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Westlake Legal Group > Local government

Building the Blue Wall: Mansfield

On Monday it was Walsall North. Yesterday it was North East Derbyshire. Today we turn to Mansfield in our series on some of the early success stories of constituencies where the Red Wall has been demolished. This was another of the small number of seats the Conservatives gained in England in 2017. In 2015 there had been a Labour majority of over 5,000. But two years later this had been overturned. Ben Bradley gained the seat for the Conservatives with a majority of 1,057. Then last month his majority increased to 16,306. That means nobody can claim it is still a marginal seat. It is now Labour’s 200th target seat. Yet this was a seat that Labour had held since 1922. It was a coal mining constituency – although being in Nottinghamshire these were working miners during the 1984 strike led by Arthur Scargill. All that took place well before Bradley was born. The decline in trade union membership is linked to the erosion in support for the Labour Party.

So coming in as a young MP in 2017, representing such unfamiliar Conservative territory, must have been daunting for Bradley. Many of his new colleagues will now have the equivalent experience. The traditional technique used by the Lib Dems to build up their strength was to start with gaining council seats – using “pavement politics” with lots of hyper local campaigns. That would then provide a solid basis to win a Parliamentary seat. The challenge for many of the new Tory MPs is to do this in reverse. They have been elected with perhaps only a small number of plucky volunteers to assist them. Shaun Bailey, the newly returned Conservative MP for West Bromwich West, does not have a single Conservative councillor in his constituency. I suppose there are advantages about a clean slate. He can talent spot among energetic and capable people, with a Conservative allegiance, who would like to take on the role. But it is certainly a challenge.

Progress in council elections in Mansfield has been complicated by splits in the anti-Labour vote. There is a group of independents on the Council – in the past an independent has been returned as the directly elected Mayor. UKIP has also polled well here – including in the 2015 General Election when they got 25 per cent of the vote. In the 2015 local elections, there were two UKIP councillors elected in Mansfield, 16 Mansfield independents. None for the Conservatives. Full Council elections were held again last May, which was bad timing. But the Conservatives did pick up a couple of seats. They hope for a more dramatic breakthrough next year when it comes to county council seats. Conservative Party membership in the constituency has increased from only a dozen before 2017 to around 250 now.

Bradley says:

“We’ve got lots of MPs now who don’t have a foundation in their local councils, but it’s possible to work backwards and use your national platform to win locally. Many issues cross over both roles and you can campaign very effectively, or at least show what could be done if only there were Conservative Councillors to help you. One of the big challenges, where Conservatives haven’t been visible for a long time, is building your “brand” and explaining what your local Party is about. That’s a brand that can carry your local candidates a long way too, if you’re campaigning with one voice.”

When it comes to social media, Bradley feels it is important not just to transmit but also to respond – sometimes robustly when he is attacked by his opponents.

Despite representing many former Labour voters, Bradley does not favour a half-hearted Conservative message designed to placate those with residual socialist sympathies. On issues like crime and welfare reform, most working class voters want tougher action. Some aspects of the “culture wars” have traction – there is indignation at the way that freedom of speech is threatened and that baffling jargon is demanded rather than plain speaking. The cost of living is particularly important for families on tight budgets – so lower Council Tax, Income Tax, and National Insurance would be important. Bradley hopes that free trade deals after Brexit will result in lower grocery and clothing bills. Transport is important – his constituents tend to be more concerned about buses than trains.

The popularity of Boris Johnson, the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn, and the impatience to deliver a proper Brexit, were all significant electoral factors in Mansfield as elsewhere. But there has been something deeper happening for many years before that. Labour has been alienating the voters for a long time. More recently the Conservatives have been winning their trust.

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

Building the Blue Wall: North East Derbyshire

This week we are looking at the prospects for building a Blue Wall in those constituencies where the Red Wall was broken in the General Election last month. The way we are pursuing this is to consider some of the pioneers – the Conservative MPs who gained traditional Labour seats at the 2017 General Election. Of particular interest is whether Conservative support in their areas has been consolidated by gaining more local councillors. Yesterday we started with Walsall North, won by Eddie Hughes in 2017. Today it is the turn of North East Derbyshire, a seat gained by Lee Rowley on the same day.

Rowley’s majority in 2017 was 2,861. Last month it had increased to 12,876. This means that on a uniform swing it would be Labour’s 151st target seat for next time. In other words, unlikely to be a target at all, given that Labour needs to gain 124 seats for an overall majority of one. “Targeting” too many more than that number would risk the concept losing its meaning. This does create a problem of success for Rowley. Holding a marginal seat does make it easier to gain the attention of Ministers when special pleading is concerned. Or of CCHQ, when it comes to funding and other campaigning back up. Rowley will continue to have the mentality that he represents a marginal seat. That is prudent in these volatile times – even though the simple mathematics shows that his seat is now rather on the safe side.

Last year’s council election saw heavy Conservative losses in England overall. But in North East Derbyshire it was all smiling faces, whooping and cheers. The Conservatives gained control of the Council from Labour, picking up 13 seats. This was the first time the Conservatives have been in power there since the local authority was formed in 1973. The campaigning message was robust and unapologetic. “Killamarsh Conservatism”. Rowley wrote about it for us at the time:

“Enough of the split-the-difference, milquetoast, managerial mush which has bedevilled our national picture for too long.  A Conservatism which places hard work, aspiration and ambition at the centre of everything, which seeks to protect and enhance quality of life and properly values a sense of community.”

The Labour councillors had become complacent and out of touch. Many had been there for years and did not bother to campaign. They just collected their allowances with a sense of entitlement and agreed to whatever the officials wanted. This resulted in housing developments being pushed through without genuine consultation. Labour had failed to adjust to how politics has become more transactional, less deferential.

By contrast, the Conservatives were actively looking for opportunities to campaign – for instance in parish council by-elections which might have been ignored in the past. There would be a psychological, cultural change as Conservatives posters appeared in places that had never seen them before.

North East Derbyshire Conservative Association membership is up from 44 before the 2017 General Election to 250 now. Rowley holds village meetings. He would “top and tail” the letters asking people along while watching TV in the background. Despite these personalised invitations, the number that would turn up would be small. However, people appreciated being asked. Some of those who missed the meeting might still contact him with casework – which Rowley actively procures.

Social media is used a lot but there is discipline in sticking to local issues. Effort and money is spent on reaching constituents on Facebook (via which he reaches 3,500 of them) tracking and promoting messages so that they reach locals rather than those elsewhere.

I can see that having cheerful community news items provided by MPs makes sense. The decline in local newspapers leaves a gap. Politically combative messages might be regarded as offputting. The only problem is that it leaves Conservatives avoiding the broader ideological arguments. Socialist fallacies are left unchallenged. If Conservative MPs are constantly demanding increased public spending in their constituencies where does that broader Conservative message in favour of free enterprise, individual liberty, and lower taxation?

Winning the Council does present its own challenges. Can the Council engage with people in a way that would make new housing popular? What if the Council does something that Rowley disagrees with?

The next push will be the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. The Conservatives are hoping to gain this position from Labour. Angelique Foster, the Conservative candidate, is from North East Derbyshire.

The initial goodwill for the Conservatives has come about through Labour neglect. That has given the Conservatives an opportunity to prove themselves as vigorous local champions . Thus far they would seem to be doing so.

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

Building the Blue Wall: Walsall

Before the General Election, there was much focus on the “red wall.” These were the seats in Labour’s heartlands. Traditionally working class constituencies in the North and the Midlands; many had returned Labour MPs since their inception. Even during the Macmillan and Thatcher landslides, they proved out of reach for the Conservatives. Yet despite their deep Labour culture, these are patriotic communities – most of them voted to leave the EU. Jeremy Corbyn’s support for terrorism left them dismayed. Labour’s preoccupation with identity politics left many voters bewildered. As a result, their loyalty to Labour was strained. Thus there was hope that even if the Conservatives failed in some of the usual marginals in London, even if they lost ground in Scotland, victory could still be secured in this unlikely territory. Of course, the General Election result offered dramatic confirmation of that.

The question now is whether these places will “revert to type” after Brexit is done and Corbyn has gone. Will the election of a Tory MP prove an aberration? Or will it be the start of building a blue wall? One means of ensuring it is the latter, is for Conservatives to become entrenched in these areas with more local councillors, not only an MP. This week we will be looking at what we can learn from some of the blue wall pioneers. While the overall result of the General Election in 2017 was very disappointing for the Conservatives in England, there were a few impressive gains. We will look at some of them and consider what happened next. We will start with Walsall North.

Eddie Hughes won Walsall North for the Conservatives in 2017 with a majority of 2,601. Last month he was returned with his majority up to 11,965. In other words, it is not even a marginal any more. It is now Labour’s 194th target seat for the 2024 General Election. (Labour needs to gain 124 seats for an overall majority of one.) David Winnick was the Labour MP for the seat from 1979 through to 2017. The Conservatives had won the seat before that but in the special circumstances of a by-election. Earlier it had been held by John Stonehouse, a Labour MP who spied for the Communists and faked his own death.

This is just about the poorest constituency in the country with a Conservative MP. That makes fundraising a challenge.

In the local elections last year, the Conservatives gained two seats on Walsall Council, enough to give them overall control. This was bucking the trend of heavy losses elsewhere. In 2018, the Conservatives gained five seats in Walsall. Cllr Mike Bird, the Conservative council leader, wrote an account for us last year. He said that Hughes “was by our side throughout” the campaign. Bird says:

“So how did we do it?

“In short, hard work and dedication from a committed team of loyal group members with a very able deputy, Cllr Adrian Andrew, who ran an exceptional campaign of targeted issues in all 20 of the wards in the election, and concentrating on the issues that people on the doorstep were raising during the campaign.

“Our focus was on ten pledges across the Borough that we knew from previous surveys were the very things people wanted to see delivered with the return of a Conservative administration.”

Hughes, seconding the Loyal Address in Parliament, says that a visiit by Boris Johnson, then a backbench MP, helped:

“The blond bombshell was unleashed on the unsuspecting people of Bloxwich, and the result was truly magnificent to behold. Everybody who asked for a selfie was greeted with a beaming smile and an occasional tussle of those famous blond locks. When our tour reached its inevitable destination, the Bloxwich showman—the future Prime Minister—obviously pulled a pint of Thatchers Gold. I know what you are thinking, Mr Speaker: you are thinking, “So what? What was the consequence of this great visit?” The consequence for me was that, in those local elections a few days later, we won two more council wards against the national trend and, for the first time in 20 years, the Conservatives took outright control of Walsall Council. Perhaps that should not have been a surprise because, over the past three years, we have had a blue-collar revolution.”

In the Walsall North constituency, the number of Conservative councillors has risen from five in 2017 to ten now. Conservative Party membership in Walsall North is up from 15 to over 100. Hughes is actively involved in recruiting members and encouraging community activists to become council candidates. He emails a news bulletin to thousands of constituents.

Working hard at campaigning, results in further hard work getting through the resulting casework. That is due to it being proactive: constituents are invited to email back with problems they wish to highlight. Hughes does not feel MPs should complain about this. They are provided with over £150,000 a year in staffing costs. That means they should provide a good service. As well as it being accessible that also means pursuing matters that sit with the Council. Those who have found themselves caught up in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare and eventually resort to asking their MP for help will be disappointed if the response is: “That’s nothing to do with me. You need to speak to Walsall Council.” The public does not delineate in that way.

Of course, there needs to be substance to the message, no matter how well oiled the campaign machine might be. That does rely on the Conservative Government bringing in changes that have local relevance. Stronger powers to deal with travellers, and greater availability to see a GP in the evenings and weekends, were examples that had traction in Walsall.

MPs are often offered fees by opinion pollsters to take part in surveys. Some MPs accept and take the money. Some refuse. But there is also the option of taking the survey and then for the fee to be paid direct to a charity. That is what Hughes does. £100 from ComRes for this, £90 from YouGov for that, £200 from Ipsos MORI for the other. He usually takes the call while sitting on a train. In his constituency he invites groups to ask for this money. Then he will use social media to publicise the work they do, and that he has handed them a cheque: – the local football club, angling club, brownies, whatever it might be.

That example strikes me as instructive in terms of being a effective constituency MP in the modern era. The punters don’t want their MP to be too grand (Hughes will join in groups picking up litter.) But nor can the MP be shy.

The Conservatives believe, as Margaret Thatcher put it, that “the state should be the servant, not the master of the people.” Newly returned Tory MPs who conduct their constituency duties with that maxim in mind should find they are well-positioned to face the electorate again next time round.

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

Matt Kilcoyne: We can save our high streets by slashing the red tape holding them back

Matt Kilcoyne is Head Of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute.

Westminster is obsessed with the High Street. For many, they’re the embodiment of the soul of the community. Their faded glory, following the rise of out-of-town complexes and now online shopping, strikes a symbolic blow to their local community.

While it would be neither possible nor desirable to shut down the supermarkets or close off the internet, we can do something to return life to where we live.

Little-known red tape contained in the National Planning Policy Framework has prevented high streets, and retail more broadly, from adapting to the modern age. To fix the problem of shop closures and loss of community life in our town centres, we need to totally rethink town planning. 

For years in my hometown of Wrexham – which thanks to the newly elected Sarah Atherton is a proud Conservative seat now – I would wander down the high street, witnessing shops shutting down. I watched as people no longer make the drive into town, and instead just nip into the supermarket complexes on the outskirts.

The Council acted as if they could create an atmosphere with public art and pot plants, but in reality there just weren’t the people there to sustain the shops down the old shopping streets. Truth is, the town centre just isn’t where people work anymore, and it’s been decades since they lived there. 

Governments of all stripes have failed to grasp the problem. Think about heading to the high street for your average Brit: driving through traffic, finding a place to park, walking to the shop, looking for what you want, dealing with other customers and the weather, and sometimes getting cash out because they don’t accept card.

If you’re buying online, you don’t have to do any of those. It’s often cheaper too because of the economies of scale offered by online services, the lack of rent they have to pay without physical stores, and the fact they don’t have to send goods back and forth to their shops before getting them to you. 

Time after time, politicians of all stripes at all levels have thrown good money after bad at pet projects at local levels promising to boost footfall. This has been coupled with renewed demands for business rate reform, which would largely benefit landlords rather than retailers. There have also been calls to tax online businesses, forgetting that this is just increasing people’s cost of living.

 Central government demands grand plans from the local level that have to last decades. While companies and shops react in real time to millions of purchases by customers, councils react to diktat from above and electoral cycles that don’t easily match up. Plans are based on evidence gathered around a year or two before publication, and local authorities are in constant political flux with a third of the council being reelected on three out of every four years.

A ten-year plan is liable to be at odds with the policy direction of a new administration within a year or two of its adoption, or sometimes even before its adoption. That’s before you even think about the impact of national elections – and you have to, because we have a one-size-fits-all national planning framework that actually ends up suiting next to no-one.

A lack of central control can actually be a good thing when it comes to local planning. I know, that seems utterly counter-intuitive and I know it’ll irk a few councillor readers – but I’m sorry, it is true and we’ve done the research.

The Adam Smith Institute’s latest paper, ‘High Street Heist’, authored by town planner Thomas Walker, looks at best practice at home and abroad. In the UK, Walker analyses high street planning in Milton Keynes, Stone, and Aylesbury. All three are Conservative seats but only one, Aylesbury, has got it right. To keep the other two long-term, Tories will need to learn the lessons from the latter.

 Aylesbury has been creative with the definition of a town centre after its local plan for 2013-2033 was rejected in 2014 (it remains un-adopted).

What has followed is the adoption of a strategy to maximise the space available for commercial development. Shops are allowed throughout the town, rather than being arbitrarily restricted to a single high street. It has also meant that shops, cafes, recreational spaces, and community hubs can all set up around houses as they spring up, so organic communities are again being created where people live and work. Retail is supported not through subsidy, but because it’s what consumers want and where they want it.

Make it easier to have people living above and on our streets, to change commercial buildings to office space and back again too, and we’ll have a vibrant economy that meets the demands we place on it as consumers and citizens.

If this model was rolled out across the country we could break the yolk of big landlords and make ourselves a nation of cafe owners and shopkeepers, running businesses that people actually want to visit.

 “Whose streets?”, the socialists ask on their unending marches. “Our streets” should be the reply. Owned by the many millions of us. Vibrant and alive, rather than left to decay. It’s time to remove the red tape that’s strangling Britain’s high streets and hand them back to this nation of shopkeepers.

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

Stephen Baines: Residents in Calderdale deserve good frontline services, not wasteful vanity projects

Cllr Stephen Baines is the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Group on Calderdale Council

The General Election of 2019 has crystallised trends, both nationally and locally, that we have been seeing for some time. Constituents are no longer voting based upon traditional class boundaries. Under Boris Johnson, Conservatives in Calderdale have seen our vote hold up in traditional Conservative areas, whilst working class and deprived polling districts, previously Labour strongholds, have abandoned Labour under Corbyn. People who traditionally identified with Labour have said ‘No’ to the divisive, polarising, and patronising politics of a perversely far-left and increasingly London-centric party, ruled by the cosmopolitan elites.

On the doorstep, we heard the same messages again and again. We want Brexit done. The electorate wanted closure; an end to the debate, an end to the parliamentary paralysis, an end to the division – not just nationally, but within local communities. People felt betrayed.

For years we saw voter turnout decline. There was growing apathy. Often you will hear from constituents who don’t vote, that all politicians are the same. But when offered the opportunity to more directly participate in democracy, as they did in the referendum, they turned out in droves – 71 per cent in Calderdale. This was repeated again at December when they were asked whether they wanted more dither and delay or just to get it done, there was a 73 per cent turn-out in Calder Valley.

Locally, we have had fewer elected councillors than Labour from 2012. Since then we have suffered under a Lib Dem/Lab coalition and now overall Labour control. During this time the Council has gone on a spending spree. Racking up millions of pounds of “prudential borrowing” indebting future generations of residents by speculating on supposed investment returns that never seem to materialise.

Labour has paid lip service to the environment by creating a paid position as “Cabinet Member for Climate Change and the Environment” and by declaring a climate emergency. Yet it has failed repeatedly for over a decade to tackle Air Quality Management Areas (AQMAs) where air quality fails national targets. Calderdale ranks poorly in national statistics for the number of deaths caused as a result of air pollution, something compounded by the Labour Government’s promotion of diesel vehicles, and the failure of Labour locally to invest in our highways. Disregarding this to the detriment of the health of the borough’s population, they have planned to build hundreds of houses in areas already suffering extreme traffic congestion and air pollution. This is despite the local outcry over the loss of our Green Belt, the dangerous air pollution and pressure on local infrastructure and services. All this whilst the borough has one of the highest rates of empty houses in the North.

In 2015, we saw how the Boxing Day floods were devastating for the Calder Valley. Craig Whittaker MP managed to secure £30 million of central government funding, something for which Calderdale’s Labour Party and its councillors seem to perversely claim credit. We see very little substance from the Council however when it comes to the basics of preventing flooding – culverts and drains are left blocked and there has been insufficient tree planting within the Borough.

The local high streets have been left neglected. Begging and petty crime have increased, parking is costly and business rates remain high creating an environment where shops are left vacant or are given up to non-rate paying charity shops that attract few shoppers. The Council cuts spending on maintaining the highstreet or pushes the costs onto businesses, making matters worse.

During the last decade, the Conservative Group has repeatedly voted to cut the cost of politics by reducing the number of councillors on the Council and reducing the payments they receive – something that has drawn stiff opposition from Liberal Democrat and Labour councillors intent on keeping their perks and keeping their workload down. These same Lib Dem and Labour candidates have presided over massive frontline staff reductions and an increase in senior management pay.

The Lib/Lab and Labour administrations here at Calderdale have been characterised by steep increases in council tax combined with deep cuts to front line services. Labour has been very vocal about central government cuts and blames their inability to provide the basics that Councils were set up to provide, on these. Yet despite the grim sermons by the Labour Group at each Council meeting there always seems to be spare pots of money for local vanity projects. Millions have been spent revamping the Piece Hall, Princess Buildings, and Northgate House. Even the Mixenden Hub Project gets revived and exhumed around election time but it is yet to materialise.

In May there are 17 seats up for grabs. Whilst we may not take control of the Council, we can make a substantial inroad into making Calderdale Council work for its residents rather than the other way round.

For residents there will be two choices:

A Labour Council that seems to want to dabble in national politics; self-promote and cut rather than deliver frontline services; borrow residents money to fund vanity projects that prop up the careers of its local politicians whilst forgetting what it is there to do.

Or a Conservative Council that will deliver the frontline services they ask for – bin collections, clean streets, working street lights, and filled-in potholes. All whilst reducing the costs of local bureaucracy, including the cost of councillors; reducing borrowing against the borough; and keeping Council Tax low.

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

Greg Hands: Crime will be the central issue in this year’s election for Mayor of London

Greg Hands is the MP for Chelsea and Fulham.

I am delighted to have been asked by Shaun Bailey himself to be his Campaign Chairman for this year’s Mayoral election.

I have known Shaun well since 2007, and have always been a fan of this very different politician, a man who really wants to do the job as Mayor of London.

The General Election result highlighted what I have been seeing on the doorstep for many months, a complex and fluid change in the way Londoners are voting. The election turned out to be a mixed picture in London for the Conservatives. We lost a fantastic MP in Zac Goldsmith which will leave the Commons a poorer place and many outstanding candidates didn’t quite make it over the line.

However, our gains in Kensington (Felicity Buchan) and Carshalton (Elliott Colburn) were significant for our future hopes in London. The failure of Labour and the Lib Dems to make real inroads will be cause for concern for them ahead of the Greater London Assembly and Mayoral campaigns next year.

Lack of delivery in City Hall

The warning signs should by flashing loudly for Labour big wigs in City Hall. With the General Election out the way and as Brexit falls away from the public’s mindset, Sadiq Khan’s abysmal record on crime, housing, and the environment will be filling up the column inches. Never has a Mayor gone into a re-election campaign with such a poor record of delivery.

Knife crime continues to plague our streets, yet Khan has failed to act, saying it will take a decade to turn things around. 147 people were murdered in the capital last year, the highest level since 2008. But instead of moving resources to the Police, Khan wastes London’s resources on press officers. On housing, Khan has managed to grind all house building to a halt due to his ideological position and hatred of developers. And he fundamentally failed to call out Jeremy Corbyn on anti-Semitism, something that should shame him and his team.

The need for change = Shaun

In Shaun Bailey, the Conservative Party has chosen a true Londoner. He is a black, working class guy, who grew up in the shadow of Grenfell Tower. A man who has had to grind his entire life to make a living and raise his family. In his early 20s he found himself homeless, sofa surfing with friends and family. He chose a career of helping young people avoid a life of crime and has served the people of London as a Greater London Assembly member.

Shaun is probably one of the most sincere and genuine people in politics. He has no dreams of grandeur, he just wants to deliver for Londoners. He wants to have affordable homes for our young people, he wants a clean environment for our children, and he wants safer streets for everyone, now.

Crime will play a central part in the Mayoral election. The heart-breaking stories that we read about on a daily basis will not go away anytime soon. With a lack of City Hall interest and leadership, our streets, our homes, and our communities do not feel safe places to be. This is not limited to the inner-city areas, this is something that is felt from Harrow to Bromley and everywhere in between. There were three knife crime murders in Fulham last year, in my constituency.

Shaun’s plan is one of zero tolerance, tougher sentences for those caught with acid or a knife, a record amount of police on the streets with money already available in City Hall, and ending the fights that are raging on our streets. It is Shaun’s strength of character, and understanding of what is happening under the radar on our streets, that will make the difference.

Conclusion

I am looking forward to working with Shaun to build his campaign, tell his story, and sell his plan to people across London. We need to end Khan’s miserable tenure on 7th May and turn City Hall into a machine that delivers for Londoners.

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

Ian Courts: In Solihull, we are protecting the environment and increasing economic prosperity

Cllr Ian Courts is the Leader of Solihull Council and the Chairman of the Meriden Conservative Association.

Solihull has benefited from stable Conservative leadership for many years, with strong economic growth delivering gross value added above the national average. This has allowed us to keep Council Tax rates at one of the lowest in the region. Solihull has also received the accolade as the best place to live, work, invest, and spend leisure time in the region.

We are the home of a number of key regional economic assets, such as Birmingham Airport, Birmingham International Station, the NEC, the JLR Solihull plant, to name just a few, as well as several important business parks and a regionally important shopping centre. Two thirds of our borough is Green Belt.

When the proposals for HS2 were first announced, Solihull Council developed its own response to maximising the benefit of having the first new HS2 station out of London in the borough. This will be accomplished by a new economic strategy with the UK Central brand, as well as building a powerful economic zone and interconnected transport hub, less than 40 mins from London.

The decision to move forward on HS2 needs to be taken. The economic arguments are powerful enough, but the opportunity to free up so much more capacity on the existing train lines, for both passenger and freight services, must not be missed. We need this extra capacity, to work with local public transport, if we want to deliver the low-carbon future that we now seek.

Solihull was instrumental in setting up the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) in 2015 and our Conservative Leader at the time was its first chairman amongst a majority of Labour Leaders. The identity of the West Midlands and strong sense of collaboration was reinforced when Andy Street was elected as the first Mayor in 2017.

Each of the current Leaders has a portfolio role and I was pleased to take up Environment, Energy, and HS2. The question has been asked about whether HS2 is really a good bed-fellow with the other two. However, Solihull Council and local people have fought hard to mitigate the effect on the environment. In my opinion, the HS2 team has just not made enough of the significant environmental compensation work that they are doing. In Solihull we have always been clear that economic growth from HS2, our UK Central programme, and the West Midlands Economic Strategy, is the way to support our services and Inclusive Growth is an integral part of our approach.

Our comprehensive regeneration programme in the north of the borough involved the rebuilding of all its schools, two village centres, and another one in Kingshurst to follow, alongside housing and social programmes. We continued this work when the recession, at the end of the last government’s tenure, had caused other programmes to close.

A key policy emphasis since I took over as Leader in May has been the need for stronger action on climate change. We have already cut our carbon emissions by nearly half in ten years and established a Climate Change (Green) Prospectus several years ago which addressed a number of themes including Greening the Economy, Energy and Resources, Buildings & Efficiency, Transport, Natural Capital & biodiversity, Communication & Education. However, our ability to combat climate change depends upon the need to work with nature as well as retaining a prosperous market economy. I commend the excellent work of the Conservative Environment Network in this.

Within a few weeks of taking over the WMCA portfolio, I was able to bring leaders of the seven Mets together on a cross party basis to make a Climate Change Declaration for the West Midlands Combined Authority. Solihull Council’s own Declaration was also cross party and commits the Council to net carbon zero by 2030 and the borough as a whole by 2041, in line with the regional target.

Conservatives have a majority of just one on the Council since May, down from 15 a year ago. Our main opposition is the Green Party, which envisages a very different economic policy and administration to our own. Apart from our own local elections in May, there will be an election for the post of the West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner. Andy Street’s term of office also expires in May, and we need to see a continuation of his strong leadership in the region.

The recent General Election saw ex-Chamber of Commerce President, Saqib Bhatti elected as Conservative MP for Meriden, to take over from stalwart Dame Caroline Spelman, and the re-election of Julian Knight for the Solihull constituency. The need for continued Conservative thinking both in Solihull and the West Midlands has never been stronger, to protect and foster sustainable and inclusive economic growth for our borough and the region as a whole, and to support our newly invigorated central government led by Boris Johnson.

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

Matthew Evans: The large public sector in Newport has helped Labour cling on

Cllr Matthew Evans is Leader of the Conservative Group on Newport Council.

Fighting one election in a year is arduous enough. But last year I stood in the parliamentary by-election in Newport West and in the General Election.

In the by-election, I managed to keep UKIP a distant third and reduce Labour’s majority to under 2,000, while in the General Election I was heartened to get over 18,000 votes. But not quite enough. Labour held on with a majority of 902. In Newport East, our candidate, Mark Brown, managed to reduce Labour’s majority to under 2,000. So unlike other parts of the country, Newport remains stubbornly socialist. This was true across the South Wales cities and valleys with only Bridgend changing hands.

This was my tenth election and it is difficult to put a finger on the reasons. I can’t speak for the other cities but we have had a Labour Government in Wales since 1999 and with the exception of a four year period between 2008-12 where I led a coalition with the Lib Dems, Newport has had a Labour-run Council. The Welsh Government is unpopular and the decision the break their Manifesto promise to build an M4 relief road has caused enormous anger, while the Council has abandoned the popular two hours free parking we established and introduced charges to parks, increasing resentment.

This year, despite getting the biggest settlement in Wales: a 5.4 per cent increase; they are consulting on an increase in council tax of almost eight per cent. This is outrageous. They sound like double glazing salesmen: just an extra couple of pounds a week. When I was Leader of the Council we raised council tax by around inflation only, and disagreed with our national stance of no increase, because people expect an increase. But eight per cent – after a five per cent increase last year. No way is that justified.

The fact that they delayed the announcement until the day after the General Election makes me even more angry. They pride themselves on “openness and transparency” and yet the three major schemes they are investing millions in, a hotel, office block, and market, were taken behind closed doors with not even confidential Part Two reports. Then they were announced via press releases. They once spent over £50,000 on a Democracy Conference while saving £20,000 on closing some public lavatories.

Yet people still vote for them. I can only assume Newport has a very large public sector employed at the Patent and Statistics Office, the Council, and Welsh Government, and that might have a bearing.

Looking forward, we have full elections in 2022 and have been working hard building a base of active candidates. We meet every month.

The current composition of the 50 seat Council is: 31 Labour councillors, 12 Conservatives, fours independents, two Lib Dems, and one Independent Labour.

Naturally our prospects locally will partly depend on what happens nationally. Things can change rapidly. I remind younger councillors that before I took a seat from Labour in 1999 we only had one councillor – and nine years later I was Leader of the Council.

And on another positive note, I am absolutely delighted by the General Election result and I am convinced we can make a success of it.

Onwards and upwards…

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Meirion Jenkins: Spending by Birmingham City Council is out of control

Cllr Meirion Jenkins is the Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources on Birmingham City Council.

In January last year, I wrote for ConHome about how badly Birmingham was run by its Labour administration and how much taxpayers’ money was being wasted. A year on, we see no sign that our Conservative Group’s concerns about a growing lack of accountability, secrecy, and a ‘dictatorship’ style of management by the Council Leader and his Cabinet are being assuaged.

There is a big problem in Birmingham City Council with transparency; the current Labour administration not only seeks to keep far too much information secret from both councillors and the public but, even where information is eventually disclosed, it is often disclosed late or in a form intended to minimise scrutiny. Contracts are renewed when they should be subject to scrutiny and re-tender. Decisions which are said to be urgent (and therefore sidestep the normal checks and balances), often are only urgent, if indeed they truly are urgent, because of crass inefficiency on the part of the administration.

The hard truth is that the Labour Cabinet (with some notable exceptions) are just not good enough to run a city of Birmingham’s complexity. This means that officers find it easy to keep the upper hand, albeit one might counter that Labour’s political leaders are sometimes accused of standing behind officers to deflect responsibility.

For example, the company that provided home to school transport for Birmingham children with special needs went bankrupt. The whole contract had been very badly managed for years with numerous costs overruns and hastily organised extensions. This particular contract had been extended seven times since 2009 without a proper re-procuring process. At various times, members raised serious concerns in the finance scrutiny committee but were largely ignored.

A report on the whole fiasco was due to come to the Audit Committee in the autumn but was removed from the agenda because of “purdah”. Purdah is there to protect taxpayers’ money from being used to influence voting intention. It does not exist to shut down debate by committee members, slow down vitally important pieces of work on protecting vulnerable citizens, and it certainly is not there to save the administration from embarrassment! With the Cabinet already having been told of safeguarding and vehicle compliance concerns and the company’s unsustainable finances, one can only speculate as to what further horrors may come out when Labour eventually publishes this report.

Audit Committee members are routinely denied access to documents and information and Labour chairs of the Audit Committee seem reluctant to challenge their own administration. Having served on the audit committee most of the time since 2012, I am reaching the point of wondering whether we should withdraw entirely from the committee, for fear that the Conservative presence gives a “stamp of legitimacy” to Labour’s conduct. We have already declined the opportunity to take the role of Deputy Chairman. On the other hand, were it not for the Conservative Group, at least trying to allow some sunlight to shine on Labour’s conduct, goodness knows how little of Labour’s mistakes and inefficiency would ever be known to the taxpaying public?

With preparations for the Commonwealth Games now in full swing, we are already beginning to see worrying signs of Birmingham Labour’s well-known inability to manage money and contracts. Most of the funding is being provided by central government, with Birmingham taxpayers meeting about 25 per cent of the main cost and also being responsible for the construction of the athletes’ village. Having devised a convoluted financing arrangement (reminding me of the administrator hospital sketch in Python’s Life of Brian), which even the Leader couldn’t properly explain in the Scrutiny Committee, we have already seen a massive budget error. The relocation of a National Express bus depot for the athlete’s village was budgeted to cost £2 million. In the last few days, the Labour administration has rushed through an ‘emergency’ decision between Christmas and the New Year (therefore no scrutiny/call-in possible, or even a cabinet meeting) to spend £15.5m – approximately an eight times overspend.

Labour in Birmingham is devotedly anti motorist – despite constantly saying that they support Birmingham motor trade workers. With no referendum (as was the case elsewhere and despite no clear policy statement in their manifesto), Labour is implementing a charge for motorists who drive into the city. Described as a ‘clean air zone’, it makes several poor choices. The Conservative plan for green infrastructure (which was in our manifesto), would have delivered 25 per cent – 30 per cent cleaner air without relying upon a taxation based behavioural change and / or the associated damage to Birmingham’s economy. The cost of the Conservative plan would have been met from the same grant that Labour is wasting on cameras. Labour’s own report acknowledges that their plan will hit the least well off the most, being those residents who cannot afford to replace their car with a newer compliant model. This policy side-stepped democracy for fear of the voters’ wise judgement. (Remind you of anything?)

If the way that Labour runs Birmingham is anything to go by, then truly thank goodness we won the general election. Had Labour won, I have no doubt that the patterns of behaviour that we see in Birmingham, would have become a template for the way that our country would be run.

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Shaun Bailey: We need tougher sentences to protect the LGBTQ+ community

Shaun Bailey is a member of the London Assembly and the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London.

In the past four years, there has been a disturbing rise in homophobic hate crime in London. As someone who has experienced racial hate both on the streets and online, I stand in total solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, many of whom suffer horrible and unacceptable abuse.

The Government and the Law Commission are currently looking at reforming hate crime laws. As part of that, something must be done, and so I urge people to join me in calling for tougher sentences to protect the LGBTQ+ community. Political leaders at all levels of Government need to grasp the scale of this problem, which has increased by 51 per cent since 2016.

In the short term, I would like to see our Government make homophobic hate crime an aggravated crime in line with racial and religious hate crime. This would ensure harsher sentences and could be achieved as part of the sentencing reforms.

We cannot afford to ignore this issue as LGBTQ+ hate crime is growing at a faster rate than almost all other types of hate crime. In the past 12 months alone, 2,835 recorded incidences of homophobic hate crime were reported to the authorities in London. Yet research by Stonewall, a charity set up to represent and protect the LGBTQ+ community, suggests that 81 per cent of people who experience LGBTQ+ hate crime do not report it to the police.

I fear that what has been reported is only the tip of the iceberg. It is completely unacceptable that in a city that prides itself on being as open and tolerant as London, 13,974 homophobic hate crimes could have occurred over the last year – five times the reported figure.

Yet tougher sentencing alone will not protect the LGBTQ+ community. We must address the spread of the vile ideology driving this disgusting form of hate. We need to target the platforms that allow bigoted ideas to circulate. To do this, we must also hold social media platforms to account. We must demand that such ideas are not allowed to spread and to do so we must put pressure on the social media companies to remove abusive content and the users spreading it.

No single community should ever feel singled out, victimised, or punished, and we must not stand idly by as this form of abuse continues to increase. So please join me, sign my petition, and help put pressure on our Government to take the necessary steps to protect our brothers and sisters. United we can stand together in total solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community.

In our battle to retake City Hall, I have a crime plan will ensure that criminals on and offline are put under pressure, not victims. I will fight for London’s values of openness and acceptance.

Not a single Londoner should feel unsafe for being themselves.

Join Shaun in calling for tougher sentences to protect the LGBTQ+ community by singing his petition.  

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