John Macdonald: It’s unsustaintable for the Tories to offer so little to younger voters

10 May

John Macdonald is the Head of Government Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.

It’s not just the cities, or the young and aspirational that the Conservatives are losing. Their very political engine is starting to break down, and to make it worse, they appear to be burying their heads in the sand – whilst simultaneously arguing that Labour’s success in London bodes poorly for the next general election.

Losing both Margaret Thatcher’s favoured Wandsworth Council and Westminster too suggests that the Tories are quite content with sacrificing aspirant prosperity for declinist welfarism.

Perhaps this is because voters have traditionally drifted towards the Conservatives as they got older. But rather than being an iron law, this is more simply a product of circumstance. The boomer generation was buoyed on a current of unprecedented economic growth, rising wages and the prospect of home ownership. Without any of these three factors in place, there is little reason for this phenomenon to be reproduced. In reality, there is no evidence to suggest people under 40 are moving right at all.

This was all well and good in the context of the 2019 election. By promising an end to 2017’s ‘Zombie Parliament’, end the Brexit headache and take the country Corbyn-neutral, the Conservatives could assemble a well distributed coalition of disenfranchised Labour-leavers in the North and Midlands, without worrying about losing their southern, prosperous (but often remain leaning) heartlands – on the basis that a vote for anyone other than the Conservatives would bring Jeremy Corbyn one step closer to occupying Downing Street.

But since Brexit is now more about results than bluster, blunder, and blue skies, and the Government is seen to be doing too little to alleviate the cost of living crisis, there is now space for voters to coalesce around anti-Tory sentiment.

It is looking increasingly uncertain whether the Conservatives will be able to hold on to their old, prosperous heartlands in the south while protecting their 2019 marginal seats in the North and Midlands. If voters become more at ease with a Lib/Lab coalition, the Tories’ thumping majority could end up being very short-lived.

In pursuing a political narrative of redistribution, from young to old, from prosperous south to left behind north, the Conservatives have fundamentally misunderstood the underlying challenges facing the country. Productivity and real wages haven’t recovered since 2008. The average house price is 65 times higher than in 1970. But average wages are only 36 times higher. The Government has announced tax rises worth two per cent of GDP over the last two years, the same that the last Labour Government did in ten.

This might not be so bad for those in or approaching retirement, who will be spared paying for the pandemic and will benefit from the rapidly rising value of their homes. But the young have lost formative years of education, early career opportunities and freedoms to a pandemic that they are paying through the nose for.

As it currently stands, the Government is creating a bloc of young voters that attempt to move from their place of their birth to seek prosperity, only to find themselves in cities being paid low wages, taxed at a high marginal rate of 42.2 per cent (if they’re a graduate) and scant chance of getting anywhere near the housing ladder. Quite often, these graduates then return home to non-graduate jobs, embittered by the stark reality that the economy is more oriented towards extracting revenue from them, rather than giving them the opportunity to live, work and start a family where they so choose.

What can be done? The Government could seriously consider treating Covid debt as war debt, hiving it off to be paid back at a much slower rate, and freeing the Treasury from its current, revenue first, growth second tax mentality, a policy being privately pushed by Liz Truss. Rather than exempting young people from income tax entirely, thresholds could be unfrozen, giving them a significant tax cut in real terms.

Adjusting student loan interest via CPI, the Government’s own standard measure of inflation rather than the higher RPI would also ease the pain on graduates reaching the soon to be lowered repayment threshold. Providing maintenance loans on the same terms to apprentices as students could also extend opportunities to those who don’t go to university.

To suggest that the Conservatives face a long-term existential crisis could be hyperbolic. They have succeeded at re-engineering the party time and time again, and the cohort they are targeting with welfare and subsidy is only just reaching its peak electoral salience.

But the Tories’ electoral strategy is jettisoning the fuel behind the prosperity of older generations, allowing them to coast without firing up the engines of growth. But unless the Party reorients itself around value creation, building houses and in offering young people a genuine shot at prosperity, it risks sliding into decline.

Rachael Robathan: You don’t strengthen the weak by weakening the strong

4 Feb

Cllr Rachael Robathan is the Leader of Westminster City Council.

With everything else going on, it is sometimes overlooked that we are facing another set of elections this May – local elections for almost 200 local authorities across the UK, including every London Borough.

These are sometimes viewed as the Cinderella elections of the democratic process – less important and high octane than General Elections – and yet these are the elections which determine the shape of services which affect every person in the UK every single day.

From the moment you walk out of your front door you will come across the impact of local government. Everything, from the cleanliness of our streets, to planning and licensing policies which determine how cities and towns look and operate, to the support which our elderly and vulnerable residents rely on, is the responsibility of local government.

We, as Conservative Councillors, have a strong story to tell. It is these services, against challenging budget constraints, which have been so vital over the last two years. While the nation rightly applauded hospital services and NHS frontline workers, our homecare workers were equally as critical, going into the homes of the most vulnerable every day to provide vital support. And what of our refuse collectors? Without them our streets would have deteriorated rapidly.

In my experience in Westminster – as I’m sure is the case elsewhere – the last two years have served to focus attention on the importance of the services the Council provides.

Alongside our excellent social care support for Adults and Children, in Westminster we also established a volunteer network, with over 3,000 residents signing up to support those who found it more difficult to go outside to collect shopping or run other errands.

We helped over 800 rough sleepers off the streets and into permanent accommodation pathways and jobs, as well as distributing over 5,000 laptops to make sure children could continue to learn from home.

It has also been a matter of considerable pride to me when residents commented that, as they walked around the streets, they noticed how clean and well maintained our public areas are. We take great pride in our City and it shows.

It has also been really important, as the Council right at the heart of the Capital, that we did everything we could to support the business, hospitality and cultural organisations which are so much a part of what makes our City such a wonderful place in which to live and visit. Few areas felt the impact of the pandemic as acutely as the West End.

In a City where each day, pre-pandemic, our resident population of some 250,000 increased by four times that amount -. as people came in to work or visit, the impact of restrictions had a massive impact. With almost 3,700 licensed premises – more than any other Council – and as an area which not only accounts for 15 per cent of all London’s jobs but also almost ten per cent of our national business rates, there wasn’t an option to sit on the sidelines while businesses went to the wall.

We introduced al-fresco dining, creating 16,000 additional covers on our streets through temporary measures, enabling thousands of premises to continue trading and survive. These proved so popular that after full consultations these have been made permanent in many areas.

We worked with our theatres, museums, and galleries, to create an Inside Out Festival, showcasing our wonderful cultural and entertainment offer outside on our public spaces to provide access for everyone and also to remind everyone why a visit to Westminster has so much to offer.

So, as we approach these elections what is our message and what are our asks?

First, it is vital that we all make sure everyone understands the importance of these elections and that every single vote matters. As Conservatives, we understand the importance of running our Councils to deliver the best services in a cost-effective way and to work with our residents and businesses to make sure they have the support they need to make the most of their opportunities and live their lives as they wish.

Without this current network of Conservative Councils, not only will those we serve lose out, but it would also make it even more difficult going forward to hold Parliamentary or London Assembly seats, where we don’t have the strength of a Conservative Council working hand in glove with them.

Second, while these elections are emphatically about local government, not national, we do need to be able to demonstrate that our Government is listening to us and recognises the importance of having Conservative administrations running our Councils.

For those of us in London, a key part of that message is that levelling up in the red wall seats in the north does not mean that London with its own acute challenges is overlooked. Without the recovery of areas like the West End and the Business Rates it provides, the Chancellor will struggle to find the funds for these initiatives.

Finally, and most important, is that everyone reinforces the message that it is just as – if not more – important that every Conservative votes in these elections if they want the things which impact their lives every single day to continue to run smoothly.

In Westminster, we fight hard for every vote. Our councillors and candidates are already out campaigning from Paddington to Pimlico. Thanks to our central London location we hope that Conservatives both locally and nationally will follow Jacob Rees-Mogg’s lead by making their New Year’s resolution to campaign more for Westminster Conservatives. You will be very welcome!

Cem Kemahli: Vaccination would be even more of a success were it not for problems with data

5 Apr

Cllr Cem Kemahli is the Lead Member for Adult Social Care and Public Health on Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council.

The UK vaccination drive has been a success. Over 30 million doses of vaccines which didn’t exist a year ago have now been administered. It is only through, sadly, seeing other nations struggling that we can understand the sheer logistical human endeavour which has gone into getting this right in the UK.

The vaccines provide a way to protect our most vulnerable and therefore help protect our economy and the livelihoods of our residents.  But they have also highlighted an issue in the way that the Office for National Statistics, the NHS and local GPs manage data and patient records.

As a local authority we have been caught between a data rock and a media hard place.

London, in general, sits below much of the rest of the country. This is a fact frequently reported by the national and local press, often highlighting particular boroughs without a firm understanding of the cause of the statistics.

We receive criticism in the papers for a rollout that we are merely supporting. “Low vaccine uptake in Kensington” reads better than “Low vaccine uptake in the West London Clinical Commissioning Group, encompassing Kensington and Chelsea as well as GPs in Westminster”.

The common media reasoning for lower take-up has been the ethnicity differences apparent on any London street – each bringing their own cultural quirks and often intrinsic hesitations of state-provided healthcare.  This issue is even more acute, given the propensity for Covid to impact these communities most virulently.

A fairer though somewhat less quantifiable or journalistically appealing reason is one of data management.

Our vaccination uptake is measured against out-of-date but best guess ONS population figures, as it is for every borough in London. The census will hopefully address these figures, although we in Central London have hesitations –  because our Capital is a transient city, our borough especially so, and this fact feeds through into the ONS data.

So, whilst our overall population might remain the same, the actual people accounting for these figures, and thus their NHS numbers, change frequently.

Lockdowns have provided some solace for GPs, in that everyone, bar a few exceptions, are where they say they are, and available at short notice to receive their jab.  That is, if they are in the country.

We know anecdotally that our borough has somewhat emptied out over the last year. We usually have 1.2 parking permits issued for every available space, and parking is always hard to come by.  But during the pandemic we have been able to accommodate over 4,000 key workers who wished to drive into the borough. These cars have had to go somewhere – and they have simply taken the spaces of those who have left.

The negative side of a transient population for GPs is that they have lists of patients that are constantly falling out of date. Usually, this is no problem: the data is cleansed often, and records updated as people move around or fall off their lists. GP practices work hard to manage their patient numbers and offer excellent services to our residents. But they can only work with those who engage with them, and update their information.

We are, along with our neighbouring borough of Westminster City Council, also home to an exceptionally high number of international residents, dual and indeed triple nationals who may not necessarily be eligible for NHS treatment.

In ordinary times, this is not a cause for concern: they are able to return home, go privately for treatment or use international insurance. But now we have a single point of access for vaccines this is bringing to light the inherent consequences of travel bans and access to healthcare.  Many of our residents simply aren’t eligible for the vaccine through the NHS.

This trifecta of residents out of town, residents not entitled to vaccination and residents who no longer reside here, but who remain on GPs’ lists, has caused the overall figures we see today. Whilst I have not seen the minutiae for other boroughs, I suspect this is true for most inner London authorities.

As a local authority, our role is not to carry out the vaccination drive, but it is to assist the NHS and local GPs in engaging with our harder to reach communities; the digitally excluded, non-English speaking and those not familiar with accessing healthcare have been our main target.

We have put on successful community pop-ups in faith settings, and reached out through digital and physical signage, as well as offering advice in a variety of languages to offer support to those willing, eligible, but not knowing how a vaccine can be obtained.

Thankfully, we see little anti-vax sentiment: far more pervasive is vaccine hesitancy. A wait and see approach which we can help to overcome with evidence-based sessions and information from trusted sources.

We have also been working with GPs by helping them to call their patients and take admin out of their hands, so that they can focus on vaccine delivery. Through this work, we have found profound issues with the NHS database. Deceased residents, residents already vaccinated, and residents who have left the borough years ago are all still showing as eligible for a vaccine. Each one pulls down the overall uptake – through either being a numerator which should be counted or as a denominator which should be excluded.

When you appreciate the inability to vaccinate the deceased, you start to understand the underlying problems with a vaccination drive that aims to reach 100 per cent of the adult population, but uses somewhat faulty databases on which to base success.

And a success it remains: we have reached well over 75 per cent of our residents over 70 years old, but when you factor in the dead, ineligible, abroad or already vaccinated we are more likely reaching 85 per cent. Much more in line with national figures. We have thankfully not had a single confirmed case in anyone over the age of 75 since the 11th March – a testament to a successful vaccination drive.

We have worked constructively with the NHS and local GPs so far, but the underlying issue remains one of data sharing. We have council tax lists of residents in the borough; we know where people live. GPs know who is registered with them, and the NHS knows who holds an NHS number. These three systems rarely need to work alongside one another but with contact tracing, self-isolation and now vaccination, knowing where a resident with an NHS number is residing is all the more important.

Our local council has stood up a team in our “hub” to ring residents, and we have had great success in reaching those that have been missed.  We are imploring the NHS to give us more people to ring, we have the resource funded by government to make these calls, but we need to feed the system with the information, and make sure we find everyone willing and able to be vaccinated.

The borough knows the figures are wrong. The GPs know they are wrong. And the NHS knows they are wrong. But without someone to clean the information or update the systems, we will struggle to lift ourselves off the comparative bottom.

I fear the overall national success will mean not enough focus is brought back on ours and other residents who are being missed due to data issues putting themselves and their families at risk.

Izzi Seccombe: Conservative councils are working hard to safely return to normal life

5 Aug

Cllr Izzi Seccombe is the Leader of Warwickshire County Council and the Leader of the Conservative Group of the Local Government Association.

The recent lockdowns in Leicester and much of Northern England are a timely reminder that Cornavirus has not gone away, that for all of us many restrictions still remain in place, and that unfortunately it is unlikely that life will return to normal for some time.

However, since my last article for Conservative Home, at the end of May, the nation as a whole has experienced a significant relaxation in the Covid-related restrictions, including the re-opening of restaurants, pubs, cinemas, hairdressers, hotels, and campsites and various other types of businesses on July 4th.

In the run-up to what became known as ‘Super Saturday’ councils played a crucial role in supporting businesses, venues, and high streets, as well as some of our own civic amenities and services, to prepare for the re-opening and in communicating to residents the changes that were being put in place.

However, in order for our high streets to re-open the businesses that had previously operated there had to still be in existence. The fact that many of them were was in large part due to the decisive action that the Government and councils took during the preceding months.

As Conservative Home readers will be aware, the Government has provided an extensive package of support to workers and businesses throughout the crisis, including the furlough scheme, business rates relief, the Small Business Grants Fund, the Hospitality and Leisure Grants Fund, and the Discretionary Grants Fund.

Local government was the delivery mechanism for much of this support and councils have worked hard to distribute almost £11 billion to more than 800,000 eligible businesses.

For many councils this has involved responding proactively and flexibly to the unprecedented circumstances; for example, by setting up dedicated teams and redeploying staff to process applications as well as using websites, social media, and traditional media to reach businesses that were eligible for funding but for whom they did not have the relevant information.

This provided a lifeline to struggling businesses worried about their future and I am extremely proud of the work that Conservative councils undertook in the months and weeks preceding the easing of the restrictions.

For example, Medway Council has processed and issued more than £35 million in financial support to businesses overall, and more than £1.6 million on top of that to small businesses specifically as part of the Government Discretionary Grants Fund.

To highlight just one example from my own county, Warwick District Council has issued 2,395 payments totalling £31,080,000 to local businesses, representing a 93.8 per cent payment rate.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Midlands, Walsall Council has a 94.6 per cent payment rate and it is joint top with Dudley Council, also Conservative-led, in the ‘league table’ of councils in Birmingham and the Black Country for the number of grants paid.

Of course, whilst keeping businesses afloat so that there was a functioning high street to return to in July was essential it was also critical that people were confident enough to return to their old shopping habits when they were permitted to do so.

Again, we in Conservative local government were grateful for the additional funding that we received from central government to help facilitate this.

For example, the £50 million ‘Reopening High Streets Safely Fund’ was used by councils to introduce a range of practical measures ahead of July 4th, including new signs, street markings and temporary barriers, and by businesses to adapt their services, for example by introducing contactless payment facilities.

Marketing campaigns were also launched in councils across the country to explain the changes to the public and reassure them that their high streets were safe places to visit.

For example, in Harborough the district council sought to reassure shoppers with a number of proactive measures, including deploying council officers in high visibility jackets to provide information and advice, setting up hand sanitiser stations and using street stencilling to indicate where people should queue.

In addition, in collaboration with Leicestershire County Council, road closures were introduced to facilitate social distancing and safe queuing, thus giving people greater confidence to return.

Meanwhile, Warwick District Council has worked with its market operators to put in place a phased return of the popular weekly markets in Warwick and Kenilworth whilst also introducing free parking in all of its off-street cark parks.

However, whilst many suburban shopping centres are seeing increasing numbers of people returning each week, concern has been expressed about city centres and larger shopping areas.

Again, Conservative councils are doing all that they can to ensure that these are safe places which people feel confident visiting.

Over 80,000 jobs in Westminster depend directly on the hospitality industry and the city council has worked with landowners, businesses and residents to develop more than 50 separate street-wide schemes that deliver outdoor dining areas. These include footway widening, providing tables and chairs in former parking spaces, and, in some cases, timed pedestrianisation of streets.

Furthermore, whilst the Business and Planning Bill was going through Parliament, the council introduced its own interim scheme that allowed businesses to trade outdoors. For example, a fast track tables and chairs licensing scheme, which costs businesses just £100, and temporary events notices, allowed businesses to get up-and-running outdoors within a week.

As we enter August, with the advent of the Government’s ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme and many of us enjoying a staycation, it is to be hoped that domestic tourism will give a much-needed boost to the economy and Conservative councils have led the way in highlighting the many great things that there are to do in the UK.

For example, in Medway, the council is actively promoting its own heritage attractions, such as Rochester Castle, The Guildhall Museum, and Historic Dockyard Chatham, all of which have reopened and are welcoming visitors again.

Clearly, the battle against Coronavirus is not yet won, but I know that in the months ahead, Conservative councils will continue to do all that they can to support their communities and get their local economies going again as part of the national recovery effort.