, Shadow Secretary for Levelling Up, offers her thoughts on the topic.

Some teaser quotes (from O’Brien):
  • “It’s quite often written up as a kind of North-South thing, and it is true that lots of the North is poorer and in need of levelling up, but it’s absolutely the case that we recognise that within even affluent regions like the South East, there are places that are poor”.
  • On whether there could be a bid for the Olympics again, and where it would take place: “It wouldn’t be London… It would probably have to be spread across a number of places.”
  • “We can have two economic models. We can have the Blair model, which is just pile everything into London, let’s all move to the greater South East, and Lord knows how we’ll cope. Or we can try and have more balanced growth across the country, get some of these great cities and towns that have such potential, but have shrunk, going again.”

Essential listening for anyone who wants to understand Levelling Up in depth.

Title: The New Culture Forum
Host: Peter Whittle
Episode: How England Could Have Europe’s Worst Free Speech Protection. + Lockdown Sceptics’ Vindication.

Duration: 54:35 minutes
Published: February 6

What’s it about?

In this podcast, Peter Whittle interviews Toby Young, founder of The Daily Sceptic and the Free Speech Union, the latter of which has just celebrated its second anniversary, to discuss a vast range of topics – from whether the UK was right to lockdown, to Boris Johnson’s leadership, to the extent to which free speech is under attack in England and Scotland. As the title indicates, Young is not optimistic about our current trajectory.

Some teaser quotes:
  • “[T]here was so little intellectual curiosity about the origins of the virus. And anyone speculating that it might have been leaked from the virology institute in Wuhan was, for a long time, smeared as a conspiracy theorist trafficking in misinformation, and that kind of smear was enough to shut down debate about it for more than a year”.
  • “The fact that [Johnson] himself broke the rules makes it much harder for him to insist everyone else obey them again. You can’t imagine a political leader across the West for whom it would be politically more difficult to impose another lockdown”.
  • “We keep winning battles at the Free Speech Union; 75 per cent of the cases we take on, we win. But we’re losing the war.”

A lively exchange covering the most important subjects of the day.

James Frayne: If Conservatives are serious about levelling-up, here’s what they need to focus on

1 Feb

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

The Conservatives should aspire to be a national party for those who work hard, but its future powerbase should lie in provincial Britain. With the publication of the Levelling-Up White Paper this week we’ll get a sense for whether this is a viable ambition.

Since Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien took over levelling-up strategy – with a new Department under their management – the Government has been asking the right questions and saying the right things. The white paper will reflect this.

We need to be realistic about its contents. While there’ll surely be new policy announcements, white papers are essentially strategy documents and it’s likely to feel such. The backdrop to the launch is a weak economy and massive accumulated debt; we therefore obviously won’t see huge sums of new money. That’s not terminal: what matters more is how Government money is diverted to this strategy from other places.

The pre-briefing has been encouraging: the Government is said to be encouraging greater devolution, shifting more Government jobs outside London, and rebalancing spending on culture across the country. It’s hard to imagine there won’t be new policies on high streets, crime and anti-social behaviour and skills and retraining; these are the public’s priorities. We’ll know tomorrow.

However, those of us that believe in a provincial pivot will be asking a more fundamental question: does it look like levelling-up is going to be the admirable work of one small Government Department, or does it look like levelling-up will define the Government’s economic and social policies for the next decade? While we’ll certainly get a sense for the answer tomorrow, we’ll only know for sure later in the year.

We’ll judge the Government on both style and substance. Thinking about style first, if a provincial pivot is going to happen, we should expect the language of levelling-up to begin to dominate the way Conservatives talk about the economy – most obviously in future Budgets. To date, there have been mixed signals. In some ways, the party has gone backwards in recent years; when Nick Timothy was in No 10, with the Government’s talk of an industrial strategy, it felt like the provincial economy was in the mainstream of Government thinking. We need the same again now.

Similarly, as the Government talks about levelling-up as if its integral to economic policy, we should hopefully hear less about the extremes of provincial economic failure. To be clear, there are parts of the country – particularly in the post-industrial North – which certainly need economic and social help. But these areas need special attention; they should not define the Government’s overall economic and social mission. Levelling-up should be about Derby as much as it should be about Redcar.

Thinking about substance, beyond what the Government announces in the white paper, if the Conservatives are serious about levelling-up, two policy streams come immediately to mind, which I have written about here briefly before.

First, radical devolution – not just local control over spending decisions, but over tax-raising and, crucially, tax-cutting powers. From the pre-briefing, it seems devolution will be a big part of the white paper; while it seems unlikely that they will recommend what we might call “American-style federalism”, we should hope there are signs this is the direction of travel.

Second, substantially, a new focus on HE and FE. Too many Conservatives pointlessly trash HE, arguing that too many young people go to university and that there are too many courses. Too often, this doesn’t sound like a policy position, just pointless moaning. If we’re going to successfully level-up the country, we need an expansion of both HE and FE so that there are more high-qualified people ready to work in areas where the economy is weak. Dominic Cummings was briefly all over this at No 10; it needs renewed attention.

The publication of the white paper ought to be the beginning of a process, not the end; it should mark the start of a provincial pivot in earnest. With the party’s track record, it’s hard not to worry: the party has a tendency to think that a few announcements mean that a policy stream is “done” – and on to the next thing. You can imagine that levelling-up slowly loses steam, with the Department wrapped-up into another. It’s vital that this doesn’t happen.

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

3 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Werran: Levelling up. Is Gove poised to mimic his academies programme – and bypass local authorities?

2 Dec

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive of Localis.

In the well-reviewed recent popular anthropology book The Dawn of Everything, the authors, David Graeber and David Wengrow, posit that the “ultimate question of human history is not our equal access to material resources… but our equal capacity to contribute to decisions about how to live together”.

This, they suggest, implies there should be something meaningful to decide about in the first place.

And so it is with what awaits us in the Levelling Up White Paper. Neil O’Brien has offered a helpful and concise definition of what the agenda means in four easy pieces, to wit:

  • Empowering local leaders & communities;
  • Growing the private sector & boosting living standards, particularly where they’re lower;
  • Spreading opportunity & improving public services, particularly where they’re lacking; restoring local pride.

In looking at these, and the follow-on consequences of how the White Paper might treat them, we will consider the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DHLUC) to be more on the Hobbesian ‘nasty, solitary, brutish and short’ side of the debate of social origins than Rousseauan champions of the uncorrupted noble savage.

When it comes to the empowerment of our local leaders and communities, the reset of relations between central and local for more constructive ends would be as necessary as desirable.

Localis called for it in our report Hitting Rest – a case for local leadership and, in his final days as Communities Secretary, the late James Brokenshire put out a call for a Green Paper on the subject.

As to the actual transfer of powers and responsibilities and the deal-making process with Whitehall, the eyes of many ConservativeHome readers will be what this means for non-metropolitan England – and where the meat is in the county deals.

There’s incredible relish for this from among our friends in the counties. There is more obvious concern from the districts as to what role, if any, they would enjoy – even in areas with strong records of joint-working.

And this is before anyone reaches for the pearl-handed revolver to bang on about local government reorganisation. We will leave the party to consider what this might mean for political calculus and campaigning foot soldiers.

To our mind, the efficacy of driving recovery through changes of machinery to the local state remains unproven. In any case, national recovery that is sustainable and more evenly shared will only succeed through a grounded approach focused on place – melding the horizontal elements of place with the sector based vertical deals from the ancien regime’s industrial strategy.

Talking of which, the role of Local Enterprise Partnerships, the Coalition offspring of those unlikely parents Vince Cable and Eric Pickles, is also under threat from the move to a stated wish for closer democratic accountability in growth. On the White Paper wish list is the hope for clarification, if not codification, of the role of local authorities in driving growth, and something that marks out a clear role for the local state in driving towards the skills for Net Zero.

From the macro to the micro – and perhaps more comfortable territory of communities as Burkean ‘little platoons’. What will the White Paper have to offer in terms of pushing out the social infrastructure that needs to be laid in parallel tracks alongside the billion-pound big ticket infrastructure items?

Communities need both powers and resources to step up with a stand-alone spirit if they are to create public value. We need to allow communities to self-organise, take back control locally of assets, and deliver unique local services where they have desire and capability.

And will this be in a way that principal councils are able to facilitate and support? Or, like Gove’s academisation programme, is this a way for the centre to bypass local government as a mediator? And would this lead to the setting up of more social and children’s care trusts, in addition to the nice fun things such as community pubs, green spaces and the like?

Growing the private sector and boosting wages, skills and living standards will contain, we hope, the best fruits of the concerted thinking that has gone into the White Paper. Devolution and growth must be seen as so intrinsically linked as for one to be as impossible to conceive of as existing without the presence of the other – like ‘mom and apple pie’ or ‘bread and butter’.

As noted earlier in the reference to LEPs, the constant dodgy supermarket trolley swerving of the last decade’s national economic policy alone has made consistent long-term planning problematic.

Finding levelling up levers to encourage an area’s major local employers – local economic anchors – to invest and serve in the communities they are based in as a virtuous cycle of prosperous communities and productive places would be most beneficial.

Beyond business investment, there are of course the various ‘tournament financing’ routes where councils bid to receive – the Levelling Up Fund, Towns Fund, and the UK Shared Prosperity Fund. This may be of benefit to the more superficial but sensitive quality of life and hyperlocal public realm issues, such as town centre renewal, that more readily shape public perceptions in the run up to the next general election.

For the bigger and longer-term view, it would be good if the Levelling Up agenda has any answer to the need to get heavy sums of capital money for subregional infrastructure projects shovelled more quickly to where they can create the most impact more quickly.

In his interview on this site earlier this week, George Osborne called for a doubling of local taxation. This is in stark contrast to Lord Hague’s declaration, when a devolution trouble-shooter in 2015, that from a Conservative viewpoint “localism is not a new way of imposing new taxes”.

The recent Spending Review did not inspire much in way of hope for the fiscal devolution that would inspire and support self-sufficient, locally-led economic renewal. The constrictions on council tax are set and business rates remain a disastrous and anachronistic revenue raiser.

It doesn’t have to be this way, as Localis unearthed for the Local Government Association in our analysis of growth-driven fiscal devolution in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland and as previously argued here.

But with this financial background, in which our councils are resigned to deliver less for more, the headroom for innovative local public service delivery seems limited to the hyperlocal community sector. And this is without knowing whether the White Paper will come with any dedicated funds, or whether the October public finance settlement has covered it.

Many Conservative MPs, ‘Red Wall’ and beyond, will become if they are not already are acutely alert to the fact that they risk paying the political price for an unreformed, silo-fixated Whitehall’s disjointed and agonisingly slow local delivery at local level.

The test for Levelling Up White Paper will be its ability to work through connective administrative tissue of the “people’s priorities” – clean growth, whatever new badge is thrown over industrial strategy, as well as local skills training. If it achieves what it sets out to do, a joined-up and fleshed-out levelling up could achieve a virtuous circle of devolution, leading to growth and recovery that inspires further trust and pride in place and place leadership. Better answers to the question about how we as a nation contribute to the decisions on how we live together.

Otherwise, as a certain former Number 10 Policy Director ranted on SubStack, Levelling Up risks a fate as “a vapid SW1 slogan like ‘Global Britain’, that objectively does not work & shows the opposite of ‘strategy’”.

Roger Gough: Levelling up. We need to move from country deals to county relationships.

1 Dec

Cllr Roger Gough is the Leader of Kent County Council

Levelling up, seen initially as a nebulous, impressionistic concept, is starting to take shape. In his speech in July, the Prime Minister emphasised the importance of counties as well as traditional urban and industrial areas, in achieving it. Michael Gove heads a new levelling up department. The White Paper is reportedly imminent.

The Guardian is not the typical place for a Conservative government’s foundational text, but Neil O’Brien’s October article established four key elements: strong local leadership; growth in the private sector and in living standards; extending opportunity and good public services; and restoring local pride.

Why did the Prime Minister put such a focus on counties? In part, because shire counties, even in the south east, are not homogeneously leafy and prosperous. The ‘core cities’ focus of much development and regeneration policy in recent decades has, whatever the other arguments in its favour, neglected smaller towns, rural and coastal areas.

In addition, counties can operate at a big, strategic scale while carrying a strong sense of identity and accountability. In some cases, though not all, they share boundaries with other major public services. It is a strong combination.

All of this is true in spades for us in Kent. With a peninsular geography, a history stretching back to a Saxon kingdom, its Garden of England identity and a population bigger than eleven US states, it is a big and distinctive place. People take pride in living here. Historic Kent – made up mostly of the Kent County Council area, but also Medway unitary authority – is coterminous with the emerging NHS Integrated Care System as well as police and fire.

And Kent has its own profound needs for levelling up. On most indicators, the county comes close to the national average. However, this average masks a gulf between centres of prosperity (many, though not all of them in the London hinterland) and deep deprivation, especially in a number of coastal communities. By levelling up living standards and life chances within Kent, we can not only provide a huge economic and social boost to local towns and communities; given the size and scale of the county, we can make a significant contribution to levelling up nationally.

So far, the small number of county deals that may be announced at the time of the White Paper have reportedly been quite individual and bespoke (full disclosure – Kent is not one of them, though like most counties we have been exploring the implications of levelling up and county deals with government). The White Paper should, however, establish more common parameters, even if there remain (as there should) elements that reflect distinct local needs and identity.

The building blocks of devolution deals seen in mayoral combined authorities provide a starting point: transport, business support and economic development, adult education. I would extend the latter much further into the wider area of skills; not only is this an area in which Kent has significant gaps to close, but the damaging effects of nationally driven policies and funding streams in undermining local collaboration and generating mismatched skills to the needs of local business are well documented. Locally, we have built strong partnerships that can deliver.

On transport, we need to deliver the shift from counties just being a highways authority to becoming a full transport authority. It is neither fair nor sensible that metropolitan areas are able to fully integrate transport when the need for better integration is starker in more rural areas, where a lack of affordable transport between towns and communities limits connectivity and economic opportunity, and sustains dependency on car usage for quality of life. For both transport and economic development, there is a need to switch to devolved funding settlements over a number of years rather than the current merry-go-round of bidding systems.

Delivery of infrastructure is also vital, even if a little separate from levelling up strictly defined. For counties (and especially a county such as Kent, which has had exceptionally high rates of housing growth) the detachment of planning and infrastructure over the last decade, and the funding and distribution of developer contributions have not worked.

Hopefully, the rethink of housing projections by the new Secretary of State will ease some of the pressure on south-eastern counties; but that remains to be seen, and where development does take place, the need to deliver properly funded infrastructure first, remains a clear articulated demand from our residents. The logical conclusion from all this is the need, not only for changes to the developer contribution regime, but for a more strategic approach to spatial planning.

Delivering on net zero and on climate change resilience and adaptation presents distinctive challenges in predominantly rural areas, ranging from the viability of public transport to vulnerability to flooding. Kent and Medway have developed robust and far-reaching plans, but a comprehensive approach to the issue will have to draw together transport, strategic planning, skills, economic development and more.

Finally, county deals should be the catalyst for a new strategic partnership between national government and local leadership, so that when a matter of local importance also has national significance, the two can address the issue together systematically.

For Kent, that is our border with the continent and the massive volume of trade, as well as passenger traffic that passes through it and across the Short Straits. This has been and remains a point of vulnerability for both the county and the country, seen most sharply (and for some Kent communities, traumatically) when the French authorities closed the border in the days before Christmas 2020.

National and local authorities worked together remarkably effectively to prepare for the end of Brexit transition. Now, however, there is no one deadline to work to, but a series of continuing changes at the border, and an ever-present vulnerability to disruption with some of the special measures and capacity available a year ago no longer in place.

That effective local-national operational partnership to deal with a specific event needs to take on a standing, strategic form. This can then develop the measures (in road and border infrastructure, lorry holding capacity and much else) to reduce the vulnerability of both Kent and the UK to shocks and disruptions in the Short Straits.

None of this simply makes asks of national government; it presents challenges for counties too, above all in terms of governance and capacity.

The first is sometimes taken as code for a directly elected or mayoral model. But it need not be so; some of the arguments (stability, convening power, accountability) seem to be set up against a straw man of weakly-led councils, perhaps under No Overall Control. The reality is that much council leadership is at least as stable and durable as national leadership (and much more so than typical ministerial tenure) and a large strategic authority can convene very effectively.

Less talked about is the question of capacity; that councils are able to discharge a stronger strategic role when they face huge budget and managerial pressures from demand-led services such as adult social care and children’s services. There is no simple answer to this, but councils have to make a conscious choice to commit money, time and thought to this when all those resources will feel more than spoken for already.

The corollary is that county deals have to be a relationship with the whole of government, not simply with individual departments; it is only through this that central government will be able to understand and support the choices that councils have to make.

Interview: Osborne – “Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. In terms of local taxation, double it.”

29 Nov

George Osborne urges Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and their colleagues to pursue devolution of powers to metro mayors with indefatigable determination:

“Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. Whatever you’re doing in terms of local taxation, double it.”

Osborne recounts how as Chancellor of the Exchequer he launched the Northern Powerhouse, abandoned during Theresa May’s prime ministership but now revived by Johnson as the centrepiece of the present Government’s levelling up agenda.

He looks forward to the forthcoming White Paper about levelling up, on which Gove and Neil O’Brien are at work:

“I’m optimistic about the White Paper because of who’s drafting it, and I would only tell them, not that they need my advice, to trample over anyone who gets in the way.”

In Osborne’s view, the benefits of elected mayors should be spread to the English counties, regardless of any opposition from Conservative councillors:

“The Conservative Party is quite easily led if it’s given a strong direction.”

At the end of the interview, he dismisses as “nonsense” the idea that Johnson needs a new team of advisers, and insists that success lies within the Prime Minister’s grasp.

Osborne describes how, having spent his childhood in London – “I’d grown up I guess with that world view that nothing of any importance happened outside the M25” – he came round, after becoming MP for a northern seat, to the idea of decisive action to revive the cities of the North of England.

He urges the Government to be ambitious:

“I would say…to the current crop of Conservative ministers and to the Prime Minister…you never know how long you’ve got in office, and the wheel turns, and then suddenly you’re out.

“And I can tell you as someone who’s been out of office and out of politics for five years, you look back on the big things you feel you got right, and they’re often the things against which there was the most opposition, the hardest internal arguments in your party, but they’re also the most rewarding things.”

ConHome: “Let’s start with a broad-brush question. How do you think the Government’s doing?”

Osborne: “I think the Government has every opportunity to be a great success, and it has hit what all Governments hit, which is that kind of mid-term moment when people think, you know, is the focus there, is the direction there, are they going to deliver.

“It’s not unique to the Boris Johnson Government. Something quite similar happened to the Cameron Government in 2012, 2013.

“And, you know, we got our act together and won an election. And so it’s perfectly within the capability of Boris Johnson and his team to do the same. But they do need to act.”

ConHome: “How do you assess their chances of winning the next election?”

Osborne: “Well the odds are greatly in favour of the Conservatives winning, because the Labour Party has not yet done enough in my view to make itself electable.

“Though Keir Starmer is a very presentable Leader of the Opposition, he has not distanced himself from the Jeremy Corbyn era enough, apologised to the public for presenting Corbyn to the country as a serious candidate for Prime Minister.

“He has not done internal reform to reduce the influence of the trade unions.

“When I look back at my own career, I spent half my time in Government and half my time in Opposition. Opposition is in many ways harder than Government, because you don’t have the kind of natural agenda that a Government has.

“You certainly don’t have the full weight of the British state carrying you forward. The Leader of the Opposition – the Shadow Chancellor, which I was for five years – if they don’t do something that day, nothing’s going to happen.

“And if you look at the enormous efforts which Gordon Brown and Tony Blair went through in the 1990s – I was at the time a junior staff person in Downing Street and I saw at first hand their efforts to make the Labour Party electable.

“If you think of the huge efforts that David Cameron and myself and the people we worked with went through 15 years ago to make the Conservative Party electable, you just don’t see the hunger, the effort, the appetite in the Labour Party at the moment to do what is required to win back the trust of the British people.

“But the Conservative Party cannot just sit there and rely on their opponents failing to get their act together.

“And if the Labour Party were to get its act together, which is perfectly possible, there are still a couple of years to go until the election, yes, then the Conservative Party could be in real trouble.

“It doesn’t need to be, because it has all the instruments at its disposal to make itself eminently electable and to get itself re-elected.”

ConHome: “So let’s get on to the main subject of the interview, which is the Northern Powerhouse, devolution, elected mayors and all that.

“The Treasury is often viewed as an anti-localism, anti-devolution department. In Opposition, you yourself were a bit of a sceptic about localism.

“When did you become a convert to localism and mayors, and why?”

Osborne: “Yes, my own thinking on this did change over time. I remember early on thinking the Conservative Party had made a mistake in not initially opposing the creation of the Mayor of London.

“And then once we got into office, I think the definition of localism we had was a little bit limited. It was all about giving parish councils a bit more power over planning.

“There were some ideas, actually from the Liberal Democrats, that there had to be a referendum, because at that time there were lots of Liberal Democrat councillors in those cities.

“And so the whole agenda basically went nowhere for the first two or three years of the Government I was part of, and I guess around 2012, 2013, essentially the kind of emergency job on the economy was beginning to bear fruit and we were moving out of the financial crisis period, I became very focussed on what we could do with our opportunity of being in Government to tackle the really, really big economic problems the country faced, rather than the very immediate ones of the deficit and the recovery from the financial crisis.

“And I guess because I was a northern MP, you know, I’d grown up in London, educated in London, I’d grown up I guess with that world view that nothing of any importance happened outside the M25, and one of the luckiest and best things that happened to me in my political career was that I got selected for a seat in the North of England.

“It completely changed my perspective on the country, and it changed my perspective on how the rest of the country sees London.

“And for a long time I was one of only a couple of MPs for the Conservative Party who were even remotely close to Manchester. There was basically me and Graham Brady.

“And I’d already begun to get more involved as an Opposition MP in what we could do in Manchester as a party. I supported for example the BBC’s move to Salford.

“All this kind of thinking was evolving in my head, and we got to the middle period of the Government, 2013, and I thought why not take on the biggest domestic challenge of all, which is that the North of England has lagged behind the South – and the greatest political challenge, which was that people thought the Conservative Party had nothing to say about that.

“So it was both an economic and a political challenge, and I threw myself into it, and the Treasury is sceptical of devolution, for the simple reason that it always has to pay up when devolution fails, because people will not let local public services fail, let cities fail, and in the end the Treasury has to step it.

“But the Treasury is also an amazing department, full of incredibly talented and committed people, and if they’re given direction, they have the best chance of anyone in Government of delivering.

“And so with a selection of very talented civil servants, one in particular, John Kingman; my special adviser at the time, Neil O’Brien; with one of my Treasury ministers at the time, Jim O’Neill; we really focussed on would it be possible to reverse a century-old trend in British economic geography.

“High Speed Rail was already there, in fact an idea originally born of the Conservative Opposition, not the Labour Government, so High Speed Rail, High Speed Rail across the Pennines, and devolution and the creation of metro mayors, not just city mayors which had been the original idea in 2010.

“And so a much bigger economic geography than just Manchester city centre, they’ve got all of of Greater Manchester including places like Bolton, Bury and so on, and within Merseyside, South Yorkshire and so on, real devolution, allied with a big commitment to what I would call the social capital of the cities, the teaching hospitals, the universities, the science facilities, the cultural facilities, that would make these cities really attractive places to live and to commute to work in, so that it would also help the surrounding towns.

“And that became known as the Northern Powerhouse because the speech I gave launching it was in the Power Hall of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, and right from the start in the front row I had Labour councillors, the Leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, who’s just retiring, the then Leader of Liverpool, and so on.

“So right from the start I thought it was never going to work if it’s not a bipartisan effort, and they’re never going to trust the Conservative Government, these big Labour urban fiefdoms, if they don’t see that there’s a Chancellor who’s prepared to share the credit with them.

“And I always thought the political gain, which was very much a secondary consideration, would flow from that. People would blame the Government when things go wrong, they would give the Government credit if things went right.

“If I have a regret it’s that I’d have either started earlier or had longer in office, to really cement it, because we made enormous progress in those subsequent three or four years, we got metro mayors created in all these places, which people had been trying for decades to set up.

“We got the plans in place for the railways, we created organisations like Transport for the North, so there was enormous progress.

“We then hit unfortunately the buffers of the Theresa May Government. She was not interested in it and basically ditched it.

“And then what excites me genuinely is that the Boris Johnson Government – which calls it levelling up, which is a good slogan – had doubled down on something I thought was very important.

“So all the political stars are aligned. Of course the really hard thing in government is then actually getting the job done.”

ConHome: “Was there ever any element of wanting to push the responsibility for public spending consolidation out and down to local authorities, many of them Labour?”

Osborne: “Well yes, at the time the country was spending too much, whether at national or at local level, so there were reductions in local authority budgets.

“But we gave them more freedom, we removed a lot of the ring fences that dictated how they spent money, something I think we should go much further with.

“If I had my time again, I would have doubled down on that.

“We explicitly said, for example, if they allowed more development in their area then they would keep the proceeds, the extra council tax receipts which would come from having more homes, the extra business rates which would come from having more businesses.

“Until then they didn’t see any benefit from that, so there was zero incentive to consent to planning or to encourage economic growth.

“One of my proudest achievements was that by the time we left office Manchester was the fastest growing city in Europe. And that was certainly not all down to me and I pay a lot of credit to people like the Labour Leader Richard Leese and people who worked for him and around him.

“I should particularly credit by the way Howard Bernstein, who was the Chief Executive of the Council, who was also brilliant.

“And that partnership really delivered Manchester. And we were starting to deliver in Liverpool, in Sheffield, in Leeds, in Newcastle and so on, and I think laid the groundwork for the Conservative revival in Tees Valley as well.

ConHome: “You outlined what you did in terms of allowing councils to keep more of business rates and so on. How far do you think the tax-raising powers should go, and what should the Government do?”

Osborne: “I think you could go quite a lot further. I think you could give local authorities, I wouldn’t do it at an individual council level, I think it has to be at a metro level or a big county level, but I don’t see why you couldn’t give them their own proper business-rate raising powers.

“So it’s a choice an area would make, you could either cut your local taxes to encourage business, or you could raise your taxes and spend on infrastructure.

“I think it’s worth looking at local income taxes as a supplement. I mean after all we have that arrangement in Scotland, I wouldn’t necessarily say you have to go that far in English devolution, but I was one of the architects as Chancellor of giving Scotland more tax-raising powers, and I think as a result, by the way, the SNP is being held much more to account for its own domestic performance, and they can’t keep saying we want more money from Westminster, because everyone goes hold on, you’ve got the power to raise taxes if you want to.

“So the public are not stupid. I think it’s really interesting that when the metro mayors have come up for re-election, the good ones have been re-elected – Andy Street in Birmingham, I was also very involved in creating a West Midlands Mayor.

“I’ll give you a local example where I don’t particularly agree with the approach the Government is taking, in London, where I was for several years editor of The Evening Standard.

“Sadiq Khan is saying Transport for London – we’re having a set-to about a Tube strike – he is the Mayor, he’s the Chairman of Transport for London, and he should have responsibility for running the transport system in London.

“And the freedom to run that system as he sees fit, to raise fares if he is prepared to. And what’s happened instead is the Government has stepped in and is trying to micromanage how he runs Transport for London.

“I would let him take responsibility, because then I think the public would say, ‘Are you doing it well?’

“At the moment you’re giving him a free pass of saying ‘Well, you know, the Government’s not giving me enough money.’

“I suspect it’s not a ministerial failing, it’s just the Whitehall system seeks to take control when it has the opportunity – it’s often the simpler solution to a problem, when, you know, Covid means the Tube’s gone bust.

“But the harder solution, but the better one, is to put the Mayor in charge.

“I think it’s a great shame that Transport for the North has been downgraded – I would upgrade it with more powers, make it more like Transport for London.

“I would give the metro mayors more responsibility. For example, we devolved the NHS in Manchester, which was a really bold thing to do.

“It’s the only place in England where that’s the case. It integrates social care. There’s no reason why the Conservatives should be afraid of this.

“Fundamentally, it should be in the Conservative DNA, if you go back to Edmund Burke etcetera, that they trust local communities.

“I remember at the time, when we started all this, there were some prominent members of the Cabinet who said, ‘We’re just handing power to the Labour Party in Birmingham and Teesside and so on – we’ll never ever have Conservatives elected there.’

“And I would reply, ‘We don’t have Conservatives there at the moment – it’s not as if we’re starting from a position of giving away power.’

“And the election of Conservative metro mayors in the West Midlands and in Teesside essentially proved that point. And I would also say there’s nothing really to be lost.

“The best news at the moment from my point of view is that Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien have been given the opportunity to demonstrate this, because I think they’re two of the smartest and most creative Conservative thinkers we’ve got at the moment.

“And I would just say – well they don’t need my advice, they’re both good friends of mine – just let them get on with it.

“Every time you’re confronted with something which is, you know, ‘Oooh, should we trim a little, this is a little bit too radical, the Treasury’s got a problem with this,’ I would go for the reverse.

“Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolution, double it. Whatever you’re doing in terms of local tax-raising powers, double it. Whatever you’re doing in terms of devolving the NHS, double or triple it.

“That is why we have ministers, and we have political leadership in government: to push the system where it doesn’t want to go. For the Conservatives, this is really the once in a generation opportunity to show the whole country it can deliver.

“And if you just limit yourself to a couple of town-centre funds, which by the way the Cameron Government had, the Blair Government had, they’re not new, that’s not what’s needed.

“What’s needed is proper economic theory about creating big economic clusters in the North, bringing the cities closer together, connecting them to the towns that surround them, connecting them with real transport links that work, and attracting business, which cannot be done by the public sector alone, which is another classic mistake.

“You’ve got to make business feel that these are the places to go to, to create jobs and invest, the wonders of the free market will then work, and in a way that no Government White Paper will ever predict, real activity will happen.

“I’m optimistic about the White Paper because of who’s drafting it, and I would only tell them, not that they need my advice, to trample over anyone who gets in the way.”

ConHome: “This question of doubling everything you’re doing, does that extend to more elected mayors outside cities, in counties with smaller populations?”

Osborne: “Yes, I think it would be great to have elected mayors. I was an MP in Cheshire for 16 years, and I remember the time when we were in Opposition, I was a junior MP, and there was a plan to create unitary authorities in Cheshire.

“Pretty much all the MPs in Cheshire, led by the redoubtable Gwyneth Dunwoody, the Labour MP, and Sir Nicholas Winterton, led the fight against it, and thankfully we were ignored by the Government and unitary authorities were created, and it’s a much more efficient and effective way to run Cheshire.

“No one likes local government reorganisation, and local MPs and councillors have got to resist because it’s your local power base, but on a country-wide scale you could easily have mayors for Cumbria or Cheshire or wherever it happens to be.

“And I think the point about a mayor is it provides a point of accountability, an individual who can’t really pass the buck and is held to blame or indeed applauded for what they do.”

ConHome: “A former Conservative Leader of a big county said, ‘When I was the Leader, I had to oppose having an elected mayor in our area, because of all my Cabinet colleagues – they would all have protested and given me a lot of political trouble if I had come out in favour.

“Now I’ve gone, I’m all in favour of an elected mayor. So that leads to a political question, which is how do you deal with a mass of Conservative Cabinet members, county councillors and district councillors who won’t want any change, at a time when the Government is moving towards an election and you really need their good will.

“You should arguably have done this much earlier. Can you do this politically in the next few years?”

Osborne: “Yes, absolutely. The Conservative Party is quite easily led if it’s given a strong direction. We did succeed in creating these metro mayors in large parts of the country where there were no Conservative councillors.

“Let’s take Manchester. I remember Trafford Council, it was Tory-run, and they were like, why would we want to give power to a metro mayor in the middle of Manchester.

“The truth was the council leader at the time, the Conservative council leader was very courageous and led his group in support.

“And I always thought the best way was never to try to impose these metro mayors – to use the carrot, not the stick – so I would pile up all the advantages that come from having a metro mayor, the additional money, the support for local transport – and that did work. The hardest area was West Yorkshire and Leeds, it was politically contested, but even that now has come into line as they’re seeing the benefits.

“So you can show them the treasure at the end and they will follow the trail.

“In any organisation, it’s quite hard to lead from behind. You have to have a view, and ultimately if people don’t like you, they’ll get rid of you.

“There’s no point just occupying those offices. I always felt [as Chancellor of the Exchequer] there was a ticking clock, I never knew when the axe would fall, and I would try to be as bold as possible.

“I would say the same to the current crop of Conservative ministers and to the Prime Minister, which is you never know how long you’ve got in office, and the wheel turns, and then suddenly you’re out.

“And I can tell you as someone who’s been out of office and out of politics for five years, you look back on the big things you feel you got right, and they’re often the things against which there was the most opposition, the hardest internal arguments in your party, but they’re also the most rewarding things.”

ConHome: “So far, hasn’t levelling up really been a bit of a mess? You’re right to say that Michael Gove is a great executive politician – Neil O’Brien a huge brain, did a column for us – they will instil some order and political shape to it.

“But so far, hasn’t it been a bit incoherent? And has it had the strategic grasp the Northern Powerhouse had, in terms of a very clear plan to link up the cities, make them bigger, establish an economic counterweight to London?

“Hasn’t levelling up by contrast been a bit of a shambles?”

Osborne: “Well I am a glass half full person. I would say it was moribund for several years after I left office, as an agenda, and obviously there were enormous distractions, Brexit and then more recently Covid.

“But I think Boris Johnson deserves full marks for picking this up as the big domestic agenda. That’s what a Prime Minister does. A Prime Minister says ‘My Government’s going to be defined by a few things’, and he has decided levelling up is one of them. So I strongly applaud him for that.

“I also applaud him for now having the right people in place to deliver it. I wish he had stuck with, and I think he will end up recommitting to, elements like the High Speed line in Yorkshire, the Eastern Leg, and the Trans-Pennine route, because those are long-term infrastructure projects which you don’t want to throw away and start again on some other project that’ll never get off the ground.

“So I’m quite optimistic about it all. What it needs is proper intellectual underpinning. If you think it’s all just about planting some civic flowerbeds in northern towns then the Tories will be out on their ear.

“It’s got to have proper, serious economic thinking about it, which Jim O’Neill, a world-class economist, provided me with on this, and others like Neil O’Brian and Rupert Harrison.

“There are around the world great city clusters. They are where the action is. The towns around them benefit as well, but a bit more slowly.

“And you have to do the things that make those cities work, so you have to make them exciting places that attract professional people, you need the buzz of universities and cultural institutions, you need excellent transport links between the cities and commuter links into the cities, and you need to empower the city leadership.

“If you’d said to me 30 or 40 years ago that Manchester would be the fastest growing city in Europe I would have thought it was an impossible ambition, because the Manchester area was on its knees.

“You have to think big, you have to be ambitious, and you have to realise that Government puts the kind of instruments in place, but then it’s the private sector and the business community, and not just the big corporates but every little small business, every entrepreneur that decides actually I’m not going to move out of Manchester, I’m going set my new web design business in Manchester rather than move to London. That is how progress is made.

“I think the Johnson Government can do it. It’s got the majority, they’ve made this its central domestic agenda, and if it sticks with it it can work.

“One of the things I find annoying, having been a political secretary in Downing Street in the distant past, is all this ‘Boris Johnson needs a new team in Downing Street. He needs grey hairs around him. He needs as Deputy Prime Minister a Willie Whitelaw-type character.’

“All of that is such nonsense. Actually in my view the Downing Street team is pretty talented at the moment, and they are a good team.

“And there are some real issues the Government’s got – it’s got a difficult economic backdrop, falling real incomes, it’s got to repair the relationship with Europe, which is absolutely critical to Britain’s economy, its immigration policy, its security policy.

“These are the big tasks alongside levelling up. But the idea it’s all going to be solved with some reshuffle of the kitchen cabinet or indeed the Cabinet is in my view nonsense.”

ConHome: “You’re really saying the problem with Boris Johnson isn’t his team, the problem with Boris Johnson is Boris Johnson.”

Osborne: “No I’m not actually, because I think Boris Johnson has the kind of charisma and leadership to deliver a lot of what he’s set out to do.

“But governments in the mid-term, they have to kind of refocus, and the glittering prize is there if they just reach out and grab it.”

James Frayne: What voters want when it comes to the Government’s levelling-up strategy

23 Nov

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien rightly see two speeds to their levelling-up strategy. Firstly, long-term economic policies to extend opportunities to the young and those in need of new career options. Secondly, short-term, primarily social policies that improve life in towns and cities and boost civic pride.

Along with an excellent team in Downing Street (who are quietly doing a really great job on civic pride), Gove’s officials are now considering which policies would make the most differences on everything from housing policy to productivity. However, as they do, the voice of the public is crucial in shaping these policies. While most people can’t formulate specific policies, their views are useful in conceptualising these policies in broad terms.

Having followed this debate for a long-time, I thought it would be interesting to test public attitudes to all this. Public First has therefore just concluded a comprehensive new landscape poll that probes public attitudes to short-term and long-term challenges.

It’s the most detailed quantitative research we’ve conducted yet on levelling-up and we take a particularly detailed look at actual policy options the Government might take. I’ll do a more detailed look at the research and the various cross breaks another time, but today I briefly cover the main implications for the Government. You can find a link to the full results here.

Most people think levelling-up is for them but working class voters feel the issues more

Who does the levelling-up strategy appeal most to? Our poll confirms it has general appeal, even though when pushed people say it’s primarily for former industrial towns in the North of England. Nearly two thirds of our sample said they believed their own local area needed levelling-up – and middle class voters were almost as likely to say their area needed levelling-up as working class voters.

However, it’s clear the levelling-up narrative – particularly the civic pride element – will be more intensely felt by working class voters. They are more likely to say their town or city has got worse in the last ten years and they are less likely to say they’re proud of where they live, as are over 65s (the very people who talk most about the decline of their towns in the groups). In working class communities there is an immense feeling of wounded civic pride

The state and safety of the public realm determine levels of civic pride

When we asked directly what builds civic pride and what has undermined it – giving people a very wide range of options – people are clear: it’s ultimately about the quality of shared spaces and the public streetscape. So (along with “the people”), civic pride is built by parks (by far), historic buildings and the high street – the places where people spend time together. And what undermines civic pride is anti-social behaviour, the decline of the high street and general litter and disrepair.

Downing Street’s team know the importance of anti-social behaviour to levelling-up but it’s yet to be pushed hard by politicians. Given a list of options to level-up areas by tackling crime and anti-social behaviour, the most popular answer was getting people who had committed crimes to clean graffiti and pick up litter. 

People see the power of economic policies (but there are limits)

Ask people about levelling-up policies without prompting in focus groups and high streets totally dominate. However, when we put a range of options before them in the poll, economic policies came to the fore. Given a broad range of options the Government might take, helping people retrain in areas where industry has declined comes top, followed by encouraging business investment into particular areas (yes, a generic policy concept).

Elsewhere, asked generally what the Government should prioritise, creating more local jobs and encouraging business investment came top – well above high streets. However, it’s important to put the power of the economic message into perspective: productivity, a major preoccupation of the Levelling-Up Department, came bottom of the list of options in the first question above. Perhaps it would be fairer to say therefore that simple economic policy concepts are the most persuasive. 

Green policies play well in policy thinking on levelling up

A few months ago, some interesting research I did for Green Alliance showed people in former industrial areas were surprisingly positive about the prospect of new, green technologies replacing industries of the past. And the same was true in this poll: given a list of options for the Government to encourage investment outside the South-East, overall the most popular was “developing expertise in green technologies in those areas that have lost traditional manufacturing”.

Admittedly, it was more popular amongst middle class voters, but it was still popular amongst working class voters (who preferred the option of financial to support to relocate for work). Past groups suggest this is explained by a feeling both that green jobs are a moral good but also because they’re viewed as modern and “future-proof”.

Devolution can be part of the levelling-up message if it’s bold

Odd as it might be, in my experience devolution is not yet viewed as a pre-requisite for success on levelling-up. Consequently, perhaps, the most successful economic policy option for local areas was Central Government moving jobs outside London. However, essentially equally popular was allowing cities to cut taxes to encourage business investment (this was the most popular amongst working class voters).

And another question – this time on what powers local government might have – showed the most popular option was holding more local referendums. These are two options that many local governments might run a mile from. Regardless, they hint at a certain interest in a more dynamic and disruptive devolution settlement.

The poll is all encouraging and offers some useful pointers to the Government. However, a final note to finish on: despite widespread support for the Government’s attempts to level-up, half the sample said they were not confident the Government would succeed, compared to under a quarter who said they were confident. Whether this means the public will think there are better priorities in time or whether they just think it’s all worth trying, time will tell.

Narinder Singh: Javid is right to insist on better performance data from GPs

24 Oct

Neil O’Brien is a Senior Parliamentary Researcher at the House of Commons.

I know Tony Blair was known for his ‘education, education, educatio’n mantra – but it could’ve just as easily been KPIs, KPIs, KPIs if it was slightly more catchy.

KPIs (Key Performance Indicators for normal people) are something I spent the early part of my working life chasing, during my time at the NHS as a Performance Analyst (fancy way of saying I used to look at a lot of spreadsheets).

During this job, under both a Labour and Coalition Government, I saw first-hand how the various KPIs, targets and data could be used for good to help drive improvements and efficiency. But I also saw the bad and unintended consequences they could have, something Sajid Javid is rightly mindful of in his worthwhile quest to add more transparency to the data.

Starting with bad, many will remember the popular Labour pledge for anyone to be able to see their GP within 48 hours. Sounds good, right? Who could argue with that – yes please put that target in place! Except, it was largely smoke and mirrors. The way this target was monitored was that someone from what was then known as a ‘Primary Care Trust’ would phone the surgeries to ascertain their next appointment (not as a mystery shopper) to ask the question.

If the response was that they didn’t have anything within 48 hours, they were gently ‘nudged’ towards indicating that they would see someone. They knew the game; we knew the game. I don’t know at what level the decision was taken to play it, whether it came from the top or was an innovation from one of the many mid-tiers. Either way it was a fabricated exercise to be able to say all practices were offering appointments within 48 hours, Minister – without addressing the underlying issues around access. Fairly certain my old Trust was not alone in fudging this exercise.

Targets often start from a good intention – for example, patients presenting at A&E to be seen within 48 hours. But with the target often comes an unintended consequence, such as hospitals unnecessarily admitting patients instead. This was quite clearly visible in the admissions data before and after that target was introduced in 2004.

Moving on to the current day, GP surgeries have performed heroics to carry out the vaccine rollout and deserve our praise and thanks for this, but sadly it has come at a cost in terms of routine appointments, somewhat inevitably as staff/resource were diverted towards the rollout. Pre-rollout, appointments were rightly restricted and largely virtual, as ill people gathering in a surgery would’ve been a recipe for disaster.

To try and inject more capacity, the Health Secretary announced a £250m funding package – presumably good news to be welcomed by all surgeries? Not quite. Because with this, he’s trying to add some transparency to the data so that patients can see how their practice is performing on this.

Many people are under the illusion that GP surgeries are part of some big-government NHS bloc, they aren’t. They are largely private businesses made up of partners, who are commissioned by the NHS to provide certain services, some of which are part of their ‘core’ contract and others being ‘enhanced services’.

As with any industry or sector, there are some good and some not so good operators. In my Performance Analyst role, I had ‘league tables’ of every surgery in my patch across a measure of indicators, and you could quite easily see which were at the top of most and the common names appearing at the bottom on virtually every measure. If we hide away from the data, we miss the opportunity to analyse, compare and contrast to see where the examples of good practice are and where the bad ones are, that fundamentally aren’t delivering for their patients.

Predictably, GP representative bodies have responded negatively to this proposal – their job is to look out for and represent their members (surgeries).

But the Health Secretary is right to press on. It isn’t a case of naming and shaming, but these comparison tables provide a chance to analysts and commissioners to look at where the issues are, and for patients to vote with their feet if they aren’t happy. Funding follows the patient on a per head basis, so any practice needs to maintain their list if they want to survive.

I started off by highlighting a couple of bad examples of target driven exercises because it’s something we always need to be mindful of. Targets aren’t always good but if the data is used correctly, it can help to drive improvement for patients. This is something we saw at my old Trust where we often ‘buddied’, so a bad practice could learn from a good one.

Only by having the data and league tables in the first place, were we able to do this. We saw improvements in a number of areas, which ultimately benefited the patients. Javid is correct to be injecting £250m into primary care, but doing so with monitoring attached so he and the patients can see how the money is being used to improve access.

While I no longer work for the NHS, my experience was overwhelmingly positive and I worked with some incredible people, both clinical and non-clinical colleagues. Decisions such as the recent one taken by the Health Secretary aren’t going to be popular or win him many friends amongst GPs, but they are necessary if we want to drive improvements that patients deserve.