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

7 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil O’Brien: The next algorithm disaster – coming to a Conservative constituency near you. This time, it’s housing growth.

24 Aug

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Algorithms have been in the news, not for good reasons. One lesson from the A-levels row is that principles which seem reasonable can lead to outcomes you don’t expect. Another algorithm’s coming down the tracks: the new formula for how many houses must be built in different places. There are few with higher stakes.

I wrote about the housing White Paper in my last column: it proposes not just to change the methodology for assessing housing need, but also to make a standard methodology compulsory for the first time. In other words, if we don’t like the results of the new algorithm, we’ll have blocked off the emergency exits.

The new algorithm is set out here. It’s not particularly easy to read. For example, one of many factors is set out in bullet point 30:

Adjustment Factor = [( Local affordability factor t = 0 – 4 4) x 0.25) + (Local affordability ratio t = 0 – Local affordability ratio t = 10) x 0.25] +1 Where t = 0 is current yearr and t = -10 is 10 years back.

Clear enough for you?

I thought it might be a while before we saw what the new algorithm would produce in practice. But Lichfields, the planning consultancy, has translated the algorithm into what it would mean for local authorities.

The numbers that the formula spits out can be compared to the number of homes actually being delivered over recent years, or to the numbers in the current (optional) national formula. Whichever way you look at it, it’s controversial.

I’ve long argued we should concentrate more development in inner urban areas, for various reasons I’ll come back to below.  But this algorithm doesn’t do that – at least not outside London.  In the capital, the algorithm would indeed increase numbers substantially.

But in the rest of England the formula takes the numbers down in labour-run urban areas, while taking them dramatically up in shire and suburban areas which tend to be conservative controlled.

Overall, the algorithm proposes a south-centric model of growth for Britain (with some growth in the midlands).

If we compare the algorithm to recent delivery, the South East has been delivering just over 39,000 homes a year, and will be expected to increase that to just over 61,000, a 57 per cent increase. The East of England would see a 43 per cent increase, the East Midlands a 33 per cent increase, the West Midlands a 25 per cent increase and the South West a 24 per cent increase.

For the North East, North West and Yorkshire, the numbers the algorithm proposes are lower overall than the numbers delivered over recent years. But as with A-levels, the devil’s in the detail.

The really controversial changes are within regions, where the algorithm suggests jacking up numbers for shires, while taking them down in urban areas. Comparing the existing national formula to the proposal, we can see this for most large cities.

The number for Birmingham comes down 15 per cent, while the rest of the West Midlands goes up 52 per cent.

Numbers for Leicester go down 35 per cent. The rest of Leicestershire goes up 105 per cent.

Nottingham goes down 22 per cent, the rest of Nottinghamshire goes up 48 per cent.

Southampton goes down 17 per cent, Portsmouth down 15 per cent and Basingstoke down 23 per cent, but the rest of Hampshire would go up 39 per cent.

Wealthy Bristol would see some growth (5 per cent) but much lower than the rest of Gloucester, Somerset and Wiltshire (47 per cent).

It’s the same story up north. Leeds down 14 per cent, Sheffield down 19 per cent, and Bradford down 29 per cent. But the East Riding up 34 per cent, North Yorkshire up 80 per cent, and North East Lincolnshire up 123 per cent.

In the north west the core cities of Manchester (-37 per cent) and Liverpool (-26 per cent) see huge falls, while the areas around them shoot up. In Greater Manchester, for example, the growth is shifted to the blue suburbs and shires. Outer parts go up: Wigan up 10 per cent, Bury, up 12 per cent, and Rochdale up 97 per cent. And areas to the south and north of the conurbation up much further: Cheshire up 108 per cent, while Blackburn, Hyndburn, Burnley and the Ribble Valley together go up 149 per cent.

But it isn’t just that the numbers in the new formula are lower than the old formula for urban areas. In many cases the new formula suggests a lower number than their recent rate of delivery. This is true of Sheffield (12 per cent below actual delivery), Leeds (16 per cent), Bradford (23 per cent), the entire North East (28 per cent), Nottingham (30 per cent), Manchester, (31 per cent), Leicester, (32 per cent) and Liverpool (59 per cent). The new formula seems to assume we are going to level down our cities, not level up.

It’s true that there’s another step between the Housing Need Assessment which this algorithm produces and the final housing target, which can be reduced a bit to account for delivery constraints like greenbelt.

But if we go with this algorithm unamended, outside London most Conservative MPs will be seeing large increases in the housing targets for their constituencies, while many Labour MPs see their local targets reduced. Is this what we want?

Leaving aside the politics, I think not. Compared to the rest of Europe, the UK has much less dense cities.

Places like Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Birkenhead, Hull and Newcastle all had smaller populations in 2017 than 1981, while places like Birmingham and Manchester weren’t much bigger. Our cities have untapped potential, many went through a period of shrinkage and have space, and there are health and environmental reasons to prefer urban growth too.

In dense urban areas, people are more likely to walk or cycle – and in the UK, people in cities walk twice as far as those in villages each year. This reduces public transport costs and improves health.

Denser cities can sustain better public transport and so cut car congestion and time spent travelling. As well as reducing pollution from transport, denser cities reduce energy use and pollution because flats and terraced homes are much more energy efficient.

I’m not sure the draft algorithm is even doing what Ministers wanted it to. The document in which it is set out says that “the Government has heard powerful representations that the current formula underestimates demand for housing in the growing cities in the Northern Powerhouse by being based on historic trends.”

But the algorithm seems to do the exact opposite.

There may be technical reasons why things aren’t working out: there’s lots of ways to measure affordability… differences between residence-based and workplace-based income measures… there were certain caps in the old model, population projections have changed and so on.

However, the bigger issue is this.

There’s no “objective” way of calculating how many homes are “needed” in an area. While there are ways of carving up the numbers that are seen as more or less fair, ultimately a vision is required.

Projections of population growth are circular: the projected population growth for the farmland between Bletchley and Stony Stratford would’ve been pretty low before we built Milton Keynes there.

Likewise the forecast for the derelict Docklands of the early 1980s. While there are real economic constraints, the future need not resemble the past.

Though it took a huge effort, Germany raised East Germans from 40 per cent to just 14 per cent per cent below the national average income since reunification. That’s levelling up.

Do we want to continue to concentrate growth in the South East? Do we want European-style denser cities, or for them to sprawl out a bit more? An algorithm can help deliver a vision: but it’s not the same as one.

Robert Goodwill: Why grouse shooting matters for moorland communities

11 Aug

Robert Goodwill is MP for Scarborough and Whitby, and a former Home Office and Education Minister.

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated communities across the UK, particularly those reliant on seasonal tourism. Businesses in areas like the magnificent North Yorkshire Moors in my own constituency have been brought to their knees.  Sadly, many of the new breed of “staycationers” we are seeing are leaving little for locals apart from the litter from their picnics.

However, a new study by researchers from the University of Northampton has revealed a vital lifeline which is helping to keep some of these communities afloat, even amid the coronavirus storm. The study examines the impact of integrated moorland management practices, including those that benefit grouse, in upland communities. It finds that grouse shooting forms part of a ‘complex web’ of economic and social factors that allows some moorland communities to not only survive, but thrive in these difficult times.

The study, which is one of the largest of its kind, surveyed moorland residents around the UK and found that communities where moors were managed for grouse were far more socially vibrant and economically resilient than those which had no connection to the activity.

To those, like me, who are familiar with these communities, this comes as no surprise.

In 2010, the Moorland Association estimated that the industry was worth some £67.7 million in England and Wales. One North Yorkshire pub landlord who participated in the recent study estimated that shooting parties accounted for 30 per cent of his business between August and September, dropping slightly to 20 per cent between October and January.  This can often be the key factor that ensures the survival of the local pub as the focus of the remote community.

What makes the results of this recent study so fascinating, however, is the breadth of impact grouse shooting has been shown to have on the entire uplands economy. As well as supporting the wages of gamekeepers, beaters and publicans, estates managed for grouse shooting rely on a whole host of local contractors, sporting agents, lawyers and other workers to facilitate the sport.

One grouse moor owner estimated that only about ten per cent of the £800,000 he spends annually goes on gamekeepers’ salaries, with the rest paying for the upkeep of the moor.

Much of this upkeep is itself of massive benefit to local farmers, who work alongside grouse moor owners to conserve and protect the land. While “The Glorious Twelfth” itself is not subsidised, associated moorland management is, and the study found that moor owners regularly facilitated farmer access to government stewardship funding streams.

One farm in Barnsdale was documented to receive 22 per cent of its income from stewardship, while another received 30 per cent. By footing the upfront costs of conservation work, moor owners allow farmers to access millions of pounds in grants which are usually only paid after the work has been carried out. Under new post-EU support schemes these environmental factors will be even more vital.

The researchers from Northampton concluded that the long-term economic impact of such practices was ‘massive’, not only for local moorland communities but for the whole of the UK.

If estates were to stop integrated moorland management, the researchers forecast that these communities would become even more reliant on tourism and hospitality, the very sectors most at risk from a second peak of infection. The economic consequences of this, they surmised, would be ‘severe’.

Our uplands are also a vital resource in the fight against the other epidemic we face. We are the most obese nation in Europe and this not only leads to many health complications but is a major factor in Covid-19 mortality.

Moorland communities benefit from increased access to well-managed outdoor space, with 89 per cent of survey respondents regularly exercising on the moors. 69 per cent engaged in the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, compared to a national average of 66 per cent for men and 58 per cent for women. By maintaining tracks and clearing areas of bracken, grouse moor managers contribute to this culture of fitness amongst moorland communities.

These communities also benefit from strong social links and a deep-rooted sense of identity. 83 per cent of those surveyed felt they ‘belonged’ to their communities, with shooting playing a strong part in this sense of identity. 74 per cent of respondents were involved in shooting in some way and over 90 per cent of them identified a connection to family heritage and rural identity as a reason for participating in the sport.

Additionally, the researchers found what they considered to be a surprising level of community participation in moorland areas, with at least 51 per cent of survey respondents participating in some type of social activity such as a church choir or pub quiz team. They attributed this community spirit to the presence of gamekeepers and their young families in the villages, as well as the intergenerational mixing facilitated by shooting itself.

These kinds of social links are incredibly important to both mental and physical well-being and represent huge financial savings to our heroic NHS. A sense of belonging is also absolutely crucial during the present pandemic when many of us feel cut off from the world and from our loved ones. As with its economic impact, the social roots of integrated moorland management run deep and provide a lifeline to many communities that would otherwise be struggling even more.

Covid-19 has prompted many of us to reconsider certain aspects of modern life we once thought indispensable. From home-working to stay-cations, the pandemic has highlighted how adaptable we as a society are to change and how unfit for purpose many of our usual habits and routines are under the ‘new-normal’. Yet in following the science, we find that some of our older, more traditional ways of doing things can help us to keep weathering the present storm.

For upland communities, moorland management that incorporates grouse shooting allows for a richer, more diversified stream of revenue and a more fulfilling social life that benefits even those who have never picked up a gun. As we reconsider life in a post-Covid world, it is important that we preserve those activities which keep businesses afloat and draw communities like these closer together.

Profile: York – and its potential role as Parliament’s new home, a Johnson joke which could become serious

22 Jul

There are few better ways to infuriate the House of Lords than to propose that it should move to York.

The Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, on Sunday sent an email to his fellow peers, headed “The Ivory Coast Option”, which breathes a spirit of extreme exasperation while arguing against separating the Lords from the Commons:

“It is worth reflecting on this: there are 79 nations with bicameral legislatures (parliaments with two chambers, typically a lower house and a senate). In all but one of these the chambers are located in the same city, often adjoining. The one exception is the Côte d’Ivoire whose lower house, the National Assembly, is located in Abidjan, while its recently established upper house, the Senate, is located in Yamoussoukro, some 235 km away. No disrespect to the Ivory Coast, but it is not immediately clear why the UK should follow their lead.”

It was odd to find Lord Fowler fulminating against the suggestion that the Lords should be sundered from the Commons, for the Prime Minister has now ventured to propose that both Houses should move to York during the renovation of the Palace of Westminster, which is expected to begin in 2025.

The Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, told Times Radio earlier this week that as a Lancashire man, any move to York would “stick in my throat”. He considers his own constituency, Chorley, preferable, and says there could be “no better place than Lancaster Castle”, which is sitting empty and “belongs to the Queen”.

But in any case, Hoyle went on,

“I don’t believe the House of Commons is leaving London. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think, you know, Parliament is rooted within London, it’s our capital city. As much as I can dream about moving north, it isn’t going to happen … it wouldn’t be good for the Commons.”

What is going on here? When Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, was asked last Thursday about their lordships going to York, he replied:

“It occurs to me that when Royal Ascot moved to York their lordships found it great fun to go up to York. So if they could do it for pleasure, I’m sure they might have a jolly time going there for business.”

Peers do not generally find this funny. Lord Singh of Wimbledon – better known to Radio 4 listeners as Indarjit Singh – has asserted that “York is seen as something of an outer Mongolia by the general public”.

Lord Young of Cookham, known as Sir George Young during his long service as MP and minister, has complained that the Government “keeps this hare running”, and wonders who authorised it, and how much public money has been spent.

But Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of the Lancaster and often in the forefront of reform, has indicated his strong support for the idea of taking Parliament, and large parts of the Civil Service, out of London: “I think it is vitally important that decision-makers are close to people.”

Will Parliament move, at least temporarily, to York? Lord Lamont, Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1990-93, suggested yesterday afternoon to ConHome:

“Well I think it may be a tease or a joke. But a tease or a joke can be a clever way of introducing a very awkward subject. Humour is Boris’s way of communicating and the more awkward the subject the more humorous.

“There’s a serious intention there disguised as a joke. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to be spending a lot of time on this at a time of economic crisis.”

In Yorkshire, the idea of moving Parliament north is greeted as a long overdue corrective to southern ways of thinking. In January, when the idea of taking the Lords there was first floated, York Council offered to help with the move.

As a woman long resident in Yorkshire put it yesterday to ConHome, “Lots of parliamentarians are too hefted to the South”  – hefted being a term used of sheep who are taught to graze a piece of unfenced fell, and in succeeding generations stay there without being told. She went on:

“A meeting of North and South can only be for the good. Some of the southern values might be put to the test. Northerners tell it as they see it.

“People here were so pro-Boris at the election. I hope he realises that. They like his very direct style. You could never get an answer out of Corbyn. Northerners want to know what you think.

“They’re not out for themselves the way people are down South. They do feel there’s an element of being second-class citizens.”

Many Labour voters who in the North of England voted Conservative for the first time last December felt that for generations they had been treated by Westminster and Whitehall as second-class citizens, for whom second-class services were good enough.

But the need for “levelling up”, as ministers now describe it, is by no means an exclusively modern phenomenon. Here is Ranulf Higden, a monk in Chester, writing in the 14th century:

“All the language of the men of Northumberland, and especially of Yorkshire, soundeth so that the men of the South may scarcely understand the language of them, which thing may be caused by the proximity of their language to that spoken by barbarians, and also by the great distance of the kings of England since those kings mostly frequent the South and only enter the North when accompanied by a large number of their retainers. There is also another cause, which is that the South is more abundant in fertility than the North, has more people, and more convenient harbours.”

When one arrives at York, and walks from the station to the Minster, this disparaging tone becomes impossible to sustain. It is a wonderful city, containing within its medieval walls, the most complete in England, a stupendous concentration of wonderful buildings.

The city, founded as Eboracum by the Romans in 71 AD, was visited by three emperors and has served as capital of the Roman province of Britannia Inferior, of the kingdom of Northumbria, and latterly of the northern province of the Church of England.

York has been called, as Robert Tombs reminds us in The English and Their History (2014), the natural capital of Britain.

Like most Roman cities, it benefits from admirable transport links, its roads and river supplemented in 1839 by the coming of the railways, for which it became a major centre.

William the Conqueror had crushed, with his customary brutality, the uprising of 1069, in which the two castles erected by the Normans at York on either side of the River Ouse were taken and the garrison massacred, Earl Waltheof of Northumbria “cutting off their heads one by one”.

William’s revenge, the Harrying of the North, entailed laying waste a great tract of country northwards from York: pacification by starvation.

In later centuries, pacification by the recognition of York’s importance was from time to time attempted. As a contributor to The History of Parliament points out,

“Between 1301 and 1335 the Lords and Commons met no fewer than eleven times at York, three times each at Lincoln and Northampton, and twice at Nottingham, while individual Parliaments were held at Carlisle, Oseney, Salisbury, Stamford, Winchester, and Windsor. Other venues were periodically considered, but abandoned: in the autumn of 1322 Parliament was summoned to meet at Ripon, but subsequently moved to York, while parliaments planned to be held at York in 1310, and Lincoln in 1312 were moved to Westminster before they could assemble.”

In 1472 the Council of the North was established in the capable and efficient hands of the future Richard III. The Council’s headquarters was King’s Manor, York, which looks rather small for the Lords but could do if the House is shrunk.

Henry VIII said  there would be a Parliament in York in 1536 to appease Catholic rebels in the Pilgrimage of Grace, but then decided to kill the rebels instead.

According to a recent report in The Times, York is “being lined up by Downing Street as a possible second centre of government”:

“It’s not just the House of Lords. Senior civil servants who are close to decision-making are already looking at Rightmove to see what they can buy for the cost of a terraced house in East Dulwich. And they like it. They are looking at substantial Edwardian villas in Harrogate.”

They will find themselves competing, since Leeds United’s promotion, with Premier League footballers.

Perhaps all this will come to nothing, and York will not have to cope with an influx of politicians. But a site has been found next to the railway station where a temporary Parliament building could be erected, in time for opening in 2025 when the Palace of Westminster closes for repairs.

Johnson has warned that this should be done with “no gold plating”, but how he would love the drama and symbolism of such a move.

And one suspects that many Labour voters in the North of England might start to believe they are no longer being treated as second-class citizens.

Andrew Mitchell: I used to be adamantly opposed to all forms of assisted dying. Here’s why I changed my views.

22 Jul

Andrew Mitchell was International Development Secretary from 2010 to 2012. He is the MP for Sutton Coldfield.

The All Party Group on choice at the end of life – composed of members of both the Commons and the Lords – held its first ever virtual meeting last week.

That more than 60 members of Parliament chose to attend at 9am is an eloquent testimony to the seriousness with which Members of Parliament are examining the issue. At the meeting I agreed to be the co-Chair of the group along with my Labour colleague Karin Smyth, the Member of Parliament for Bristol South.

When I entered the House of Commons in 1987, I was adamantly opposed to all forms of assisted dying. But over the years (perhaps it is part of the ageing process) I have completely changed my mind.

Let me explain why.

It is first and foremost because of my experience as a constituency MP. I have sat in my office in the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield and heard stories from so many of my constituents. Often with tears pouring down their faces, they have given me deeply intimate details of the last days of someone they loved but who died a miserable and sometimes very painful death.

By the end of these meetings, often with tears coursing down my own face, I was invariably left with two overwhelming feelings: the first is that we would not let an animal we loved be treated in such a way and, second, I do not myself wish to go through the sort of end of life experience that my constituents have so often eloquently described.

And just as I would not want it for myself, I no longer want members of my family or those I represent in Parliament to have to navigate so awful an end.

I believe the time is approaching when Parliament must examine this again. This is not a party political issue subject to whipping; it is an issue of conscience where members of the House of Commons hold different views reached entirely honourably on the basis of their own personal beliefs.

Assisted dying could be the great liberal reform achieved by this government. Public support for assisted dying is overwhelming and consistent across all parts of society. Out of the British public, 84 per cent support assisted dying including 86 per cent of Conservative voters. Of Conservative Party members, 67 per cent support assisted dying. It is interesting also to note that 79 per cent of people of faith and 86 per cent of people with disabilities support assisted dying.

Support is also highest in the North East, East Midlands and Yorkshire and Humber. It is lowest in London. So this is not a liberal metropolitan issue; it is one that unites the country.

Assisted dying is legal in 10 states in the United States of America (some for more than 20 years), two states in Australia, nationwide in Canada and likely to be nationwide in New Zealand later this year. It is interesting to note that in no country with legalised assisted dying has the law been repealed. And in Britain we now have the opportunity to look at the differing legislative approaches in all of these countries, evaluate them, and deliver the best possible results for our constituents.

Consider these facts:

  • Everyday 17 people in the UK will die in pain and distress that cannot be prevented by even the very best palliative care.
  • Hospices now acknowledge that some dying people are in so much pain medication doesn’t work.
  • One Britain travels to Switzerland for assisted dying every week at a cost of around £10,000, the expense, the difficulty of traveling when terminally ill and the challenges of obtaining the necessary documentation put this option out of the reach of all but a few.
  • Those who accompany their loved ones to Switzerland run the risk of police prosecution. Ann Whaley, married to her husband Geoffrey for more than 60 years, was interviewed under caution by police officers.
  • Around 300 terminally ill people take their own lives every year behind closed doors. The effect of these suicides on their family and on responders can be devastating. Some of them have gone wrong, which has added to the immense distress. Mavis Eccleston helped her husband of almost 60 years, Dennis, who was dying in agony to take his own life and was later prosecuted for murder. She was acquitted by a jury but only after 18 months of investigation. This brought huge distress to her and her family.

There is also a risk in maintaining the status quo as attitudes among the public change. The increased reporting of cases undermines public confidence in the law. Almost half of police and crime commissioners including five Conservative PCC’s have called on the Government to review the law saying the current law does not protect vulnerable people.

The medical profession’s views are shifting too: the Royal College of Physicians moved its position to neutrality in 2019 and the Royal College of General Practitioners who surveyed their membership this year found a surge in support for assisted dying – 41 per cent compared to just five per cent in 2013.

As assisted dying becomes more established and understood in other English-speaking countries, demands in the UK for the law to change will continue to grow.

Many of us hope that the Health Select Committee under Jeremy Hunt, its distinguished and experienced Chair, might consider an inquiry which took evidence from the various sections of society that are most affected: dying people and their families, police officers, healthcare professionals and coroners, so that the issue can be explored further.

The Health Select Committee will currently be heavily preoccupied with the Covid crisis but perhaps in due course they may feel this is a subject which they are well placed to examine.

So finally, what are the modest changes those of us who want reform are seeking?

  • We want to give people who are terminally ill (and also in the final months of their lives) the option of dying on their own terms. We want this to be an active choice by a rational person to end their own life as they wish.
  • The change in the law we propose would contain stringent safeguards to protect people; it would only be accessible to mentally competent adults.
  • Two doctors would assess the person making the request to ensure that they met the eligibility criteria under the law. They would explain all other care options in full.
  • A High Court judge would examine the person’s request and make sure that it was being made voluntarily – free from any pressure or coercion.
  • Once the request was approved, a doctor would be able to prescribe life-ending medication for the person who would then take it themselves under the supervision of a doctor or another healthcare professional.
  • Healthcare professionals who wanted to exercise conscientious objection would, of course, be able to do so.
  • There would be clear reporting procedures for doctors as well as monitoring through an annual report published by the Government.

The law change that we propose is based on one that has operated in Oregon in America for 23 years. We would like to add additional safeguards built in to make it right for the UK. There have been no cases of abuse of Oregon’s law and no extension of its eligibility criteria throughout these 23 years. This model of assisted dying legislation has since been adopted in nine other US states and passed by lawmakers in Australia and New Zealand.

Wherever you stand on this issue, let us now have a calm and measured debate on the best way forward. I believe this is a reform whose time is approaching.

Neil O’Brien: No, more economic prosperity doesn’t depend on more social liberalism

13 Jul

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Danny Finkelstein took issue with Boris Johnson’s idea of “levelling up” in the Times the other day. He reviewed the work of Richard Florida, a thinker dubbed the “patron saint of avocado toast” for highlighting the role of bohemian urbanites in driving economic regeneration.

Danny concludes from his work that, “Social liberalism and economic prosperity go together.” He argues that: “in order to match the success and power of metropolitan areas, non-metropolitan places need to become more… metropolitan.  The problem with the metropolitan “elite” isn’t that there is too much of it. It’s that there aren’t enough members of it, drawn from a wide enough background and living in enough places.”

I hesitate to disagree with one of the smartest columnists on the planet. But economic growth and social liberalism don’t always go together.

What about the Victorians, combining breakneck growth with a religious revival and tightened public morals? What about Japan during their postwar decades of blistering growth and conservative “salaryman” culture? Over the last 70 years, Britain has become more socially liberal as our growth rate has slowed.

Even in Britain today, it’s highly questionable. London is the richest and fastest growing part of the UK.  But where is opposition to homosexuality and pre-marital sex strongest? London. Where is support for censoring offensive speech highest? London.  The capital mixes liberal metropolitan graduates with religious immigrants. Its success is shaped by both.

Danny’s other argument has more important implications. Is it really the case other places must emulate London to succeed? Like other capital cities across Europe, London has grown faster than the rest of the country since the 1980s. The shift to an economy based on “office jobs” over has favoured the centres of larger cities.

But we shouldn’t get too carried away by the idea that hipster-powered megacities are sweeping all before them. For starters, there are successes elsewhere. Cheshire has high tech in a rural setting, with productivity and wages above the national average.  Milton Keynes likewise, because it’s easy to build there. Productivity in Preston has grown faster than average because it’s a transport hub with advanced manufacturing.

On the surface, large cities outside London have done well.  Since 1997, our 16 largest cities grew their GDP faster than their surrounding areas: Leeds grew faster than West Yorkshire, Manchester faster than Greater Manchester, and so on.

But on average, those cities saw also slower growth in income per head than their surrounding areas. In other words, people became more likely to work in city centres, but that growth was fuelled by people commuting in from smaller places around them. Their growth has been powered more by smalltown commuters than flat-cap wearing uber-boheminans.

It’s right that there are cities outside London that have things in common with it, and might benefit from similar investments. Lawyers in London will soon get Crossrail. So why have lawyers in Leeds waited 20 years for a tram?

But too often Richard Florida’s work leads politicians to focus on shiny cultural facilities. A cool art gallery in West Brom.  A national museum of pop music in Sheffield. It’s not just that these projects flop and close. It’s that they distract from two bigger issues.

First, most people aren’t graduates – so we need a plan to raise their productivity and wages too.

Second, places outside urban centres are perfectly capable of attracting high-skill, high income people – with the right policies.

Britain’s economy is unusually unbalanced compared to other countries.  Pre-tax incomes in Greater London are nearly 60 per cent higher than the national average, but more than 20 per cent below average in Yorkshire, the North East, Wales and Northern Ireland.  These imbalances mean our economy is overheating in some places and freezing cold in others, slowing growth overall. There are no major economies that are richer per head than Britain which have a more unbalanced economy.

But these imbalances don’t represent pure free market outcomes. It’s true that low-skill, low wages places can get stuck in a vicious circle. True that some places on the periphery have very deep problems. Nonetheless, the British state doesn’t do much to stop that – in fact it does a lot to unbalance growth.

Consider how we spend money. Capital spending on transport infrastructure in London is nearly three times the national average. Research funding per head is nearly twice the national average. Nearly half the core R&D budget is spent in Oxford, Cambridge and London. Spending on housing and culture per head in London is five times the national average. We’re “levelling up” the richest places.

We’ve rehearsed these problems for years, but not fixed them. Instead of chasing flat white drinkers, we need to find a cool £4 billion a year to level up R&D spending in other places to the levels London enjoys. Fancy coffee can come later.

Consider our tax system. Overall, the tax rate on business in the UK is about average.  But we combine the lowest headline rate in the G20 with the lowest capital allowances. The combined effect of this is a huge bias against capital intensive sectors, particularly manufacturing.

That in turn has a regional impact, hurting places more dependent on making things: manufacturing accounted for only five per cent of London’s productivity growth since 1997, but nearly 50 per cent in the north west. A hostile tax system is one reason Britain has deindustrialised more than any other G20 country since 1990, and why manufacturing’s share of the economy is half that in Germany or Japan.

Manufacturing should be a key part of levelling up outside cities: it needs space, not city centre locations. In English regions outside London, wages in manufacturing are about nine per cent higher than in services, and manufacturing productivity grows faster than the economy as a whole.  But Britain’s excessive focus on professional services makes it harder to grow high-wage employment in non city-centre locations.

Consider where we put our key institutions. In Germany the political capital was Bonn, and is now Berlin. The financial capital is Frankfurt. The Supreme Court is in Karlsruhe. The richest place is Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen. There are major corporate HQs spread across the country. TV production is dispersed because central government is banned from running it.

In Britain, all these things happen in just one city. We’ve talked about this for years, but made little progress.  In recent years, we managed to move one chunk of Channel 4 to Leeds, and a bit of the BBC to Manchester. But that’s about it. Whitehall only wants to move low-end jobs.

The debate on levelling up is frustrating, because we know some things work, but we don’t do them. “Regional Selective Assistance” boosted investment in poor places with tax breaks and subsidies.  Thanks to evidence from natural experiments, we know it boosted growth. Yet it was allowed to wither.

I don’t want us to be just another government promising the world, then not delivering. Politically, it’s vital we deliver. Lots of people who haven’t voted Conservative before put their trust in us last year. It’s telling that the centre point of the seats we won is just outside Sheffield.

We won on a manifesto combining centrist economics, (50,000 more nurses) mild social conservatism, (ending auto early release) and national self-confidence (Getting Brexit Done).  Levelling up is central to all this. We promised voters steak and chips.  We could serve up avocado toast instead, but we shouldn’t be surprised if the voters don’t thank us.