Gabriel Milland: Ignore the climate change sceptics. They speak only for themselves – not the mass of centre right and Red Wall voters.

1 Nov

Gabriel Milland is a Partner at Portland Communications. He was a temporary special advisor in Downing Street for the first five months of the pandemic last year.

The voices on the Conservative right demanding that COP26 be the moment that Boris Johnson ditch greenery can and should be ignored.

Not just because the same sort of scientific consensus in favour of Covid vaccinations and against letting the virus rip says that attempting to decarbonise the world’s economy is necessary. But also because the politics demands it.

Those are the findings of a comprehensive new poll that Portland Communications carried out last week. While some want to believe that “traditionally-minded” Tory voters – and new converts in the Red Wall – wish that the Prime Minister would shut up about carbon, our poll found that only six per cent of 2019 Conservative voters think he should talk less about climate change and instead “talk about things that matter to me more”.

This is not a function of the bulk of the Tory vote still being more affluent and more willing to spend money. Just 10 per cent of those earning between £15,000 and £35,000 a year – the C1C2D voters who gave Johnson his majority last year – wish that he would shut up about green issues. Nor is it due to any environmentalist youthquake. Just eight per cent of over-65s agree with this statement

If there is criticism of him among Conservative voters, it appears to be that he is not interested enough, or people who worry that he is only paying lip-service. A combined 49 per cent of Tory 2019 voters subscribe to these views. Meanwhile exactly a third of Conservative 2019 voters – 33 per cent – agree that Labour is right to want to spend more on policies like Net Zero.

This matches what I have picked up in focus groups in recent times. Groups held with Tory activists in deepest Surrey revealed a tribe who had become passionate supporters of greenery. The reason? Many of them were keen gardeners who had noticed things were starting to bloom in late December while summers turned lush sanctuaries into scorched savannahs. 

The trouble for those who want to throw the Net Zero revolution into reverse – and seem to think that a referendum is the right way to do it – is not just that this is not a binary. It is also the fact that so very few people see this as an issue where there is much debate. And making bad things more expensive seems a reasonable way of going about the task in hand. Climate scepticism, to most, is a deeply eccentric view.

I share the view that a collapse in the Blue Wall is unlikely yet to present an existential electoral threat to the Prime Minister’s “Brexity social democrat” coalition. But it could make a majority harder to get. When asked “would you ever consider voting for a party that had the environment as its main issue, like the Green Party, in a general election?, 37 per cent of Conservative 2019 voters say yes.

People are much more likely to say they might consider doing something than not. However, this is a number which should give Tory strategists cause for concern. The most popular reason why was “by voting for a party like this I would show the other parties that they need to change”.

Numbers for Labour “green considerers” are much higher – at 58 per cent. That might suggest – for Labour – the views of a substantial number of disenchanted Corbynites. But not all of them are. Only 37 per cent of that cohort of Labour voters said the reason they might vote more greenly was that Labour had become too like the Tories. The rest will be green-ish “normals” who could yet ditch Red for Blue, especially Blues with a pragmatic and parsimonious attitude, while Labour offers only higher taxes.

Were the Green Party itself not in such deep thrall to crankdom and so heavily associated in the public mind with unpopular protest ,then there would be little to stop it reaching German levels of popularity. But that is not the Green Party we have, or are ever likely to get. 

The key problem is money, of course. Just seven per cent of our sample said “my family and me, and other families like mine” should pay most of the cost of going green. Business, the government and the Chinese are all far out in front. And fewer than half in our sample are willing to pay more than an extra £50 a month on top of current bills to reduce carbon. Twenty-two per cent said “nothing”.

Public opinion is the Ming vase which the Prime Minister must carry in the direction of 2050. But he is determined to do so. Talk to those who have spoken about it with him and they speak of a leader who sees Net Zero as key to much of what he wants to do – from levelling up via green investment to making something concrete out of “Global Britain”.

But ignore all that, and even the science behind the target, and the politics still make a very strong case. An increasing number of businesses understand this, which is why they are spending an increasing amount of money and time on “sustainability”, and will need to do much more to understand their role in changes which will be happening. If the Conservative Party won’t make halting climate chage one of its missions, there will be others who will offer to do so – and get a hearing.

Bim Afolami: Working from home means a radical culture shift – and it’s here to stay. Here are some of the consequences.

6 Sep

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

Holidaying in Cornwall this summer, I was struck by how many people I met who had relocated there (or elsewhere in the South West) permanently.

They all wanted a change of pace of life, a larger home in a cheaper area, and could work from home more often than not. Speaking to my constituents over the break, in a sear in which there are a large number of commuters to central London, the overwhelming feedback is that most former daily commuters are trying to restrict themselves to working only two or three days a week in the office, and working from home as much as they can (though some firms are resisting this change). Things have changed a lot in a very short period of time.

I believe that this is a trend that we will have to contend with, because people want more choice about how and where they work. This will have some significant political consequences in the shorter term, and over the longer term may have quite profound economic consequences that we should be wary of.

First, the number of working parents who are more involved with home life is palpable. Many more professional commuter dads (and mums) are more present in the local community – people who previously only saw their local area at weekends (they left early and came back late during the week) are now much more engaged with local issues, and noticing improvements they want to make to their area.

In my experience, many of these voters are highly intelligent and informed about a wide range of issues. But they used typically to consider political issues on a national, macro level. I am willing to wager that these voters are now going to be a little more localised in their perspectives: what their local MP does, and says, will matter more and more to them.

This does not necessarily make these voters more parochial – many people value their MP if they have a high profile and speak sensibly about national issues. Yet overall, I think the impact will be more variation in voting patterns seat by seat, as local issues and the reputation of individual MPs will increasingly drive voting patterns.

Second, with less commuting, there is a certain amount of spending that is not going to return to cities, and will instead be spent in affluent commuter towns in the Home Counties. Towns such as Hitchin, Tunbridge Wells, Ascot and Sevenoaks will thrive even more, and the propensity of local people to spend more of their money locally has increased, is increasing, and will continue to do so. People feel more connected with their local areas, and they are spending less money in London and other major cities.

What will be the political impact of these changes? In the short term, I fear that they may strengthen the existing divide between affluent areas and less affluent ones. Major cities will be a small net economic loser. This will perhaps slow or even reverse the rise in property values in our cities, which will perhaps lead to more young people, and more people in lower earning professions being able to live in the centre of cities like London.

Third, the environment will continue to grow in importance as a critical issue. The voters will increasingly focus on their own experience of the green spaces near where they live and reducing local air pollution; for most voters, the environment will not primarily be considered in an abstract sense about getting to net zero or reducing carbon emissions.

New large housing developments or new major roads over green fields will become even more unpopular. This is why the Government’s policy of introducing “biodiversity net gain” is so important. It is an opportunity to show the public, particularly in the Home Counties and in other areas outside major cities, that we can actually improve the provision of nature in their local area.

When the policy starts to bear fruit, people will know that we are serious about the environment in a way that directly matters to them. I think that the implementation of this policy should be sped up, and by doing so we can demonstrate our environmental credentials faster and in a more impactful way. I wrote about this a few months ago on this site.

As a Conservative politician, I instinctively take the view that the Government’s job is to support people’s aspirations and aims for themselves, their families, and their local areas. Many millions of white collar workers prefer to work a lot more from home; especially commuters who previously used to dread their commutes, whether by train or car; and there is mounting evidence that this shift is particularly pronounced amongst women.

However, we must be careful about the impact of this over the longer term. If accountants, solicitors, marketing executives, or insurance underwriters demand to work from home in Hitchin or Oxted, why can’t the firm hire someone with similar skills on half the pay in Hyderabad or Odessa? Even in situations where having a high standard of written English is fundamental to the job, technology for real time translation services is developing extremely quickly.

We know from the 1980s and 1990s how societally and economically difficult it was to lose millions of manufacturing jobs – let us beware of inadvertently accelerating the same process for services jobs, which would have an even more widespread and profound impact. Also, as my friends and colleagues Claire Coutinho and David Johnston have argued, younger workers lose out from the shift to home working – since they frequently don’t just lack space at home but also lack connections to help them develop the employability skills and social capital they need for the workplace.

We need to support the aspirations of all those who want more control over when and where they work – and more home working is inevitably here to stay. Yet in responding to this trend, our policies also need to take the interests of everybody fully into account, and bear in mind the longer term interests of the country as a whole.

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.