Ike Ijeh: Conservatives in Westminister and Wandsworth were punished for ugly regeneration schemes

12 May

Ike Ijeh is Head of Housing, Architecture & Urban Space at Policy Exchange.

When the Marble Arch Mound rightly attracted worldwide derision last year few might have foreseen that it could eventually have equally seismic political reverberations too. But the law of unintended consequences might well have struck again in last week’s local elections with the Conservative party’s historic loss of Westminster and Wandsworth councils.

The reasons for these losses will be subject to forensic dissection for some time but we can already safely conclude that national issues like the cost-of-living crisis would have played their part. But, reassuringly from a local democracy standpoint, local issues invariably played a role too and one of these might have well have been amongst the most unexpected: namely, the increasing proliferation of bad architecture that both councils have misguidedly championed in recent years.

It is important to deploy perspective here, one does not need to be a psephologist to conclude that architecture and beauty are not necessarily uppermost factors in the electorate’s voting decisions, lofty colonnades are hardly likely to succeed in boroughs where low Council Taxes couldn’t. But it is also undeniable that bad environments irritate residents and irritated residents vent their frustrations at elections.

Take Nine Elms for example. Doggedly pursued by Wandsworth as a totemic regeneration undertaking primed to supercharge the borough’s housing delivery, it is nonetheless an arid vertical minefield where every turn runs the risk of an articulated architectural ambush so shocking that it is already the subject of near-universal design ridicule before even reaching completion. Poor sales also suggest that the public may be voting with their feet as well as at the ballot box.

In recent years Westminster has arguably fared worse. With more listed buildings than any other council in the country, it was once an exemplary custodian of fabric and heritage. But in recent years it has mounted a spectacular rebellion, defiantly promoting a slurry of anodyne office blocks and towers around Paddington, lining Victoria Street with a squadron of barren commercial barracks (including the startled beehive replacing New Scotland Yard), aesthetically castrating Oxford Street by replacing key heritage assets like its flagship M&S store with faceless glass drones and infamously insulting Nash’s graceful Marble Arch by erecting a pointless pustule beside it.

As for the Mound, the furious reaction of Westminster’s Labour members last year perhaps provided an early clue as to how effectively bad architecture can be weaponised as a tool to extract political capital. But it also demonstrated the unfortunate prevalence of a corrosive practice that afflicts local councils far and wide: poor public consultation.

Nobody would recommend an X-Factor built environment determined entirely by public vote. But on the other hand, too many residents have felt disenfranchised by a planning system that they feel shuts them out of the process. Central government has made reassuring noises about encouraging communities to have a greater say on local developments, most recently in Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech. And as part of its Building Beautiful programme think tank Policy Exchange, which has long championed placemaking prioritisation and community involvement, will shortly release a paper calling for the public to be polled on newly completed buildings.

Better consultation may not prevent bad architecture but at least, come election time, it may prevent the blame for it falling largely on politicians’ heads.

This strategy is not without risk for in examples too numerous to mention the wishes of residents and councillors do not always align. A classic architectural example is the pedestrianisation of Westminster’s Oxford Street. This civic hot potato has been kicked around council chambers for decades with the mayor, the London Assembly and even the last Conservative council supporting some measure of pedestrianisation on the world-famous shopping street.

But implacable opposition from well-heeled local residents (and, most recently, council jitters over a repetition of the disastrous Marble Arch Mound fiasco) have been able to kill proposals stone dead at every turn. How do we square such a circle? The answer is obvious: compromise. And how is compromise in an urban environment context best achieved? Through public confidence in good design that promotes beautiful architecture and places.

Nobody should be under any illusions that were Nine Elms less ugly or had the demented preening cockerel of the red-breasted Nova Building not been permitted to screech its visual obscenities across Victoria that Tory councillors in both wards might still be in power.

But places are now political and even the government’s recent Levelling Up White Paper recognises the value good places offer in any programme of economic recalibration. Conversely, any regeneration enterprise that weakens the sense of place and replaces it with the kind of globalised identikit architectural anonymity that Westminster and Wandsworth have recklessly imposed unroots its residents and gently frays the intricate bonds that tie them to their communities and their surroundings. And unsettled communities make for more unpredictable voters. These are not principles that should be alien to conservatives.

Politics is by its nature an alienator; every political position however well-meaning requires the implicit rejection of another. Design on the other hand is a mediator and on an urban level has the potential to bind different groups and people together by physically embodying shared sentiments of pride and citizenship. Beauty won’t lower taxes or improve services. But were any political party to attempt to mount a recovery on a local or national level, they would be wise to both acknowledge and exploit the subconscious electoral currency that beauty and design offer.

Michelle Lowe: Johnson has secured the Conservatives’ right flank – now we need to secure our left one

11 Feb

Michelle Lowe contested Coventry South at the General Election last year and is the former Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing & Health at Sevenoaks District Council.

The Southend West by-election result does not tell us very much except that UKIP is no longer much of a threat to the Conservatives. They not only lost their deposit but came after “spoilt ballot papers” and the Psychedelic Movement. Locally they have very few if any local councillors left after being spectacularly driven out in 2017. On top of that Reform UK only just about managed to keep their deposit in the Old Bexley and Sidcup by-election.

It seems that no matter how unhappy voters are with the Conservative Party, apart from in the opinion polls, there does not seem to be much evidence of them actually switching to Labour in elections. The Lib Dems and Greens are, however, a different story. Not only did the Lib Dems win both the Chesham and Amersham by-election as well as North Shropshire, both parties are capturing more and more council seats in the South East. They will no doubt use their growing local government base to start attempting to capture Westminster seats at the next General Election.

Knowing that they are unlikely to form a Government any time soon, both the Lib Dems and Greens are shamelessly disingenuous in their promises. They claim there is no need for any more house building or large infrastructure projects such as HS2, but somehow they will also manage to find homes for young people and provide greener travel. For a party of government this is the impossible circle that Michael Gove is trying to square. How can he close the generation divide and make sure there are enough homes for young people to buy, while protecting the countryside?

To win in the affluent South East the party not only has to find a solution to the development problem, but it will have to be strong on social justice issues all round. Andrew Mitchell told the House of Commons last July that Chesham and Amersham has the biggest Christian Aid group in the country. The cut in foreign aid spending that is popular in some places probably helped to elect Sarah Green as the MP in Chesham and Amersham.

The Government’s new Levelling Up White Paper is attempting to address some of the social injustices that exist and were no doubt exacerbated by the pandemic. Focusing on infrastructure, schools, the NHS and low income households while empowering local government to deliver for its communities – the white paper is moving in the right direction.

In 2019 we suffered a terrible set of local government election results losing control of 44 councils and 1,330 councillors. In the South East the Lib Dems and Greens built on these results during the county council elections last year, and the Lib Dems and Greens now have a firmer foundation on which to try and win Westminster seats. They are very good at targeting specific seats where they are strong and not competing against each other. Once elected they blame the Government for not being able to deliver on its election pledges. They are leaving a patchwork quilt of rainbow coalitions that often include independents as well – and the glue that holds them together is their hatred of us!

In Sevenoaks, where I was Deputy Leader until I stood down in 2019, we held back the anti-Tory tide that year with a strong local brand that combined fiscal responsibility and efficiency, with compassion. Voters were not going to risk their weekly bin collection and low council tax by voting Green or Lib Dem – especially when their local Conservatives were also building Dementia friendly towns and villages and rolling out social prescribing to help with their wellbeing. So their consciences were clear. Unfortunately, the Town Council and County council brands were not so strong – losing the town council in 2019 and the County seat in 2021. Sevenoaks was by no means the only place where success was achieved – nationally we can learn a lot from these places.

So with local elections this year and next, and a General Election taking place sometime before December 2024 we can relax a bit from UKIP and Reform UK – but we need to prepare to defend our traditional heartlands from the Lib Dems and Greens by making clear they are not up for grabs. We have to find a way to protect our countryside while still building homes for young people, and we have to actively promote social justice and equality of opportunity. We must be seen as fiscally responsible and efficient but we must also make sure people know we care.

Jonathan Webb: To get levelling up right, we need to rethink where power lies

21 Jan

Jonathan Webb is a senior research fellow at IPPR North.

Before January draws to a close, the Government will have faced the biggest test of its flagship levelling up agenda to date. The highly-anticipated levelling up white paper represents a watershed moment for the Government – a chance for it to deliver a plan worthy of the rhetoric, and meet the promises made to the country in 2019 to raise prosperity and close regional divides. If the white paper is to be a success, it must provide a framework that changes the way this country is governed.

The UK is more centralised than any comparable country. Economic and political power is centred around Westminster and this is a root cause of our deep regional divides. Not only is our centralisation a long-standing problem, it’s also one that is getting worse. New research released this week by IPPR North shows that since 2010 central government employment has increased, while local government has continued to shrink.

More decisions are being made from departments in Whitehall and not by local government. At the same time, increasing amounts of tax revenue are flowing to central government, not local government. In 2017/18, 95p in every £1 paid in tax was taken by Whitehall compared to 65p in every £1 in Germany. This has worsened in the intervening years, rising to 96p in every £1 paid in tax being taken by Whitehall in 2019/20.

This centralisation of resources in Whitehall is problematic because decision-makers in London are too far removed from many of the communities that need to be levelled up. Where power lies matters. The further people are from Westminster, the less likely they are to trust government. While some steps have been taken to disperse civil servants across the country, this doesn’t provide the ambitious rethink of central-local relations needed to shift the dial, nor does it compensate for the fact that local government’s capacity has been diminished.

Creating a new economic campus in Darlington won’t make a difference if it simply results in more civil servants moving North. What the region and other parts of the country need is investment, steered by local leaders who know their communities best. Levelling up cannot be delivered from central government alone.

Fortunately, the building blocks needed to level up are already in place, that is, strong local leadership and ambition. Regional and local leaders, like metro mayor Ben Houchen, are making a difference. Houchen has attracted significant economic investment to Teesside, creating a new economy that prioritises green jobs and industry. All areas should be given the same economic opportunities as Teesside.

And at an even more local level, community groups are proving that they have the determination and understanding needed to tackle big issues and level up from the bottom up. Organisations like the Wigan and Leigh Community Charity are giving people the chance to turn their interest and skills into a social enterprise or community business. With the right support, communities can do incredible and entrepreneurial things for themselves.

Shifting power away from central government and to communities requires a strong local state. The white paper must deliver this by outlining a new ambitious way of governing, that puts communities first. Instead of hoarding power and resources in Whitehall, the government must give these away to local leaders. As a start, it should commit to ensuring that 50 per cent of all capital investment and spending on economic affairs sits at the subnational level. This would shift significant resources to combined and local authorities in England.

At the same time, empowering local government and communities would allow them to work together to create new economic opportunities for people and tackle problems like crime and anti-social behaviour. The more say and involvement that people have over their lives and the bigger

input they have in shaping the places they live, the more likely they are to foster local pride. This pride in place is crucial for strengthening community ties and a sense of belonging.

To make levelling up a success, it also has to be underscored by collaboration, not competition. Competitive pots of funding, like the levelling up fund, creates winners and losers. It isn’t right that Barnsley is the only place in South Yorkshire not to win a levelling-up bid. Their need for investment is just as great as in Doncaster or Sheffield.

A more decentralised country, where political and economic power sits at the regional and local level and not in Whitehall departments, would speak to the scale of change needed to match the levelling up rhetoric. So, when Gove presents his levelling up white paper to the country, a radical vision of, and clear plan for, devolution must be at its heart.

Shifting power to local places and communities could give people the chance to better shape their own lives, restore local pride, and finally address the deep divides that cut across our country. Most importantly, it would fulfil the promises made in 2019 – that a fairer and prosperous economy that works for everyone can be realised.

Ryan Baldry: Our global security is at risk when we become distracted by events in Westminster

21 Jan

Ryan Baldry is the Communications Manager at the Coalition for Global Prosperity and former Parliamentary Staffer to a Government Minister.

When there’s political drama in Westminster, we are all guilty of being drawn in. It’s easy to think that the world stops while the events of SW1 unfold but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Those who wish to act against us or without us noticing, use these times of looking inward to act. And it’s these acts and global crises we must not lose sight of.

The international stage is as unpredictable now as it was in 2021 and the United Kingdom must not lose focus. There is incredible momentum for us to build on as a global force for good as we move forward following the successes of the UK Presidency of the G7 alongside the ongoing Presidency of COP until November.

The crises that we face are only mounting and the world’s most vulnerable and at-risk need the UK to be a leading player in the international community. A crisis overseas quickly can become a crisis at home. We’ve witnessed it first hand throughout the Covid pandemic and with a changing climate, regional instabilities and fragile democracies, this danger isn’t going away. A crisis can come out of the blue when we’re not paying attention so while all eyes are on Downing Street and counting letters, what could be coming our way over the next few weeks and months?

First, the situation in Ukraine is one that cannot be done justice in just one oped but is one we cannot afford to lose focus on. The FCDO and the MOD have both been unequivocal in their support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity but the UK must maintain the pressure.

With the UN Security Council a non-starter with Russia and China’s veto, the UK must continue to keep the pressure on the Russian President all year round to demonstrate that any further encroachment on Ukrainian soil would be unacceptable. If anything is to happen, it will be soon with tensions already at breaking point. If Russia sees any weakness or distraction from NATO, the UK or the USA, things could move incredibly quickly with Western states paralysed by domestic politics

The next challenge would be for the UK to continue applying pressure and leading wealthier nations to help vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable. We may be nearing the end of COVID as a pandemic in the UK but globally, this isn’t the case. New variants will emerge that can undermine vaccines and continue to destabilise already fragile health systems. The UK did excellent work of pushing this through Global Vaccine Summits and the G7 but we can’t stop now.

Alongside this, we have the situation in Afghanistan which only continues to deteriorate with each passing day and could quickly become a crisis we are forced to confront. We’re witnessing a humanitarian crisis with food shortages, human rights being pushed aside and a regime that nobody wanted to see in power.

The United Nations launched a $5 billion appeal – the largest in their history. But the cost of inaction will always outweigh the cost of action. If the UK does not lead or bring other governments along with us, we will continue to see mass migration with people heading to our own shores among many others. This then creates additional crises such as the deadly Channel crossings which we have seen cannot be stopped by strongly worded tweets or political desire alone.

They must be resolved at the source and this can only be achieved by utilising our international development budget to help invest in women and girls education, nutrition and health infrastructure. The UK must ensure that the progress made in Afghanistan and the wider region is not lost to a regime that doesn’t value human rights or democratic values.

Last and by no means least, we are always facing the crisis of foreign interference in our democracy. Only last week this was thrown into the spotlight when foreign interference in our own Parliament and politics was uncovered. We are often being warned about the threat that China faces to the UK in terms of cyber attacks, operation of critical infrastructure or their territorial ambitions.

But discovering that they were able to secure influence in the corridors of power should frighten us and also serve as a wake-up call to ensure that we focus on protecting and securing our democracy from those who wish to damage it. The UK must promote our cultural exports and soft power influence further around the world to show that the era of democracy is not coming to an end but is being strengthened. Again, if the UK looks away, this is when others will act against our interests.

Now more than ever, we need a strong and motivated Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. We’re rightly putting record sums into the Ministry of Defence but to compliment this, we need to properly invest in our diplomatic network and soft power.

The Chancellor’s recent commitment to return to spending 0.7 per cent of GDP on International Development is extremely welcome and a sign that the importance and leading role of UK soft power has been recognised. But to back this up we need to properly invest in our embassies and consulates. UK diplomats need to be on the ground and making the most of the incredible expertise that exists within FCDO.

By investing now, we can make sure that the UK is always around the table and that we continue to secure our role on the world stage as a leading force for good in a world where the shining light of democratic values is needed now more than ever.

Elizabeth Campbell and Rachel Robathan: Don’t level London down

1 Oct

Cllr Elizabeth Campbell is the Leader of Kensington and Chelsea Council and Chairman of Central London Forward. Cllr Rachel Robathan is the Leader of City of Westminster Council

The Prime Minister’s commitment – made ahead of the last election – to level-up livelihoods and opportunities across the country struck a chord with voters up and down the UK. As we finally emerge from the devastation of the pandemic, we are finally able to turn our attention to this crucial agenda.

Some have suggested levelling up will mean London will lose out. But as the Prime Minister set out in his recent speech on the subject, levelling down London would do nothing to benefit left behind communities across the UK. In fact, London can play a central role in driving our recovery from the pandemic, and in supporting levelling up.

As the Prime Minister acknowledged in his recent speech, levelling up can only be achieved with a strong and dynamic wealth-creating economy. On the eve of the pandemic, London’s thriving economy generated a surplus of £36 billion for the Treasury, helping to fund investment in public services and infrastructure across the UK.

Beyond the fiscal contribution the capital makes, London’s continued economic success has direct benefits for local economies across the UK. That is because London’s economy is not apart from or in competition to the rest of the UK economy – it is an essential and inextricable part of it. London’s economy is linked by supply chains to every part of the country, with every £1 of consumption in the capital generating 24p in production in regional economies across the UK. The capital is home to world-leading industries from digital tech and green finance, to life sciences, and the creative industries that will be crucial to our future economic success. These industries compete internationally for investment, but they are connected to clusters across the UK, so that London’s comparative advantage in these areas delivers benefits for the whole country. That means when London thrives, the rest of the UK benefits too.

As we seek to rebuild from the pandemic, the capital will play a crucial role in delivering the vision of Global Britain. The government has set out an ambition to ensure the UK is open, outward-looking, and confident, on the world stage post-Brexit. London is the UK’s predominant global city. We act as the shop window for the world, drawing in visitors and investment to the UK. Before the pandemic, 1.6 million international tourists visited both the capital and somewhere else in the UK, spending over £640 million annually in regional economies outside of London.

London’s success benefits the rest of the country. But this success cannot be taken for granted. Across nearly every indicator, London has seen the biggest economic impact from the pandemic of any region or nation of the UK. We have seen more jobs lost, more jobs furloughed, and more people fall into unemployment than anywhere else in the country. The economy is growing again – and London boroughs are working to support businesses to bounce-back – but the pace of our recovery is slower than any other region, and we face ongoing headwinds in the form of changed commuting patterns and lower levels of international tourism.

Indeed even before the pandemic, while London’s economy was thriving, many of our residents struggled to access the opportunities available in their city. As the Prime Minister highlighted in his recent speech, the capital suffers from stark inequality. London had the highest levels of poverty going into the pandemic, and most of the local authorities in Central London Forward – the grouping of 12 central London boroughs – are in the most deprived 20 per cent nationally. If levelling up is about tackling stark inequalities, improving livelihoods, and accessing opportunities, then this must hold true in London too.

The Prime Minister has said that levelling up must not mean levelling down London. He has argued that rather than being zero-sum, levelling up must be a win-win for the whole of the country. This autumn we will see a crucial test of this commitment, with both a spending review that will set out the government’s spending plans and policy direction for the next three years, and a white paper on levelling up that will flesh out this crucial agenda.

We are keen to see meaningful devolution – to and within London, as well as across the rest of the country – to empower local areas to support growth. We want to see investment in infrastructure – both in the capital and across the UK too – in order to drive the recovery and support the transition to net zero. And we want to ensure a fair division of funding across the country, which reflects the needs both of left behind towns and of areas of entrenched deprivation in the capital.

Whether or not we can make progress in levelling up livelihoods and opportunities across the UK will define the success of this government. As local authorities, we are committed to working in partnership with government and with businesses, to drive the economic recovery, and deliver on the levelling up agenda. We must not fail in this task.

Nickie Aiken: Extinction Rebellion are eco vandals

2 Sep

Nickie Aiken is the MP for the Cities of London & Westminster.

Extinction Rebellion is over halfway through its fortnight of “beautiful chaos” in the capital, bringing disruption and costs to local people, businesses, councils and the emergency services.

I cannot emphasise enough how many constituents have written to me detailing what could be mistaken for a dystopian novel.

I fear that these ongoing protests are having the exact opposite effect to XR’s objective and is turning the public off tackling climate change.

Very few people today dismiss the fact that we are facing a climate emergency and drastic action is needed. This Government is arguably the most progressive green administration in our history with the Prime Minister placing climate change at the top of his political agenda. Sadly XR doesn’t seem to accept this fact and prefers to undertake increasingly more shocking stunts to maintain interest in their cause.

The last time XR graced us with their presence for 14 days straight they left 120 tonnes of rubbish behind which Westminster City Council had to spend £50,000 of council taxpayer’s money cleaning up. When I pointed this out last week I received an email from XR’s press office, not denying the fact, but seemingly attempting to justify it by pointing out that the council also cleans up 85 tonnes of rubbish after New Year’s Eve festivities. They seem to miss the point that:

  • They are an environmental cause so leaving rubbish is hypocritical at best
  • Leaving rubbish for others to clean up while protesting or enjoying a night out is wrong full stop.

It is also truly staggering to see the number of police resources needed to keep those demonstrating and the general public safe during the protests and to prevent central London from coming to a standstill. Having to tackle boats, caravans, large tables and protestors locked to suitcases full of cement takes police time and resources which I believe could be better spent. Neighbourhood police officers are diverted away from their duties to support protest police teams. At a time where the Capital is experiencing a worrying increase of serious youth violence I would suggest officers are better used to trying to keep our neighbourhoods safe.

The single biggest issue that has filled my mailbag over the past 12 months, covid aside, is idling police helicopters hovering above us for hours on end, day after day. The Met tells me that they have to rely on the helicopters to provide officers on the ground with intelligence on protester activity as XR and others fail to liaise with them on their plans. The irony is not lost on me in that XR claims it wants to tackle climate change but fails to communicate with the police which in turn leads to air pollution from idling engines in the sky.

During some protests over the last year, I have received letters and emails providing first-hand experience of what it is like to live with protesters literally on your doorstep. Children are unable to sleep owing to relentless noise that goes on until late. Older people are too scared to leave their homes for days on end because of the number of people who are staging sit down protests in and around their neighbourhood. Another constituent came to me concerned they cannot walk their dog due to broken glass littering the street. In other cases, people have experienced serious threatening behaviour outside their own doors.

This is unacceptable.

I saw for myself the aftermath of one protest last summer which left parts of Victoria Street and surrounding areas looking like something out of a war zone: windows smashed, telephone boxes and bus stops vandalised and graffiti everywhere.

Not what you would expect from those who claim to be peaceful protesters…

The changes in the tactics employed by certain protesters, including XR, have highlighted huge gaps in current legislation, passed in the 1980s, and hence why I am supporting the Government’s Policing, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill.

Figuring out how to police a new style of protest effectively, without suppressing legitimate and responsible protestors, remains one of the greatest challenges for this legislation.

There has been much debate about these measures – some of it has been informed by fact, other parts of the debate have been informed by misunderstanding.

The Bill was not drawn up to unfairly penalise either protesters or Police. These measures were developed in consultation with the National Police Chief Council, the Metropolitan Police and bolstered by recommendations made by the independent Law Commission to improve the police’s ability to better manage highly disruptive protests.

This Bill does not stop the freedom to demonstrate, it balances that freedom against the rights and liberties of others.

I welcome that with some qualifications, this Bill would actually improve the effectiveness of protest policing and can be applied more proportionately and in line with human rights law. Indeed, I agree that placing a premium on our human rights within legislation is right, and I commend the amendments put forth at Committee Stage to strengthen this issue.

Much attention has been brought to the so-called “serious annoyance clause.”

Now, I agree that on the face of it including distress, annoyance or inconvenience might seem like an overreach. However, as the MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, with Westminster hosting approximately 500 protests every year, my mailbox is full each time a protest takes place.

People often fall into the trap of thinking Westminster is an ivory tower of rich people with country homes. I admit there are people in my constituency where this is the case, but only a short walk from Parliament Square you will find thousands of people living in social rented homes who do not have the privilege to escape elsewhere.

It is these people who have to deal with the real-life implications of disruptive protests.

What I am hearing from business leaders in the area is that this, in turn, builds a perception that people cannot go out and enjoy Central London. We’re coming out of Covid-19 I want this place to be thriving once more. I do not want these protests to impact people’s lives and livelihoods.

As XR Protestors begin to pack up and return home (hopefully taking their rubbish with them this time) and I prepare to return to Parliament after summer recess I will continue to champion the right to protest and ensure those taking part are safe, that our police officers on duty are safe and that the amenity and safety of local people and businesses are safe. I will support this Bill and all it sets out to achieve.

Andrew Selous: The suggestion voters weren’t consulted on LTNs is wrong. Local elections suggest they approve.

30 Jul

Andrew Selous is MP for South West Bedfordshire and founded the Conservative Friends of Cycling.

One thing that Conservatives – and, through clenched teeth, our opponents – can agree on is that the Prime Minister is good at winning elections, often in quite unpromising circumstances. 

But over one subject, at least, is the PM losing his judgment of the public mood? He is about to announce more measures to boost walking and cycling – including more bike lanes and “low-traffic neighbourhoods” (LTNs), where residential side streets are closed to through motor traffic to prevent rat-running. Cars are not banned from these areas: you can still drive to or from any point, but you might have to take a longer way round.

Some in our party fear the pursuit of these policies will be damaging, saying that the measures already taken during the pandemic, including dozens of new LTNs, have caused “huge…anger across the country,” are devastating local businesses and have been “pushed through…without asking” people.   

Just under three months ago, though, people were asked what they thought – at the local elections where, in dozens of wards, a controversial LTN or cycle lane was the major local issue.

In London, our mayoral candidate, Shaun Bailey, made opposition to bike and walking schemes one of the main planks of his campaign, promising that if he won the election, he would remove them. In Manchester, Oxfordshire, and the North East, local candidates did the same.  

It didn’t work for us. It didn’t win us votes. In Conservative West London, the Bailey campaign did direct mail, leaflets, Facebook videos and personal visits against a new separated cycle track along the Chiswick High Road. Our vote went up in the borough (and in London) as a whole.

But in the three Chiswick wards with the cycle track, we went down by between 10 and 12 per cent. Similar, intensive efforts against LTNs in Ealing again saw the Conservatives underperform in most of the wards concerned, losing one, Ealing Common, that we won in 2016. In Enfield, our vote went up in most of the LTN wards, but by less than the borough average. In Oxfordshire, Manchester, and other places, we flatlined or fell in the LTN wards.  

Of course there were many reasons why this might have happened. I’m not claiming it proves that all cycle schemes work – or that the same approach is right for everywhere. What works for London and other cities might not work the same way for a smaller town. In my own constituency I have been lobbied to complete the cycling green wheel in Leighton Buzzard and to increase safe cycling routes in Dunstable.

But most schemes have been in cities and larger towns. In those places, cycle schemes do make some people angry, but the election results appear to back up something already found by every professional opinion poll – that more people support them.  

Why would this be? Cycling went up by 46 per cent last year, more than in the previous 20 years put together – but it is still not a majority pursuit. I think these schemes attract support because they benefit far more people than simply those who cycle: local residents, pedestrians, and indeed also businesses.

Streets not dominated by cars are more pleasant places to shop; people visit and spend more. Cafes and restaurants that fought to keep parking or motor traffic have discovered that they can make more money by putting tables in that space instead. It is often Conservative councils, such as Westminster and Wandsworth, that have led the way here.   

But if things are better within the LTNs themselves, what about outside them? Don’t they just push more traffic or pollution on to surrounding roads? Surprisingly, perhaps, early monitoring results show that on most, though not all, surrounding roads this does not seem to be happening, once traffic patterns have settled down.

The people living in the LTNs appear to be changing the way they travel – taking fewer short local journeys by car and walking or cycling more. In most cases, though not in every case, this takes local traffic away from the surrounding roads too. And the longer a scheme is in, the more travel habits change.

As that happens, even schemes which are highly controversial at the beginning become much more widely accepted. Over time, by switching more journeys to vehicles which take up less roadspace, we free up that space for the many people who still need to drive. Cycling means fewer cars in front of yours at the lights.

We have a traffic problem, an obesity problem, a pollution problem, and a climate problem. Schemes that get more people cycling and walking can be part of the answer to all those problems. That is why I’m glad the Government is acting to make cycling a pursuit for the many, not just for the brave.

Duncan Simpson: With the Covid bill standing at £372 billion, the Government’s spending spree looks increasingly unsustainable

26 Jul

Duncan Simpson is Research Director at the Taxpayers Alliance.

Two recent reports from the public accounts committee should give politicians plenty of food for thought over recess. The first looks at the expenditures associated with Covid-19 (whose lifetime costs are now expected to reach £372 billion).

The difference between the outlays already made (such as for the furlough scheme) and those expected to be made in the future can partially be explained by the liabilities that taxpayers might face for commercial loans backed by the Government. The committee was “alarmed to learn” that of the £92 billion worth of loans guaranteed by the HM Treasury, £26 billion might not be paid back.

Separately, the committee has also shed some light on the procurement of personal protective equipment. The committee identified waste levels as being “unacceptably high”, with £2.1 billion worth of items being unsuitable for medical settings. Fast decisions are crucial in a crisis, but bad decisions leave taxpayers shortchanged.

When you put the PAC reports into the wider context of the public finances, things get even more alarming. Public sector national debt stood at £2.2 trillion in May 2021 – or just under 100 per cent of GDP. That’s the highest level it’s been since March 1961.

Quantitative easing – the Bank of England bond-buying programme – has now grown to £0.9 trillion. The House of Lords economic affairs committee recently noted that “no central bank has managed successfully to reverse its asset purchases over the medium to long-term, and the key issue as they look to halt or reverse quantitative easing is whether it will trigger panic in financial markets that spills over into the real economy.” If we weren’t into the unknown before Covid-19, we very much are now.

There is some reasonably good news on the debt stock, however. The UK’s gilts are much longer-dated than many other advanced economies: just shy of 60 per cent of those in issue (excluding index-linked bonds) don’t mature for at least another seven years. This means that the Government is relatively unaffected by short-term interest rate increases. And since advanced economies’ central banks have not indicated any sharp ratcheting up of rates, this could well provide (some) welcome respite.

Inflation, however, could throw a spanner in the works. The main measure of inflation – CPIH – was last this high in February 2018. If this trend continues, higher general prices could well force the Bank of England into tighter monetary policy. This will make both debt servicing and government spending plans harder still.

But the big policy debates leave even more dark clouds on the horizon. Much of Westminster seems hell bent on pursuing net zero without considering the costs. What this will likely entail is a whacking up of families’ outgoings.

For instance, one potential plan to prohibit the sale of gas boilers – thereby eventually forcing most households to switch to heat pump alternatives – could cost between £6,000 and £18,000 apiece. A standard gas boiler retails for around £2,000. The well-heeled don’t seem to appreciate the everyday pressures on their finances that most households face.

Equally, banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 could cost families dear. The market for electric vehicles will of course grow and the costs come down as new models and competitors enter the market.

Likewise, many US car manufacturers have seen the writing on the wall and have all but stopped research and development into new internal combustion engines. But again, the thought of coughing up for a new motor will rightly worry millions of Britons. After all, 61 per cent of journeys were still undertaken by car in England during 2019.

Levelling up too presents risks to taxpayers. Though still quite ill-defined (something to do with being near a football pitch, I think), plans to increase investment spending are eye-popping.

Forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility show that public sector net investment will reach £70 billion by the end of this parliament. In real terms, it will have increased by two thirds in ten years. Relative to the size of the economy, that is the same as the heady, free market paradise that was Jim Callaghan’s administration or the final year of Clement Attlee’s.

When you mix together Covid spending, a large and growing debt stock, quantitative easing, potential inflation risks and enormous spending commitments, the Government’s future choices risk putting taxpayers onto an even more unsustainable footing than they currently are on.

And politics is all about choices. Some of them are difficult, but taking the easy route – spending lots of money you don’t have – can vanquish a reputation for economic competence.

So the Government must be upfront about the trade-offs in its policy programme. It should also be responsible. Perhaps it’s an excellent idea to embark on an infrastructure spending programme; but we need to hear more about where the Government will save money to pay for it, instead of endlessly raiding taxpayers’ pockets for more cash when the tax burden is already at a 70-year high.

The Comprehensive Spending Review in November gives the government a chance to do exactly that.

Leading Conservative councils are withdrawing their support for Stonewall

12 Jul

In recent weeks I have been undertaking extensive investigations into the funding for Stonewall from local authorities. This has been done via Freedom of Information requests and via contact with council leaders and other councillors. Last week I reported that Surrey County Council had decided to continue with funding. I suggested that the decision was a serious mistake for various reasons. One is “value for money” – sending Council Taxpayers money to political lobbying groups is unjustified, regardless of the particular causes they espouse. Also freedom of conscience. Council staff should not be sent on “training” sessions to be told what to think. Provided they carry out their work to a high professional standard, their personal views on political and social issues are their own affair. Finally, Stonewall has become a highly controversial outfit. From its beginnings in championing equal rights for gay people, it has adopted an extremist agenda that is hostile to free speech, damages the mental health of children, and undermines women’s rights. Stonewall declares that ‘trans women are women’ despite the phrase’s potential to ride roughshod over elementary science, established language, and women’s rights to single sex spaces and services.

The good news is that Surrey County Council is very much the exception. The great majority of councils have not given money to Stonewall in recent years. Of those that have, many indicated that they would not be doing so again. Conservative councils withdrawing backing include Conwy, Derbyshire, Hampshire, Nottinghamshire, Northumberland, and Wiltshire.

Some Labour councils (or Labour-led councils) have also ceased their funding. These include Blackpool, Cheshire East, Hounslow, Islington, Merton, Redbridge, Southend and Warrington.

The following councils are currently still funding Stonewall and have not given any clear indication they will stop doing so:

  • Anglesey
  • Argyll and Bute
  • Barking and Dagenham
  • Brent Council
  • Bridgend
  • Brighton and Hove
  • Calderdale
  • Camden Council
  • Cardiff
  • Ceredigion
  • Dorset
  • East Ayrshire
  • Fife
  • Glasgow
  • Gloucestershire
  • Greenwich
  • Greater London Authority
  • Gwynedd
  • Hackney
  • Haringey
  • Kirklees
  • Lambeth
  • Leeds
  • Leicester
  • Leicestershire
  • Midlothian
  • North Lincolnshire
  • Nottingham
  • Oxfordshire
  • Portsmouth
  • Rhondda-Cynon-Taf
  • Slough
  • Southwark
  • Stirling
  • Stockport
  • Sandwell
  • Sunderland
  • Surrey
  • Telford and Wrekin
  • Torfaen
  • Waltham Forest
  • Westminster.

Typically the sum involved is £3,000 a year for membership of the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme. Some have paid for extra, for example, additional training sessions on top of this.

Though I have included Slough Borough Council, there must be some doubt about that particular revenue stream. The Council has issued a Section 114 notice which restricts its spending to essential services.

Among those Conservative councils on the list, some have indicated that the issue is under review. The message from Gloucestershire is:

“We are taking the opportunity to raise questions with them”.  

Westminister Council states:

“We are reviewing all of our memberships to ensure value for money”.

Cllr Rob Waltham, the leader of North Lincolnshire Council, tells me:

“We have over the past few years sought to improve the councils standing and position on LGBT+ issues. It was well established back then that Stonewall were the  leading body for accreditation on such matters.  Clearly recent events and our progressive approach as an organisation has provided us an opportunity to review and think if this relationship is best suited to deliver our aims. I have triggered that review and will happily report back once it is completed.”

Dorset Council has also put the matter “under review”. But what was especially weak in this case was that elected councillors responded that it was not a matter for them and was for their officials to decide.

I have also made enquiries about police constabularies. Most have not provided recent funding. Greater Manchester Police has, but has stopped doing so. Police forces still providing funding are:

  • Derbyshire
  • Durham
  • Dyfed-Powys
  • Gwent
  • Hertfordshire
  • Humberside.

Again the spending is usually £3,000 a year each.

Jonathan Evison, the Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner for Humberside, arranged for his assistant to write to me to say that it was an “operational” matter for the Chief Constable. This seems to me to stretch the definition of operational policing to an absurd degree. The PCC is supposed to be responsible for setting the policies, priorities, and the budget. If they are abdicating responsibility on a decision about handing over money from the police budget to Stonewall, it is hard to see what the point is of electing a PCC is.

When it comes to the NHS Trusts there is not even the potential of democratic accountability – though some local councillors may sit on the board of governors as appointees. Some of these Trusts give funds to Stonewall, most do not. It really seems to depend on the ideological whims of the senior officials. Those that have withdrawn funding include the East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, the Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust, the Norfolk Community Health and Care NHS Trust, the Bristol, North Somerset & South Gloucestershire Clinical Commissioning Group and the Brighton and Hove Clinical Commissioning Group. The following are presently due to continue making payments –  though the Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust did add it was “under review”:

  • Aneurin Bevan University Health Board
  • Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
  • Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust
  • Cardiff and Vale University Local Health Board
  • Central London Community Healthcare NHS Trust
  • Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust
  • Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust
  • Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust
  • Derbyshire Community Health Services NHS Foundation Trust
  • Hywel Dda University Health Board
  • Kernow Clinical Commissioning Group
  • Leeds Community Healthcare NHS Trust
  • Midlands Partnership Foundation Trust
  • Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust
  • North East London NHS Foundation Trust
  • North Middlesex University Hospital NHS Trust
  • Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust
  • Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust
  • Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust
  • Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust
  • The Royal Orthopaedic NHS Foundation Trust
  • Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
  • Solent NHS Trust
  • South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust
  • Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust
  • Swansea Bay University Health Board
  • University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust
  • University Hospitals Birmingham
  • West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust
  • Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust

While I am encouraged that the overall trend is for payments to be ended or reviewed, it does seem extraordinary that any payment of public funds to Stonewall should remain legal. Public sector bodies should not make payments from taxpayer funds to lobbying organisations, who in turn use that funding to lobby public sector bodies.  The rules on this should be tightened.

Patrick Timms: A residential version of Portcullis House could help the civil service recruit better – and level up the UK

9 Jun

Patrick Timms is Deputy Editor of Wolves of Westminster and Co-Political Editor of The Backbencher.

The Prime Minister’s “levelling-up” agenda is an important and exciting one. It will deliver a real boost to left-behind communities across the country. However, in order to achieve this to its fullest possible extent, the Government and civil service will require two things in terms of staffing:

1) Some experienced and capable leaders and staffers with a thorough knowledge of their regions, who wish to remain there in order to spearhead and support change locally.

2) Other experienced and capable leaders and staffers from those regions who are able to come down (or up, or across) and work in government / civil service roles in Westminster and Whitehall.

Aside from the odd fanciful notions expressed in the past couple of years (such as moving the House of Lords to York), we all know that large parts of the seat of governance will remain in central London and that this is not going to change any time soon, if ever. That creates a certain reality around the talent pool to be recruited from when the Government / civil service is looking to draw in staff to advise or otherwise work for it on a permanent, full-time basis: they need to be able to get to central London every day.

For younger recruits, this can be less of a challenge if they do not live in or around London already – they do not have commitments elsewhere. There are several names of people in their 20s that occur to me in this regard. People like these were able to come and live and work in central London precisely because they were previously living with their parents, so renting in London would be their only housing expense.

However, if there is now more of a focus on people slightly older (in their 30s or 40s, say) – which, I gather from party sources, there is – owing to their relative youth but greater experience, then this presents a problem.

These people are far more likely to already have commitments elsewhere; for example, they may have already bought a home in the regions. For them, it would be foolish in the extreme to sell up and move to renting in London; having got onto the property ladder, it would be a great misstep to get off it again. Renting out their property is not always an option, either – where else would they keep all their possessions, given the size of just about anything most people could afford in London?

However, aside from their main skillset, they will also have extensive experience of the issues faced by their region and it would be extremely helpful to be able to employ these people in government / civil service roles too, so that recruitment is not restricted to the Greater London catchment area.

This should be very important for the Government’s agenda; if the Prime Minister wishes to truly level up the country and “switch up” the way our society works, then he should not be limited to the Greater London crowd alone to help Get It Done™.

In the Cummings era of this government, there was said to be a great focus on data science. That era may now be over, but some of its ethos prevails. “Helen” might be the most talented data scientist in the country, and eminently suitable for the role – but she is 35 and is just about getting by with her mortgage in Exeter. She is not going to be applying for that job on Parliament Street.

Accordingly, I propose that the Government buys up a large residential property in central London and uses this to house such people who apply for and are successful in obtaining a government / civil service role. They would be offered rent at a heavily subsidised monthly price (perhaps two or three hundred pounds per month), essentially just to cover maintenance expenses. The provision would remain in place for only as long as they hold their role, plus perhaps a two-week grace period either side to allow people to acclimatise and depart without issue.

It would, in essence, be a bit like a “residential version of Portcullis House”. Just as PCH is where such people might work, the new provision could be where they would live.

This provision would not be available to those already living in and around London, but solely to those with existing property commitments elsewhere in the regions, who would not be able to afford to maintain both a property there and the cost of a full rent plus bills in central London – but perhaps just a few hundred. There must surely be a great many potentially valuable people up and down the country who, but for this final hurdle, could certainly be of great use to the Prime Minister’s agenda – if they could only manage to live there!

There would also be some security for those involved, as they would still have a property to go back to once their role was over or if it did not work out.

Clearly, this would incur a one-time cost to find, buy up and renovate such a property, but that is essentially a budget line item in one fiscal year. Afterwards, the maintenance costs for that building would fade into the noise of all the others owned and maintained by the State anyway. And once in place, the value of being able to draw staff over from anywhere in the country, without the need (for them) to worry about accommodation, would clearly be very significant. Any future government would be able to make use of those facilities to better pursue its own agenda too.

It would open up a new dynamic in terms of the typical Westminster/Whitehall staffer figure, which – in my view! – is long overdue regardless. In doing so, and with a now-broader perspective from its staffers, the Government would be better informed and able to act more smartly to improve the living standards of communities all across the land.

My own MP and I are at odds over this – but then, he was used to being moved around the country before he won an election. He says that people move around all the time for jobs, and that jobs with the Government or civil service are no different.

I disagree – these jobs are about the governance of our country. They are not like any other, and there should be no barriers whatsoever to the State’s ability to recruit the very best and brightest for the roles it needs – especially those from the regions, given the current agenda. Where they might come from, and whether or not they could otherwise afford to maintain two residences at once, really should not matter in the slightest.

Anyone with experience in Westminster and Whitehall circles knows that the quality of staffing there makes up a large part of how effective the governance of this country is – regardless of who has been elected to be in charge of it. If the Government makes this move, it can help rebalance perspectives at the heart of governance towards the regions.

That, it has consistently said, is what it wants to do. Adopting this proposal would be of great help there.