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Westlake Legal Group > Local government

Judy Terry: Greater civility in local politics would help attract more women councillors

Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

The Ipswich Conservative Association’s annual summer party celebrated the opportunities for getting more women into politics, with a speaker who told us about her own career: as a banker, mother and recruiter.

Days later, after a male-dominated contest for the keys to No.10, the Conservative’s second female Prime Minister left, favouring a day at Lord’s, whilst the incoming PM, Boris Johnson, sacked the UK’s first female Defence Secretary (a Brexiteer) after just weeks in the role. Winning respect within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for her passion and determination, Penny Mordaunt has ten years’ experience in the Royal Naval Reserve, first as a rating, then Sub-Lieutenant; only weeks before her sacking, she was awarded honorary Commander status by the Queen, conferred on just 30 people.

Now the Conservatives have also lost the inspirational Ruth Davidson as Scottish Leader. The pressures of the job meant spending less time with her baby son and family; although she remains an MSP, hopes that she would eventually take on a national role at Westminster have diminished. A sad day for all of us, but further evidence that politics is a massive commitment, especially at times of crisis and division.

But what message does the loss of these three high profile women, not to mention the summary sacking of a young female Treasury advisor, send to potential female recruits to politics, especially when – immediately prior to the changeover in Downing Street – the Liberal Democrats chose a woman, also a mother, as their leader? Labour is the only party not to have had a woman leader, except as an ‘interim’.

Women account for 51 per cent of the population, yet their presence at the top of business and in politics falls short of that number. Whilst the new Cabinet does have women in key roles, and – critically – both men and women from varied ethnic backgrounds, it is essential that talented individuals from across the spectrum are encouraged to aspire to government – both local and national.

Under normal circumstances, having a lot of money can alleviate some pressures, especially after selection when candidates, including local council candidates, are expected to use their own cash in campaigning. Are those lacking sufficient funds to contribute deterred, although passionate about helping people: listening to them and developing strategies to help the majority, not the minority? Swiftly dropped, the social care policies for the elderly and disabled would never have got into the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto if top politicians had listened to those working ‘at the coalface’ – councillors who have, themselves, experienced personal struggles and are in daily contact with those in need.

This disconnect is further amplified by the Centre for Social Justice’s recent proposal that the retirement age should be increased to 75; whilst some people choose to work beyond current retirement age, perhaps part time in retail, or as journalists, authors, gardeners or continuing in the professions, it should be their choice. Supplementing income, to sustain mental capacity, keep fit and prevent loneliness are key reasons, but not everyone is sufficiently fit to continue, especially in manual occupations. Thousands of retirees are also volunteers, as coastguards, in hospitals, libraries and museums, helping maintain public parks, etc. Without them, charities and communities would collapse, and families left without childcare when parents are working, or the love and devotion lavished on the frail and elderly by unpaid carers – usually women.

It’s easy to forget that, during its last administration, Labour took billions out of the UK private pensions sector – the best in Europe at the time. Women, in low paid or part time jobs, were especially disadvantaged as employers wound up their schemes; many people now have to rely on the State pension and, despite efforts to support and encourage today’s workers to contribute to a private pension, the benefits for average earners are unlikely to match those which were lost.

For the lucky few, whose private or public sector pensions are protected and sufficiently generous, allowing early retirement in middle-age without major responsibilities, and opportunities for another career – local politics is an option. However, this can lead to an imbalance with many councils dominated by older, often retired and affluent (male) members.

So, more effort should be made to attract younger people, both men and women, from ethnic and diverse backgrounds, bringing a vast range of practical knowledge and understanding; balancing family, financial, and career pressures, they have a very different outlook on life and their contributions are invaluable. They bring a fresh commonsense approach to decisions impacting ‘ordinary’ people’s daily lives, including housing, children’s services, or cancelling bus services, which contributes to isolation.

They must be encouraged to become engaged, and listened to, if we are to enable them to realise their ambitions, adapting policies to meet changing demand, and environmental issues. Younger people are also more computer-literate, which means that they understand how technology could improve services. Consequently, their guidance would be invaluable in joining up provision.

However, whilst MPs complain of abuse from sectors of the electorate, councillors – especially women – are also victims, often targeted by opposition parties. There is no excuse for such behaviour, but it wears people down, and puts others off entering politics, as will current threats to deselect successful MPs, whose local Associations continue to support them; this is nothing short of bullying. We are not robots, and should value debating different views, whether or not we are in agreement.

None of this is helping to bring more women into politics. They can already lack the confidence to put themselves forward, despite many being involved with local schools and helping their communities. To overcome such reluctance, Conservative Associations could hold special social events, hosted by female mentors, to attract and encourage potential candidates – allowing freedom of speech.

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

Matthew Barber: The potential to fight crime using technology is significant

Matthew Barber is the Conservative candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley. He is currently the Deputy PCC for that area.

Confidence matters. Not just in the sense of good PR, or a nice warm feeling inside, it actually matters. Thankfully, most people have very little or no contact with the criminal justice system, but we all need to have confidence that the system is in good health and working to protect us and those around us. You do not have to believe in a rose-tinted past in order to see that this confidence has taken a battering over recent years, and indeed decades.

Justice is seen as too slow and bureaucratic; investigative outcomes are poor; sentencing is seen as weak and reoffending rates are high. We urgently need to rehabilitate both offenders, and the criminal justice system itself. Few complex systems are perfect, especially those that have to deal with human tragedy and transgression as their bread and butter, but through the leadership of Local Criminal Justice Boards, that bring together all of the agencies involved in delivering justice, Police and Crime Commissioners can be the midwives to that transformation.

Much of the attention to police performance is understandably about visibility, but that is only part of the picture. The investigative outcomes are well below where the public would expect them to be. In Thames Valley a major new initiative is being launched to ensure that investigation is at the heart of what the police do. It is one of the unique functions that can only be carried out by the police and it goes beyond the immediate response to incidence which is so often the focus of attention and resources.

The effectiveness and quality of prosecutions must also be rigorously scrutinised. Undoubtedly much of this rests with the police in terms of providing thorough investigations and properly dealing with issues such as disclosure, but the Crown Prosecution Service also need to ensure that they are not prioritising the safest cases at the expense of confidence in the wider system.

The use of technology in our courts and prisons needs to be improved. Too often the correct technology is not in place or the infrastructure isn’t up to the job. With court closures making the physical journey to secure justice a longer one for many victims and witnesses, the facilities and the support for them needs to be right first time, every time.

The public response to sentencing, often without understanding the details of the case will always be a problem, but whilst prisoners continue to be routinely released half way through the sentence that has been imposed by the courts it is little wonder that confidence is draining away. If we are to retain this policy the Ministry of Justice should seriously consider GPS tagging for all serious or violent offenders as part of their sentence. This is currently used by Thames Valley on a voluntary basis for a small cohort of offenders, but the potential of this technology is significant. Not just by imposing an additional restriction on someone’s liberty as part of their sentence, but as an active tool to reducing reoffending and helping people to turn their lives around.

This final point about reducing the chances of someone committing further crimes is key. Too often the pendulum of debate swings all the way to draconian punishment to ultra-lenient sentencing with no evidence of success. There is a balance to be struck. Whilst offenders are in prison they are their to be punished, but there is no reason why that time inside should not be used to equip them with the basic skills to become law abiding members of society on their release. Once they are outside there is no reason why they should be cast aside. Restrictions on liberty, provision of education, and where necessary treatment should all be part of how the state deals with offenders in order to keep society safe.

Reform will cost money, but as is so often the case, cash isn’t the only answer. By properly joining the system up, through bodies such as Local Criminal Justice Boards, can improve working practices, encourage the sharing of data and ensure that all agencies have a shared goal of improving justice for victims.

Just as there is no contradiction between punishment and rehabilitation, there should also be no conflict between delivering an efficient criminal justice system and at the same time ensuring public confidence in it.

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

Transparency on developer contributions is welcome

When Sir Eric Pickles was the Communities and Local Government Secretary there was a change in the approach to accountability in our town halls. The “tyranny of sameness” was eased. We saw the demise of the Audit Commission. Box ticking and data sending were slashed. Instead of councils being agencies of Whitehall, a spirit of “localism” was brought in. Councils were judged on results rather than micro-managed; for instance, the New Homes Bonus offered an incentive and that proved more effective than centralised targets. But accountability did not disappear – it’s just that it came from below rather than from above. Council Taxpayers were given the power to veto excessive increases. Schools were given greater autonomy especially if they chose to convert into academies. There was a shift to “neighbourhood planning”.

Part of this new accountability was greater transparency. Spending on all items over £500 must now be published – empowering “armchair auditors” to spot poor value for money.

Broadly this legacy has remained intact – although in recent years councils have been able to impose inflation-busting Council Tax rises without the bother of securing approval from their residents in referendums. But since Sir Eric’s tenure, radicalism has given way to consolidation. Now there are some signs it might revive. Last week came news of a welcome enhancement in terms of transparency.

The Government announced:

“Local people will be able to see how every pound of property developers’ cash, levied on new buildings, is spent supporting the new homes their community needs, thanks to new rules coming into force.

“Builders already have to pay up for roads, schools, GP surgeries and parkland needed when local communities expand – in 2016 to 2017 alone they paid a whopping £6 billion towards local infrastructure helping create jobs and growth. Yet before today, councils were not required to report on the total amount of funding received – or how it was spent – leaving local residents in the dark.

“New rules will mean councils will be legally required to publish vital deals done with housing developers so residents can see exactly how money will be spent investing in the future of their community.”

Esther McVey, the Housing Minister said:

“The new rules coming into force today will allow residents to know how developers are contributing to the local community when they build new homes – whether that’s contributing to building a brand-new school, roads or a doctor’s surgery that the area needs.”

The rules are designed “to give greater confidence to communities about the benefits new housing can bring to their area.” If the sums provided under Section 106 payments and the Community Infrastructure Levy were spent effectively then I do think it would help make new housing more popular. It is not just a matter of the developers handing over the money. It is also being able to check to see if it has been spent as agreed. The money is not meant to just sit in a ringfenced bank account or to pay for bureaucrats salaries. It is meant to go on specific projects such as planting street trees, or road improvements, or a new playground in the local park. Then when a planning application comes along residents can balance the disruption and extra pressure against the promised benefits that will be delivered.

When I was a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham I persuaded my Conservatve colleagues to publish a schedule of funds held under Section 106. Alas and alack I am no longer a councillor and Hammersmith Town Hall is now under socialist rule. Labour has not been quite so brazen as to cease publication but it has became more of a struggle to keep the information up to date. The Council still claims:

“We update the transparency schedule every three months.”

The difficulty is that it isn’t true. The latest schedule is from two years ago.

There is a case that these developer contributions are an unjustifed obstruction to getting the new homes we need. If the population increases then so will tax revenue. More children means more funding for schools as the money follows the pupil. New homes means new Council Tax. So what is the logic in giving the councils an extra bung? Better for the property developers to focus on coming up with a good scheme. Regular readers will know my view that beautiful, traditional design is the key. That is why the mission of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, chaired by Sr Roger Scruton and Nicholas Boys Smith, is so important.

If we are going to have these billions of pounds of developer contributions sloshing around, then giving us some chance to keep track of where it is all going is welcome.

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

Judy Terry: We need to focus on the Eastern Powerhouse

Judy Terry is a marketing professional and a former local councillor in Suffolk.

The Government talks endlessly about ‘prioritising the Northern Powerhouse’, whilst ignoring the huge economic potential of the Eastern Powerhouse, which actually delivers power. “The East of England is powering the Northern Powerhouse, and fuelling the Midlands Engine, but people are simply not aware of that,” explains a frustrated Simon Gray, Chief Executive Officer of the East of England Energy Group (EEEGR):

“I’ve had, at the last count, at least nine energy ministers in the time I’ve been in office, and just as we get to the point where we have managed to get our message across they move onto another department and I have to start all over again.”

Following the latest Cabinet reshuffle, Simon Gray is now on his tenth energy minister in his eight years at the helm.

Small wonder that Government lacks a clear Energy Strategy to meet expanding demand, unaware of the exceptional opportunities off Eastern England, despite energetic support from local Conservative MPs, Peter Aldous and Therese Coffey, who are consistent advocates in Westminster.

During our discussion (on 14th August), Simon Gray championed the importance of the region:

“Today nearly 4GW of offshore wind power is operational off the region, accounting for 52 per cent of the UK’s current 7.5GW installed capacity, with potential to reach 14.5GW by 2030.”

£11 billion has been invested in the region’s offshore wind to date, providing 971 turbines, with a further £22 billion required to complete the build-out.

According to a recent report, Norfolk & Suffolk Offshore Wind Cluster, funded by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (NALEP):

“The East of England has become the UK’s epicentre for energy generation, with its unique mix of renewable energy, in particular, offshore wind, gas and nuclear energy production. The flourishing offshore wind cluster is establishing itself as the centre of gravity for the market, with more installed capacity than any other UK region.”

This extraordinary, unrecognised, legacy goes back over five decades, with energy from the Southern North Sea’s (SNS) oil and gas reserves, and nuclear power at Sizewell, gathering momentum in the last fifteen years, whilst pioneering renewables at Scroby Sands. The area’s unique combination of predominantly shallow water, favourable seabed conditions for foundation, and strong wind speeds, also benefits from its close proximity to UK and European ports and international airports.

To realise Government ambitions to be carbon-neutral by 2050, old oil and gas platforms are being decommissioned. “Costs are estimated at £35-70 billion to decommission, plug and abandon wells, preventing release of gas into the atmosphere,” explains Gray, who is concerned that Government thinking is not joined up, and warning against ripping up the infrastructure, leaving a valuable asset inaccessible.

“The process should be managed to optimise current facilities. The Scottish Government created a decommissioning fund, and the Dutch Government introduced decommissioning facilities at its state-owned ports, but we don’t see the same level of investment in England because the ports are privatised, which makes it difficult to persuade shareholders to invest in infrastructure ahead of the actual demand.

“As we speak today (Aug 14th) 51 per cent of electricity is coming from gas and there are still large gas reserves in the South North Sea, with anything up to 50 per cent of the nation’s gas supply processed at Bacton in Norfolk. This facility could be used to bring in Hydrogen as a fuel and / or use the infrastructure for carbon capture and storage, with pipelines from industry in London and the South East. Yet Ofgem is telling business to stop investing, so pension funds and the Church are redirecting funds elsewhere.”

Today wind is providing just 12 per cent of electricity and nuclear 15 per cent, with coal reduced to just 2.4 per cent, so there is a long way to go before UK needs can be met sustainably:

“We have a South North Sea regeneration group examining options: excess wind is currently not used, and solar power relies on the weather, but producing hydrogen could become highly cost-effective if transported along existing oil/gas pipelines.”

There is also potential to develop solar farms and onshore wind for community generation, rather than downloading energy from miles away. Local communities would be more likely to accept such developments if they benefited from lower energy bills or part ownership of the facilities.

The region is awaiting the next round of offshore wind consents, with the largest manufacturer, Siemens, considering the level of its future investment. Whilst the Netherlands is developing a ‘SNS national grid system’, which offshore developers will just plug into, the UK currently is not, which means that developers’ costs are much higher, budgeting on a project by project basis, including creating their own dedicated grid connection, rather than taking a holistic overview. “Ministers should review this policy to increase affordability, and speed up delivery,” Gray observes.

The National Grid infrastructure for windfarm output reaching land also lacks co-ordination, although the Eastern Region is at the forefront of the industry, “we are the trailblazers, and the next generation of offshore turbines provides more energy from each footprint than previously.” Floating platforms are being trialled off Scotland, “with the control room located in Great Yarmouth alongside the dudgeon wind farm control facility!”

As the debate about nuclear continues, Gray emphasises its contribution over the last 50 years, and the need for it to remain part of the energy mix with Sizewell C, employing a highly skilled workforce. Local authorities are closely involved in the negotiations, especially Planning and transport issues for the ten year project.

Gray says:

“The East of England is perceived to be affluent, as a net contributor to the Treasury, yet the region has been deprived of the major infrastructure investment desperately needed for further economic expansion by successive governments.

“During the recent Tory leadership race, the new Chancellor, Sajid Javid, talked of creating a £100 billion national infrastructure fund. Each £1 invested here to improve road, rail and airport connections, as well as ports, will give a better, and faster, return than elsewhere.”

Another concern is the lack of skills, “we have areas of deprivation, especially in Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, which are more challenging than other areas, with two or three generations of unemployed as fishing and other post-industrial industries declined. Those jobs need to be replaced, and retained in the region, which means investing in skills as well as infrastructure.”

So, Gray is pleased that the Chancellor is now promising more money for education. He despairs at the low educational attainment in these deprived locations:

“We need £500,000 to develop skills and training. We have some of the worst performing schools, but it’s not easy to reach out to all the schools to inspire students about the opportunities across our local energy industries. We are told that schools have to stick to the curriculum, and when we’ve arranged after-school events with employers, students and their parents can struggle to attend due to a lack of transport infrastructure to get them there.

“Young people understand technology and we need to get them out of the unemployment spiral, to motivate them, and that means reaching out to these isolated communities, engage with them and help them to aspire.” Discussions are in hand with Suffolk County Council, the education authority, and the district council, to increase awareness of the range of potential lifetime careers across energy and the supply chain.

Some progress is, however, being made. Supported by NALEP and employers, an offshore wind training centre has been established at Great Yarmouth and EEEGR’s Skills for Energy programme is a conduit between employers, schools, colleges and universities, encouraging people to come to the industry locally and from outside the region to stay and invest in the local economy. An £11.3 million new-build All Energy Skills Centre opens at East Coast College’s Lowestoft Campus in October, providing multi-functional flexible training across the industry, including marine training facilities:

“We worked with employees, the local authorities, Job Centres and other stakeholders to explain the opportunities and about 100 recruits have now passed through the system.

“The University of East Anglia (UEA) has a School of Climate Change, working with the University of Suffolk, “We have the BSc, MSc MEeng and BEng energy engineering courses at UEA which are wonderful; however, we are really keen to encourage the formation of a School of Engineering at UEA, specialising in Energy.”

With all that’s going on, Gray once again emphasises the need for a further injection of cash, including to kick-start graduate apprenticeship schemes, complementing the Ogden Trust Coastal Internship programme, which pays students for four week projects during the summer holidays.

He would also like to see the various energy providers working more closely, sharing expertise and vessels servicing the platforms and turbines; “an uber-style booking system transferring workers and equipment from site to site is just one way to improve efficiency, and reduce costs.”

To maximise the estimated £60 billion investment in the Eastern Region’s energy industries over the next twenty years, including in nuclear, “we need to see more focus on partnership working across national and local government, education and the companies delivering these essential services. We are starting to see the sectors working together and we need to encourage and reward joint working.”

To enhance integration, co-operation, and expansion, an All Energy Industry Council is underway to boost trade, investment and growth within the industry and deliver the National Industrial Strategy and Sector Deals. In the meantime, Gray looks forward to meeting the new Energy Minister, inviting him to attend the Offshore Wind Week – East Anglia event on November 21 and 22 in the hope that he will be in post for longer than weeks or months.

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

John Bald: There is no reason why other schools should not apply Michaela’s principles

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.

Now that the euphoria over Michaela Community School’s results has calmed down, we can consider their wider implications.

First, the facts. Four times the national average of the new top grade of Level 9 – 18 per cent of all entries, with two pupils (from 850 or so nationally) this grade in all subjects. Two and a half times the national average at L7+, equivalent to the former A grade, and 58 per cent Ebacc passes, compared to a national average over recent years in the low twenties. I’ve questioned the validity of the “progress 8” measure, which sees everything in terms of scores in English and maths at 11, but this is still an astonishing 1.5.

The Guardian, no friend of Michaela, said these results placed Michaela among the best state schools in the country, an understatement. They represent the latest milestone in a long journey that has extended the idea of who can succeed academically from the 25 per cent of pupils in the grammar school era, via 50 per cent in the Newsom “Half our Future” report of the early 60s, to the over 80 per cent achieved by Mossbourne nine years ago. Over 90 per cent of Michaela’s passes were at Level 4 (old C) and above, and there are grammar schiools not far away.

Michaela has not merely broken the mould but, as Katharine Birbalsingh put it, “smashed it”. Discussions with teachers at the school’s celebration evening on Friday added to what I’d learned on my visit two years ago. First, the low-level disruption that plagues education in many schools, including some rated outstanding – pupils only do it when inspectors are there if they really hate their teachers – is eliminated during the induction “boot camp”. Pupils who have been used to setting their own behaviour patterns have to change their ways – a smirk across the table when a teacher is talking brings an immediate 25 minute detention, and teachers do not back down in the face of a tantrum.

Second, pupils are grouped according to their abilities and learning needs. Unlike almost all other schools that do this, however, the same attention to detail is paid to the teaching of lower-attaining pupils as to top sets. The one valid objection to ability grouping, that lower sets do not get their share of the best teaching, does not apply, and Deputy Head Katy Ashford, who doubles as special needs co-ordinator, is a key figure in making this happen. No stigma is attached to lower sets, and visitors mentioning setting in front of pupils may be asked to leave.

Third, Michaela’s teaching is consistently thoughtful and systematic. Maths in the first year is arithmetic, based on the computer programme Times Tables Rockstars. Mr Bullock, Head of Year 7, does not comment when I say that this should have been done in primary school, but it ensures that nothing is left out by the time algebra is introduced in the second year. Pupils then work on the programme Hegarty Maths, which tracks individual progress, and do so every day. Detention is there if they don’t, but the constant positive feedback makes them want to. This is another key feature at Michaela – everyone, including nearly all visitors, comes to want to buy into the system.

Despite the obstacles and abuse she faced while setting up the school, Birbalsingh, like Sir Michael Wilshaw at Mossbourne. started with one advantage – a new staff who shared her values, commitment and determination. The young teachers joining the school this year, including some from the private sector, and a physics teacher straight from the Higgs boson project, have this experience to learn from, as well as making their own contribution. Former deputy Barry Smith, who has applied Michaela principles at Great Yarmouth, has had to overcome opposition from established staff, and deal with a group of seriously, and at times violently, disruptive pupils and hostile parents. Birbalsingh gives credit to nearby Ark Wembley Park school for adopting Michaela principles, with similarly positive results, showing that the approach works beyond her own school.

There were no politicians at the celebration evening, leaving the field to the people who have done the work – the staff, and pupils who have joined the new sixth form – entry level 7 passes at Grade 7 or above, aiming for Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, and the social mobility that these bring. It was a pity that Michael Gove could not be present at what is, in my view, his greatest achievement. But if the Conservative Conference in 2010 was Katharine Birbalsingh’s day, this was her night. And Michaela’s.

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

Greg Taylor: The PM must be bold and deliver real fiscal autonomy

Greg Taylor is a political consultant and was formerly public affairs manager at the Local Government Association and in the Mayor of London’s office.

During Boris Johnson’s overall successful eight years at City Hall, perhaps no campaign spoke more to his big-picture ambitions for the capital than his quest for serious, long-term financial devolution.

After his first term in office, Johnson realised that much of his ambition for his second term would be curtailed by the limited fiscal powers granted to the Mayor of London. Yes, a Mayor can add to the precept latched on to Londoners’ council tax bills, and revenue is brought in from London’s wildly expensive public transport system. But the vast majority of the Mayor’s budget is bestowed with begrudging munificence by Her Majesty’s Treasury through Government grant, leaving big spending decisions intertwined with the political whims and personal priorities of Whitehall ministers, rather than in the gift of the leader with the largest individual electoral mandate in the UK.

Frustrated by glacial negotiations with Osborne’s Treasury, which had little truck with London’s demands after a splurge of Olympic cash, and guided by his new Chief of Staff Sir Edward Lister, immediately after his re-election in 2012 Johnson commissioned created the London Finance Commission.

Chaired by LSE’s local government finance expert Professor Tony Travers, and bringing in cross-party commissioners like Jules Pipe (then Mayor of Hackney, now Sadiq Khan’s Deputy Mayor for Planning) and Nick Raynsford, then the Labour MP for Greenwich and Woolwich, former minister, and fiscal boffin), the Commission’s remit was broad. How could London do better, invest more strategically, deliver the best outcomes for its population and businesses?

A year later, the Commission reported, with some dismaying findings. London was keeping a piddling seven per cent of its total tax take for reinvestment in citywide infrastructure. When compared with New York, which keeps around 50 per cent, and Tokyo which keeps around 70 per cent, the powers of central government were shown to the all-pervasive. The capital was deemed to be “an extreme outlier” in comparison to its international competitors, with England “far too centralised” to see the services people urgently needed effectively delivered. The Commission’s recommendations were pragmatic but potentially game-changing: devolving property taxes, including stamp duty and business rates, to London’s government.

Still nowhere near to granting London Tokyo’s level of financial autonomy, but a good start.

Unsurprisingly, Johnson accepted and ran with the recommendations with characteristic gusto. They were the top agenda item in his regular meetings with Cabinet ministers, from Communities to Transport and Treasury. And they underpinned all his major speeches. In a stroke of political savvy, he gathered the leaders of the UK’s most powerful cities – from Manchester to Bristol – and persuaded them to jump on board, forming the joint City Centred campaign which aimed to prove this wasn’t a London-only (nor a Conservative-only) roadshow.

Assailed from all corners of the UK, with influential leaders like Manchester’s Sir Richard Leese and Bristol’s independent Mayor George Ferguson getting stuck in, the Government couldn’t ignore the clamour. In 2015 George Osborne announced the full devolution of business rates by 2020, a huge coup for the then-Mayor’s campaign, but a small step on the road to real fiscal autonomy.

Fast forward four years, and the London Finance Commission’s report, and Johnson’s campaigning, remain the benchmark for devolution discussions, even if progress has stalled. At a recent Devolution APPG meeting, longstanding HCLG Committee chair (and Sheffield MP) Clive Betts MP pointed out that the work remains unsurpassed, though the questions that the Commission’s report throws up remain unanswered. Questions around redistribution and ensuring economic sustainability outside major urban areas. Questions that, with the full weight of the No 10 Policy Unit and the Treasury behind him, Johnson can prepare to answer.

Thus far, those who campaigned alongside the then-Mayor could be forgiven for being disappointed by his moves in Number 10. In his July speech in Manchester, one of his first as PM, Johnson pledged £3.6bn to support 100 of the UK’s more ramshackle towns, while last week he promised to expand the £1bn Future High Streets Fund. While this smacks of the Whitehall-centric, hand-out mentality that the Prime Minister so vigorously denigrated only 3 years ago, the pre-election, short-termist motives are clear. It would take years to put the recommendations of the London Finance Commission into effect, but the Prime Minister seems likely to need votes very soon indeed.

But he must be bold in setting out his vision for the longer term, and soon. We have never had a Prime Minister with such depth of experience in municipal government, nor understanding of what levers and funds our cities, and regions, need to thrive.

Nor such a natural connection with the ambitions and worries of regional dwellers beyond the M25. It is, of course, right that Mr Johnson is unshackling his reputation from the capital city with which he is so intrinsically associated, but his time as Mayor showed him that Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and others will benefit from fiscal devolution every bit as much as London, with all the domino gains across their wider regions.

Future election success depending, it may well be within this Prime Minister’s gift to fundamentally change how our regions invest in their own futures. The London Finance Commission, despite its name, provides a blueprint for how to build an economy that truly gives power to “turbo-boosted” regions through devolved taxes. In the short term, devolution might require building up the powers of Andy Burnham, Sadiq Khan and the like, as well as Andy Street. But in the longer term, a serious devolution agenda would cement this Prime Minister, and the Conservative Party, as the champions of lasting local autonomy and freedom from the suffocating tendrils of risk-averse Whitehall mandarins. And there are votes in that, too.

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

Jay Singh-Sohal: As a Sikh I understand how a sense of community is a safeguard against crime

Capt. Jay Singh-Sohal works in Strategic Communications for M&C Saatchi and serves as a Captain in the Army Reserve. He is the Conservative candidate for West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner.

Crime has shockingly been on the rise in the West Midlands ever since Labour first won the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) election in 2012.  Since then, knife crime has increased by 85 per cent, and it’s affecting our young people the most. In 2018, nearly 700 schoolchildren were the victims of knife crime, including 41 of primary school age. Alongside, has been a general rise in weapons’ possession (up 36 per cent from last year) and violence against the person (up 32 per cent). I cannot accept this rise in violence, which shows no signs of abating under a Labour PCC who has politicised the role.

That is why I am running to be Commissioner, to work with the government and our regional Mayor, Andy Street, to tackle crime and improve the life chances of our young people.  It’s an issue close to my heart because of where I was raised, in Birmingham Ladywood, one of the most deprived areas of the country.

For people like me growing up in a migrant family during the 1980s and 1990s, life could be made simple or complicated depending on which side of the law you found yourself on. If you worked hard and stayed out of trouble, there was an opportunity to be gained. But for some young people, the lack of options presented a temptation to take short cuts. It could mean becoming either victims of crime or entering a slippery slope to being perpetrators themselves.

I saw this at first hand, friends and peers who joined gangs for camaraderie and brotherhood, smoked cannabis outside the school gates to pass time, stole from corner shops and music stores, and, for those who caught buses from afar, got into fights in Birmingham city centre with lads from other schools. Years later, it does not surprise me to hear about the fate of some of those I grew up with in Handsworth.

I was fortunate to have been able to steer away from much of that because growing up I had a religious family and community of faith-principled Sikhs to keep me in check. From a young age, visits to the many Gurdwaras near my home in Birmingham, West Bromwich and Smethwick and school holidays spent at Sikh camps in Dudley and Wolverhampton learning about my faith and identity meant I knew the difference between right and wrong and had successful role models to look up to.

So it’s not an understatement to say being surrounded by my community kept me away from crime. It gave me purpose, to want to tell the stories of those around me and to now use the office of the PCC to introduce preventative activities that steer young people away from gangs and towards respecting others and developing themselves.

I know it can work because I’m proof: at the tender age of 16, with support from community youth workers, I successfully applied for funding from the Princes Trust Millennium Awards Scheme to create and publish a regular inner-city magazine. I was a teenager trusted with around £12,000 in my bank account to run the project. It could have gone so wrong. Instead, it was the beginning of my career in journalism.

Even then, boys will be boys and I’d be lying if I said the paths presented to me often split with a clear enough route to getting up to no good. The temptation was there and I don’t think I was too lazy not to. But perhaps the exposure to community values was too strong, the wearing of a Kara (Sikh iron bangle and one of five symbols of our faith which reminds oneself to do good) too powerful. Or maybe I was too much of a geek (I used to be teased at school for watching Star Trek) to warrant being included by the “cool kids”. I still found other ways to rebel, legally. Some in my traditionally Labour-voting community might even say joining the Conservatives was the ultimate form of rebellion.

So I understand the pressures and real life choices young people are presented with in life, and acknowledge that it is not easy growing up in inner-cities and within homes where social and familial cohesion might not be apparent.  In a fast-paced world our young people are all too easily tempted into doing no good – it could be because of peer pressure, lack of positive role models or missing economic opportunity. From minor theft to recreational drugs to anti-social behaviour, the journey into gangs, violence and crime is too easily made. Particularly for those from poorer backgrounds who are disproportionately more likely to become involved in criminal activity. We must address those issues if we are to create the positive change we need to improve the lives of young people and the future hopes of our urban areas.

Creating opportunities for young people is the natural next stage of delivering upon a robust and dynamic domestic agenda that creates behaviour change to tackle the causes of criminal behaviour. It must follow on from the Prime Minister’s announcements of several much-needed measures including recruiting 20,000 more police officers, more prison spaces, and more money for the CPS to tackle violent crime.

Youth crime is a social justice issue that our government must now take seriously by investing in “diversionary opportunities” that ensure all our young people are presented with better options than activity that leads to breaking the law.  Boris Johnson will understand this. As Mayor of London, he not only presided over more “stop and search” to tackle rising knife crime but balanced this with intervention schemes including sponsored mentoring, apprenticeships, and youth clubs that helped address the cause of youth crime.  I am hopeful he will do so again on a national level.

My active and faith-principled community helped in my development, but for many, it requires government commitment at a national and local level to create investment into youth and community facilities that improve neighbourhoods and ensure young people have the opportunities to become empowered to make the right decisions in life.

I will be working hard to win the argument for the Tory blue approach across the region, and lobbying for more investment into our young people’s futures. Doing so will assure the less privileged and often overlooked sections in our society of our Conservative commitment to ensuring that anyone can succeed with the right opportunities.

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Tony Devenish: Having a Prime Minister who understands how local government works is hugely welcome

Tony Devenish is a member of the London Assembly for West Central.

Even his fiercest detractors could hardly deny that the first few weeks of Boris Johnson’s premiership has sent a much-needed jolt of energy through British politics. It is almost as though a blonde hurricane has swept through Downing Street, with a new-look cabinet, a robust approach to the Brexit negotiations, and radical policies on infrastructure, policing, and education all in a month’s work for our new premier.

Johnson’s fresh leadership style, combined with these new announcements, and the ongoing Brexit psychodrama means that the news agenda has rapidly reached full capacity. There is little room for anything else, especially “unsexy” issues like local government. When was the last time you saw a story about the Government’s approach to our local councils elevated to the top of the news headlines?

The noise of the 24-hour news cycle has so far distracted from the fact that the new Government could quietly become a great reforming administration when it comes to local government – not least because is crammed full of highly capable individuals who are well regarded amongst council leaders.

First, the main man himself. For more than a decade Johnson has been a politician with a global reach, so it is easy to forget that for eight years he ran a regional authority. Listen to Johnson for any length of time and it becomes clear that his time as Mayor of London has had a profound impact on his politics. Having someone as Prime Minister who understands how local government works and appreciates the challenges faced by local authorities should be warmly welcomed by councillors and members of devolved authorities like me and even Johnson’s successor as Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

No Prime Minister is an island and each premier will rely heavily on their Downing Street team. In Johnson’s case, Sir Eddie Lister, his Chief of Staff, will provide much of the strategic direction within Number 10. Few people are more respected than Sir Eddie in local government circles, after all, he was Johnson’s right-hand man at City Hall and the successful leader of the legendary Wandsworth Council from 1992 to 2011. Sir Eddie has lived and breathed housing issues having been Chairman of Homes England – the Government’s “housing accelerator” – where he presided over a jump in housing supply (housing supply increased from 124,000 in 2012/13 to 222,000 in 2017/18). There can be little doubt that Sir Eddie will be a friend to local government.

Along with Robert Jenrick – the new Secretary of State for Local Government and the first ever cabinet minister born in the 1980s – we have a first-rate local government team at the very top of the tree. They are well placed to put in place a series of changes which could make our local authorities work better for real people.

Here are just a few modest suggestions for the new Government which could make a big difference:

Housing

Getting more homes built will undeniably at the top of the Government’s to-do list – especially in London and the South East.

Finally getting to grips with public sector land banking should be an absolute priority for MHCLG. For too long, swathes of publicly owned land has simply sat vacant while people have been crying out for affordable new homes. The Government needs to scrap the bureaucratic hurdles to dealing with land banking and force public bodies to shift this land to either housing associations or the private sector for development within a time line.

Rumours that the Prime Minister is planning to drastically raise the threshold for paying stamp duty are very encouraging. Along with expanding housing supply, this move would be a game changer for aspiring homeowners – especially in London – who simply cannot afford the costs of buying a home of their own. This, in turn, should incentivise developers to build more affordable homes and keep rents from increasing.

Public sector efficiency

With many public sector leaders on a larger salary than the Prime Minister, our public authorities should be consistently and unfailingly offering excellent value for money. Unfortunately in many cases this simply isn’t happening, but a few changes could have a transformative impact on the efficiency of the public sector. For example, public sector bodies should be encouraged to drop the assumption that eliminating fixed term contracts and shifting all staff onto permanent contacts (which include a gold-plated pension) is always the prudent thing to do.

Increasing efficiency doesn’t have to come off the back of yet another big local government re-structure. Frankly, authorities have had enough of re-organisation mania and it’s time to allow local leaders the space they need to get the best out of their teams. A longer-term funding package would be welcome so that authorities have the ability to plan ahead in a more effective way.

Social care

Reforming our social care system has stalled as a result of Brexit, but this doesn’t change the fact that this issue desperately needs addressing. If Westminster doesn’t have the capacity, let local government lead on this issue. There is no reason why first-class local leaders like West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, with their first-hand experience of the social care system, shouldn’t lead on the forthcoming Green Paper. This would also help to win over cross-party support

Conservatives instinctively believe in pushing power downwards and outwards to Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”. This Government now has a golden opportunity to spread this enthusiasm, and get people talking about the importance of local government delivery again.

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Kevin Hollinrake and Rosalind Beck: Rent controls would hit London hardest

Kevin Hollinrake is MP for Thirsk and Malton. Dr Rosalind Beck is a doctor of Criminology and a Conservative Party member in South Wales.

Most people assume when you have a shortage of a product, the answer is to create more of it. Currently, in the context of the UK housing shortage, however, this is not seen as the answer; instead, the thrust of policy is to play musical chairs with what already exists.

This is seen, for example, in policies to force the transfer of houses from one tenure (private and social rented housing) to another (owner-occupation), via punitive taxation and regulatory measures in the private rented sector (PRS) and by Right to Buy in the social sector. This does nothing to alleviate the original problem – a shortage of housing.

What’s worse, as pointed out in a recent report by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Radomir Tylecote, some of the ‘solutions’ in turn create new problems, for which further solutions must be found.

Theresa May’s sudden decision to scrap Section 21 notices in the private rented sector (PRS) is a case in point. If this knee-jerk decision goes ahead it will mean tenants gain indefinite tenancies; this is because landlords won’t be able to serve a notice on them unless they breach specified conditions of their contracts, which would have to be proved in a court of law. Scrapping Section 21 would be disastrous for the PRS and we are hoping that this will not be pursued by the new administration.

Of course, no sooner did Theresa May make this announcement, than George Monbiot, amongst others on the left, predictably called for the next ‘solution’ to the problems this will create:

“The government’s promise to repeal section 21 of the 1988 Housing Act, which enables owners of property to evict tenants without good reason, will achieve little if it does not come with a cap on rent rises: otherwise landlords can engineer de facto evictions by hiking the price.”

And so the clamour for rent controls began, notably with Sadiq Khan demanding powers to introduce them in London. He has made this his flagship policy, despite having no idea how it would work and what the impact would be.  Sadiq Khan’s team don’t know if leftie rent controls will help Londoner.

Although it is in the Labour Manifesto to introduce them nationwide, the more immediate threat is in London, so we will focus on that here.

The special case of London.

In recent years, it has often been stated that rents are soaring everywhere in the UK. This is false as rents have generally tracked inflation and in London rent rises are already well below inflation, increasing by just 0.9 per cent in the year to June compared to CPI standing at two per cent.

This is therefore a curious time to demand rent controls, as it could mean increases being capped at, for example, 2.5 per cent.  This could result in 2.5 per cent becoming a target and rents rising more than they would have otherwise done.

To support the policy of rent controls, emotive arguments are often deployed, especially about the experience of renters in London. One hears how expensive rents prevent them from saving so they can later buy a home of their own.

This is of course regrettable, but there are two sides to every coin and two sets of circumstances to look at; those of the recipient of the housing and those of the provider of it. Without the willingness of the latter, there would be no rented housing. However, in a currently febrile atmosphere, with hardly anyone willing to speak up for private landlords, their perspective is, rather stupidly, rarely considered.  Taking no account of landlords in this, is not only bad for them; it is extremely damaging also to the interests of tenants.

An analysis of the situation demonstrates that rent controls would in fact devastate the PRS in London, where the proportion of private rentals is higher than anywhere else in the country, at around 40 per cent of all housing.

To illustrate this, one only has to compare, for example, Bermondsey, in London, with Mountain Ash in the South Wales valleys.

In South Wales many two-bed houses can be bought for under £65,000 and be rented out for under £100 per week. This rent amounts to a gross yield of 7.4 per cent.

In contrast, a similar two-bed home costing £500,000 in Bermondsey would typically be able to command a rent of £1,550 pm. The gross yield here would be 3.7 per cent.

As one landlord explained to us:

“Some London tenants might think their rent should be capped or reduced to some arbitrary figure set by Government, so that they can manage without worrying. But on a £500,000 house, the landlord is likely to have put down a deposit of £100,000  from their own savings. They will only do that if they can get some return on their money. Does the Government and the tenant think that a previously unknown-to-them private individual – that is, a landlord –  is going to reduce their charges so that they make nothing or even a loss?  What landlord would agree to do this? How would this subsidising be sustainable over the long-term?”

Because £1,550 pm rent seems a lot to most people, Khan and others misrepresent this as though London landlords are committing some heinous crime in seeking a modest gross return of not much more than 3%.When other costs, including mortgage payments and maintenance, are taken into account the figure is more likely to be around one per cent, if that.

Somebody needs to explain business, yields, returns and commercial decisions to Khan, as he clearly does not understand the small margins involved in the PRS.

In a situation where yields are already so tenuous, if caps are put on what landlords can charge, many will make nothing on their investment. The new tax levy, known as Section 24, has already pushed many landlords into a loss. Caps would push this further and many landlords would be forced to sell up.

There are further complications. Rent controls would also be likely, for example, to mean that a time comes when rents no longer meet lenders’ requirements – which have become more stringent because of Government legislation – and the landlord may not be able to re-mortgage when their mortgage term come to an end.  In such circumstances, landlords will have to sell up, evicting the tenants in the process.

As Richard Lambert of the National Landlords Association has said:

“Sadiq Khan… needs to tell us why rent control won’t reduce the number of private rental homes available to Londoners, as it did before, and as it has done everywhere else it has been introduced.”

Some people might welcome this, thinking that first time buyers can buy the sold houses. They need a reality check; such homes are way out of most first-time buyers’ league and have been for decades. Indeed, it is only because landlords have been willing to let out such homes for a small gain (capital appreciation may also occur, but is not guaranteed), that any tenants can afford to live in these areas. This has been critical in supporting the London economy, but the contribution of private landlords has not only not been recognised; it has been derided as though they have done something wrong.

In addition, were caps to be introduced, not only would current landlords bale out, but this would lead to a complete halt on further investment. One need only look to Barcelona, where the Mayor, Ada Colau recently legislated to force developers to include a 30 per cent social homes quota in all new developments of a certain size. Colau boasted that this would lead to 300 new affordable homes in the city each year. Instead, as the quotas make new development unviable, building has collapsed in the city; developers have simply taken their investment elsewhere.

Similarly, who is going to choose to build homes to rent in London, when rent caps are in place, meaning scant, if any return on their shareholders’ investments? Why would they not just go elsewhere?

It is thus rather galling that this issue comes up time and time again with no-one learning from the international and historical experience of rent controls.

The lessons are:

  • Rent caps kill investment.
  • Rent caps lead to a contraction in supply
  • Rent caps lead to a lowering of quality in private rented housing.
  • Rent caps are not a solution to a problem.
  • Rent caps create new problems.

 

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Nickie Aiken: Can motherhood and politics mix?

Cllr Nickie Aiken is the Leader of Westminster City Council.

Sadly, I have never had the pleasure of meeting Ruth Davidson, admiring her from afar as a woman, politician, and now as a mother. Her decision to quit frontline politics last week would not have been an easy one and I have no doubt her deliberations over recent months were tough.

Ruth made it clear that eight years as Leader, six elections, and two referendums, have taken their toll on her family and friends. With the arrival of baby Finn, she has made the same decision many parents (mostly mothers) make – putting their family before their career.

When I heard the news reports that Ruth was set to resign, I knew immediately that it had nothing to do with Boris Johnson or Brexit and everything to do with her son. My first instinct was to congratulate her on a very brave and right decision for her and her family.

There will, no doubt, be much discussion in certain quarters about whether she had let woman politicians down. The feminists and “women can have it all” brigade will likely say she has betrayed their cause. What is more likely is that Ruth has realised that Finn is an absolute gift and actually her time will be better off spent over the next few years being with him, serving her Edinburgh Central constituents, and not crisscrossing Scotland campaigning and leading the Scottish Tories.

I back Ruth 100 per cent. She has served our Party superbly, reaching parts of the electorate no Tory had reached for a long time, if ever. Her down to earth approach, her sharp wit, and political campaigning nous have been a joy to watch, particularly when putting Nicola Sturgeon in her place time after time. Scottish politics and politics, in general, will be a poorer place without her on the main stage.

Politics is a full-on commitment – and so is motherhood. You can do both, but there are limits.

I speak from experience having been elected to Westminster City Council in May 2006 seven months pregnant with a toddler in tow. Being pregnant at the same time as my election hadn’t been part of the plan! Obviously a local councillor is a very different role to a national Party Leader like Ruth. However, maternal guilt is the same whatever the job.

Can you, if you choose, mix politics with parental duties?

Yes, you can but make no mistake, it isn’t easy, it does mean sacrifices, tough choices. I have sadly missed parent’s evenings, my daughter’s secondary school induction ceremony, and numerous other school events because of a three-line whip Council meeting or a Party commitment that I promised four months ago to speak at. I’ve agonised over the choices I have made, but my children have also benefitted from my role and are proud that their mother plays a role in our democracy and politics. I am fortunate that in the main I can work my council commitments around my family. Being home most days after school to make supper before rushing out again to a meeting. Probably not possible or practical as a national party leader which really is a 24/7 role.

I have never found the Conservative Party anything but supportive as a working mum. I am proud to be the product of the meritocracy that makes our Party, the Party for All. This Cardiff comprehensive educated granddaughter of a bus driver has an old Etonian, Jacob Rees Mogg, to thank for firing the starting gun on my Westminster career, chairing my selection committee, and putting me through. Probably not what the likes of Momentum’s Laura Parker and her nasty rhetoric about “establishment millionaires” wants to believe.

I’ve been able to rise through the ranks in Westminster holding several Cabinet Member portfolios including Children Services, the first Westminster Conservative in the role to actually have children! I became Leader of the Council in January 2017. The third mother to do so.

Being a mum actually gives me a different perspective as a politician. I know and understand how important it is to have good childcare available for working families, excellent schools, and high quality sports and leisure facilities. I appreciate how vital it is to keep Council Tax low as rises in this unfair tax particularly hit low income households. My life and parental experiences are why I put building more affordable homes at the top of my political agenda, along with improving our air quality when I became Council Leader. I also know what it is to be part of the ‘sandwich generation” – juggling the bringing up of teenagers with looking after aging parents. My father was diagnosed with dementia shortly after I became Leader.

We must do more to encourage young and older women into our Party and to stand for election both locally and nationally. We still haven’t quite cracked how to do it and the current abusive and adversarial brand of UK politics is unlikely to attract many non-politicos, particular women to stand. I certainly don’t support positive discrimination. I would be appalled if I was selected because of my gender rather than my ability. What message does that send to my daughter’s generation? That said, I hail Women To Win as a great support network. I have not been involved personally but have many friends who have appreciated its support and guidance.

I wish Ruth the very best with bringing up Finn and hopefully having more children with Jen. I also hope that one day when she and the family are ready, she decides she misses us and the cut and thrust of politics, and chooses to return and join the Conservative Party’s growing Mum’s Army.

 

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