The Coronavirus inquiry. I’m an outlier – but I believe that following public opinion was a problem.

15 Mar

Coronavirus has disappeared from the headlines recently. The lifting of restrictions, the horrifying news from Ukraine, and our instinctive desire to quickly forget the dreadful means there is now a collective effort to never mention the dreaded C-word again.

But March 26th will mark the unhappy second anniversary of Britain entering lockdown: the biggest state-mandated change to our lives since the Second World War. With the terms of the Government’s inquiry into its handling of the pandemic announced last week, this is an opportunity to ask the fundamental question: was it all worth it?

The inquiry hopes to do this. The proposed terms of reference suggest that it shall assess all aspects of the government’s response: preparedness, the efficacy of interventions, the management of hospitals and care homes, the provision of essential equipment, and economic support. Under Baroness Hallett, the Chairwoman – a former High Court judge – it is hoped the inquiry will “reflect the importance of understanding the experiences of those most affected by the pandemic” and identify where the government got it wrong.

Like all inquiries, this will be a welcome opportunity for acts of confession and self-justification on the parts of ministers. That at least one Cabinet member has been keeping a diary for the last two years is unsurprising. This is a chance for ministers to show public contrition for any shortcomings, whilst aiming to guarantee that the eventual narrative presents them in the best possible light. Plus, Anthony Seldon and Tim Shipman must work from something.

The direct relationship between the size of an inquiry’s remit and the time it takes to conclude means it will be a while before we see Hallett’s final report. Moreover, inquiries tend largely to confirm lessons we have already learnt, providing only slaps on the wrist for politicians who have long since left office. By 2016, for example, we didn’t really need Lord Chilcot to tell us that invading the Middle East on a spurious pre-text was poor form, and that Tony Blair might have a slight messiah complex.

Nevertheless, we can get on with lesson-learning whilst the Baroness finishes dotting her Is and crossing her Ts. A report in the Lancet last week suggested the UK had a lower death toll than Italy, Portugal, and Spain – with no significant differences from those of France and Germany.

By looking at age-standardised avoidable mortality rates, the UK emerged as having the 29th worst mortality rate in Western Europe – largely, commentary suggested, due to our successful vaccine rollout. With cases currently hitting their highest numbers since early February alongside no drastic spike in hospitalisations, we really do appear to have triumphed over Covid.

140 million jabs and no restrictions is an achievement, even if returning to normality took longer than the “three weeks to flatten the curve” we were first promised. But if the vaccine rollout showed the British state at its best, the pandemic has also shown it at its worst. Billions chucked after a largely useless test-and-trace system, arrogant officials who genuinely believed Britain had a world-leading pandemic preparedness plan, and a health service as creaking as it is beloved: all hampered the fight. That tackling the virus was so expensive reflects the British state’s habitual cluelessness.

But surely that’s ancient history – who quibbles about timescales and costs when the pubs are open again? Nevertheless, there are real questions to ask about the fundamental problems of the government’s pandemic response. As a recovering student who spent his last year at university railing against restrictions, I almost respect those in Number 10 who dabbled in cakes and champers: they stuck two fingers up at rules so obviously grotesque even their very authors deemed them unreasonable. Saying such a thing makes me an outlier – but the trouble of following public opinion has been a problem of these last two years.

Think back to that mad, miserable March. The accepted narrative of events follows a government that began by nonchalantly dismissing the approaching threat being bounced by sensible scientists like Patrick Vallance, Chris Whitty, and Saint Ferguson of Lockdown into following the rest of the civilised world (basically European countries with skiing resorts, and those bits of America that like Hillary) into necessary restrictions. Ferguson famously claimed that locking down a weak earlier would have saved 20,000 lives. The allegation that nasty Tories pursued chimeric ‘herd immunity’ at the expense of innocent lives was potent.

The reality was rather different. Rather than rejecting ‘the science’ for political ends, the government studiously followed scientific advice. The crucial point was that that advice changed. Vallance, Whitty et al was began March claiming they wanted to squash the sombrero, that cancelling mass events and mandating face masks was pointless. They may have initially believed the virus was more like the flu, but, even so, the government hardly ignored them. Ferguson was the outlier in calling for restrictions.

What changed? Remember, officials initially openly scoffed at the concept of lockdown. They believed such an authoritarian measure was unworkable in as freedom-loving country such as Britain. Their minds were changed by a force that has done more to shape the government’s handling of this pandemic than any other: the almost-sadomasochistic partiality for restrictions on the part of the British public.

Professor Ferguson’s infamous model certainly had an impact on ministers, primarily because it showed the NHS being overwhelmed. A new Tory government, driven by Vote Leave’s obsession with polls and the health service, could never be seen to let our national religion buckle. As horrific scenes poured onto our television screens from Lombardy night after night, and as country after country entered a lockdown hitherto thought only possible under the CCP, the public mood changed.

Already by March 26th, travel by tube, rail, or bus was down by more than 80 per cent. Outcry at allowing events like the Cheltenham festival and St Patrick’s Day celebrations helped convince the government that Something Must Be DoneTM. We were bounced into lockdown.

And as the weeks drew on, and the public remained overwhelmingly in favour of being paid to sit at home and watch Netflix, removing restrictions became even harder. Not until jabs could be put in arms, providing levels of reassurance acceptable to even the most zealous mask-wearer, could the government finally turn the corner: it had to win against public opinion as much as the virus. We remained stuck under restrictions for so long not only because of the SAGE’s caution, but because the public’s instincts were usually more draconian than the government’s.

We have known since Public Heath England first reported on it in July 2020 that the measures imposed that March may have caused more deaths in the long-term than they saved. From domestic abuse and mental illness, to missed cancer screenings and two years of disrupted learning, the consequences of our national experiment in authoritarianism will still be being counted far beyond the end of even the most leisurely of inquiry timescales.

And as we have all chosen to conveniently forget just how popular the war in Iraq initially was, I suspect that, in years to come, as hospital backlogs and educational problems stack up and mountains of debt must be paid off by continuous tax rises, the British people will similarly choose to forget just how enthusiastic we were for lockdown. March 2020 was the cruellest month – and one day, in the not-too-distant future, none of us will be able to say why.

Andy Street: Community ownership can help secure a future for our pubs

18 May

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

Since I was re-elected as Mayor of the West Midlands just over a week ago, my diary has been full – and rightly so. There is much to be done.

Throughout the campaign, my message was always that I was ready to get straight back to work – to start the task of creating 100,000 jobs in the next two years, attracting new investment, and pressing on with our transport and housing plans. Thanks to detailed planning, we were ready to hit the ground running.

This week represents a major step towards recovery, as lockdown restrictions are eased further. For the owners of restaurants, cafes, gyms, fitness clubs, wedding venues, holiday lets, hotels, B&Bs and many other types of business this will be a big few days.

In this column, I want to focus on the sector whose fortunes have in some ways come to be seen as a barometer of recovery – pubs.

Pubs are, quite simply, part of the fabric of British life. That’s why, I believe, my visit to a Wolverhampton pub while on the campaign trail with the Prime Minister last month gathered so much interest. For many, the simple act of being able to go out for a pint has become shorthand for a return to normality.

I want to tell you about a scheme launched here to help protect local pubs, and also how I believe it reflects broader changes across society regarding much-loved community assets, and how the growing social economy can protect them.

The pandemic has had a brutal effect on our pubs. The facts are stark: over 2,500 pubs across the UK closed down in 2020 – an increase of 50 per cent on the previous year, and a figure which represents five per cent of all pubs in the country. While venues lucky enough to have outdoor space have been able to safely serve some customers since mid-April, this week’s easing of indoor restrictions has been long awaited.

Throughout the pandemic, I have battled for extra help for the hospitality industry, but the cruel reality is that at the time when we are most looking forward to visiting pubs again, there will be less of them to return to.

Of course, many pubs will make a strong recovery once lockdown is lifted, but some inevitably will not. That’s why we have launched a scheme to give people the chance to save those pubs by bringing them into community ownership.

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has partnered with Plunkett Foundation, a community business charity, to help community groups establish action plans, build capacity, and raise the finance to take ownership of local pubs. The statistics show that it works, too. Community-owned pubs have a 99.3 per cent long-term survival rate.

An initial £10,000 investment will enable the Plunkett Foundation to support seven community pub groups – one from each of the boroughs that make up the WMCA. Those groups will get tailored business support and advice, online training, peer-to-peer networking and the chance to visit some of the 150 existing community-run pubs in the UK.

Crucially, saving these pubs will also help address issues of isolation, loneliness, wellbeing, work, and training as well as protecting much-loved community businesses and buildings.

But I also believe that this new scheme reflects a broader change across society, where communities are stepping forward to take responsibility for local assets they value.

Sometimes the people involved are volunteers who simply want to ensure that a cherished building looks at its best, sometimes they are organised groups with serious business plans to revitalise services and create jobs. The common factor is that communities across the West Midlands are realising they can help retain much-loved buildings and boost local civic pride.

There are all lots of examples. In Solihull, a group of dedicated volunteers looks after the town’s main railway station. In Sutton Coldfield, the Royal Town’s historic Town Hall has been transferred from Birmingham City Council to a locally-run Trust, who are bidding for funds to give it a new lease of life. In Erdington, a community association is putting together an ambitious funding bid to turn a boarded-up Victorian baths into a community hub. A determined community Trust is campaigning to turn Harborne’s old Royalty Cinema into a mixed-use commercial and community facility too.

The Government also recognises the huge potential of community ownership, with the £150 million Community Ownership Fund set to open in June.

All of this suggests that community spirit is alive and well. As the UK emerges from the pandemic, I believe we will need that social cohesion more than ever. And that means a crucial yet often overlooked part of local life, the Social Economy, will play a vital role in our recovery.

In 2019 I launched the Social Economy Taskforce with the ambition to double the size of the region’s Social Economy within ten years. As a sign of our belief in its importance, the WMCA has pledged to spend at least five per cent of its procurement budget on social enterprises, while we are also urging local businesses to consider them when buying goods or services.

Our new scheme to bring pubs into community ownership adds another important part to a tapestry of social enterprises, charities and organisations that often form the social safety net needed to support those impacted by the tough times we are living in.

If there has been one positive thing to come out of the pandemic, it has been the renewed sense of community spirit born of adversity. As they open their doors this week, publicans will be hoping to see that reflected by ringing tills. By including pubs in the burgeoning Social Economy, we will ensure more can keep their doors open – and we can all raise a glass to that.

Richard Holden: We shouldn’t try to win a spending arms race with Labour in this Budget – which we would lose anyway

1 Mar

Fight Fitness Guru, Consett, Co. Durham

During the last fortnight, the white wasteland of frozen fields has given way to the flora of spring in County Durham.  The thaw in the land of the Prince Bishops is being met with a broader feeling in the towns and villages that spring is on the way.  With 20,000,000 vaccinations done and accelerating, as well as the Prime Minister’s roadmap providing clarity for the future, there is a real feeling that the tide is turning.

This week’s Budget must be another step along that road.  However, with so many competing concerns it will be a difficult balance to strike.  To get it right, it’s going to be essential to zoom out and look to where we want to be in a few years’ time.

Our economy has taken a pounding because of Covid-19.  Three hundred billion pounds in extra spending and support, paying people’s wages through furlough and supporting jobs and businesses has been provided.

Three hundred billion pounds extra: that is wartime levels of additional expenditure. For context, it is more than twice the size of the NHS budget annually. It’s an extra £4,500 for every man woman and child in the UK, or about £12,000 for every income-taxpayer in extra spending: money that’s had to be borrowed.

The support has been colossal and necessary. It has protected businesses and jobs and crucially will enable our economy to bounce back as quickly as it can. But this backing wouldn’t have been possible if the Government hadn’t taken the necessary decisions to keep spending under control during the last few years.

Colloquially, this point is made frequently by my constituents, along the lines of: “I’m glad it was you lot in and not Labour. If they’d been in ,God knows what would have happened.”

Which takes me to the political.  One of the biggest gateways to so-called “Blue Wall” voters switching from Labour to Conservative was Jeremy Corbyn. But this wasn’t just because of the terrorist sympathising and antisemitism. Or Keir Starmer’s policy of betraying democracy over Brexit. It was also because of Labour’s economic credibility.

People stopped listening to Labour’s promises when they became increasingly outlandish.  Remember them? Free broadband for all, give WASPI women £30,000 each, cancel student debt and make university education taxpayer-funded. The list went on – all with no plan to pay for it: it was fantasy economics that lacked basic credibility.

This is where we Conservatives now need to be careful, and why Rishi Sunak needs to tread a fine line. We cannot, nor should we wish to, win an arms race with Labour over who can spend more taxpayers’ cash.

We’ve not spent the long, hard yards of the last decade, undoing the catastrophic position Labour left in 2010, to let that credibility go. The reason we’ve been able to support the country through the global pandemic is because we’d had credible spending plans for the last decade. The reason Labour couldn’t win in 2010 is because Labour believed its own hubris about having ‘abolished boom and bust’ and, to nab a much-loved phrase from George Osborne, “failed to fix the roof while the sun was shining.” And the result was the famous note from Liam Byrne, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury: “there is no money left.”

Given such an analysis of where we are, then: what’s next? The budget must focus on three things:

  • Recovery. Allowing the country, especially our hardest hit sectors to bounce back from Covid – and in doing so avoid a massive spike in unemployment.  This week, I led 68 Conservative backbenchers in writing to the Chancellor about support for pubs (massive employers of young people) via keeping beer duty down. It’s vital that he also allows our high streets breathing space regarding business rates. And for families in constituencies like mine, where for so many a car is essential, fuel duty rises, which Conservatives have found hard against for a decade, need to be avoided.
  • Delivery. Keep building towards our key manifesto commitments on public services: more police, more nurses, crucial infrastructure and deliver on the levelling up promise that was made.
  • Credibility. Long-term economic stability with borrowing under control to allow us to keep our debt – and crucially our debt interest payments – under control.  We can’t just hope that interest rates stay this low forever: they won’t. Only a balanced plan will allow the Government the space to deliver on the first two objectives of recovery and delivery.

It’s a tall order, and the Chancellor needs to be clear, honest, and fair in what he spells out. Those who’ve profited during the pandemic and those with the broadest shoulders should take the lion’s share of slack as we now deal with the consequences of it.

As for Keir “Goldilocks” Starmer – naturally, nothing will be ‘just right’.  But he won’t come up with any other real proposals, either. He’s opposed to anything that will raise revenue, but Labour MPs will doubtless demand more spending.  The party is all over the place, with a front bench hopelessly out of its depth, and a broader one so divided as to the way forward that it’s hardly a surprise Sir Keir is unable to get them to agree on anything but to abstain.

So Labour’s economic credibility will remain in tatters. We need ours to remain strong.

This spring in North West Durham and across the “blue wall”, let’s ensure that the growth we see is built to last. Unsustainable borrowing might be Labour’s answer, but it can’t be ours. Without doubt, at some point, winter will come again.

And when it does, we’ll need to respond to it from a position of strength with flexibility – as we have this time.  The electorate will not forgive us is we don’t ensure long-term credibility. Without it we put both a sustainable recovery from the global Coronavirus pandemic and delivery of our manifesto in jeopardy.

Perhaps the simplest way of putting it on the Budget is: it’s all about economic credibility, stupid. Because come 2024, it certainly will be.

James Frayne: Six ways of boosting local pride and identity

8 Dec

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

In an excellent recent blog, my colleague Andy Westwood of Manchester University called on the Government to pursue a local identity strategy.

In it, he wrote: “Buying or subsidising a hotel, pier or football club might not sit easily with notions of the role of government, nor a faith in competition rules. It goes against the grain of markets, state aid and traditional Conservative views of the state. There are lots of arguments about why we shouldn’t attempt such an approach. But if we really want to care about ‘place’ and identity then we should put these objections aside.”

He is right. Local identity should be a defining part of the Government’s “levelling up” agenda. While new investment in infrastructure and education and skills are ultimately what’s needed to improve post-industrial areas, local people will have to wait many years to reap the benefits of such policy decisions.

But the Government can do a lot in a short space of time to improve towns and cities by thinking about things through the prism of local identity. A key question should be: how do we make these towns nicer places to live? A simple question – but one which would drive different policy answers to simply asking how we deliver more jobs.

Here is what focus groups tell you people in post-industrial areas want to see. They say their towns and cities were thriving until the late 1990s, but have been in increasingly rapid decline ever since. Shops have closed on once-busy high streets, bustling markets are a distant memory, local businesses have moved out, once-great festivals have been downgraded or ceased altogether, community pubs have shut, low-level anti-social behaviour (like open drug use) has risen massively, attractive local focal points such as war memorials have been vandalised.

While the sense of malaise in these towns and cities is unmistakable, equally unmistakable is the sense of local pride people have for the places they live in. People are angry about the state of their towns because they love them. This is what the Government should be looking to tap into.

This can sound a bit vague and woolly, but it doesn’t have to be so. For a start, it’s important to acknowledge that England really is unusual in the intensity of very local identity. In a tiny country, small towns, often separated by just a few miles, think of themselves as being entirely different from their near-neighbours – and indeed they often sound completely different.

Think of the huge differences between, say, Mansfield and Rotherham. 25 miles apart and on paper quite similar, but people who consider themselves to be totally different; and remarkably, who sound totally different despite being separated by a car journey of half an hour.

Nor does renewing local identity all have to be a 30-year project. Some parts of such a project, to be clear, does: if you are going to make devolution work, revive major civic institutions and change the role of universities in their place – as well as build major infrastructure – you won’t see the results overnight. But there’s also a lot that can be done in four years, with tangible results. Here are some illustrative examples of things that a combination of national and local Government might do:

  • Keep the streets clean and safe. As well as generally increasing the visible police presence, pay for security guards to walk through the high street during the hours that the shops are open, and deploy others to walk through local parks.
  • Bring back the events. Everywhere I go, people have a local event – a carnival, a fireworks display, a special annual market – that used to bring people together and that disappeared in the last few years. The Government should help bring them back.
  • For that matter, there should be incentives to restore a local market day. Many towns still have the basic infrastructure – and certainly the space – to bring back the sorts of large markets that existed on Saturday mornings and which brought huge commerce to small towns. This basic infrastructure should be repaired or rebuilt.
  • Some transport takes decades to deliver, but regular, inexpensive buses don’t.
  • Invest in those institutions that are delivering leisure services to the local community. Long Eaton United is an example of a thriving local institution of the kind I’m thinking of. Its training facilities – partly grant-funded – are used to ensure that huge numbers of teams – for men, women, boys and girls – are all able to play. There are huge numbers of similar clubs across the country who could play a similarly important role locally.
  • Support libraries and local museums. Cultural infrastructure needs funding and supporting.

As we deliver the levelling up funds and the towns funds, plus the safer streets money, and all of the plethora of pots the government has (very sensibly) been putting into these kinds of efforts, government needs to make sure it doesn’t just go on long-term infrastructure like broadband, or local economic zones.

Important though these are, the Government needs to ensure they’re making a tangible and visible difference to towns. Without that, no one will give it permission to do longer term work – and, to be honest, this is what people care about most.

Richard Holden: This first Johnson year demanded tough short-term decisions. The coming second will demand tough long-term ones.

7 Dec

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Sarnie Salon, Consett

A week may be a long time in politics, but a year is an eternity. Another truth is that it is very rare that situations arise in politics that have never been encountered before.

But the best-laid plans of twelve months that were expected to be dominated by Britain getting out of the European Union, and starting to level up the country – so delivering on two of the major promises of the election – have been more than overshadowed by the borderless forces of nature.

In North West Durham, with the fells iced with snow, I was thinking about other times when occurrences on the other side of the globe had dealt out a thrashing to well-laid plans.

In 1815, a volcano in Indonesia exploded. Mount Tambora was reduced by five thousands feet in height, as the mountain was blown into the incalculable pieces and up into the earth’s atmosphere in the greatest explosion in a thousand years.

1816 became known as the ‘year without a summer.’ Crops failed, the largest famine in the nineteenth century ripped through the world, and hundreds of thousands died as conspiracy theories abounded.

While today we know more about why and how external shocks happen – facts that won’t stop some of those conspiracy theorists – this doesn’t alter the impact of such events . No-one can doubt that the global Coronavirus pandemic has hit every aspect of our lives, and that its aftershocks will be felt for many years to come.

The disaster that we witnessed in Southern Europe of football stadiums being used as mortuaries and hospitals being overwhelmed has been averted here. The measures that have been taken to avoid that scenario have come at a huge financial cost, as taxpayers’ money has been used to support employees and employers, since businesses were forced to close in the interest of public health to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds. The other costs, in terms of impacts on education, physical and mental health are not yet fully quantifiable, but will be significant, too.

In the early nineteenth century there was no understanding of what had happened among either the people or the Government. The price of food went, no-one knew why – and there was suspected conspiracy, which led to rioting in the cities. In the countryside, people didn’t know why the sun wasn’t shining. That, by contrast, we know the causes of the problem we’re facing is very helpful – and the recent announcement of vaccines also gives us an end point.

For the overwhelming majority of my constituents, because they have a panoply of facts on hand, the pandemic isn’t political. What they want to see if politicians of allsides working to get out of it.

For our political opponents, their attempts at politicising it are probably the reason that, despite the economic impact, poll ratings are holding up for the Government. Rather than a government-in-waiting, Labour are seen as an opposition that leaves people wanting. In the last year nothing could be clearer than the seeming inability of the new Labour leader to deal decisively with Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s anti-semitism problems. It is quite clear that the opposition is hopelessly divided.

For Labour, their situation a year in is compounded by what looks like the Keir v. Jeremy show. I don’t believe that if I walked down the main drag in Crook, Consett or anywhere else in my constituency I could find a single person who could name a member of the Shadow Cabinet and their job title.

For a new MP, the overwhelming international issue of Coronavirus has provided some practical difficulties on the ground, but it has really bound me to the community. Having championed our local pubs and hospitality sector, there is nothing worse than seeing it closed. Seeing the excellent work of our community hospitals and their renewed purpose during Coronavirus has helped get my campaign for a new community hospital to replace it over the line as one of the new 40 that our Prime Minister promised at the election.

It has also shown what strong and wonderful people there are out there in our towns and villages, putting themselves our for others. Remembrance in County Durham matters and, recently, I nominated two people locally for the Prime Minister’s ‘Points of Light’ awards who had raised funds for it: Vera, who has been supporting the Royal British Legion for decades and has earned the sobriquet “Mrs Poppy” for raising over £1 million for the appeal, and Venita, on behalf of a team of over 50 local volunteers, who created thousands of poppies as a memorial to over 200 men of Weardale killed in the World Wars. Nothing drives me on in campaigning for North West Durham more than meeting people who are giving their all for our community every day.

While this year may have been overshadowed by the pandemic, we can now very much see the light at the end of the tunnel. The ruin it has wrought will last, though. Our communities will remember the response that we now make.

So the call to ‘Build Back Better’ will need to prove more than a catchphrase for the electors of North West Durham in 2024. The new community hospital, awaited for decades, is very welcome, as is the funding for a feasibility study into a new public transport link from Consett to the Tyne. But underpinning all of that will be good jobs, a sound economy and public finances that can afford to pay for the levelling up agenda. That economic development needs to be self-sustaining locally as far as possible to be sustainable.

The first year has been tough. The second year will involve real decisions about the long-term and will cast in steel the signs for the future. Crucially, the towns of the North East, left behind for generations by Labour, will need to see their Conservative MPs forging a path to a future that enables them with good jobs, better services, a growing economy and sound public finances to support it. The groundwork is down to the individual MPs, but the direction of the centre will be critical.

Andy Street: As we enter lockdown, we must protect our precious open spaces

3 Nov

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

As I write, England is once again preparing to enter lockdown. Families will hang their hopes on Christmas, as they say a temporary farewell to each other. Cafes, pubs, restaurants, gyms and businesses of all kinds are preparing to close their doors as the nation tries to bring infection under control and protect the NHS.

The extension of the furlough scheme throughout November and the unprecedented financial support already set out by the Government will provide some relief for businesses, as we balance the need to save lives with the need to protect the economy.

As before, some sectors will carry on throughout lockdown – this time the NHS, supermarkets, manufacturers and public services will be joined by schools, colleges and universities as they keep the nation ticking over.

And of course the construction sites, at the heart of the strategy to Build Back Better, will work on. In this column I want to write about the opportunities that lie ahead as we build the homes of tomorrow – and the potential pitfalls if we get things wrong.

Last week, the consultation ended on potential changes to the planning system – “Planning for the Future – which “proposes reforms to streamline and modernise the planning process, bring a new focus to design and sustainability, improve the system of developer contributions to infrastructure, and ensure more land is available for development”.

Driving this push for reform is the need to build more housing. Demand far outstrips supply for homes. As the Party which made home ownership possible for everyone, it‘s vital that we address this properly, and develop long-term solutions. Clearly the current planning system is far from perfect – indeed, it has got us to where we are today.

In the West Midlands we are ambitious – we have set the target of 215,000 new homes by 2031. When the pandemic struck, we were well on our way to that target, with our rate of housebuilding doubling in 8 years to just under 17,000 last year.

In the last three years, we have shifted the whole basis of housebuilding in the region. Instead of tearing into the Green Belt, we have moved to a ‘Brownfield First’ policy, reclaiming and cleaning up old derelict sites for new development.  The result is that we have protected green fields while regenerating former industrial sites, removing eyesores in often neglected communities.

The policy has been a great success, with the vast majority of new homes built in our recent surge put up on reclaimed land. We’ve only been able to do this thanks to Government support and their backing for our business plan, with a £350m investment in our game-changing Housing Deal which was recently topped up with another £84m. A new science of land reclamation is being pioneered right here, with a £24 million National Brownfield Institute planned for Wolverhampton.

We have achieved this by working together across the region’s seven member boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton. After all, by helping one community that is crying out to see a derelict eyesore removed, we are helping another fighting to save its cherished open spaces.

We see this application of local knowledge within our boroughs too – developing on old factory sites in Walsall town centre to protect neighbouring green spaces in Pheasey and Streetly, or building in Dudley town centre to protect fields around Halesowen and Stourbridge.

So, my response to Government’s “Planning for the Future” consultation is simple – let’s build on what we have been doing together so far. However, there are aspects of the proposals which I fear go in the wrong direction.

First, the algorithm and methodology at is core tilts more homes onto Councils with more green space, and away from those with more brownfield sites. This is, of course, to try and address the issue of housing where demand is high.

But, in this case, I believe it is tilting the playing field too far. It would mean, for example, increasing pressure on Councils like Solihull where we already have a Green Belt under intense pressure, whilst easing the need for homes elsewhere where there are more brownfield sites and a pressing need for regeneration.

We must not let developers ‘off the hook’ by allowing them to pile into greenfield sites and turn away from more challenging regeneration sites. And they will pile in – we are seeing it now in Coventry, where a misguided Local Plan has opened up too many green spaces for development. For developers, these sites present a more lucrative and easier option. For the local community, they represent a loss of much-loved green space. Down the road, in neighbouring communities blighted by old derelict industrial sites, they represent a missed opportunity to reverse years of neglect.

So, I have argued that this should be looked at again to reflect the need not to let an algorithm – which is prone to all sorts of unintended consequences – drive planning diktats that imperil the Green Belt.

Second, I believe this timely planning reform is a chance to seize the moment to provide additional protection to critically important Green Belt sites. Across the West Midlands at sites like the Seven Cornfields in Wolverhampton and Tack Farm in Halesowen, residents are battling to save cherished countryside.

The new “Protected” status should represent a strengthening of Green Belt protection for sites.  The Green Belt came into being in the 1950’s and now is the time to look at reinforcing it through this reform.

We should, for example, identify some Green Belt sites where development is simply inconceivable – in our region, the “Meriden Gap” which sits between Solihull and Coventry, and Saltwells Nature Reserve in Dudley leap to mind – and give them more protection. That added protection would ensure no developer would attempt a frivolous planning application designed to test the resolve of councils under pressure to build.

And let’s recognise where some places have contributed some of their Green Belt land already to meet local and national need – like land for HS2 – and see if we can compensate them with more Green Belt protection in their area. I have, in the past, described Birmingham City Council’s plans to build thousands of homes on Green Belt in Sutton Coldfield as a ‘land grab’ – and there is a strong argument that the town has now made a significant contribution to a city which has plenty of brownfield sites.

We aren’t Nimbys in the West Midlands. But it is vital that Whitehall understands that if the cold data supplied by an algorithm offers up cherished green spaces to hungry developers, there will be a backlash from local communities – and from voters.

We want and need more homes and we are working in partnership with Government, councils and developers to deliver them. As we head indoors for a month of lockdown, many of us will miss the open spaces that surround our communities, where we walk our dogs, run for exercise and our children play.

We must Build Back Better, but let’s never forget the critical importance of the Green Belt – indeed, let’s seize the opportunity to do more to defend it.

We need a Plan B for universities as well as schools – and much the same one

28 Sep

Government sources insist that students will be allowed to go home for Christmas – and not be locked up en masse, as they have been at some universities, unable to leave halls of residence.

Ruth Davidson has swooped on the shutdown in Scotland, writing that students have been confined to their rooms, barred from visiting shops to buy food – let alone pubs or restaurants – banned from travelling home, policed by extra security staff and threatened with letters instructing compliance under threat of suspension.

These, remember, aren’t people who necessarily have Covid-19, or who have been directly in contact with others who do.  It isn’t obvious that the situation is much different in parts of England, where some three thousand students are apparently also locked down.

Nor is it clear how many students will be able to be at home with their family when Christmas comes.  For either the Government’s latest restrictions will be in place, if Boris Johnson maintains his grip on policy, or else even stricter ones will have superceded them.  We hope that mass testing will be up and running by then, but aren’t counting our chickens, or Yuletide turkeys either, come to that.

In which case, the number of students allowed home will depend on the number who have symptoms of the virus, since those who have it must self-isolate for 14 days by law, as must those contacted by test-and-trace services.  Government guidance also says that “all other household members need to stay at home and not leave the house for 14 days” if another has the virus.  What happens when the location is not a home but student accommodation?

This provokes the further question of whether students should have returned to university.  If you want to attack Ministers, you will claim that the present tangle was forseeable.  If you want to defend it, you will counter that normality must resume – as nearly as possible, anyway.

There are a number of short-term means of plastering over the cracks, none of which will provide a smooth and seamless finish.  Some universities are offering vouchers for food, or rebates, or providing food directly.  Robert Halfon wants the students affected to recieve discounts.

The colleges will argue that they shouldn’t pay these, since they aren’t responsible for the lockdown rules.  The Chancellor might well say in response that this may be so, but the Commons can’t simply load more debt on the taxpayer indefinitely – or there won’t be any public money for universities in the first place.

There are issues for the long-term as well as for the short.  The central aim of the Government’s latest Covid-19 measures is to build a firewall between work and home, with the former operating as near normally as possible but the latter less, as part of the balance to protect livelihoods as well as lives.

Schools are placed in the former category, partly because parents will be unable to work normally if they aren’t, and partly because of the value we place on education.  University education also has value, both to the economy and in its own right.

But it has never been universally available to all regardless of qualification, as is obviously the case for primary and secondary schooling.  And as our columnist Neil O’Brien notes, the number of students in higher education is out of balance: for around ten per cent of women, and a quarter of men, their degree isn’t worth it.

He wrote recently that “highly subsidised universities would propose to government how they will reduce their cost to the taxpayer. That could mean reducing numbers on some courses, or making them cheaper with shorter degrees, or and doing more online. Or a mix”.  This is where student accomodation comes in.  Why do a higher proportion of British students leave home for higher education, compared to some other comparable countries?

The answer is bound up with the monopoly that Oxford and Cambridge held on university education in England from the medieval period until 1827, when University College, London, opened.  In consequence, an assumption was written into our educational culture that if students were to go university, they should go to it rather than it come to them.

This was less so on the continent, where local universities are more common – though our national picture has changed as new universities have suddenly sprung up fully-formed, or as other institutions have gradually become universities.

So for example, David Willetts, in his A University Education, traces the story of how, in Bradford, the Mechanics Institute morphed its way through Bradford Technical School to Bradford Technical College to the Bradford College of Art & Technology to Bradford College…to Bradford University.

However, there is no uniform story of locally-rooted colleges becoming Oxbridge-type universities, complete with ivy-laden walls or red brick or both.  The former colleges of advanced techology, such as Braford itself, have spells in industry as part of their courses.  Others have links to regional or local industries.

All of which reinforces the question of whether the country needs so many other universities and students following the Oxbridge model in the first place.

The short-term pressure on living space, accomodation and lecture rooms will intensify next year, as the knock-on effects of this year’s A-level fiasco work their way through the system, because of the students who have now qualified to enter a university, but have been forced to postpone entry until next year.

Meanwhile, the long-term trend to doing more online is being speeded up by the Coronavirus, as the move from learning together from lectures in big rooms to doing to separately from screens in smaller ones gathers pace.  Furthermore, universities aren’t always in full control of the living quarters that they offer students.

Halfon is certainly right in believing that the Government needs a Plan B for universities – mirroring the one that both he, this site and others have called for in schools, as the Covid-19 case numbers rise.

Obviously, universities have an independence from government that schools don’t.  But it wouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to design a fee and finance system that rewards universities for more online teaching.

Such a solution would be fiercely debated.  Moving schooling online temporarily is one thing; shifting “the university experience” online too would be another (though to some extent this is happening already).

We already complain that young people are stuck at home for too long.  Do we want them there during their university years, too?

What about the horizan-widening that moving to a new place brings, together with mixing with others from outside one’s home town, city or village?

Our bleak answer is that one can no more turn back the online tide than one could turn back a real one, and that the universities, like so much and many elsewhere, have no alternative but to sink or swim in it.

Mo Metcalf-Fisher: “Pubs versus schools” doesn’t need to be an either-or scenario in reopening Britain

12 Aug

Mo Metcalf-Fisher is spokesman for the Countryside Alliance.

During lockdown, the closure of pubs was catastrophic for the countryside. Pubs form part of the backbone of rural communities up and down the land. They are not just places to see off a pint; they are public houses that provide a vital community space. They act as village hubs, often being one of the few places available for local people to meet, hold events and even operate as polling stations during elections.

When the go-ahead was given by the Government to reopen pubs from July 4, the nation collectively cheered. Meeting up with friends at my local on the first evening it reopened gave me immense joy. Seeing other families and friends enjoying themselves, laughing and exchanging stories all while putting money into the till of a local business was incredibly satisfying to see again. Despite this positive development, it seems pubs now face a further challenge to their long-term existence.

Throughout the Covid crisis, the Countryside Alliance has been keeping in regular contact with publicans across our extensive network of rural businesses. While most were incredibly grateful for the financial support and flexibility of the Government during the height of lockdown, many were incredibly eager to get going again, once restrictions were lifted.

Landlords and pub owners seldom have an easy day; working long hours and continuously coming up with innovative ways to drive up new business. Irrespective of vast complications caused by Covid, there are a multitude of pre-existing factors which make keeping pubs open a challenge. Supermarkets selling multi-buy offers which are not available to pubs, for example, make it much harder for pubs to compete. It’s no secret that the number of pubs has been decreasing steadily for several decades. According to the BBPA, from 2000 to 2018, pub numbers have declined by 22 per cent.

Then there has been an effort, by the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield, to push an unhelpful narrative that pubs should be the first establishments to close in order to prioritise keeping schools open. Her exact quote, was: “If the choice has to be made in a local area about whether to keep pubs or schools open, then schools must always take priority.”

Now, no one is seriously doubting the importance of children going back to school, as quickly as possible. Seeing certain teachers unions’ attempting to sabotage plans to reopen schools and playing politics with our children’s future has infuriated me to my core. However, why is the not-so subtle dig over the prioritisation of reopening being landed at the door of our hardworking publicans?

The issue I take with her remark is that she has provided little clarity as to why there needs to be an exclusive choice between the two. The reason the closure of pubs captivated so many in the nation is because of their importance both as an economic contributor; providing huge levels of employment as well trade for an array of other connected businesses like breweries and wholesalers, as well as their huge societal contribution, at heart of so many local communities.

Pubs have already invested large sums into bringing their establishments up to the strict standards of health and safety expected of them. Plastic protective screens have been set up, PPE bought, hand sanitiser stations made available and track & trace systems implemented.

It is clear publicans understand their duty to their collective communities to provide a safe and secure social space. Many of the pubs we speak to have reported that as time has gone on, footfall has gradually increased. Staff have been taken off furlough and new personnel have been hired to meet the demand.

However, that same network of pubs in villages and small towns across Britain are virtually universal in their view that if a second lockdown were introduced, requiring them to shut shop again, they would have to close for good.

The choice facing local authorities should not simply be an either-or scenario. Without pubs, our economy will take an ever greater hit and the long-term damage it will cause across local communities will be irreversible.

We are officially in a recession now and it should go without saying that if we are to even attempt to pick up the pieces when this awful pandemic ends, we need to have a functioning economy. Sniping at pubs from the sidelines and pushing to halt a trade which employs hundreds of thousands of people, will cause untold devastation. Once leaving school, children will need jobs to go to. Unless we are out in our communities earning and spending money, their future remains bleak.

Pubs need and want to continue trading safely, especially as there is no guarantee of further financial support in the event of a further lockdown. Where Covid-related incidents have popped up at pubs, swift action has followed suit.

Take for example the Crown & Anchor in Avely, Essex. Within hours of being notified that a patron had been taken ill with suspected Covid symptoms, the pub immediately notified the community and shut shop. They carried out an extensive deep clean of the premises and remained shut for 72 hours. After following the relevant guidelines, they were able to reopen and continue trading. Going forward, it seems obvious that this remains the most effective way of dealing with Covid cases, from both an economic and health & safety perspective.

Covid has obviously created great anxiety for many people and time will only tell how long it will take for the vast majority of us to go back to leading an ordinary life. But it remains clear that there is not a bottomless pit of money for the government to prop up the economy for the long term. We need sensible, practical solutions for living day to day while the virus remains. We can’t continue living in fear and we must not allow businesses, like those remaining pubs, to fall by the wayside.

Howard Flight: High streets, air travel, restaurants, the arts. How the virus is transforming our lifestyle.

6 Jul

It is becoming clear that the Covid-l9 crisis will lead to substantial changes in the British lifestyle.

First of all, a significant part of the workforce will be working from home on line. People have learnt from current experience that board and other meetings can be conducted quite satisfactorily on Zoom or Teams.  Employees will not need to travel, at great expense in discomfort with no seats, and can live away from London and the South East, where good houses are cheaper.

The knock on effects of Zoom and Teams are also going to reduce the demand for office space in London and other major cities.  Office space could be converted into residential use – so reducing the cost of residential property.  Much of the massive increase in office space over the last three years may end up to being converted into accommodation.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS)  has found some surprising results from its recent surveys.  The impact of lockdown on people’s lives has been revealed in official figures, showing that more than a quarter are considering changes to their relationships (divorce), job or home.

For the first time, the ONS has focused on aspects of life that are the cause of unhappiness.  Big life changes after recovery from the Coronavarius are being planned by 28 per cent of adults and, of these, 42 per cent want to make a change to their work; 38 per cent are looking to move on from relationships and 35 per cent are inclined to move home.  Family lawyers have already reported an increase in the number of divorce cases exacerbated by financial problems.

Researchers have also found that 40 per cent of adults feel that some parts of their lives have changed for the better. Of those who reported positive lifestyle changes, 56 per cent said they were able to spend more time with their family and close friends.  The ONS also found that nearly half of those aged between 60 and 69 had experienced positive lifestyle changes compared with only 24 per cent of respondents aged over 70. Exactly half said they were enjoying a slower pace of live.

It remains to be seen how many of these intentions will be carried through, albeit that a lot of people will need to change jobs as there  their previous jobs will no longer be available.

There are four related territories which are exposed to massive change for survival: the high street, travel, hospitality and culture.

The high street is still threatened by online shopping in an unfair tax regime.  The Government has permitted the online shopping industry to enjoy substantial tax advantages, undercutting the high street.  It pays no business rates and is maybe registered abroad, so saving on VAT and corporation tax.  What is needed overall is a level tax  playing field.

Travel is probably the biggest area effected by Covid-19.  The total value of cancelled flights amounts to £8 billion for the last four months.  Liability for this will be fought over for a long time to come, where there are now two key  legal principals – in the UK “Acts of God” and, imported from Europe, “Force majeure”.  The industry cannot afford to refund the £8 billion total, and it is governments that have insisted on the closure of air travel.

Restaurants, pubs and hotels have had mixed and an often interlinked experience – overall, a negative one caused by Government lockdown requirements.  Some opening up is now occurring, and local authorities are encouraging and supporting the provision out outside restaurant facilities There is an economic need for restaurants..

The territory which the Government has now announced a £1.5 billion package for us the performing arts.  The individual performers have had all their bookings cancelled, through to Christmas with no compensation and no future bookings.  It should be remembered that the arts contributes more to Britain’s international earnings, in aggregate, than does the City of London.

The Government seems to be waking up to the importance of Britain’s musical industry.  One of our friends who is an internationally recognised opera singer is trying to set up a major outdoor performance in Hyde Park, similar to the Pavarotti Concert over ten years ago.  This, however, will require the Government to provide the insurance cover against the risk of Covid-l9 infection.  There are three historic precedents where the Government had to put up such cover – and, ironically, made a good profit from so doing.

Richard Holden: On Wednesday, Sunak needs to display as much confidence in Britain as local publications are showing in North West Durham

6 Jul

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

The Dairy Barn Cafe, North Bitchburn

As Saturday approached, you could feel the febrile excitement and demand for “the story” across the media. Television news and radio bulletins boiled over with predictions of carnage on Saturday night. The broadcasters and papers were eagerly anticipating Freshers Week-esque scenes of drunken debauchery as the public decided to get wasted in a post-lockdown bacchanal.

In North West Durham, I spent Saturday evening visiting the: Duke of Wellington, Consett Rugby Club, the Wheatsheaf in Leadgate and finally the Black Lion, my local in Wolsingham. I’m afraid that I must report that calm and friendly were the orders of the evenings – as it appears were the scenes across the rest of the country too.

Tog, the landlord of the Duke, four doors down from my office on Medomsley Road, took me to his beer garden to show me a mural he’d commissioned during lockdown from a local artist. Sarah-Jane, at the Black Lion, had me take a peak at how she’d transformed her beer garden from a flagged smoking area to a lively and welcoming garden of tables, tasteful lighting and colourful plants and flowers.

It was superb to see responsible local businesses at the heart of their communities investing in their businesses, and ensuring a safe and socially distanced experience for their customers. This hope of better things to come from local firms, with small but significant investments in themselves, is really welcome at a time when I know so many people are not only worried by the virus, but also about their jobs and their incomes.

However, in many sectors of the economy the broad economic impact of the global Coronavirus pandemic is coming through hard, and is reflecting just how interconnected demand is across our economy.

To give one example: at first as the crisis broke, I had travel agents and their staff get in touch. Then came had pilots and crew from Easyjet and British Airways based at Newcastle airport, as the airlines cut back. More recently, I’ve been in touch with a local manufacturing firm which makes inner parts for the wings of Airbus planes, and which is having to lay off half its staff (some of their factories across the UK have closed completely and will not re-open).

Very quickly, the lack of ability to – and demand for – travel has led to manufacturing job losses well down the chain. It’s clear that some sectors have been far more badly affected than others, and that base consumer demand is having a rapid knock-on effect.

Looking out of the panoramic window of the just re-opened Dairy Barn Café, I can see right up Weardale, and am reminded of a conversation I had early in the last election campaign. “Remember, we’re the working dale, Richard” a man in late middle-age in local authority housing in Stanhope had said to me.

At the time it made me think of where I grew up on the other side of the Pennines – walking up Pendle Hill in Lancashire 20 years ago, and looking south to the mill towns of East Lancashire nestled in the valleys below. Working towns like Burnley, Colne and Accrington which have since switched to electing Conservative MPs.

As the furlough scheme, which protected so many jobs at the height of the lockdown is wound down, we’ve got to do everything we can to help return demand to the economy – the demand that comes from confidence in the future. Demand that means work for decent working people up and down the seats of the ‘Blue Wall’.

This confidence and positive view to the future is not something anyone’s hearing from the Labour leadership under Keir Starmer. The best thing he could muster last week was to suggest that the Government was giving “mixed messages” by saying, “get out and about, have a drink, but do so safely”.  Which shows that he’s struggling to get cut-through – especially when the man in the village pub in County Durham is by and large is doing exactly what the Government has suggested.

Labour’s shambolic response to getting children back to school, by saying one thing nationally and another in Labour-run local authorities, certainly inspires no-one with confidence – except a growing confidence that Sir Keir is a political opportunist. He was, after all, remarkably quiet on anti-semitism under Jeremy Corbyn, in order to keep hold of Momentum votes for the leadership. And he tried to play both sides with Labour’s disastrous “we’ll accept the result, but negotiate a new deal, and then have a second referendum” policy on Brexit.

Perhaps most interestingly, this weekend marked the first time that any constituent has mentioned the Labour leader to me unprompted. She was a former Labour voter who switched to the Conservatives in 2017 (and had managed to convince her husband to do so in 2019), and it was clear that, after being initially open-minded, the new Labour leader was leaving them increasingly cool.

The Government has done well in giving support to business and jobs – Rishi Sunak has certainly won fans across the country for that. But without wanting to pile too much pressure on the Chancellor ahead of his statement on Wednesday, we’re all only as good as our most recent decisions in politics.

As we move out of the initial stages of lockdown, Rishi’s decision must be to put confidence as much confidence and therefore demand back into the economy – especially in hard hit sectors – as he can. Everyone knows that it’s going to a difficult time and no-one expects the Government to get everything a hundred per cent right, but voters do expect us to really try.

And in doing so over the next few weeks and months, the Government has got to show the confidence in Britain that my local publicans in North West Durham are showing. And, as they press ahead with “levelling up” their pubs, we must also keep that long-term goal in mind too for the North.

Confidence is the thing that underlies every relationship with the state that we have – from policing with consent to the value of the fiat currency in our pocket. Confidence that governments have the people in mind and the ability to deliver is what keeps them in office.

The electorate here in County Durham and in the mill Towns of East Lancashire took us into their confidence and bestowed their votes upon us. Despite the difficulties of the pandemic, the Government has supported people. Now our task is to give our businesses the confidence to look to the future positively, which will in turn give the people who work for them the confidence to invest and spend in a virtuous circle, bouncing forward out of the fear of recent months and towards the hope of a brighter future.