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Westlake Legal Group > Boris Johnson MP

Welcome to Brexit Week

On Friday at 11pm, Britain will leave the European Union.  It is over a month since the general election which effectively confirmed the decision.  It will take us all much longer to come to terms with the dizzying change it has brought, the best part of four years after endless Parliamentary efforts to evade the referendum instruction.  And to get used to the size and scale of Boris Johnson’s majority.  And to grasp fully that the three quarters of a century-long Conservative dispute over Europe is over, at least for the time being.  And to acclimatise ourselves to the landscape that Brexit opens up.

This week, we will be turning much of ConservativeHome over to telling the story of the past four years or so.  We will also be looking forward to Friday, and to the time beyond.  This site threw itself into campaigning for Brexit – finding itself last year in the unusual, and we hope never-to-be-repeated, position of not being able to recommend voting Conservative in a national election.  The year before we had called for the replacement of the then party leader.  These are happier times – the product of the most startling turnaround in British politics in living memory.  Welcome to Brexit Week.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Iain Dale: The next BBC Chairman. Andrew Neil, anyone? Robbie Gibb? Michael Portillo?

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

It was announced on Wednesday that the award-winning Victoria Derbyshire Show is to be axed by the BBC. Given that the Corporation’s public service remit is to “inform, educate and entertain”, this is a difficult decision to understand.

Its campaigning journalism on important social issues has won the show a raft of industry awards. The decision is reportedly being made on cost grounds, influenced by the fact that it only had 250,000 viewers – hardly surprising given it was on BBC2 and the News Channel.

The writing has been on the wall since the show was cut from two hours to one not that long ago. On the same day, it was also revealed that Brexitcast will broadcast its last edition next Thursday. This kind of makes sense given that we’re not definitely leaving the EU the following day.

The TV version will continue, though, and be rebranded rather awkwardly as Politicscast. And next Wednesday, the BBC’s Head of News, Fran Unsworth, will reveal her plan for the future of the whole of BBC News. Since the News and Current Affairs department has had to find £80 million of cuts, it could be brutal.

Radio 4 is bracing itself, with The World at One reportedly a big target for the cost-cutters. Expect the headlines to be about their online offering and a proliferation of podcasts. This is yet another area where the BBC hopes to dominate its competitors – just as it has tried to do in magazine publishing and radio.

The BBC delights in behaving in an anti-competitive way. Rumour is that tit is about to spend millions on launching music stations to rival Hearts 80s, Absolute 90s and Smooth. The natural question which follows is this: if the corporation continues to try to compete in areas serviced quite well by the commercial sector, how can it bleat about not having enough money to run their core public service remit stations?

All this is happening only days after Tony Hall announced he will be stepping down as Director General in the summer. Some think the timing is to allow the BBC chairman, David Clementi, to choose his successor before he too is replaced when his contract comes up next year. His successor might pick someone more ‘risky’ and ‘uncomfortable’ for the BBC – given that he or she will be chosen by Downing Street.

The corporation is facing huge challenges. Tony Hall may have had some successes in his time at the BBC, but planning for the next ten years is not one of them. He has indulged in the usual BBC bleating about the sanctity of the licence fee, without apparently realising that the broadcasting world has moved on.

We’re all used to paying for our TV by subscription now. If he had been innovative and brave, Hall would have already developed a well worked-out plan which would involve asking BBC viewers and listeners to subscribe to particular channels in the same way that so many of us subscribe to Sky, Netflix or Amazon Prime.

The problem he has is that the licence fee costs each household the best part of £13 per month – way above the monthly subscription for rival services, with the exception of Sky. Would the government be prepared to cover, say, one third of the BBC’s three million pound budget if this was just to cover true public service broadcasting?

But even here, one uncovers a big problem. BBC Radio costs around £700 million to produce. You can’t really separate it out, and it covers a multitude of genres. There’s little doubt that Radio 1 and Radio 2 could be funded by advertising, given their popularity, but Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live and BBC Local Radio are surely what public service broadcasting is all about.

In addition, there is only so much advertising or sponsorship revenue to be had. Distort the market too much, and it would affect the ability of the commercial radio providers like Global, Bauer and Wireless to maintain their current level of service provision.

All eyes will now be on who the BBC board chooses to succeed Hall. The Guardian published a list of the top five female candidates, as if it was to be taken as read that the successful candidate must be a woman.

I couldn’t give a monkey’s arse whether Hall’s successor has a vagina or two low hanging testicles. Surely the criteria has to be that he or she is capable of doing the job and has the ideas to maintain the BBC as a successful broadcaster at an incredibly challenging time in its history.

The next Director General has to be a transformational one – the broadcasting equivalent of Michael Gove, someone who is willing to crack a few eggs to make an omelette. It needs to be someone who can be both inspirational for existing BBC staff, but also able to get a grip on a lumbering bureaucracy.

James Purnell, who used to be Culture Secretary under Gordon Brown, is someone who clearly has ambitions for the job. And understandably so. He is head of BBC Radio, education and the man behind the less than well-beloved BBC Sounds.

He has some radical ideas, but one suspects he will get the job over Dominic Cummings’ twitching corpse. If he is chosen, expect the mother of all battles between the BBC and Johnson’s government. It would guarantee that the appointment of the next BBC Chairman would be something well worth ordering the popcorn in for.

Andrew Neil? Sir Robbie Gibb? Michael Portillo? Oh, what larks.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Henry Hill: Johnson to spearhead pro-Union strategy with more visits to Scotland

Prime Minister plans more and longer visits north of the border

“Scots are set to see a lot more of Boris Johnson in 2020 as the Prime Minister seeks to strengthen the Union and up the UK Government’s involvement in Scotland”, according to the Herald.

Apparently Boris Johnson is planning on holding more Cabinet meetings north of the border, as well as making more visits and overnight stays, as part of his new and self-appointed role as Minister for the Union. According to one source that spoke to the paper, strengthening the United Kingdom will be one of the Government’s main domestic missions after January 31.

The regular visits serve two purposes. First, it is apparently hoped that Scots will warm to the Prime Minister if they see more of him, rather than merely the version of him that filters down through a broadly hostile political and media class.

Second, they aim to make Scotland appear a normal part of the prime-ministerial beat, rather than gifting the SNP the optics of such jaunts looking like official visits from a foreign potentate or remote “governor general”.

This will apparently fit into a broader effort to deliver a much more joined-up “constitutional strategy” for the Union than has previously been the case, combating a ‘silo mentality’ which has seen individual Whitehall departments operating in isolation. It will apparently also involve the British Government backing (and branding) more things such as infrastructure projects so that the tangible benefits of the Union are more apparent on the ground.

Hopefully this close material engagement will be matched by equally vigorous intellectual engagement with the state of the Union. As I wrote for The Critic this week, Johnson needs to wrest the thought-leadership of unionism away from the die-hard devolutionaries lest he end up defaulting to their non-solutions when the crunch comes, as David Cameron did.

One such figure is Gordon Brown, who popped up this week to insist that the key to keeping Scotland in the UK is yet more constitutional concessions to nationalist premises and the establishment of an elected senate.

Spotlight on Stormont’s lack of opposition

The Northern Ireland Assembly is back, alas. The various local parties might have almost immediately accused Julian Smith of essentially tricking them into returning (the demands for even more money were almost immediate) but too late, they’re committed for now.

With the initial will-they-won’t-theys disposed of, we now know that all five of the Province’s main parties – the pro-UK Demoratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists, the nationalist Sinn Fein and SDLP, and non-aligned Alliance – have taken up ministerial posts in the new Executive.

Yet this means that there will only be a grand total of five MLAs outside the governing coalition: two Greens, one apiece for the Traditional Unionist Voice and People Before Profit (both of which backed Leave, incidentally) and Claire Sugden, an Independent Unionist.

Owen Polley has written in the News Letter about how much easier it will be for ministers to circle the wagons now that the UUP and SDLP are inside the tent, even as Sinn Fein and the DUP are already facing charges of returning to the two-party ‘carve up’ that prevailed prior to the Assembly’s collapse. Meanwhile The Journal offers a different perspective, quoting academics who defend Stormont’s lack of formal oppisition.

It looks as if the best that can be hoped for, for now, is that increased Treasury vigilance over how public money is spent in Ulster – especially as Arlene Foster braces for the official findings on the “cash-for-ash” scandal – can offset the lack of domestic scrutiny.

But with the Northern Irish Office obviously committed to not taking responsibility for the Province, it is not obvious that the Government will have the leverage necessary to drive change through risk-averse, pork-barrelling local leaders.

In other news, the European Union has threatened to impose sanctions if Boris Johnson doesn’t enforce the internal border he has signed up to between Northern Ireland and the mainland, and Stormont’s finance minister is apparently not pursuing a cut in corporation tax.

Scottish Conservatives offers SNP a budget deal

Ever since losing their majority in the 2016 Holyrood elections, the Scottish Nationalists have passed their budgets with the assistance of their separatist allies, the Greens.

This has had the effect of dragging their economic policy somewhat leftwards, and so this year the Scottish Conservatives have drawn up an alternative. Murdo Fraser, the Tories’ shadow finance secretary, is talking up a return to something like the working arrangement that existed between the SNP and the Conservatives during the former’s first period of minority government after taking office in 2007.

In exchange for sparing Scotland various “madcap” Green proposals, the Tories would instead press to keep Scottish taxes harmonised with those in the rest of the UK, as well as a review of business rates. You can read Fraser’s case here.

However it may well be that the Greens end up rowing in behind the SNP regardless – they have previously been criticised for putting separatism before their own environmental agenda when push comes to shove.

In other news, Michelle Ballantyne has confirmed that she is “fighting to win” in the Tory leadership race, despite having initially entered it to prevent a coronation.

This week in the SNP

It’s been another fairly torrid week for the Nationalists. First, Nicola Sturgeon has bowed to MSPs’ demands for a full review into the Scottish education system.

Then an SNP MSP is under fire for refusing to represent constituents who oppose independence, whilst a former Nationalist minister has publicly argued that the First Minister could claim victory even in an unauthorised ‘wildcat’ referendum, arguing that the “political reality” would be independence even if the poll had been boycotted by unionists.

And there’s been a touch of sub-Stalinist history-editing over at the party’s official website, whose ‘History’ page no longer makes any reference whatsoever to Alex Salmond, the man who took them into government in Edinburgh, secured the 2014 referendum, and led the ‘Yes’ campaign. As good a sign as any of how the Nationalist leadership think his upcoming trial will go.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Johnson’s philosophy owes far more to Oakeshott than to Scruton

“Why are you a conservative?” Many of us are somehow sure we are conservative, but find the answer to that question (which itself sounds unconservative) hard to put into words, and tend to defer any attempt to do so.

Roger Scruton never seemed to have the slightest difficulty expounding the conservative case, and often did so in such a way as to cause maximum offence to those who disagreed with him. He was a man of astounding eloquence, happy, as he himself once put it,

“to write rude and disgraceful things about the intellectual establishment… I was free to say some really enjoyable and unpleasant things and thereby give pleasure to others.”

Many eminent figures have paid tribute to him since his death earlier this month, and some have suggested he leaves an irreplaceable gap, with conservatives in this country deprived of their last philosopher.

This is ridiculous. There is a kind of conservative journalist who revels in thinking of himself (most of them are male) as a victim, struggling to gain a hearing in a world dominated by authoritarian liberals who brook no dissent and impose their stifling orthodoxy through the universities, the BBC and the rest of the media.

One may note in passing that many of these Tory pessimists somehow contrive to pour forth, despite their persecution by the liberals, a constant stream of articles and other forms of comment.

For them, it is natural to regard the death of Scruton, champion of high culture and of foxhunting, as confirmation that his pessimistic rural conservatism, which in their eyes is the only conservatism, is now pretty much extinct.

This kind of thinking is centuries old. Nor is it without truth. The Dissolution of the Monasteries, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution are among the events which have filled conservatives with an understandable sense of doom.

Pessimistic conservatives are never without evidence for their beliefs. When the country is prospering, an ignoble triumphalism becomes apparent, as old customs are carried away by a tide of new money splashed about by new men who have no reverence for the past and no idea how to behave.

When things are going badly, the pessimist sees his belief that the world is going to hell in a handcart confirmed.

But such pessimism is not the only form of conservatism. Michael Oakeshott, the greatest conservative philosopher of modern times, leaves one feeling bucked and amused, not despondent, even when he is exposing, as in his great essay Rationalism in Politics (1947), the predicament of that fashionable figure, the Rationalist:

“Like a man whose only language is Esperanto, he has no means of knowing that the world did not begin in the 20th century.”

Oakeshott does not give answers, but what conservative expects answers? We do not want to be told what to do, or to pretend, with insufferable omniscience, that we have developed a system of ideas – an ideology – which is equal to every eventuality, and will enable us to know in every circumstance what in logic is the correct thing to do.

Instead we immerse ourselves in a tradition of behaviour. As Oakeshott says,

“the Rationalist never understands that it takes about two generations of practice to learn a profession; indeed, he does everything he can to destroy the possibility of such an education, believing it to be mischievous.”

Against that dictum can be quoted isolated examples of people who came from unprofessional backgrounds yet reached the top. But even they learned much from colleagues steeped in the profession in question. Oakeshott describes life as it is actually lived, rather than life as it might be lived if it conformed to abstract principles.

The present Prime Minister is the son of a politician, from whom he learned much, and was educated at colleges – Eton and Balliol – which have long prepared their pupils for public life, and which have sought continually, as great institutions do, to modernise themselves, so as to remain at the centre of national life.

Johnson is a good debater in part because from an early age he took pleasure in debating, often in an intensely competitive spirit, against his contemporaries. Already he was practising politics, on minor stages where mistakes did not matter, could indeed provoke gales of laughter which swept him to victory.

He had the grave fault of being unwilling to prepare himself for these contests anything like as thoroughly as he should have done. In vain his teachers tried to correct this fault.

Johnson instead developed, to an unusual degree, a capacity to think on his feet, and to use what information he had managed to scrape together at the last moment.

He grew prepared for being unprepared, and this lent his performances an ease and spontaneity which delighted audiences, while annoying those who thought everything could and should have been worked out in advance.

The most dangerous moments for a Prime Minister are generally those when something unexpected happens, and he or she has to decide very quickly how to react.

Johnson will undoubtedly get some of these decisions wrong, but at least he will not be frightened of having to make up his mind in a hurry, on the basis of inadequate information.

Rationalists, as defined by Oakeshott, detest him. They think he has no right to have done as well as he has done, for he has refused to work everything out from first principles to which he clings with rigid correctness through thick and thin, but has instead allowed the flexible development of a strategy founded on experience, circumstance, instinct and intuition.

He has put himself in a position where he can change his mind, because he does not suffer from the delusion that he has discovered the one true path.

At this point the pessimist retorts that all Prime Ministers, and all governments, let you down in the end. And that is quite true. But consider this remark by David Hume (1711-1776), quoted by Ian Gilmour in his admirable work The Body Politic, published in 1969:

“The Tories have been so long obliged to talk in the republican style, that they seem to have made converts of themselves by their hypocrisy, and to have embraced the sentiments, as well as language, of their adversaries.”

The determination of the Johnson Conservatives to steal Labour’s clothes, to talk in the Labour style about the importance of equality, could also end in their making “converts of themselves by their hypocrisy”.

And that will annoy the Rationalists even more. It will seem so unfair that the hypocrite Johnson should somehow turn out to be more truly on the side of Labour voters than Jeremy Corbyn ever was.

Johnson did not, as editor of The Spectator, publish more than a handful of pieces by Scruton, and is neither a foxhunter nor a pessimist.

He is a Conservative who has won both a referendum and a general election, and if he can avoid degenerating into a technocrat, could turn out to be the most Oakeshottian Prime Minister this country has known.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Duncan Simpson: Three tasks for Johnson. Cull quangos. End taxpayer-funded lobbying. And reform appointments.

Duncan Simpson is Research Director at the Taxpayers Alliance.

Change is afoot. From smashing the scam that is defence procurement, to making it easier to ditch woeful bureaucrats (with their overgenerous pensions) and also reforming aid spending and folding it into the Foreign Office, uncertain times are seemingly ahead for the UK’s 430,000 civil servants.

Much of this is welcome. Complacency within civil service institutions has gone on for too long, with taxpayers repeatedly on the hook for bureaucratic bungles. Officials are rarely held to account for their mistakes.

Despite this, those who have wished to reform how the civil service operates have rarely succeeded in their mission. The reasons for this are numerous, but there are three significant issues that must be near the top of the new government’s agenda if they are to buck the trend.

The first is getting to grips with the babbling coterie of quangos that wield extraordinary power. This is the mixture of non-departmental public bodies and executive agencies which form an ever-growing part of the British state. In spite of David Cameron’s repeated assurances to introduce a bonfire of the quangos in 2010, there were at least 301 in the year to March 2018, according to official figures, which received over £210 billion of taxpayers’ money.

Many of these quangos are ad-hoc, very cheap and self-explanatory: the Ministry of Defence’s Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors springs to mind. But too many quangos and their staff go well beyond their narrow remit and directly try to influence central and local government policy. Indeed, some of these bodies have more influence on the national debate than political parties.

These bodies should have their budgets – and, crucially, their remits – assessed annually by the relevant parliamentary select committee, while some that have specific jobs to do should have sunset clauses. Powerful positions in the quangocracy could be time limited, exit payments capped (a TaxPayers’ Alliance policy recent governments have already embraced) and have their salaries annually approved by ministers.

The second change is finally bringing an end to the egregious practice of taxpayer-funded lobbying and campaigning. This trend is long-running. The TaxPayers’ Alliance first exposed in 2009 that more than £37 million (now almost £50 million in today’s money) was spent on taxpayer-funded lobbying by public sector bodies and campaigning groups in just one year. That’s nearly as much as the £40.1 million that Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dem combined spent through their central campaigns at the 2005 election. Conspiracy theorists tweet about the so-called ‘dark money’ influencing British election campaigns, but what about the actual millions spent by blinkered and biased groups in receipt of taxpayers’ cash?

As you can probably guess, most of these groups advocate higher spending and a bigger state. For the record, the TaxPayers’ Alliance doesn’t take a penny of taxpayers’ cash. Unlike a multitude of think tanks on the left, we don’t lobby to feather our own nests. If you don’t like what we say, then fair enough – you don’t have to give us a penny. Just like, by the way, other groups like Greenpeace. And more power to them. But many of the groups that spend their time filling the airwaves of the Today programme with their demands for more cash are able to do so because they are subsidised by taxpayers.

The third is tackling public appointments. Again, this is a problem that the centre-right has identified for years but nothing has been done, despite nearly a decade of Conservative-led governments. Our examination of appointments as far back as 2012 showed that Blair was ruthless in getting his allies in place: the last full year of Labour’s time in power showed 70 per cent of appointees with a Labour allegiance were winning public positions. That compares to just 14 per cent with a Tory affiliation in the first couple of years of the coalition government. That matters, as these institutions tend to dominate culture – which, as the saying goes, is upstream from politics. This website of course performs a great service by publishing a weekly list of appointments and that will play a part in turning the tide.

Those who run quangos and public bodies are both unaccountable to Parliament and the people who pay their salaries. So voters elect a government with a specific agenda, only to meet the quangocrats who fundamentally disagree and undermine it. The public appointments commission should be more muscular in demanding full disclosure of individuals’ political activities and affiliations. More positions should also be subject to select committee or parliamentary approval, not merely ministerial diktat and the rubber stamp from toothless Cabinet Office bodies. And perhaps the Conservatives ought to consider appointing more Conservatives to run reviews and inquiries.

Cleaning up the state won’t be a quick and easy task. It may take time to change the bureaucratic cultures and scrap enough quangos that the taxpayer-funded lobby blob gets the message. But if Boris Johnson doesn’t grasp the nettle, it will certainly come back to sting.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

The Queen’s Speech in York, Cummings-style

Moving CCHQ out of London appears to be only a start for Number Ten.  According to the Sunday Times, it wants to do the same to the House of Lords.

In the case of CCHQ, Downing Street wants Conservative activists’ ideas about where CCHQ’s new home should be.  In the case of the Upper House, it seems already to have decided.

It apparently wants the Lords to move to that most beautiful of British cities, York – a mere two hours to London by train.

This site’s first reaction to the news was to wonder how the plan would accomodate the Queen’s Speech.  The report asks the same question.  We propose a solution.

The State Opening ceremonial procedure begins “with the Queen’s procession from Buckingham Palace to Westminster, escorted by the Household Cavalry”.

We suggest that the magnificent state coach wends its stately way from the Palace to York along the slow lane of the Al – via Finchley Road, Brent Cross and the Doncaster by-pass.

By car, the journey would take under four hours.  The state coach would necessarily take rather longer, especially since enthuastic crowds could be expected to cheer the Queen as she makes her way north.

After she has arrived at the new York-located House of Lords, Black Rod could zip down to King’s Cross from the city’s splendid railway station.  We see no reason for him to travel second-class.

He could then make his way by tube from King’s Cross to Westminster, making the short walk from the station’s main exit to St Stephen’s Entrance, and thence to the Commons.

Or else he could enter the Palace of Westminster via Porcullis House.  But these are details.  Our readers will remember that MPs then walk from the Commons to the Lords to hear the Queen’s speech.

The long march to York would thus take some 65 hours, or well over a working week, if they are not to plod away all night.  This is rather a long time for Boris Johnson to have been stuck with an uncommunicative Jeremy Corbyn.

MPs could then travel back by train, second-class, or else by (non-state) coach, which ConservativeHome sees is advertised at £10 a pop.  The Queen might reasonably want an overnight break in York.

Or else the Commons could decamp to the city entire for the Queen’s Speech – and debate it there.  The Sunday Times suggests that the lower House may also go on tour, so that would make sense.

But the new Lords building would then need space for the Commons to meet too.  This would presumably raise the cost of the whole enterprise.

Or else, reactionary thought, one might not bother to move the Lords at all, and save all this trouble.  We apologise to Dominic Cummings for our hestitation over this project.  O brave new world, that has such people in it!

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

The Commons should vote on the Big Ben bing bang bong bung

One might have expected a big noisy Vote Leave celebratory extravaganza on the evening of January 31.  There will be a few private events from that quarter.  But no large public one.

Perhaps the mass of the pro-Brexit movement feels that it has gained the result it wanted – doubly so given December’s election result – and that it must be up bright and early, on February 1, to roll up its sleeves work ofnnational renewal.  Which would not be easily married to partying late the previous night.

Or perhaps there is an unwillingness to rub the ultra-Remainers’ noses in it.  Or maybe there is a sense of exhaustion.  Who knows?

At any rate, this is the context in which to see the campaign to ring Big Ben at 11pm on January 31, with all the bing bang bong opportunities it has given to Fleet Street’s headline writers.

Mark Francois and company want to bung, ho ho, £500,000 to the body responsible for making a decision – namely the House of Commons Commission – the apparent cost of ringing Big Ben on that date at that time.  We doubt the real bill is anything as high as that.  For as we all know, it’s wonderful what a committee can do when it’s willing.

The Commission says that there is no precedent for taking the money – although statues have sometimes been funded by public subscription and room found for them by public authorities.  But where there’s no will, as in this case, there is also no way – even though Boris Johnson has broken cover to encourage an appeal.

As we write, the whole business is going round in circles.  Francois is still raising funds and has reached roughly half his target.  The Commission points to the Government, with some suggesting that if the Prime Minister really wants Big Ben to bong, the taxpayer should stump up.  Meanwhile, the Government points back at the Commission.

It’s clear that the best means of resolving the matter is a Commons vote early next week.  On the one hand, we doubt very much that a motion in favour of the plan would pass, even if the £500,000 target is reached.  The Early Day Motion supporting it has 55 signatories, all of them Conservative or DUP.

That doesn’t look like nearly enough to win a free vote – let alone one that must produce the overwhelming assent that is arguably necessary for the project, like those statues or war memorials, to gain the consent required.

On the other, Johnson would presumably vote for the plan, which both Ministers and backbenchers would see as a bit of a signal.  Either way, a question follows.  What are the Government’s own plans for marking the end of an era and the start of a new one?

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Does Johnson have the guts to tackle the rigged housing market described by Halligan?

Home Truths: The UK’s Chronic Housing Shortage – How It Happened, Why It Matters and How to Solve It by Liam Halligan

This is the only book I have ever taken into the Terrace Cafeteria at the Commons – where it is my custom to take a late lunch of jerk chicken and rice each Wednesday after sketching PMQs – in whose contents a member of staff has shown an immediate and passionate interest.

He told me he has no hope of ever buying a place to live in the district, just south of the river and within easy reach of the Houses of Parliament, where he was born.

That district, once quite cheap, is now, like everywhere else in the middle of London, prohibitively expensive for anyone on a modest income. If he is ever to get his own place, he will have to move a long way out, and the injustice of this rankles with him.

Liam Halligan sets out in this book what went wrong with the housing market:

“The average UK home now cost eight times average annual earnings, over twice the historic norm. This crippling affordability multiple rises to twelve times across London and the south-east…

“While the UK needs around 250,000 new homes a year to meet population growth and household formation, housebuilding has failed to reach that level since the mid-1970s. There’s a huge backlog shortage of homes, built up under successive governments over decades, which has seen property prices spiral way ahead of earnings. As a result, millions of young adults are stuck in shared, rented accommodation and have put their lives on hold.”

This is an enormous political opportunity for whoever becomes the next Labour leader. Millions of people are stuck paying extortionate rents for year after year, unable, unless they have rich parents, to get together the deposit needed to buy a house.

And this used not to be the case. Halligan was born in 1969, in the suburban, semi-detached, 1930s house in Kingsbury, London NW9, which his parents, who had both left school at the age of 16 without any professional qualifications and did not go to university, had been able to buy on a mortgage, after 25 years owning this little patch of Metroland outright.

For a long time after Halligan’s parents put down roots, home ownership remained a realistic aspiration:

“When I left home back in the early 1990s, over 45 per cent of 25-29-year-olds owned their own home. Since then, that figure has plunged to less than 25 per cent. Even professional couples with impressive qualifications and relatively high incomes are increasingly ‘locked out’ of the property market as prices keep rising faster than earnings…

“Since the end of the Second World War, one of the basic features of the UK’s free society – the ‘British Dream’ – has been that anyone who works hard and saves for a few years should be able to buy a decent home at a reasonable price. As such, the chronic unaffordability of housing, in many parts of the country, is now the major economic and political scandal of our time. It is disgraceful that over recent decades, a combination of cowardice and neglect on the part of successive governments means that, for countless young adults, the dream of home ownership is being cruelly denied.”

The language is not elegant, but it is hard to deny the truth of what Halligan says. In the mid-1930s, 85 per cent of new houses cost less than £750, equivalent to about £55,000 in 2019.

After the passing in 1947 of of the Town and Country Planning Act, almost all new building required planning permission. That, one could say, was the root of the problem, for it has led to an artificial shortage of building land, which in turn has caused the grotesque inflation of house prices.

But Halligan thinks the 1947 Act worked well, for it provided for “betterment” – the greatly increased value of land once it had planning permission – to be paid to the state. This kept land prices down, and gave local authorities the revenue needed to build the roads and other public services which the occupants of new houses required.

Landowners hated having to sell land at existing-use value, i.e. cheap, and under the Conservative governments of the 1950s, that side of the 1947 system was gradually dismantled, until under the 1961 Land Compensation Act, landowners gained the right to receive full value for all sites, including any prospective “planning gain”.

Land prices almost at once started to rise, and landowners, whether private or public, gained a perverse incentive to hold on to their land for as long as possible, in the confident expectation that it would become more and more valuable.

The market in land is horribly rigged, and favours owners over prospective buyers. As Halligan points out, the UK house-building industry, in which many small firms used to participate, is now dominated by an oligopoly of very large firms, who invest in a scarce resource, building land, which they do all they can to keep scarce, and on which they build an inadequate number of often shoddy rabbit hutches.

What is to be done? Halligan, who writes as an economist, wants the 1961 Land Compensation Act reversed, and has interviewed Sajid Javid, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who served as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government from 2016-18, and described the reform proposals which were being developed under his leadership:

“When I was Secretary of State, we worked on a fifty-fifty split of the valuation between local authorities and landowners.

“This would be an efficient and morally justifiable tax. The state is expected to create the infrastructure around new housing, and that needs to be paid for – so fifty-fifty makes sense.”

Javid was “frustrated” when Theresa May removed this measure from the 2017 Housing White Paper. He told Halligan:

“She just didn’t get the the impact of this housing crisis on ordinary families, ordinary working men and women – so the White Paper was gutted, all the strong ideas removed. It is vital we now take radical steps – once Brexit is done, housing is easily the most important domestic policy issue we face.”

Boris Johnson has not yet said very much about housing as Prime Minister, but one hopes he agrees with the Chancellor. For what they do about housing will give a good indication of where their sympathies lie.

Halligan says “there has not been nearly enough resolve to tackle the entrenched supply-side vested interests benefiting from the status quo”.

He means house-building companies such as Persimmon, whose iniquitous behaviour he describes at considerable length, also quoting the memorable condemnation of them in the Commons by Robert Halfon (Con, Harlow):

“On Saturday, I met a group of Harlow residents, many of them on Government Help to Buy schemes, who moved into homes built by Persimmon Homes that are shoddily built with severe damp and crumbling walls. In the eyes of my residents, Persimmon are crooks, cowboys and con artists.”

This was in July 2019, at Theresa May’s penultimate PMQs, and she said in her reply to Halfon:

“We have already announced our intention for a new homes ombudsman to protect the rights of homebuyers and to hold developers to account.”

A new ombudsman is an empty gesture. This distorted market, which enables house-builders to make vast profits from shoddy work carried out at the expense of people in desperate need, requires root and branch reform.

But Halligan underestimates the vested interests which stand in the way of reform. Many an owner, or part-owner with the building society, of a small, shoddily built house (I write as someone in that position myself) enjoys thinking, with a certain ineffable complacency, of its enormously inflated value, supposedly several times what it cost to buy.

These prohibitive prices have to come down, and that is a message Johnson and Javid will be reluctant to convey, especially as according to Halligan, senior Treasury officials believe that tackling the housing shortage “will spark another banking collapse”.

One of the happy side effects of the last banking collapse should have been a collapse in property prices, so that people of modest means could once again afford somewhere to live.

But instead, the property market froze, owners stopped moving house, and there was no proper correction to prices, which remain grotesquely high.

My inclination, as a conservative, is to believe that property rights are one of the most sacred guarantees of liberty itself. But since 1947, the state has removed the right of the owner of a piece of land to build on it.

It was beyond Halligan’s scope to describe how some of the tawdry speculative building of the 1930s created a demand for planning controls. In any case, he loves those 1930s houses, grew up in one of them and reminds us that their praises were sung by John Betjeman.

If the nation is going to control what can be built, the nation should also take some of the profits which are reaped by landowners and developers who gain permission to build.

Some years ago, I examined for ConHome how Harold Macmillan managed, as Housing Minister in the early 1950s, to fulfil the Conservative pledge to build 300,000 dwellings a year, which Labour thought was impossible.

He did it by employing every lever, public and private, which was to hand, by sanctioning every single application to build council houses, and often by giving orders in the wartime manner. His achievement paved the way for the Conservative election victory in 1955, for him to become Prime Minister in 1957, and for the Conservatives to win again in 1959.

He had demonstrated that the Tories were better than Labour at providing for the welfare of the people. Not that everything he did was admirable, for as I remarked in that piece:

“Some of the housing built at this time was so repulsive that to this day it makes people deeply suspicious of all new building.”

Will Johnson evince Macmillan’s ruthlessness and flair, or will he fob people off with an ombudsman?

On Tuesday of this week, I attended a reception held at the Commons by ConservativeHome for new Tory MPs, and spoke to a number who feel a burning desire to repay the trust which has been reposed in them by former Labour voters.

But as I entered the Palace of Westminster from the Underground station, I passed a number of rough sleepers already settling down for the night in the white-tiled tunnel.

What a shameful sight. Something here is terribly amiss. Those rough sleepers, so visible in most of our towns, have something to do with the intolerable cost of getting a roof over one’s head, which in turn has something to do with the intolerable cost of property, which in turn proceeds from the artificial scarcity of building land created by the state.

The buck stops with the Prime Minister. Does he have the guts to act?

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

David Gauke: As a non-Tory at the last election, my worry is that this Government won’t be Conservative enough

David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.

The Government’s objective for the first 50 days of this Parliament is easily identified – passing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and leaving the EU. In many senses, the nature of the next Government will only become clear once we move beyond that, but we are getting some indications as to where it is going.

It may not come as a total surprise to you that I have one or two concerns. After all, I had the Conservative whip withdrawn, I resigned my party membership, stood as an Independent and argued that the country should not return a Tory majority. And my concerns? That this Government might not be Conservative enough.

The Prime Minister described himself as ‘a Brexity Hezza’. However oxymoronic that phrase may be, it is an interesting insight.

Michael Heseltine is a great man. He served with great distinction in a number of Cabinet roles and his commitment to ensuring that the entire country can prosper is something that the Government is right to try to emulate.

I also owe him a particular debt – he kindly endorsed me in the general election and spoke on my behalf. At the age of 86, he remains one of the best public speakers in the country. When he speaks, people should listen. (I would argue that a few more people listening to him in South West Hertfordshire in December would have been particularly desirable.)

But just as the views and actions of Margaret Thatcher have often been over-simplified and misunderstood, claiming the mantle of ‘Hezza’ does not justify the abandonment of all Conservative orthodoxy.

Let us take four characteristics that ran through the approaches of the Governments in which Thatcher and Heseltine served. In each case, there is at least a doubt that Johnson Government will observe the same approach.

First, fiscal conservatism. Thatcher’s Government placed greater emphasis on reducing borrowing than cutting taxes or increasing spending. The tax burden rose in the years after 1979 and public spending was tightly controlled.

The current Government’s commitment is, as yet, less clear. Sajid Javid won an important battle to ensure that there were fiscal rules within the manifesto, but there were also plenty of spending and tax commitments. Given the expensive demographic pressures on the public finances that the country faces, plus the significant short term risks for the economy because of Brexit, a fiscally prudent Budget on March 11 would be sensible. It doesn’t look inevitable.

Second, as well as ensuring that we only spend what we can afford, we should also spend it wisely. The taxpayer is entitled to expect that a Conservative government, in particular, extracts good value for money. That should mean focusing on outputs not inputs and, where there are areas of significant increases in public spending, these should be matched by significant public sector reforms.  During the campaign, we heard more about extra spending or extra people but, in delivering on those pledges, it is essential that additional resources are deployed as effectively and efficiently as possible. We need to hear more about this.

As for changing the rules on infrastructure expenditure so that more is spent in the north of England, there is a good case for it. But those rules shouldn’t be replaced by a free-for-all whereby multi-billion projects are determined on the basis of ministerial whim. Rigour and the need for value-for-money must remain at the heart of all these decisions.

Third, be wary of supporting uneconomic businesses. Of course, there was a divergence between the Thatcher and Heseltine approaches to intervening in the economy but let us not forget that it was Heseltine who was prepared to close loss-making pits.

As a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I am uneasy about the bail-out of Flybe. Yes, it is not unheard of for a business to be given ‘time-to-pay’ their tax liabilities and, yes, regional connectivity is a legitimate policy objective. But every time a private business is bailed out by the taxpayer, the pressure grows the next time there is a potential insolvency. There is a case to be made for an interventionist industrial policy, even if that means ‘picking winners’ but the political imperative is very often on government to ‘pick losers’ – in other words, preserve loss-making ‘zombie’ businesses.

This issue may become particularly acute as the year goes on. Even if we get a deal with the EU, the Government clearly wants the ability to diverge from the EU, and there is no more talk of ‘frictionless trade’ with the EU – merely ‘zero tariffs and zero quotas’, which is a very different thing. This will mean that those businesses with complex supply chains face very considerable problems. It would be naïve to assume that this won’t threaten the viability of many businesses.

And, by the way, the risk of a WTO Brexit at the end of 2020 is, in my view, significantly under-priced. I will return to that issue in greater detail in future.

I mention this not just to antagonise those ConservativeHome readers who continue to question why I am allowed to write on this website. It is to make the point that there could be quite a lot of businesses for whom the adjustment to our glorious post-Brexit future will be painful. Some of them won’t be able to make it, not without some taxpayer support. Some of them might be able to make it but quite fancy a piece of the action if the Government is in the habit of providing financial support.

Of course, they will all say it is temporary and as long as the Government is sufficiently far-sighted, there will be no need to lay-off thousands of workers located in newly marginal seats. Nice little Conservative constituency you’ve got there, Prime Minister, we wouldn’t want anything nasty to happen here, would we?

So for the sake of the taxpayer, the Government should tread warily in bailing out businesses. The more you do it, the harder it is to stop. And the pressures in the next year or so may be immense.

There is a fourth attribute common to both Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine – a belief in free trade. As with every major Conservative figure for generations, they recognised that removing trade barriers is of enormous benefit to businesses who are able to export and consumers who can better access imports. The increased competition brought by reducing trade barriers helps economies become more efficient and drives up productivity. We saw this in the 1980s when the consequences of membership of the Common Market played through and inefficient UK companies were driven out of business by European competitors, and efficient UK businesses were able to expand because of access to European markets.

Evidently, this country is about to go in the opposite direction. Departure from the Single Market and the Customs Union will inevitably result in increased trade barriers with the EU. Regulatory divergence will increase those barriers yet further. Pretending that this can be fully compensated for by entering into trade deals with other countries is, sadly, delusional.

Margaret Thatcher once said that the facts of life are conservative. I might no longer be a member of the Conservative Party, but I think this is broadly right. The public finances have to be sustainable. Taxpayers’ money should be spent wisely. By and large, the market and not government should determine which businesses survive. Free trade is a driver for prosperity.

The Conservative Party has changed. It is a change that has enabled it to win a large majority. But the economic facts of life remain the same. I hope the Government will remember that.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com