Rachel Wolf: My verdict on Levelling Up? A wonderful strategy in places – but one that shows deep government tensions.

4 Feb

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

Only Michael Gove could take a departmental White Paper and turn it into a government’s manifesto. The paper demonstrates both his abilities and the limits of his persuasive power across government. It is a paper with great ambition, and many great policies, but it would have been more effective from a Prime Minister’s Office than from a Department.

First, let’s talk about why the white paper matters. As I’ve written on this site before, levelling up is a terrible phrase which gets a terrible reception with voters. They don’t understand what it means, and they don’t like the wording.

But some of the principles outlined this week – the idea that we can make places better to live in, with more opportunities – matter enormously. In towns across the country, too many have felt too ignored for too long. As Will Tanner wrote on this site a couple of days ago, there is also an economic imperative. The country loses out when so many areas underperform.

The policies in the white paper are also the best opportunity for this government to show it has delivered real change. “Covid was a bit less bad than it could have been, the cost-of-living crisis marginally less awful, and we raised taxes but have now brought them down again” is not, to me, a compelling proposition at the next election. Here are the improvements in your area, and here’s the plan for the next five years, is better.

The paper, which has deep and serious analysis, and tangible metrics, understands this (although I seem to be the only person who enjoyed the detour into Jericho and Babylon). In the areas Gove’s department controls, in particular, it has also proposed radical and important policies.

Long term, the most significant is the commitment to greater devolution. I was once a classic, centralising political adviser who thought that very clever people in Westminster should control everything (a bit like most people in the Treasury). I’m now an equally classic political adviser who has been wearied by the limits of what any central government can achieve, and who understands that ‘joined up government’, building from the genuine demands of the people, requires local decision making.

Conservative governments’ rhetoric on devolution has long outstripped the reality, but the white paper outlines real powers that more devolution will bring and offers the promise of more. Yes, it continues the journey of previous administrations – but this seems to me a good thing. School reform, which I worked on in 2010, was an acceleration of the academy programme initiated by Tony Blair. That’s why it stuck.

The shift of R&D funding outside the golden triangle (London, Oxford, Cambridge) also matters, though there’s a lot of detail needed on how it will be spent. We should be getting at least one university significantly up the global R&D rankings through targeted investment, and we should be aligning R&D from the public sector better with the private sector.

Neither of these, of course, are election winning policies. The public are sceptical about devolution in particular. But they’re important, substantive shifts and I think they will be very hard to reverse.

Shorter term, there is a wholly necessary and sensible focus on civic pride – something which I/Public First have long argued for. The white paper has managed to both secure devolution of the Shared Prosperity Fund, and avoid it being so tightly constrained by Treasury that it can’t be spent on local priorities.

There is a consistent focus on what matters to people – high streets, crime, community, green spaces. If (big if) the policies in the white paper are delivered rapidly and effectively, the Government has just about enough time to explain to people across the country what levelling up was about, and why it is helping their area.

But there are also a number of areas where the scale of the stated ambition, and the policies, diverge. Most obvious is the first section on productivity and private sector investment – which is incredibly disappointing. It is a mish mash of previously announced policies which do not begin to address the scale of the challenge.

Aside from the increase in R&D spend, it is hard to pinpoint a big new idea which is likely to significantly change business behaviour. This must be the Treasury’s refusal to play ball. I genuinely do not understand, for example, why they won’t give certainty over the super-deduction and make it longer term.

In general few government departments seem, to me, to have come up with much more than a rehashed list of policies that were already in the works or due to be announced. Their approach to devolving decision making or rebalancing spending away from the South East is also far from uniform.

This is where the ability of a single government department to drive change across Whitehall stutters. Without a very strong Downing Street, able to prioritise and drive policy, fiefdoms will always remain. With the Prime Minister now at odds with his Chancellor on policy but too weak to impose his will on the Treasury, a fully coherent approach is impossible. .

Meanwhile most irritating, to me, is schools and skills. The schools target – for 90 per cent of children to reach the expected standard in reading, writing, and maths by 2030 – is wonderful, but I have no idea from the paper how it is supposed to be achieved.

The skills target, meanwhile, is unambitious. I make it as 0.3 per cent more of the population doing skills training every year. If the entire government were really behind levelling up, they’d throw everything behind the Lifelong Learning Entitlement, which gives people the money and colleges and universities the incentive to put on proper training courses for everyone.

Where does that leave us? A paper which is brilliant in its ambition and analysis, and which has devised serious policies under a serious secretary of state. It is also a paper that has truly understood the priorities of people and – if delivery is on track – could improve large numbers of places very rapidly.

But it is necessarily limited by the deep policy tensions between the Treasury and Downing Street, and the inability to force all departments to row together. Will it stand the test of time? Yes, I think much of it will – particularly on devolution and R&D. Can some of its policies help win an election? Again, yes. But for as long as the leaders of the Government are divided, even the best reforming minister I have ever seen cannot paper over the cracks.

Will Tanner: Everyone knows the moral case for levelling up. But it makes economic sense too.

2 Feb

Will Tanner is Director of Onward and a former Deputy Head of Policy in Number 10 Downing Street.

“Our plan now, this new Government I am leading, is to unite our country and level up.” So said Boris Johnson in his first speech as Prime Minister more than two years ago. Today the Government finally sets out that plan in the form of the Levelling Up White Paper. But why does it matter?

The political argument for levelling up is straightforward. The Conservatives assembled an electoral coalition in 2019 that is both more likely to live in poorer places and more working class than even the Labour Party. Those votes, in the Prime Minister’s words, were “lent”. They need to be repaid. If the Conservatives want to retain their majority, it is politically essential that levelling up delivers.

The moral case is simple. The last few decades have been good for some places and people, and very bad for others. The gap between the UK’s richest and poorest regions has grown. Returns to graduate labour have increased and returns to vocations have diminished. The social fabric of coastal and industrial towns, particularly, has deteriorated. Civic pride has been squandered.

But the economic case is less intuitive. Economic orthodoxy would say that the best thing governments can do for growth is to get out of the way. To neoclassical economists, levelling up is the economic equivalent of pushing water uphill: eye-wateringly expensive and ultimately futile.

This conventional wisdom is seductive to centre right thinkers given it prioritises market forces and downplays the role of the state. But it is also a narrow view of how economies work in practice, and short-sighted about the damage regional disparities can do to growth. Here are five reasons why levelling up is not just morally and politically sensible, but economically the right thing to do too.

1. More regionally balanced economies are richer overall

The UK is one of the most interregionally unequal countries in the industrialised world. Only Romania and Poland have larger productivity gaps between regions. In the UK, three times the share of people (35 per cent) live in areas where the average income is 10 per cent below the national average than in Germany (12 per cent). As Philip McCann has painstakingly evaluated, the UK scores among the worst economies on 24 measures of spatial equality, covering regional GDP, productivity and disposable income, and at all levels of geography.

Regional productivity disparities between the UK and 18 EU regions

 

Source: Industrial Strategy Council

This matters because more balanced economies tend to be stronger overall. Among the G20 there are no large countries more regionally imbalanced than the UK and also richer than the UK per head.

The reverse is also true; all large countries which are richer than the UK appear to be more balanced. This suggests that far from water trickling down hill from superstar regions like London, the opposite may be true. The UK’s overall productivity level may be being undermined by the decoupling of London from the rest of the economy.

2. The UK has been actively imbalancing itself for decades

An argument frequently made against levelling up is that it means cutting down tall poppies to grow green shoots elsewhere. This would obviously be a mistake. Levelling up will clearly fail if it pits places against one another and fails to learn from our success stories.

But we should also recognise that the current system suffers from an inadvertent Matthew Effect that directs growth-enhancing spending to already-successful places and away from places more likely to suffer market failure. To extend the analogy, the poppies get all the fertiliser.

This is evident almost everywhere the government takes a role in the economy. In recent decades, London has received nearly three times as much transport spending, five times as much affordable housing funding, and five times as much cultural spending as the average region.

The effect of this is two-fold. First, to accelerate the widening gap between the capital and the rest, and, second, to increase pressure on housing and infrastructure in the places that are most opposed to further development – London and the South East.

3. The UK’s drivers of innovation will exacerbate divides further if left unchecked

Productivity arises from innovation, defined broadly, both at a national and regional level. The development of new ideas, processes and technologies leads to spillovers that drive up the output per hour of workers and firms and living standards rise as a result. But the UK’s innovation economy is heavily skewed towards the Greater South East, meaning these spillovers are also geographically concentrated.

This is most apparent in R&D funding. Half (47 per cent) of the core government research budget is spent in just three cities: Oxford, Cambridge and London, and the capital receives twice as much R&D funding per capita than the UK average. According to some studies, this gap amounts to a £4 billion a year gap in R&D spending for the UK’s least prosperous regions.

Spending on R&D by NUTS1 region within the UK, 2016 (split by market-led (business) and non-market-led (government, university and charity))

Source: Richard Jones and Tom Forth

The effect of this on economic performance is considerable. Last year, Onward showed that 72 per cent of R&D intensive jobs created in the last decade were created within the regions containing London, Oxford and Cambridge, despite those places representing just 20 per cent of the population.

But the prize is even bigger: a recent BEIS-sponsored report estimated that spending the entirety of the uplift of R&D spending outside London, Cambridge and Oxford would boost GDP by 0.8 per cent by 2040, compared to spending the money equally around the country.

4. Modern economies make levelling up more important, not less

These challenges are exacerbated by the way the global knowledge economy drives inequality and undermines high levels of growth – in relation to the competitiveness of workers, the power of firms, and the connectivity of places.

Returns are increasing for high-skilled knowledge economy workers. Robert Reich wrote in the 1980s of an emerging divide between ‘symbolic analysts’, routine production workers and in-person service workers. David Goodhart divided them more snappily as ‘head, hand, heart.’ Our skills system has not kept pace with these rapid changes to the structure of the labour market, and workers in low productivity places are increasingly unable to access the highest paying jobs.

The structure of modern firms presents challenges, with tech companies adopting platform models that operate differently from previous industrial titans. David Autor has highlighted the rise of ‘superstar firms’ who benefit from network effects and the highly scalable returns to intangible capital identified by Jonathan Haskel and Stain Westlake. Superstar firms present a challenge for workers by reducing wage competition, and can worsen regional inequalities by concentrating economic activity without shouldering the tax burden to support investment elsewhere.

Knowledge economies also reward places with high levels of connectivity. AnnaLee Saxenian’s study of why Silicon Valley beat Boston’s Route 128 to become a global tech hub points to the dense and nimble network of relationships between workers, firms, and universities. In the UK, these networks are weak – characterised by Andy Haldane as a ‘Hub (London) with No Spokes’. We have world beating companies and universities, but we don’t connect them with other clusters or places in the way that is rewarded by the new global economic structure.

5. The UK’s cities underperform relative to international competitors

This lack of networks is particularly true of Britain’s second-tier cities, which punch well below their weight. Places like Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow are significantly less productive than peers like Brussels, Marseille, and Madrid, and don’t see the agglomeration effects that you would expect based on their size and available labour market.

As work from the Centre for Cities has highlighted, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225 billion larger. While transport connectivity has often been cited as the key barrier to productivity, Onward’s research has pointed to factors like skills and R&D intensity as more significant contributors to this gap.

Conclusion

For all these reasons, the Government is right to want to change the economic geography of the UK. It is true that the UK’s regional differences are longstanding. It is true that they will be hard to shift.

But that does not make the challenge any less urgent, morally, politically or economically. Levelling Up is not about reducing everyone to the lowest common denominator. It is about bringing everyone up to their potential.

As Margaret Thatcher said once, “People think that at the top there isn’t much room. They tend to think of it as an Everest. My message is that there is tons of room at the top.” We have done it before, as shown below. We must do it again.

UK regional productivity differences between 1901 and 2017

Source: Industrial Strategy Council

Orban says he’s defending Christian civilisation. His opponents say he’s subverting Hungary’s democracy.

24 Sep

Will the European Union hold together? Or is Western Europe going one way and Central Europe another?

Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, is perhaps the most eloquent exponent of, as he put it in a recent lecture, “a Central European cultural, intellectual and political entity that is growing more and more different from Western Europe”.

Orban has many critics, but his lecture was directed against one in particular, Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford.

There was a time when they were on the same side, for as Orban says:

“The professor has an excellent knowledge of Central Europe and used to inspire many of us during our years of resistance against communism and the Soviet occupation, in the late 1980s.

“What’s more, members of the current Hungarian political leadership had the chance to personally attend his lectures, which took a stance for freedom, at the University of Oxford.”

Orban, born in 1963, sprang to fame in Hungary in June 1989 by giving a speech demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the holding of free elections, after which he studied for a few months at Pembroke College, Oxford, on a scholarship awarded by the Soros Foundation.

He returned home in January 1990, was elected to the National Assembly, became the leader of Fidesz, which he led in a national conservative direction, and served as Prime Minister from 1998-2002 and again since 2010.

Garton Ash has become, as in this interview with Euronews on 8th September, an unsparing critic of Orban:

“we do have European Union values which are being massively violated in countries like Hungary and Poland, and I think we need to stand up for those values…

“Viktor Orban is having his cake and eating it. He’s winning elections by saying ‘Stop Brussels’, campaigning against the European Union, but taking billions of European taxpayers’ money.

“Therefore the key to an effective response is to establish a linkage between the Europe of values and the Europe of money. And that’s what the European Union has so far failed to do…

“It is absolutely outrageous that you have a member state of the European Union which in my view is no longer a democracy, which has destroyed media freedom, which doesn’t have fair elections, free but not fair elections, which has kicked out the best university in central Europe, which has indulged in outrageously xenophobic propaganda, the treatment of migrants and so on, which is still receiving billions of euros in the EU funds, that is an outrageous state of affairs.”

When asked whether Orban’s illiberalism is a real threat to the EU, Garton Ash replied:

“Without question… One has to go back a long way to find a period when a Hungarian leader was so important in European history…

“And that is because he has become the symbolic leader of the other Europe, the conservative, anti-liberal, ethnic nationalist, Christian, socially conservative Europe.

“And Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, are all with him.

“So he represents not just one medium-sized member state of the European Union, he represents a very important tendency in the entire European Union.”

Orban maintains that on the contrary, his conservatism is “a blessing for the European Union and even Western Europe”, because the West, he contends in his lecture, has lost the convictions which lay behind its success:

“I understood that beyond and behind all the technical equipment, novel institutions and scientific discoveries, there was also the West’s sense of its exceptionalism and mission, which gave it inspiration and confidence. The conviction that Western man has a mission in the world and with the world, and must act in order to accomplish that mission.

“Naturally, we do know that the Western mission has intellectual and spiritual foundations that should be sought in Christianity. ‘Go, and make disciples of all nations’, Matthew says. This mentality, even if in a changed form, survived in the West also during the Enlightenment, the periods of the humanist ideal of man, human rights and the discoveries of modern science.

“During a period of unquestionable development and brilliant success – despite evident mistakes, blunders and grave shortcomings – the conviction that the overall balance of the mission of Western civilisation and the West was fundamentally positive held for a long time.

“However, something had changed by the beginning of the 21st century. And this happened just at a time when the West, led by America and Britain, had scored its most brilliant victory, having won the Cold War…

“It no longer seeks meaning in its own history; instead, it keeps saying that it will end soon. It re-interprets or deletes entire chapters of its history, finding them shameful and so to be cancelled, and in the meantime, it is unable to replace them with anything else. And those who are not paralysed, but in fact very much active, are such deconstructive, negative forces that they would be better off paralysed…

“the concept of open society has deprived the West of its faith in its own values and historical mission, and with this now – at the time of the Muslim flood and the rise of Asia – it is preventing the West from setting its own mission against the rising intellectual and political power centres…”

Orban contends that in Brussels, and the West generally, “a sense of mission shared by a political community, a nation is now unacceptable, even suspicious.” Hungary, on the other hand, still has that sense of mission: hence Budapest’s disputes with Brussels.

To Garton Ash, speaking on Tuesday to ConHome, Orban’s essay amounts to “a brilliant exercise in ideological distraction”: Orban says “let’s have a really interesting intellectual conversation about the future of western civilisation”, and the disreputable methods by which Orban stays in power are forgotten.

ConHome suggested two questions arise: one is whether Orban himself is a reputable person, the other is whether it is permissible for anyone, no matter how reputable, to hold Orban’s views.

Garton Ash replied:

“You can be a Conservative nationalist party continuing to govern in a country which is still an excellent liberal democracy – we live in one.”

Orban, he went on, has instead subverted liberal democracy, by gerrymandering, by pay-offs to friendly oligarchs, by getting the media under control: “That’s the problem, that’s why I’m so angry.”

And Orban then distracts attention from his destruction of liberal democracy by reframing the whole battle as an ideological clash, so that people say “maybe I agree with him about immigration” or “maybe I agree with him about Islam”.

Garton Ash went on to say that “characterising Muslims as invaders” (as Orban has done) “is in my view beyond the pale”, and that “some of the election propaganda against Soros is borderline anti-semitic”.

He urged British Conservatives to be cautious about embracing Orban: “It’s the difference between Farage and Johnson.”

And he pointed out that while Orban attacks Brussels, he also accepts very large sums from Brussels: “Viktor Orban is a master of cakeism.”

For a long time Orban managed to keep Hungarian MEPs in the European People’s Party in Brussels, before at length they were eased out of it.

David Cameron, one may note, promised that British MEPs would leave the EPP, and at length kept that promise. British Euroscepticism, leading to Brexit, is in some ways more straightforward than Hungarian and Polish Euroscepticism.

In Hungary and Poland, with their recent history of Soviet occupation, there are still large majorities in favour of EU membership.

Orban wins elections by playing the nationalist card, but one should not imagine that this card does not exist in Western Europe. The EU is paralysed by the fear that taking the great leap to becoming a federal state comparable to the USA  would provoke a nationalist backlash in most if not all of the member states, including Germany and France.

The German Constitutional Court stands as the most reputable though so far reticent opponent of a federal Europe. Alternative for Germany, founded in 2013 by learned men opposed to the policies required to prop up the euro but soon degenerating into a xenophobic movement, is one of the least reputable opponents.

It is now 21 years since Larry Siedentop pointed out, in Democracy in Europe, that no Madison, Hamilton and Jay have stepped forward to compose Europe’s version of The Federalist Papers.

The euro remains a currency unbacked by a government. Perhaps under the pressure of some great crisis, surmounted by leaders who rise to the occasion, that government will be conjured into existence.

But in the meantime, one cannot help being struck by the persistence of the nation state as the fundamental political reality. Nations may be good or bad, reputable or disreputable, democratic or authoritarian.

Perhaps the ultimate function of the EU, towards which Garton Ash points the way, will be to keep its members democratic. But what an opportunity that offers to demagogues to blame the nation’s woes on Brussels.

Ashcroft goes in search of the real Starmer

21 Aug

Red Knight: The Unauthorised Biography of Sir Keir Starmer by Michael Ashcroft

Michael Ashcroft specialises in getting there first. Within the last two years he has brought out the first biographies of Rishi Sunak (reviewed here) and Jacob Rees-Mogg (reviewed here), this week he offers us the first life of Sir Keir Starmer, and he has promised that “early in 2022” we shall get his account of Carrie Johnson.

There is an excitement in being first. One feels like an archaeologist excavating a site which no rival has yet touched.

I had this experience in 2004, when I began researching the early life of Boris Johnson, tipped at that time as the next Conservative Prime Minister.

Starmer has led a quieter life than Johnson. A search of all 72 issues of The Leeds Student (the weekly newspaper for Leeds University) published during Starmer’s time reading law there (1982-85) yielded a single reference to him, published in the “Personals” column on 27 January 1984:

“Keir Starmer, King of Middle-Class Radicals.”

As Ashcroft writes, this arresting phrase “was almost certainly an in-joke between friends”. He uses it as the title for a chapter, and speculates that Starmer was already “fending off accusations of being more bourgeois than he would care to admit”.

While at Leeds, Ashcroft concludes, Starmer “did not seek the spotlight, but was instead cautious, modest and restrained”, and concentrated on getting a good degree.

Which he did, taking a first and proceeding to postgraduate law studies at Oxford University, where he was at St Edmund Hall from 1985-86.

During this period, “Oxford was awash with future front-rank politicians”, including David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Radek Sikorski, Ed Balls and David Miliband.

Johnson, regarded by many of his contemporaries as a future Prime Minister, was at that stage the best known of these aspirants. In early 1986 he was elected (at the second attempt) President of the Oxford Union, and the following year just failed (to his bitter disappointment) to take a first in classics, having done almost no academic work except for an inadequate last-minute spurt.

Starmer spent, by his own account, “an intense year studying” in Oxford, which “confirmed me in my choice of pursuing a career as a human rights advocate, both here in the UK and abroad.”

It is not hard to think of circumstances in which this contrast could work to Starmer’s advantage. One can well imagine that Johnson’s mastery of the theatre of politics, and patchy approach to study, might create a reaction in favour of a less dramatic but more conscientious Prime Minister.

On the other hand, if it does, the Conservatives will attempt to install a less dramatic but more conscientious figure of their own.

Starmer has long been at pains to emphasise his working-class origins. Ashcroft looks into this class question with great care, and suggests that petit bourgeois would be a more accurate term, though that implies a cultural narrowness of which there is no sign.

For Starmer won a place at Reigate Grammar School in 1974, at a time when it was still, just, “a proper state grammar school”, as one of the teachers recalls, where “the ability level of the pupils was amazingly high”.

Starmer was a gifted musician, “good enough at the flute to be an exhibitioner at the Junior Guildhall School of Music”, to which he travelled for lessons on Saturday mornings.

He was also an accomplished footballer, who captained the school team in his last year “and proved a good leader both on and off the field”.

On the bus each morning to school, Starmer, a member of the East Surrey Young Socialists and an atheist, honed his wits in a running argument about politics, and also about religion, with a fellow pupil, Andrew Sullivan, a liberal conservative and Roman Catholic who was elected president of the Oxford Union and has since become a well-known commentator in the United States.

In 1976 Reigate Grammar School escaped abolition by going independent (though under the transitional arrangements Starmer continued to attend without his parents having to pay fees).

Andrew Adonis recently pointed out, in a piece for Prospect entitled “Boris Johnson: The Prime Etonian”, that in the 1970s, “having been for centuries essentially a comprehensive for the aristocracy, Eton changed into an oligarchical grammar school”:

“Just as Eton and the other top public schools were mutating into warped meritocracies, the grammar schools were abolished, so the competition largely left the field. It was strangely unrealised by Labour politicians of the era that the esprit de corps and academic prowess of the grammar schools had been vital to the left’s ability to take on the Tory public school elite on equal terms.

“The main political casualty of Labour’s comprehensivisation of education turned out to be the Labour Party itself, which thereafter lacked leaders with the confidence to match the gilded grammar school generation of Wilson, Healey and Jenkins, while the new breed of ‘meritocratic’ Etonians and fellow public school boys—girls were still rare, and girl Etonians non-existent—remained deep blue.”

Johnson used quite often to declare, with passionate sincerity, that competition is an essential part of education, so is academic selection, and so is studying subjects, such as Greek and Latin grammar, where there are right and wrong answers.

Competition suited him, and it suited Starmer, though the latter’s subjects at A level seem to have been maths, physics and chemistry, in which there are likewise right and wrong answers.

Conservatives still argue rather fruitlessly about grammar schools, but for Labour the whole subject of education, and how to reconcile the democratic thirst for equality with unequal distribution of ability and society’s need for a highly educated elite, is even more difficult.

Starmer’s parents were keen supporters of their local theatre, the Barn in Oxted, and attended plays and concerts all over Surrey. His father, a toolmaker, had his own business, and cared devotedly for Keir’s mother, born in 1939, who at the age of 11 was found to be suffering from Still’s disease.

Her consultant at Guy’s Hospital, Dr Kenneth Maclean, received her parents’ permission to administer the new steroid cortisone to her, which for a long time enabled her to live a much fuller life than had been expected.

Keir did not have a close relationship with his father, a man of rugged independence who late in life sent a round robin Christmas letter in which he remarked of “some of the residents in Oxted”:

“The posher the voice, the more vulgar they are.”

Ashcroft finds this “rather gratuitous”, but I find it admirable, an expression of the Englishman’s ancient right to be as rude as he likes about those who give themselves airs.

I would guess Starmer finds Johnson vulgar, but doesn’t quite know how to say this. One of the melancholy conclusions to be drawn from this book is that Starmer has yet to offer any phrases to the world which are likely to survive him.

Ashcroft takes us through Starmer’s increasingly successful legal career, culminating, after he has served as Director of Public Prosecutions, in a knighthood. His parents drive up from Surrey for the ceremony, bringing with them a Great Dane, a rescue dog called Chip, who they are told they cannot bring into Buckingham Palace, until Chip licks the police inspector’s face and they are all allowed through, with a member of staff volunteering to look after the dog.

The Starmers, she by now confined to a wheelchair, watch their son kneel in front of Prince Charles and reckon they are “the proudest parents there”. This is the stuff to give voters in the Red Wall seats who doubt whether Labour is still patriotic.

But it is also something their son feels an overwhelming urge to play down, for like most members of the modern Establishment, he wants somehow to deny that he belongs to it, and to emphasise his ordinariness.

As Ashcroft points out, this makes it impossible for Labour to talk convincingly about aspiration, the opportunities to better oneself which industry and ability can open to anyone in this country.

Unwearying egalitarianism undermines pride in individual achievement. Of course, any individual achievement also reflects credit on family, school, friends, colleagues etcetera.

But Starmer comes across as a bit of a bore (which actually he isn’t) because he feels a moral obligation virtually never to give credit to individuals, and to the difference they can make, but always to be collective and inclusive.

Until recently, Starmer could have served as a barrister and an MP at the same time, which would have given him more practice at speaking like a politician rather than a human rights lawyer.

This book will be found invaluable by anyone seeking to work out what kind of a person Starmer really is.

Maybe the world is not going to hell in a handcart after all

3 Jun

It is always tempting for a conservative to believe the world is going to hell in a handcart, but are things just now as bad as all that?

On my last visit to Oxford, I took the trouble to stop outside the University Church, on the north side of the High Street, and gaze up at the statue of Cecil Rhodes.

My hosts assured me that Oriel College was about to remove the statue of its benefactor, so this would be my last chance to see it.

Instead of which, the statue is to remain in place, and the college is going to promote “educational equality, diversity and inclusion amongst its student cohort”.

The announcement was made in the most tactful possible terms. Oriel’s governing body insists it still wishes to remove the statue, but has discovered that “the regulatory and financial challenges” which stand in the way of doing so are too great.

In plainer language, the college authorities have realised the whole thing would a grotesque waste of money.

Over at Jesus College, Cambridge, it seems a similar realisation may be dawning.

As Charles Moore reports in The SpectatorJesus wants to remove Grinling Gibbons’s bust of its 17th-century benefactor, Tobias Rustat, from the college chapel, because of his connections to the slave trade.

Here too, the likely costs of removal turn out to be considerable, and hard to reconcile with the college’s “charitable aims of education, learning, research and religion”.

Moore chronicles, in the cover piece of this week’s Spectator, how the National Trust’s charitable purposes were subverted after those running the organisation allowed Black Lives Matter to set a different agenda.

A body called Restore Trust has launched a campaign to get the NT “to return to its original principles”, and the NT’s Chairman, Tim Parker, has resigned.

In all three cases, the leaders of a long-established institution succumbed to an outburst of moral panic, and gave a hasty yet unconditional assent to changes which had not been thought through, and which turned out to be incompatible with the institution’s purposes.

Only the most bone-headed conservative would contend that institutions do not need to change, in order to adapt themselves to new conditions.

The problem here is the bone-headedness not of conservatives, but of certain glib and irresponsible progressives who convince themselves, with ineffable self-righteousness, that after a short period of study, or indeed after no study at all, they have arrived at the one true view of history, and are entitled to impose it on everyone else.

No institution should allow itself to be imposed upon in this way. If the history which is being urged is true, prolonged and careful study will confirm this.

When a statue has stood for a century without anyone making a serious case against it – indeed without most people noticing its existence – it should not be torn down in a momentary ebullition of moral funk, so those responsible for it can be thought of by others, and think of themselves, as fine fellows.

In the words of Edmund Burke,

“Rage and phrenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”

That can be found in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a sublime work which reminds us that conservatives have often feared with better reason than we now have that the world is going to hell in a handcart.

Jonathan Werran: Why Oxford should be a focal point for post-pandemic and post-Brexit growth

17 Mar

Jonathan Werran is Chief Executive at Localis.

In recent weeks there has been a lively and engaging post-Budget debate on this website around the Government’s Plan for Growth and its recalibration of industrial policy, enlivened by telling contributions from Greg Clark and ConservativeHome’s own Paul Goodman.

The new business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng has derided the ancien regime Industrial Strategy as “a pudding with no theme”. Indeed, Andy Haldane, Chair of the Industrial Strategy Council went on record as saying that while the policy had the right aspiration it never translated into a measurable delivery plan.

Since 2017 some £45 billion has been thrown into a staggering profusion of 142 Industrial Strategy policies, many of which were unfunded, went down civil service rabbit holes and “self-liquidated”. Like Bilbo Baggins, this amorphous policy pudding has been “sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”.

There is a lot to like in the aspirations of the “Plan for Growth” prospectus. The danger though is that without a rooted sense of place, all this good stuff from the centre simply doesn’t connect where it counts. It becomes like candy floss without the stick when applied regionally and locally. Only place – armed with local purpose and powers – can make the economic rationale for funding and investment cases cohere in a context and setting.

To support and buttress an economic recovery which is focused on innovation and a skills revolution, we should be calling for a greater emphasis on place and with it true localism, fiscal freedom and self-government. So in making the case for place to be at the heart of any central government plans for growth and levelling up, Localis is going to call upon Oxford as evidence for the prosecution. 

It’s the ideal place to start, as Boris Johnson’s articulation on the case for a Global Britain did yesterday, which took as its starting point the Prime Minister’s visit last September to the city’s Edward Jenner institute where he saw early proof of its efficacy. 

With unrivalled assets alongside the university, the city is our national poster boy for research and development. And, courtesy of the vaccine, an exemplar of translational research in action.

Oxford must and will, therefore, be a focal point for post-pandemic and post-Brexit growth as the beating heart and hub of the UK’s knowledge economy, as a coherent economic entity with an independent and unique strategic national offer. It contributes a tidy £6.75 billion in GVA to the national economy each year as a net contributor to Treasury coffers – not taking into consideration the knock-on effects of its activity, wider industrial assets and supply chains.

However, although Oxford is a compact and global city, it must be admitted that more could be done to strengthen the city’s contribution to the regional, national and international economy. Despite the prevailing image of the city “dreaming spires”, Oxford is the second most unequal city in the UK, with many long-term issues contributing to this disparity. Among these we can reckon earnings, housing, educational attainment, health outcomes and food poverty. Housing affordability is particularly stark – with a ratio of prices to earnings making it the least affordable city in the UK. 

Beyond the social, a multitude of economic factors are stifling Oxford from realising its potential as a city impact regionally and nationally. These include poor graduate retention, skills shortages for residents, crippling traffic congestion and a rail system caught in a bottleneck as well as the sluggish pace of delivering the infrastructure and housing.

So in short, there’s a case for levelling up Oxford in its own right. This is something that takes on greater regional and national importance now the Oxford-to-Cambridge Arc, on whose innovative potential so much hope for national economic renewal lies.

Oxford and its economic and innovation assets are central cogs to both to wider Oxfordshire and Arc ecosystems and their Covid-19 economic recovery. However, it has also been noted as being “an area constrained by inadequate infrastructure, a stressed and fragmented natural environment, [and] escalating housing costs”. These are all issues that hold it back from reaching its full economic and environmental potential.

How such a common purpose and ambition is to be maintained across tier-spanning local government partners, the local enterprise partnership OxLep and the Oxfordshire Growth Board and the Local Industrial Strategy and Economic Recovery Plan under “Plan for Growth” will be interesting, to say the least.

Whatever alphabet soup of new acronyms emerges, one thing for sure is that Oxford’s ability to invest in its own good growth would allow for wider benefit to be seen across the Arc, and crucially, make the city a better engine for growth within it.

With strong city-led governance, Oxford would be able punch way above its weight with its international peers and leverage its unique assets and particular strengths to recover stronger than before. Focusing these assets in the right direction would streamline the city’s local levelling up efforts to tackle transport and housing bottlenecks through delivering physical, digital and social infrastructure at pace alongside a long-term investment strategy.

There’s a fiscal devolution ask too. In order to grow at city level, Oxford would need the ability to raise local levies to fund its placemaking efforts. Both on businesses, in a manner similar to the provisions laid out in the Business Rates Supplement Act, and on residents, in a progressive manner using council tax bands as a guide.

In our report At the right level – a strategic case for city-led growth, innovation and renewal, Localis also calls for appropriate financing in the shape of a long-term £1 billion endowment fund for supporting good growth within the city. This would address the central issue of budgetary uncertainty and would form of a single long-term investment strategy for city-led growth and with it power to target investment in among other things digital, smart energy and transport infrastructure and skills.

Additionally, Oxford alongside other cities key to the Oxford-to-Cambridge Arc’s future growth, including Cambridge, and Milton Keynes need to have a clear voice within its governance, including direct representation on the proposed Arc Growth Body.

Since we can’t deliver levelling up, an industrial strategy, skills revolution and zero carbon from the centre, then the Plan for Growth must swiftly take on board and exploit the unmatched convening power of the local state – an entity which includes not just local government but also the research and development clusters, major public and private employers – to plan and deliver levelling up and recovery.

Taking Oxford as a starting point, the same need for muscular and effective localism applies to other towns and cities. Not just those in the area of the Arc such Cambridge, Peterborough, Swindon, Milton Keynes or Norwich but universally, from Ipswich to Somerset, from Staffordshire to Middlesbrough.

If the souffle of economic success is to rise on the basis of innovation and skills revolution, it needs a scaffold to keep it from collapsing. So let Kwarteng’s growth pudding have its theme, and let this theme be place – a dish confected from the finest locally-sourced growth ingredients. The proof will be in the pudding.

Andrew RT Davies: Wales. Here’s how we can extinguish the dangerous flame of separatism.

24 Feb

Andrew RT Davies is the leader of the Welsh Conservatives and Assembly Member for South Wales Central.

One of the many unfortunate, if unintended, consequences of the Blair devo-revolution has been to undermine the Union’s sense of “permanence” – both from an ideological and an institutional perspective.

Designed to see off the nationalist threat, devolution has merely shifted the political narrative into an endless cycle of debates around further powers, with little correlation emerging between the performance of devolved governments and the level of support for independence.

It’s scarcely been more fashionable among constitutional experts (and BBC journalists) to view separatism as inevitable, but I certainly don’t share the view that it’s a foregone conclusion. Far from it.

The patriotic fightback has started and, as the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, these are some of the steps I want to see us take to extinguish the dangerous flame of separatism.

Put ‘Project Fear’ on ice and champion the pride of Britain

As Unionists we can often be guilty of basing arguments in process or economics. All very valid, and all incredibly important, but we need to own the emotive, patriotic argument – remembering and learning the valuable lessons from the victorious Brexit campaign many of us were part of.

We need to put “Project Fear” on ice and champion the pride of Britain.

I’m a proud Welshman. Proud of a Wales that consistently punches above its weight on the sporting and cultural scene, and has been to the fore on the pandemic frontline in delivering the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine through Wrexham-based firm, Wockhardt.

But I’m also a proud Brit. Incredibly proud of our world-leading armed forces, our pharmaceutical industry, our rule of law and our enviable creative industries.

It’s the very best of our country and a symbol of the greatest union the world has ever seen – socially, culturally and economically. Why would we want to undermine and banish that great unity for division and separation?

But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels and the British state can do more. Why don’t our great institutions such as the Imperial War Museum, National Gallery, British Library project themselves into Wales? That footprint can and should be easily corrected. Let’s do it.

And yes, where appropriate let’s champion the economic benefits too. In Wales, we’ve benefited enormously through the various support schemes delivered during the pandemic by the Government, which have saved hundreds of thousands of Welsh jobs during the recent crisis, and are now saving thousands of lives with Britain’s hugely successful vaccination programme.

I’m a proud Welshman and proud Brit and make no apology for it, and that’s the turf I want to see us fight on. Let’s dictate the terms of engagement, and redouble our efforts to make the positive and patriotic case for Wales, Britain and the Union.

Minister of the Union and inter-governmental relations

There’s no greater champion of the UK than the Prime Minister, and he’s taken the duty head-on with responsibility as Minister for the Union, working alongside the three excellent secretaries of state.

One of the PM’s greatest strengths is on the campaign trail and while it was brilliant to welcome him to Wales last week, it’s a shame current restrictions prevent him from engaging more widely with the public on his agenda to level up all parts of the UK, which will be the cornerstone of securing the Union’s long-term future.

It’s been well briefed in the press that Lord Dunlop’s (as yet unpublished) report recommends the creation of a new cabinet position for the Union, and suggests that it should be elevated in line with the other great offices of state to help keep the UK intact.

Whether this is necessary is a call for the PM, and the PM alone, but one area I have long felt needs attention is inter-governmental relations within the UK.

It’s my personal view the Joint Ministerial Committee requires urgent reform/reprioritisation to improve collaboration and decision-making, particularly with Brexit and the significance of UK-wide frameworks.

The devolved leaders are mischievous at the best of times and their aims are not always aligned to ours, particularly Holyrood’s EU-flag-waver-in-chief.

But an overhaul is required to shower them with attention and keep them in check, particularly when they pretend they have responsibility for areas they do not.

Unleash the opportunities of Brexit

While it may seem counter-intuitive, particularly given the strength of feeling in Scotland on the issue, Brexit provides us with an opportunity to reaffirm the benefits of our Union, and to shift the focus onto a positive discussion around the country itself.

The UK’s new found agility has allowed us to save lives thanks to a dynamic procurement strategy and rapid rollout of Coronavirus vaccinations, in comparison to the European Union’s overly bureaucratic and beleaguered jabs programme. Team GB at its best!

But there are other tangible benefits to Brexit, with the automatic repatriation of a vast array of new powers to these shores, including the devolved nations.

We need to ensure the new Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF) delivers for our poorest communities – levelling up our country – and reaching people who were for so long ignored.

This is an exciting opportunity for the Conservative government to transform all four corners of our country, and a game-changing regeneration scheme would be a powerful cocktail to the politics of division, separation and hate.

Devolution should never have been about power-fanatics in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood or Stormont – it’s about local communities

The biggest failure of Welsh devolution has been the hoarding of power in Cardiff Bay with people in north Wales feeling as disconnected with the Senedd as they ever did with the EU.

Devolution was meant to bring power and decision-making closer to communities, and it’s not too late to ensure that’s the case, albeit the UK government will have to be the driving force.

It’s important UK government spending is effectively targeted and given the PM’s ambition for large-scale projects, I’d like to see the designation of “Union Highways” that would unblock Wales’s arterial routes on the M4, A40 and A55 and boost important cross-border growth.

Where devolved government fails, let’s help local authorities and the communities they serve.

No more referendums, no new constitutional chaos, but a sole focus on recovery

People in all corners of the country want to see politicians across the UK working in partnership to focus on defeating Coronavirus and the other challenges we face.

And whatever happens post-May, the UK government should stay strong. The Scottish referendum of 2014 was a once-in-a-generation vote, one which the separatists lost. End of.

The energy and resources of governments at Westminster, Cardiff Bay, Holyrood or Stormont should be focused on our post-pandemic recovery. Anything else would be unforgivable.

And as we emerge from this crisis, Conservative energies must be focused on improving everyday lives and rebuilding our economy, which will be the best antidote to the constitutional fanatics.

So let’s back Wales, back Britain and get on with the patriotic job of building back our country better than ever.

Ben Everitt: Why the plan for a new technical university in Milton Keynes offers a fresh model for higher education

16 Sep

Ben Everitt is the MP for Milton Keynes North.

We have world class universities in this country, which provide some of the highest calibre graduates around. We must maintain and protect our best institutions. But speaking to businesses in my constituency, they tell me that what they want isn’t always graduates. It’s workers with technical skills, an understanding of the industry they want to work in, and who are ready to work in teams and who can communicate.

That’s why this Government is right to be taking a hard look at the system of higher and further education in this country. It isn’t ‘anti university’ to be asking whether the current system provides the best opportunity for those going through it, for the businesses who will employ them, and for the taxpayer. It’s making an argument for a world class higher and further education system for everyone, in a wider variety of forms.

And when we think about what that looks like, we don’t have far to go. We should take inspiration from one of this Conservative Government’s proudest achievements – Free Schools. These schools, often set up in the poorest areas of the country by innovative teachers and heads, were distinctive not just because they were new, but because they offered something different.

Like the best businesses, they spotted a gap in the market and they provided a solution to fill it. And many of them – such as Michaela Community School, run by the outstanding Katharine Birbalsingh – have been successful precisely because they have maintained this focus over time, rather than doing everything.

We have some of that in higher education, but not enough. In my constituency, for example, the Open University does a brilliant job because it focuses on a specific remit – providing flexible distance learning to those who don’t want to, or aren’t able to, undertake traditional three year full time undergraduate degrees. To adapt the Steve Jobs maxim, it does not try to do everything – it does one thing, and does it well. But we need more innovation from the higher education sector, not more of the same.

It’s why I’m such a strong supporter, alongside my fellow Milton Keynes MP Iain Stewart, of the new proposed technical university in my constituency, Milton Keynes University (MK:U). This institution, modelled on the best technical universities in Germany and the United States, has identified a clear gap, which is the shortage of digital and STEM skills in the economy throughout Milton Keynes. I’m privileged in my constituency to sit in the middle of the Oxford to Cambridge Arc – a zone of immense prosperity and economic growth that is home to world class businesses and innovation.

But what Milton Keynes needs is people who can work in these businesses – and who have qualifications that are industry ready. And that’s what MK:U will deliver. By 2021, MK:U plans to be delivering degree apprenticeships in the critical shortage areas of data science, cyber security, digital technology, and management. By 2024, when the university is fully on stream, it will continue to deliver at least half of its provision via degree apprenticeships.

It will also work closely with the new South Central Institute of Technology to deliver high quality technical qualifications at what are called Level 4 and 5 – above the level of school qualifications, but quicker to achieve and more industry-focussed than traditional degrees.

The reason I’m so confident in the success of MK:U is that the team there have been overwhelmed by interest from businesses. Over a hundred major employers, who between them employ over 700,000 people in the UK alone, are backing MK:U, including top-level support from Arriva, Bosch, BT, Capita, Grant Thornton, Network Rail, PwC, Sainsburys, and Santander – who specifically cited MK:U as a key element in its decision to locate its new £150 million Digital Hub in Milton Keynes, and has committed £10 million capital funding and £20 million of in-kind support, to MK:U.

MK:U is backed by Cranfield, the world recognised postgraduate university with a long track record in scientific and business research, and another example of an institution that knows what it does and does it well. Like Cranfield, and like the OU, MK:U will keep to its mission. It won’t offer a wide range of liberal arts and humanities degrees. It won’t chase faddish new disciplines and courses merely to attract students. It will focus on driving prosperity in the Arc, and for the UK more widely.

I know that Ministers in the Education and Communities departments, and in the Treasury are studying the proposal closely as we approach the Spending Review. It has the potential to make a real difference – and to provide a model that other, ‘Free’, universities could follow too.

Ben Southwood: The Government’s housing plans need to be refined – not scrapped. They will work if the detail is got right.

7 Sep

Ben Southwood is Head of Housing, Transport and the Urban Space at Policy Exchange.

Any major policy programme is bound to meet with some cautious responses. The Government’s housebuilding programme, manifested in its White Paper, Planning for the Future, as well as its reforms to the housing need targets, is no exception.

People are quite rightly conservative about their neighbourhoods, and are risk-averse when it comes to any change in the rules of the game – especially one that could affect the value of their homes. Ultimately, planning is about the places people live, and the lives they lead. This must be kept in mind.

Still, the issues, described well by Neil O’Brien, the Conservative MP for Harborough, Oadby and Wigston, in these pages on Monday 24th, though worthy of consideration, are not nearly as concerning as he suggests, and should not lead the Government to junk its plans.

Getting the details right on local control, building beautiful, and sharing the benefits of development with local people could go a long way to making existing homeowners, especially in the countryside, happy, while preserving the most important parts of the proposals.

All of the UK cities with the highest paying jobs, lowest unemployment, and fastest economic growth have severe housing shortages. Governments of the past ten years have been cognisant of this growing problem, and in the Planning White Paper we have our first real attempt at alleviating the problem. Achieving it would greatly reduce housing costs, allowing people to move better jobs, afford space for more kids, and avoid painfully long commutes.

It would also create a huge building boom – generating exactly the sort of outdoor jobs of all skill levels that would help generate a lasting post-Covid recovery. Our last large such boom, during the 1930s, pulled Britain out of the Great Depression, added an entire percentage point to GDP growth every year, and made its architect, Neville Chamberlain, temporarily the most popular politician in the UK.

The White Paper would do this by streamlining (yet raising) developer contributions, and implementing a zoning regime that takes Britain closer to the system it lived under for practically all of its history until 1947.

This system would have local authorities divide areas into three zones, one (‘Growth’) allowing almost all development, without specific planning permission, if it meets regulation and follows design codes. Another (‘Renewal’) would give locals some ability to extend their properties up. A third (‘Protection’) would place the same restrictions on development than today.

Governments have complemented planning policy with assessments of housing ‘need’ since 1963. On the same day that it released the White Paper, the Government previewed part of an early version of a new algorithm for calculating how many houses an area ‘needs’. The main change is that prices – the best indicator of scarcity in any given area – play a much bigger role in the calculations than before.

However, in his ConHome article, O’Brien points out that, at least using this early and incomplete version of the new algorithm, these new assessments do not seem to square with the Government’s overall goals to add more houses where they are most needed.

It’s true, he says, that numbers for the North East, North West, and Yorkshire come down from where they are using the existing algorithm. But within all regions (other than London and the South East), the targets for cities fall, while the targets for the shires rise. O’Brien reasonably thinks this may cause problems if those in these rural areas feel these higher targets are too much.

As he mentions, these figures will change substantially in the final version of the algorithm, especially because it will, unlike the present one, take into account greenbelt restrictions. Many of the areas O’Brien highlights as facing increased targets lie partly or completely within a green belt (e.g. the Ribble Valley), and the White Paper makes clear that these areas will ultimately see substantial downward adjustments in their targets to account for it. Nonetheless matter this remains a source of concern, especially for rural areas with no green belt.

O’Brien’s points are likely to be more clearly addressed by the Government in the final version – especially for areas such as Leicestershire that are rural, yet have no green belt to prompt downrating. Indeed, Christopher Pincher, the Housing Minister, said as much here on Conservative Home.

The Government seems to agree with O’Brien that the greatest potential for development lies in increasing density within existing cities and at the edges of cities, not through mass housebuilding on England’s green and pleasant land.

There are some other areas in which the Government can assuage concerns substantially by getting a few details just right. Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and the Green Belt will, naturally, come under Protection. But the decision between Protection and Renewal (as the White Paper frames the other two zones), and the exact contours of Renewal, should be driven by local input.

Locals tend to oppose things that are foisted on them. However, huge value can be created by housebuilding in some places. The plot of one £800,000 bungalow near Summertown in North Oxford could instead accommodate two or even three £2 million four-storey townhouses.

If one homeowner in a street does this, and does it poorly, it’s a burden on their neighbours. But if we let the residents of that street collectively decide whether to allow it on every plot in the street, development is controlled and driven by those who stand to benefit – and lose out. Only streets that want to build up and out – either for more space for their family, a room to rent to a lodger, or to sell on, downsize, and have something to give to their children – will decide to.

As it stands, the White Paper says, “We are also interested in whether there is scope to extend and adapt the concept so that very small areas – such as individual streets – can set their own rules for the form of development which they are happy to see.”

The final version of this could end up as a scheme where individual streets can decide to opt between the ‘Protection’ or ‘Renewal’ categories. This would have those in ‘Renewal’ setting their own rules for plot usage, height, materials, and design, subject to rules to stop overshadowing that affects their neighbours. If the final version goes in this direction, it could take a huge amount of the sting out of the proposals for anxious suburbs and shires.

Locals are justifiably concerned about preserving the beauty of their local area. Britons are also concerned about the beauty of the country as a whole. So much new building has been ugly over the past 80 or so years that it often feels that we are simply not capable of or willing to build attractive buildings today.

Such pessimism is unwarranted. Policy Exchange’s work with Sir Roger Scruton on the Building Beautiful agenda showed us that it was indeed possible to build attractively in the modern era – and that that’s what the public wants.

It is very encouraging that Planning for the Future, the White Paper, makes very significant reference to this ‘building beautiful’ agenda. In many ways the paper is one that Scruton himself would have favoured, and it is clearly inspired by him and his work, including with Jack Airey in Policy Exchange research.

Getting the details perfectly right is also important here. This means embedding design codes (which determine what buildings can look like aesthetically) into all three of the zone types, and making sure these are popular through local plebiscites. It may also mean more extensive policies, such as retrospective approval voting to see what locals think about major projects – hopefully incentivising developers and architects to produce work that is popular.

Major planning reform of this nature was always going to meet objections. But politics is the art of building coalitions: reform programmes succeed when they can convince enough people that their changes will make the country richer, happier, and better. They fail when they cannot. The Government’s housing reforms have the potential to deliver so much value that many doubters can be brought round. Achieving this means getting the details right.

“If universities can’t defend free speech, the Government will”, said Williamson in February. He meant it.

20 Jul

For a long time, the UK’s silent majority has been quite clearly concerned about “cancel culture” – which describes when people are demonised or sacked for having “the wrong views”. This concern partly explains why Labour suffered such a big defeat at last year’s election. The result was not only down to its confused stance on Brexit, or Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but the party’s woke worldview.

Unfortunately, cancel culture since seems to have accelerated, particularly during lockdown, when the nation watched statues toppled, innocuous TV shows like The Mighty Boosh removed for being “offensive” and an author even fired from her agency for Tweeting support for JK Rowling.

There have been growing calls for the Government to intervene before it gets too late; something which it’s not always easy to do, but last week Gavin Williamson announced a policy that could make a sizeable difference. 

Titled the Higher Education Restructuring Regime, it essentially incentivises English universities – many of which are struggling as a result of the Coronavirus crisis – to tackle censorship on campus in order to receive a Government bailout.

Williamson’s restructuring regime is broadly focussed on three areas. First, it asks universities to reduce administrative costs, including vice-chancellor pay, to focus resources “on the front line”. Second, it asks them to cut courses that lead to poor employment outcomes –  with the Education Secretary wanting to strive for “great value for money” as part of his commitment to levelling up Britain. And third, it requires institutions to “demonstrate their commitment to academic freedom and free speech”.

An independently-chaired Higher Education Restructuring Regime Board will be established, and Williamson will draw on its expertise to assess which universities should receive bailouts, by way of repayable loans.

Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union, has strongly criticised the move, suggesting that the Government is exploiting Covid-19 to “impose evidence-free ideology”, and there have been similar objections. But one suspects that this will be an incredibly popular policy with taxpayers, for a number of reasons.

For starters, it has been said repeatedly that there are now too many young people going to universities, due to Tony Blair’s target for 50 per cent attendance (the figure hit 50.2 per cent in 2017-2018). Williamson has said he will stand up for the “forgotten 50 per cent”, paying more attention to skills training, and other parts of the further education sector

This is great news; the UK needs qualifications and training to be better tailored to the economy, and there’s increasing evidence many undergraduate degrees aren’t providing a return on investment. As Neil O’Brien has written for ConservativeHome, “poor-value degree courses… waste taxpayers’ money, but don’t actually increase opportunities for students.”

Then there’s the universities’ free speech issue. Censoriousness has become so prevalent that Amber Rudd was “no-platformed” at the University of Oxford in March. There are numerous examples of universities banning speakers, as well as political hostility to those who hold Conservative/ Brexiteer views. Last year I wrote for The Telegraph about the amount of insults young people had been subjected to on campus because of these.

Williamson’s intervention is clever because it doesn’t tell universities how to combat this problem, and they have the option to do nothing; it simply motivates them to promote free speech. One way they could do this is by adopting the Chicago Principles, which are widely recognised in the Government and elsewhere, as best practice in this regard.

These were developed in 2014 following a series of incidents at different universities in which students tried to ban speakers deemed controversial. Academics at the University of Chicago drafted a statement that made an “overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.”

Another way universities might tackle this is by trying to improving safety measures for speakers – so that they cannot be no-platformed, or maybe even interviewing students on their attitudes to free speech before offering them a place. There’s lots of ways in which the issue can be approached.

Some will not be surprised about Williamson’s announcement. In February he wrote for The Times that “If universities don’t take action [to promote free speech], the government will.” Strangely enough, it was the Coronavirus crisis that allowed him to stick to his word. Let’s hope that his policy gives other ministers some ideas for how to fight cancel culture too.