Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Austerity ended?

The government’s own statistics show that violent crime has more than doubled in the last five years. It is now at the highest level since comparable records began.
In 2010 Theresa May argued that "nobody should accept a situation where at least 26,000 people fall victim to crime every day." The latest statistics record 10,597,000 incidents of crime in the year-ending September 2017 – or 29,033 a day. She has failed in her crime reduction policy, just as she has failed in nearly every one of her economic, social and environmental policies.
At least she can claim consistency with her Conservative predecessors. Readers may want to reflect on why it is that all post-war Conservative governments have delivered increased crime and reduced numbers of police officers, whilst all Labour governments have increased the number of police officers and cut crime.
Whilst unsolved crimes have topped 2.1 million, the vacancy rate for detectives now stands at more than 5000. Overall police numbers have fallen by another 5% in the last 4 years.
Last year, there were 1,349,154 violent offences compared to 709,000 recorded in 2009.
Of these, nearly 40,000 involved a knife or sharp instrument, more than 20% up on the previous year to the highest on record. The number of homicides, where a knife or sharp instrument was used, also increased by 26% over the previous year.
There was also an 11% increase in offences involving firearms and recorded corrosive substance attacks nearly tripled.
The Home Office’s own reports confirm that the data shows a “shift to youth” involvement in serious violence with an increase in vulnerable groups including homeless, children in care and school-excluded children as “particularly susceptible to drug market recruitment”.
In South Yorkshire, hardly a day goes by without the local media reporting another stabbing, the use of a firearm, or the activity of criminal gangs who are trying to recruit young teenagers in to gang activity, mainly centred around the supply of drugs.
So, what has been the Conservative government’s response to the dramatic increase in violent crime? It announced a Serious Violence Strategy, an Early Intervention and Prevention Fund of £40 million, within which there is an Ending Gang Violence and Exploitation Fund of £300,000.
Wonderful!
Let’s put this in context.
Since 2010, central government funding for youth offending teams has more than halved from £145m in 2010/11 to £72m in 2017/18. Similarly, central government cuts to councils has meant that their spending on crime prevention has also more than halved, from £361m to £172m, and there has been a £387m cut in youth services.
Does no-one in this Conservative government and on the Conservative back-benches think there is no correlation between the massive cuts in expenditure in crime prevention and detection activity and big increases in serious, violent crime? What planet are they on?
The government has also introduced an Offensive Weapons Bill that is going through Parliament at the moment. It includes new offences relating to possessing and selling corrosive substances, selling and distributing and possessing knives and other blades and offensive weapons (like knuckledusters) and bans certain firearms and components.
What is astonishing is that the Bill ignores much of the key evidence contained in a leaked internal Home Office report on the drivers of serious violence. This included compelling evidence that much of the increase in violence had been caused by the government’s own cuts in early intervention initiatives targeted at particularly vulnerable young people.
All the evidence suggests that interventions aimed at supporting the surging number of young people in care, homeless or excluded from school; alongside prevention aimed at educating and supporting parents, carers and teachers would reduce violence among this youth cohort.
Further, the government has simply ignored its own evidence that cuts in police resources are hampering police efforts to tackle the surge in violent crime. The increase in unsolved serious crimes means that there has been a diminishment of the deterrent effect. This is having a serious deleterious effect on public safety and on people’s perception of their own safety.
I hope it will be possible for some important changes to be made to the Bill as it goes through Parliament.
Whenever we are considering policy changes to address problems and challenges, or to exploit new opportunities arising from things like new technology, we ought to look around the world to see if others have had similar problems or opportunities, how they have addressed them, and what lessons can be learned. Too often, energy and resources are committed to reinventing the wheel. This comment applies as much to authorities and agencies in South Yorkshire, as much as it does to the UK government.
In this instance, the Home Office has admitted that, in preparing its new Serious Violence Strategy, it had neglected to learn from others tackling the same issues.
Did it have to travel to the far ends of the world to find successful strategies? No. It just needed to consider the policies and the impact of the internationally renowned Violence Reduction Unit in … Scotland.
In 2005, Scotland had been assessed as the most violent country in the developed world.
Between April 2006 and April 2011, 40 children and teenagers were killed in homicides involving a knife in Scotland. Yet, between 2011 and 2016, that figure fell to just eight. The decline was biggest in Glasgow, which once had one of the highest murder rates in western Europe.
Between 2006 and 2011, 15 children and teenagers were killed with knives in Scotland’s largest city; between 2011 and 2017, none were. Last year, when 35 teenagers were killed by knives in Britain, there was not a single teenage death in Scotland from a knife wound.
Just as important, the Scottish statistics show that there was a decline of more than 70% in the incidence of handling weapons.
This didn’t happen by chance. It didn’t happen because Glasgow teenagers were stuffing deep-fried Mars Bars down their throats instead of stuffing lock-knives in their pockets. It happened because, after considerable research, Scotland adopted a public health approach to knife crime, in which the police work with those in the health, education and social work sectors to address the problem. And, the results so far have been dramatic.
So, I want to see government Ministers and Departments and, locally, South Yorkshire Police and local authorities and all other relevant agencies and voluntary organisations to learn from Scotland - and from any other strategies with successful outcomes - as they develop local responses to the tragic stupidity which is killing local youngsters and leaving local communities insecure and feeling unsafe.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Tragic stupidity

The government’s own statistics show that violent crime has more than doubled in the last five years. It is now at the highest level since comparable records began.
In 2010 Theresa May argued that "nobody should accept a situation where at least 26,000 people fall victim to crime every day." The latest statistics record 10,597,000 incidents of crime in the year-ending September 2017 – or 29,033 a day. She has failed in her crime reduction policy, just as she has failed in nearly every one of her economic, social and environmental policies.
At least she can claim consistency with her Conservative predecessors. Readers may want to reflect on why it is that all post-war Conservative governments have delivered increased crime and reduced numbers of police officers, whilst all Labour governments have increased the number of police officers and cut crime.
Whilst unsolved crimes have topped 2.1 million, the vacancy rate for detectives now stands at more than 5000. Overall police numbers have fallen by another 5% in the last 4 years.
Last year, there were 1,349,154 violent offences compared to 709,000 recorded in 2009.
Of these, nearly 40,000 involved a knife or sharp instrument, more than 20% up on the previous year to the highest on record. The number of homicides, where a knife or sharp instrument was used, also increased by 26% over the previous year.
There was also an 11% increase in offences involving firearms and recorded corrosive substance attacks nearly tripled.
The Home Office’s own reports confirm that the data shows a “shift to youth” involvement in serious violence with an increase in vulnerable groups including homeless, children in care and school-excluded children as “particularly susceptible to drug market recruitment”.
In South Yorkshire, hardly a day goes by without the local media reporting another stabbing, the use of a firearm, or the activity of criminal gangs who are trying to recruit young teenagers in to gang activity, mainly centred around the supply of drugs.
So, what has been the Conservative government’s response to the dramatic increase in violent crime? It announced a Serious Violence Strategy, an Early Intervention and Prevention Fund of £40 million, within which there is an Ending Gang Violence and Exploitation Fund of £300,000.
Wonderful!
Let’s put this in context.
Since 2010, central government funding for youth offending teams has more than halved from £145m in 2010/11 to £72m in 2017/18. Similarly, central government cuts to councils has meant that their spending on crime prevention has also more than halved, from £361m to £172m, and there has been a £387m cut in youth services.
Does no-one in this Conservative government and on the Conservative back-benches think there is no correlation between the massive cuts in expenditure in crime prevention and detection activity and big increases in serious, violent crime? What planet are they on?
The government has also introduced an Offensive Weapons Bill that is going through Parliament at the moment. It includes new offences relating to possessing and selling corrosive substances, selling and distributing and possessing knives and other blades and offensive weapons (like knuckledusters) and bans certain firearms and components.
What is astonishing is that the Bill ignores much of the key evidence contained in a leaked internal Home Office report on the drivers of serious violence. This included compelling evidence that much of the increase in violence had been caused by the government’s own cuts in early intervention initiatives targeted at particularly vulnerable young people.
All the evidence suggests that interventions aimed at supporting the surging number of young people in care, homeless or excluded from school; alongside prevention aimed at educating and supporting parents, carers and teachers would reduce violence among this youth cohort.
Further, the government has simply ignored its own evidence that cuts in police resources are hampering police efforts to tackle the surge in violent crime. The increase in unsolved serious crimes means that there has been a diminishment of the deterrent effect. This is having a serious deleterious effect on public safety and on people’s perception of their own safety.
I hope it will be possible for some important changes to be made to the Bill as it goes through Parliament.
Whenever we are considering policy changes to address problems and challenges, or to exploit new opportunities arising from things like new technology, we ought to look around the world to see if others have had similar problems or opportunities, how they have addressed them, and what lessons can be learned. Too often, energy and resources are committed to reinventing the wheel. This comment applies as much to authorities and agencies in South Yorkshire, as much as it does to the UK government.
In this instance, the Home Office has admitted that, in preparing its new Serious Violence Strategy, it had neglected to learn from others tackling the same issues.
Did it have to travel to the far ends of the world to find successful strategies? No. It just needed to consider the policies and the impact of the internationally renowned Violence Reduction Unit in … Scotland.
In 2005, Scotland had been assessed as the most violent country in the developed world.
Between April 2006 and April 2011, 40 children and teenagers were killed in homicides involving a knife in Scotland. Yet, between 2011 and 2016, that figure fell to just eight. The decline was biggest in Glasgow, which once had one of the highest murder rates in western Europe.
Between 2006 and 2011, 15 children and teenagers were killed with knives in Scotland’s largest city; between 2011 and 2017, none were. Last year, when 35 teenagers were killed by knives in Britain, there was not a single teenage death in Scotland from a knife wound.
Just as important, the Scottish statistics show that there was a decline of more than 70% in the incidence of handling weapons.
This didn’t happen by chance. It didn’t happen because Glasgow teenagers were stuffing deep-fried Mars Bars down their throats instead of stuffing lock-knives in their pockets. It happened because, after considerable research, Scotland adopted a public health approach to knife crime, in which the police work with those in the health, education and social work sectors to address the problem. And, the results so far have been dramatic.
So, I want to see government Ministers and Departments and, locally, South Yorkshire Police and local authorities and all other relevant agencies and voluntary organisations to learn from Scotland - and from any other strategies with successful outcomes - as they develop local responses to the tragic stupidity which is killing local youngsters and leaving local communities insecure and feeling unsafe.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

The economy, stupid.

In 1992, in Bill Clinton’s Little Rock, Arkansas, presidential campaign HQ, strategist James Carville hung a sign that read
  • Change vs more of the same
  • The economy, stupid
  • Don’t forget health care
Shoot forward to today.
We’re certainly in for change and not more of the same.
However, Bill Clinton had a clear idea about the change he wanted to bring about in the USA, whereas Theresa May appears not to have the faintest idea where her Brexit will take the UK. We appear to be on an anarchic roller-coaster of uncertainty, which inevitably means that many companies are now delaying investment with the consequent impact on long-term sustainability, jobs and the national economy.
And, what about the economy, stupid?
Well, let’s put to one side the UK economy and focus on the English local government economy.
Earlier this year, the National Audit Office confirmed that government funding for council services in England had fallen by 49% since 2010. This week’s Cambridge University report, using IFS-compiled data, confirmed that the impact had been that the average council’s spending in England had been cut by 24% since 2010.
This compared to a 12% cut in Wales and 11.5% in Scotland. It appears that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have been able to mitigate the harshest cuts. Don’t be surprised if there is a renewed call to revisit the Barnett Formula. “Mrs Crankie’s free social care for Scotland being funded by Mrs May cutting all social care for many in England” might provide the basis for a populist campaign.
Further, the report confirms that the deepest cuts have been forced on the most deprived areas. Thirty councils have had cuts exceeding 30% (seven exceeding 40%), with only one (LB Westminster, whose net car-parking income alone exceeds the government grant of most authorities) not in the areas with the highest levels of poverty and the least ability to secure income through charges and regeneration.
Meanwhile eight authorities, all relatively wealthy, have had cuts of less than 10%. When the leaders of some of those authorities have been loudly complaining about the financial challenges facing their authorities, it does make you wonder how they would have coped with the scale of the cuts in Salford or South Tyneside. Unsurprisingly, Eric Pickles described this distribution as ‘fair’!
The government has already announced another £1.3bn of cuts in local government revenue resources. So, what are we to make of Mrs May’s loud Party Conference claim that ‘austerity has ended’, whilst whispering ‘from the next spending review’? As this is the third time she has announced it - and we have absolutely no idea what any Brexit deal or no-deal might mean – the answer is ‘probably not much’.
And how does this all square with Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss’s claim at the same Conference that
“We are not making cuts to local authorities. What we have done is given them more revenue raising power.”
When challenged about the veracity of this absurd claim, the Treasury said:
“The 2018/19 Local Government Finance Settlement confirmed the third of a four-year settlement for local councils over the Spending Review 2015 period. This settlement ensures a 2.1 per cent increase in cash terms in local government Core Spending Power between 2015/16 and 2019/20 – £44.7 billion in 2015/16 and £45.6 billion in 2019/20.”
As all the reputable fact-checkers have confirmed, a 2.1% increase in cash terms over that period is inevitably a significant real-terms cut.
All this is taking place in a context where the government is committed to phase out central grants, leaving council services to be funded through local business rates, council taxes and fees and charges which will inevitably increase inequality, especially between London and the south-east and the rest of England. Meanwhile, the government’s claimed devolution mitigation model seems to be hitting the buffers. The implications of further service cuts and a stuttering economy are serious for many communities.
One supreme irony about the impact of the global economic collapse and the UK government’s austerity measures is that, whilst the government and private companies have been able to benefit from low interest rates, local government has effectively been estopped from doing the same in respect of its long-term high interest debt, particularly from the 1980s and 1990s. To deter councils from, at its simplest, swapping high-interest debt for low-interest alternatives, the government forced the PWLB to impose financial penalties which made such swaps uneconomic.
It is now estimated that councils are being forced to pay – even after the payment of penalties - close to an additional £1bn in debt interest this year alone. If the government wanted to ease the financial challenges for councils, the Chancellor could do something about this in his forthcoming budget.
Without action, we can continue to expect to see more Sure Start Centres and libraries closing, road and park maintenance declining, and a falling capacity in trading standards and food inspections.
And don’t forget health-care…
The latest NHS statistics - with rising waiting-lists and waiting-times for investigations and treatment, falling numbers of GPs and increased vacancies – confirm that the NHS is not safe in this government’s hands.
How many more times is it possible to announce that our mental health services are unacceptable and that urgent action is being taken to address this?
Councils will soon be financially unable to over-spend on their budgets to support children’s services.
And the £240m for adult social care is just another hasty sticking plaster when we need short-term certainty as well as a long-term, widely-supported solution.

JUST don’t EAT!

Read any restaurant review in your local or national newspaper and it will tell you about the presentation and the quality of the meal, the culinary skill that has gone in to it, the decoration and comfort of the restaurant, and the customer service.
What you will rarely find is any reference to the hygiene standards and the likelihood that any meal consumed there will leave you with a debilitating illness. Of course, it is entirely likely that the reviewers have, very sensibly, already decided that they wouldn’t go to any restaurant that didn’t have a high hygiene rating. That’s certainly what I would do.
Food safety officers from local councils inspect restaurants and take-aways to check that food is safe to eat. At each inspection, they will be checking how hygienically the food is handled, the physical condition of the premises, and the processes used ensure good hygiene is maintained. That’s the basis on which an assessment is made and a rating is given.
Ratings go from 0 (urgent improvement is required) to 5 (hygiene standards are very good). Every business selling food should be displaying a sticker telling you the rating although, extraordinarily, this is still voluntary! You can also find out the latest ratings for any food premises in the UK at www.scoresonthedoors.org.uk/ where you can also find an App for your phone.
What has shocked me this week is the revelation that a company that describes itself as ‘a top 100 FTSE listed company’, ‘a world leader in online and mobile food ordering’, and ‘on a mission to create the world's greatest food community’ has so little regard for your health.
The company’s platform includes and promotes more than half of the restaurants and take-aways in the country with a ‘0’ rating. But it doesn’t tell you that these restaurants have been independently rated as requiring ‘urgent improvement’ to their hygiene standards if they are to remain in business.
However, you will find ratings for each premise which run from 0* to 6*, with the vast majority rated 4-6*…including those restaurants independently rated ‘0’ for hygiene and food safety. Yet, as industry experts have confirmed, it would be quick, easy and not expensive for the platform to display these independent ratings. I leave you to speculate about the reasons why the company has chosen not to do so.
There are lots of excellent restaurants and take-aways whose owners and staff take food hygiene very seriously and who should not be undermined by those who show such a callous or unprofessional disregard for our health. Choose them for your next meal.
Meanwhile, until this ‘world leader’ takes our health seriously, my advice is JUST don’t EAT!

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Universal discredit

Universal discredit
Yesterday, in the House of Commons, I asked the Minister for Work and Pensions a very simple question:
When universal credit is rolled out in Sheffield next month, will he guarantee that none of my constituents will be worse off?1
The Minister could have given a very simple answer – and one that thousands of Sheffield families wanted to hear. He could have just said ‘Yes.’
Instead, there was more ducking and diving than you’d see from the waterfowl at Rother Valley Park. His answer:
“it depends on people’s individual circumstances. This new benefit system is ultimately about making sure that we help people into work.”
So, let me just interpret this for you. He meant:
“No, of course I won’t give you a guarantee because many of your constituents will be worse off. That’s the incentive to get them to get a job, however insecure and low-paid.”
Let me be clear. Who would not support a simpler welfare benefits’ system than we have now? Who would not support a system which was designed to ensure that families in work are not worse off than similar families in receipt of benefits?
Although that is what is said about Universal Credit (UC)’s objectives, that is clearly not what is being delivered and thousands of families will be significantly worse off following a migration to universal credit from the current arrangements. Far from Theresa May’s ‘austerity is over’promise, we will see ‘additional austerity’ for many families and many communities.
UC was designed to lift people out of poverty but instead is leaving people in debt, rent arrears or forced to turn to food banks to survive. The Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) own research shows that 40% of claimants were still experiencing financial difficulties 9 months in to their claim.
The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has said2 this week that ending austerity would cost a minimum of £19bn compared to current spending plans up to 2022-23 and even that would leave still mean £7bn in social security cuts.
That is why Secretary of State Esther McVey has had to admit that many families could lose as a result of transferring to claim UC. Half of lone parents and two thirds of working-age couples with children would lose the equivalent of £2,400 a year.
None of the current criticism is new. This is very similar to the findings – rubbished by Ministers at the time - of the independent Resolution Foundation3 in November last year which found that 3.2 million families are expected to be worse off under UC, with an average loss of £48 a week, and that lone parents who lose out will be £57 a week on average worse off.
In June this year, the National Audit Office (NAO) said4 that UC is failing to achieve its aims and there is currently no evidence that it ever will.
A wide range of organisations, including Citizens Advice, the Child Poverty Action Group and over 80 disability organisations have warned the government that its plans risk thousands of people losing support either temporarily or falling out of the system altogether.
There has been a massive rise in rent arrears – to social and private landlords – by tenants transferred to UC. Foodbank referrals have leapt more than 50% where UC has been rolled out.
This week, Ms McVey confirmed that the implementation timetable for universal credit has been put back again. It is now 6 years behind the original timetable. Two former Prime Ministers, Gordon Brown and John Major, have issued serious warnings about the impact of the roll out from next year.
The government has three choices:
  • Continue on its current course and introduce a new wave of enhanced austerity to many thousands of families and communities, or
  • Re-instate the £4bn planned cuts in UC resources to 2020 to prevent significant hardship, or
  • Scrap UC pending a significant redesign which will deliver the original ambitions, but require an appropriate budget.
The Chancellor has until his budget statement on 29th October to decide.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Tackling fake facts and disinformation

Tabloid newspapers and disingenuous commentators regularly try to undermine those they oppose by accusing them of ‘spin’. I don’t have a real problem with ‘spin’ which, at its simplest, is just putting the best face on particular facts. I’m happy to declare that ‘this glass is half full’when others, just as accurately, declare that ‘the glass is half empty.’
In truth, each and every day, nearly every one of us will engage in conversations where we either don’t tell the whole truth or, perhaps worse in any moral evaluation of our actions, say something that isn’t correct. “Hello, how are you today?” “I’m fine, thank you” we respond, even when we’re not fine nor having a good day. We have all sorts of good reasons for not being totally accurate and, in 99.9% of these instances, there are no adverse consequences.
However, in an era where the internet and social media enable information to fly round the world and be seen, read and heard by millions before you’ve had time to blink, the potential impact and consequences of the assertion of fake facts and disinformation are infinitely more considerable than even just twenty years ago.
Just consider the impact that statements like “Brexit is easy and can be achieved in a day”, “Brexit will deliver an extra £50 million a day for the NHS” and “Migration will stop” had on the Referendum, even though all were demonstrably ridiculous. Just listen to the stream of false assertions made by President Trump each time he opens his mouth. It is really worrying that the majority of Russian citizens appear to believe President Putin’s assertions that Russian state authorities have had absolutely no involvement in the novichok attack which, we should not forget, have left one person dead and others seriously ill.
Although I have no problem with spin, I do have a real problem with the promotion of fake facts and disinformation. I have a serious problem with those who play fast and loose with the facts. I have always tried to base my speeches and articles on well-evidenced information. But, in this era of fake facts, I find myself increasingly having to check assertions being made.
I use the excellent House of Commons Library, independent fact-checking organisations like FULL FACT, and reputable independent policy research organisations to test dubious and misleading assertions. It is noticeable that parts of the UK broadcast media – like the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 - have now invested heavily in their own fact-checking operations.
Last week, FULL FACT published a paper1 which “sets out a framework for a risk-based and proportionate response to the problems of misinformation and disinformation in the UK. The realistic goal is not to eliminate misinformation and disinformation but is to build resilience against it.” The paper suggests that we shouldn’t panic, but that we do need to recognise that “misinformation and disinformation represent real risks to open societies and we need effective responses.”
There is clear and serious public concern about these issues. So far, the UK has not proposed dangerous and illiberal measures to deal with the problems. But, it is clear that doing nothing is not an option. At the very least, our election laws need to be updated in the light of the current reality.
The FULL FACT paper provides a really helpful starting point for a public discussion about the issues and the appropriate action to take. It’s worth a read.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Incompetent or just lion?

There are dramatically wide differences in the value and price of land in the UK.
Of course, some variations are bound to reflect geography, geology, access and demand. But the single biggest variable relates to the land’s development value. Can the land only be used for looking at or walking on or agriculture, or is there permission for development for industry, warehousing, retail units, offices or housing?
The English planning system had its roots in the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the 1700s.
In the nineteenth century, local authorities gradually took responsibility for providing clean water, securing the removal of sewage and refuse, and ensuring new and rebuilt housing had adequate drainage, toilet facilities and an ash pit.
Modern urban planning began when builders had to submit details of these provisions to the local authority before they started development.
The dramatic spread of urbanisation, with unplanned suburbs and the sprawl into countryside provoked much public debate, both about how it should be stopped and about how towns and cities could become better places in which to live.
The Garden City movement demonstrated how things might be done differently and provided the inspiration for the 1909 Housing and Town Planning Act.
In the 20 years after WW1, more than 4 million new homes were built – mainly on green fields – spawning legislation in the 1930s which recognised the need for countrywide rural planning and the need to stop unregulated urban sprawl.
After WW2, there was effectively a wide-ranging political consensus about the need for a pro-active planning system… addressing land use and development and a framework for securing permission.
Whilst the post-war Labour Government is credited with the founding of the National Health Service, I think that almost as important was the passing of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947.
Councils were required to complete a local plan, set out detailed policies and proposals for the development and use of land in a district.
The 1947 Act fundamentally remains the basis of today’s planning system, although legislation on the Green Belt, Structure Plans, the distinction between future planning and development control, regional spatial strategies and development frameworks, and the notion of sustainable development have all had an impact on the application of the original principles.
It is worth remembering that the 1947 Act provided that all development values (ie the increase in value arising from a change in planning permissions) were vested in the state, with £300 million set aside for the compensation of landowners. A subsequent Conservative government ditched these provisions and, although there have been other attempts to capture land values in this way since then, currently these are non-existent.
Since 2010, a rash of legislation – the Localism Act, the National Planning Policy Framework and more recent guidance, and the Growth and Infrastructure Act – have all changed the relative balances in the planning process.
And planning is all about balances. Balancing the various interests that need to be taken into account to develop vibrant, sustainably economic, social and environmental communities in the short-, medium- and long-term. Balancing the interests of neighbouring land-owners and -users. One person’s bright, airy home extension or boundary leylandii can often be a neighbour’s loss of light.
Although a number of commentators have suggested that the shortage of land with planning permission for development for housing is responsible for the housing crisis – despite housing developers having a record amount of land with planning permission – it is clearly the case that the increased price being paid for housing land is making its own contribution to housing price inflation.
What is also the case is that owners of land, whose development capability has changed, can have become very rich indeed, whilst developers and the community at large pick up the bill for the necessary infrastructure – from highways to schools – to turn the buildings in to a viable and functioning community.
It was in this context that the all-party Housing, Communities and Local government Select Committee, which I chair, set off earlier this year in our inquiry in to Land Values. We have received a large amount of written evidence and held oral evidence sessions.1
Now, we have published our report and recommendations.2
This is a summary of what we said.
Land values increase for many reasons—not least from economic and demographic growth—but some of the most significant increases arise from public policy decisions, in particular the granting of planning permission and the provision of new infrastructure. While there is considerable variation in land value uplifts dependent upon location and previous land use, landowners currently retain a very large proportion of the increase in land value arising from the granting of planning permission.
History has shown that attempts to capture land value increases have had mixed success. Governments have struggled to strike the right balance between capturing fair values for the community, without undermining incentives for private sector participation in the market, and in a way that is politically acceptable to all major parties. There have also been tensions between central and local government as to how revenues are spent.
However, it is widely accepted that the first generations of New Towns had considerably more success. This was made possible by the ability of Development Corporations to acquire land at, or near to, existing use value. Uplifts in land value were then captured to fund the infrastructure needed for the new developments.
Political interest in land value capture has re-emerged in recent years. Our inquiry has sought to contribute to this renewed debate and consider how land value might be more fairly and efficiently captured in the future.
The key conclusions and recommendations from our report are as follows:
  • There is scope for central and local government to claim a greater proportion of land value increases through reforms to existing taxes and charges, improvements to compulsory purchase powers, or through new mechanisms of land value capture.
Increases in the value of land arising from the granting of planning permission and the provision of new infrastructure are largely created by the state. It is fair, therefore, that a significant proportion of this uplift be available to national and local government to invest in new infrastructure and public services.
  • Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) powers can be especially important in enabling the development and provision of necessary infrastructure on large sites particularly where ownership is fragmented. This could facilitate completely new developments, extensions to existing communities, or the build out of large schemes within urban areas.
  • The CPO process should be further simplified, to make it faster and less expensive for local authorities, whilst not losing safeguards for those affected.
The Government should build on its recent reforms to the CPO process. For example, we heard that the requirement for the Secretary of State to confirm CPO submissions causes unnecessary delays. Such decisions should be made locally.
  • There is an urgent need for local planning authorities to agree up-to-date local plans.
A well-defined local plan with clear objectives and requirements for which the developer must pay, would inherently be reflected in, and would create, lower market land values.
  • The Land Compensation Act 1961 requires reform so that local authorities have the power to compulsorily purchase land at a fairer price.
The present right of landowners to receive ‘hope value’—a value reflective of speculative future planning permissions—serves to distort land prices, encourage land speculation, and reduce revenues for affordable housing, infrastructure and local services. We do not believe that such an approach would be incompatible with human rights legislation, as there would be a clear public interest and proportionality case to do so.
  • The compensation paid to landowners should reflect the costs of providing the affordable housing, infrastructure and services that would make a development viable, as well as capturing a proportion of the profit the landowner will have made.
Reform of the Land Compensation Act 1961 will provide a powerful tool for local authorities to build a new generation of New Towns, as well as extensions to, or significant developments within, existing settlements.
  • Where public land is put forward for residential development, it is important to ensure that the maximum value is captured for new infrastructure and public services. This may not always equate to selling public land to the highest bidder.
  • The compulsory purchase reforms we have recommended, such as reform of the Land Compensation Act 1961, would give greater powers to local authorities to assemble land and, in so doing, achieve a higher level of control over developments in their areas.
The Government and local authorities own tens of thousands of acres of land across the UK and there is much that can be learned from Germany and the Netherlands with regard to capturing increases in value from publicly-owned land.
  • We believe that the Government has made several important changes through the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), in particularly around transparency in the viability process—something we have called for repeatedly in the past.
These changes, alongside recent court judgements, should give assurance to local authorities that developers cannot avoid their local plan obligations by claiming that the price they paid for the site means that this would not be viable. However, further reforms will be necessary if Section 106 is to provide the infrastructure and affordable housing that this country needs:
  • The Government should work with the Local Government Association (LGA) to provide additional resources, training and advice to local planning authorities to ensure that they are able to negotiate robustly with developers and that local authorities are consistently able to contract for the appropriate level of planning obligations.
  • Local authorities should consider using their existing CPO powers to enforce Local Plan policies, in particular in relation to affordable housing, where some developers seek to use viability assessments to avoid their obligations.
  • The Government should give further consideration to the future implementation of a Local Infrastructure Tariff.
  • If the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) is to become an effective mechanism for capturing development value for the provision of local infrastructure, it requires considerable reform.
  • The Government is right to explore how Strategic Infrastructure Tariffs can be extended across the country.
CIL is far too complex and the extensive range of exceptions need to be removed. Importantly, there has to be greater certainty that the infrastructure associated with development is actually delivered at the appropriate time, sometimes in advance of development commencing.
  • The Government should commission a cross-departmental project to consider how to capture land value increases on existing properties.
A truly efficient and equitable system of land value capture should not focus solely on new developments but should also address how existing properties benefit from development and particularly from public investments in local infrastructure.

I am sure that our recommendations are likely to spark a lively debate in the media and amongst various interested groups – from professionals to developers and land-owners. However, the really important test is how the implementation of proposals such as these will impact upon families who want homes and upon communities which want sustainable futures.
We await with interest to see how the government responds.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Our NHS - still not safe in their hands

Before the 2010 general election, David Cameron infamously claimed that the NHS would be safe in Conservative hands. It wasn’t true then; it wasn’t true when he and Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg led the Coalition government, and it isn’t true now under Conservative Theresa May’s responsibility.
It was no more true than the assertion that Brexit would deliver an extra £50 million per day for the NHS, as prominently displayed on the Brexit Bus. To use a word most commonly used by one of those proponents, the assertion was ‘piffle’.
You would be right to ask me on what basis I make my claim about the Conservative’s stewardship -or, rather, lack of it - of our NHS.
It’s easy. I just need to refer to the NHS Key Statistics1 2 and the helpful commentary published by the excellent House of Commons Library3 .
Let me just provide some significant contrasts between what the Conservatives inherited in 2010 and what they are delivering today:
  • In 2010, one in fifteen hospital A&E attendees spent longer than 4 hours in the A&E department compared with one in six today. From December 2017 to March 2018, 15% waited more than 4 hours. In August 2010, just 3% waited more than 4 hours; in August 2018, more than 10% were doing so. There is no reason to believe other than that the proportion will rise to 15% and beyond this next winter;
  • In 2010, 87% of people (and rising) were seen at a consultant appointment within 62 days (the target) of an urgent cancer referral from their GP. Today it is 81% and falling. Two-thirds of hospital trusts in England are not meeting the target;
  • There has been a near 60% increase in the number of people waiting for a consultant appointment between 2010 and today. The 18 week target time (for 92% of patients) has not been met since early in 2016. The number of people waiting more than 52 weeks has doubled in the last year;
  • There were less than 4000 delayed discharges (average daily number) from hospital in 2010. By last year, that number had rocketed to some 6500 last year. It is not surprising that the number dramatically increased after the government cut the resources to councils for adult social care, resulting in a cut in the number of people receiving care, whilst the numbers needing it continued to rise. The number has fallen in the last few months, but still nowhere close to the inheritance;
  • In the year to June 2018, 84,881 elective operations were cancelled for non-clinical reasons on the day the patient was due to arrive. This is 5% higher than in the previous year. Of those who had their elections cancelled, 7,821 were not treated within 28 days of their cancellation – up 35% on the previous year. The percentage not treated within 28 days of cancellation rose from 7.2% to 9.2%;
  • There is a target that less than 1% of patients should have been waiting longer than 6 weeks for a diagnostic test (CT, MRI etc scans). Performance on this measure has declined over the past year. The percentage waiting over 6 weeks has not fallen below 2% since November;
  • The number of GPs has fallen consistently since 2015. This is being reflected in increased waiting-times to see a GP. More worryingly, the number of GP vacancies is rising, as many practices are struggling to recruit new staff.
Whilst there is such a focus on Brexit and migration, it is just worth noting how reliant we are on migration for our medical and nursing staff.
  • More than 6 out of 10 hospital medical staff gained their primary qualification outside the UK, with more than a quarter of those qualifying in India;
  • Between 2010 and 2018, the number of nurses per million population has fallen from 5,182 to 4,918. And, as the advert says, ‘every little counts’.
In Sheffield – with its teaching hospitals, many regional specialties, and major A&E departments – we are fortunate enough to have some of the best managed services, with exceptionally committed staff, anywhere in the UK. But even its performance has deteriorated against these key targets over the last 8 years. However, I am pleased to note that Sheffield Children’s Hospital A&E, despite the significant increased demand and attendance, delivers one of the best performances in the UK for patients being seen, with just 2.7% having to wait more than 4 hours for treatment.
Our NHS is not safe in Conservative hands and, as the record says, it never will be. For them, it has always been the case of ‘say one thing, do another’.
1 https://www.england.nhs.uk/statistics/statistical-work-areas/
2 https://digital.nhs.uk/search/document-type/publication/publicationStatus/true?area=data&sort=date
3 https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7281

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Let's value our land

There are dramatically wide differences in the value and price of land in the UK.
Of course, some variations are bound to reflect geography, geology, access and demand. But the single biggest variable relates to the land’s development value. Can the land only be used for looking at or walking on or agriculture, or is there permission for development for industry, warehousing, retail units, offices or housing?
The English planning system had its roots in the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the 1700s.
In the nineteenth century, local authorities gradually took responsibility for providing clean water, securing the removal of sewage and refuse, and ensuring new and rebuilt housing had adequate drainage, toilet facilities and an ash pit.
Modern urban planning began when builders had to submit details of these provisions to the local authority before they started development.
The dramatic spread of urbanisation, with unplanned suburbs and the sprawl into countryside provoked much public debate, both about how it should be stopped and about how towns and cities could become better places in which to live.
The Garden City movement demonstrated how things might be done differently and provided the inspiration for the 1909 Housing and Town Planning Act.
In the 20 years after WW1, more than 4 million new homes were built – mainly on green fields – spawning legislation in the 1930s which recognised the need for countrywide rural planning and the need to stop unregulated urban sprawl.
After WW2, there was effectively a wide-ranging political consensus about the need for a pro-active planning system… addressing land use and development and a framework for securing permission.
Whilst the post-war Labour Government is credited with the founding of the National Health Service, I think that almost as important was the passing of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947.
Councils were required to complete a local plan, set out detailed policies and proposals for the development and use of land in a district.
The 1947 Act fundamentally remains the basis of today’s planning system, although legislation on the Green Belt, Structure Plans, the distinction between future planning and development control, regional spatial strategies and development frameworks, and the notion of sustainable development have all had an impact on the application of the original principles.
It is worth remembering that the 1947 Act provided that all development values (ie the increase in value arising from a change in planning permissions) were vested in the state, with £300 million set aside for the compensation of landowners. A subsequent Conservative government ditched these provisions and, although there have been other attempts to capture land values in this way since then, currently these are non-existent.
Since 2010, a rash of legislation – the Localism Act, the National Planning Policy Framework and more recent guidance, and the Growth and Infrastructure Act – have all changed the relative balances in the planning process.
And planning is all about balances. Balancing the various interests that need to be taken into account to develop vibrant, sustainably economic, social and environmental communities in the short-, medium- and long-term. Balancing the interests of neighbouring land-owners and -users. One person’s bright, airy home extension or boundary leylandii can often be a neighbour’s loss of light.
Although a number of commentators have suggested that the shortage of land with planning permission for development for housing is responsible for the housing crisis – despite housing developers having a record amount of land with planning permission – it is clearly the case that the increased price being paid for housing land is making its own contribution to housing price inflation.
What is also the case is that owners of land, whose development capability has changed, can have become very rich indeed, whilst developers and the community at large pick up the bill for the necessary infrastructure – from highways to schools – to turn the buildings in to a viable and functioning community.
It was in this context that the all-party Housing, Communities and Local government Select Committee, which I chair, set off earlier this year in our inquiry in to Land Values. We have received a large amount of written evidence and held oral evidence sessions.1
Now, we have published our report and recommendations.2
This is a summary of what we said.
Land values increase for many reasons—not least from economic and demographic growth—but some of the most significant increases arise from public policy decisions, in particular the granting of planning permission and the provision of new infrastructure. While there is considerable variation in land value uplifts dependent upon location and previous land use, landowners currently retain a very large proportion of the increase in land value arising from the granting of planning permission.
History has shown that attempts to capture land value increases have had mixed success. Governments have struggled to strike the right balance between capturing fair values for the community, without undermining incentives for private sector participation in the market, and in a way that is politically acceptable to all major parties. There have also been tensions between central and local government as to how revenues are spent.
However, it is widely accepted that the first generations of New Towns had considerably more success. This was made possible by the ability of Development Corporations to acquire land at, or near to, existing use value. Uplifts in land value were then captured to fund the infrastructure needed for the new developments.
Political interest in land value capture has re-emerged in recent years. Our inquiry has sought to contribute to this renewed debate and consider how land value might be more fairly and efficiently captured in the future.
The key conclusions and recommendations from our report are as follows:
  • There is scope for central and local government to claim a greater proportion of land value increases through reforms to existing taxes and charges, improvements to compulsory purchase powers, or through new mechanisms of land value capture.
Increases in the value of land arising from the granting of planning permission and the provision of new infrastructure are largely created by the state. It is fair, therefore, that a significant proportion of this uplift be available to national and local government to invest in new infrastructure and public services.
  • Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) powers can be especially important in enabling the development and provision of necessary infrastructure on large sites particularly where ownership is fragmented. This could facilitate completely new developments, extensions to existing communities, or the build out of large schemes within urban areas.
  • The CPO process should be further simplified, to make it faster and less expensive for local authorities, whilst not losing safeguards for those affected.
The Government should build on its recent reforms to the CPO process. For example, we heard that the requirement for the Secretary of State to confirm CPO submissions causes unnecessary delays. Such decisions should be made locally.
  • There is an urgent need for local planning authorities to agree up-to-date local plans.
A well-defined local plan with clear objectives and requirements for which the developer must pay, would inherently be reflected in, and would create, lower market land values.
  • The Land Compensation Act 1961 requires reform so that local authorities have the power to compulsorily purchase land at a fairer price.
The present right of landowners to receive ‘hope value’—a value reflective of speculative future planning permissions—serves to distort land prices, encourage land speculation, and reduce revenues for affordable housing, infrastructure and local services. We do not believe that such an approach would be incompatible with human rights legislation, as there would be a clear public interest and proportionality case to do so.
  • The compensation paid to landowners should reflect the costs of providing the affordable housing, infrastructure and services that would make a development viable, as well as capturing a proportion of the profit the landowner will have made.
Reform of the Land Compensation Act 1961 will provide a powerful tool for local authorities to build a new generation of New Towns, as well as extensions to, or significant developments within, existing settlements.
  • Where public land is put forward for residential development, it is important to ensure that the maximum value is captured for new infrastructure and public services. This may not always equate to selling public land to the highest bidder.
  • The compulsory purchase reforms we have recommended, such as reform of the Land Compensation Act 1961, would give greater powers to local authorities to assemble land and, in so doing, achieve a higher level of control over developments in their areas.
The Government and local authorities own tens of thousands of acres of land across the UK and there is much that can be learned from Germany and the Netherlands with regard to capturing increases in value from publicly-owned land.
  • We believe that the Government has made several important changes through the revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), in particularly around transparency in the viability process—something we have called for repeatedly in the past.
These changes, alongside recent court judgements, should give assurance to local authorities that developers cannot avoid their local plan obligations by claiming that the price they paid for the site means that this would not be viable. However, further reforms will be necessary if Section 106 is to provide the infrastructure and affordable housing that this country needs:
  • The Government should work with the Local Government Association (LGA) to provide additional resources, training and advice to local planning authorities to ensure that they are able to negotiate robustly with developers and that local authorities are consistently able to contract for the appropriate level of planning obligations.
  • Local authorities should consider using their existing CPO powers to enforce Local Plan policies, in particular in relation to affordable housing, where some developers seek to use viability assessments to avoid their obligations.
  • The Government should give further consideration to the future implementation of a Local Infrastructure Tariff.
  • If the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) is to become an effective mechanism for capturing development value for the provision of local infrastructure, it requires considerable reform.
  • The Government is right to explore how Strategic Infrastructure Tariffs can be extended across the country.
CIL is far too complex and the extensive range of exceptions need to be removed. Importantly, there has to be greater certainty that the infrastructure associated with development is actually delivered at the appropriate time, sometimes in advance of development commencing.
  • The Government should commission a cross-departmental project to consider how to capture land value increases on existing properties.
A truly efficient and equitable system of land value capture should not focus solely on new developments but should also address how existing properties benefit from development and particularly from public investments in local infrastructure.

I am sure that our recommendations are likely to spark a lively debate in the media and amongst various interested groups – from professionals to developers and land-owners. However, the really important test is how the implementation of proposals such as these will impact upon families who want homes and upon communities which want sustainable futures.
We await with interest to see how the government responds.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Trust me, it’s not down the back of the sofa

Search down the back of any chair or sofa and you’re almost certain to find a coin hiding amongst the dust. That is unless you’ve consciously gone searching for a coin, in which case you’ll only find a broken pencil and an unwrapped boiled sweet in the detritus.
However, it is estimated that there are more than a million children born between September 2002 and December 2010 who, with a little searching, might find more than a coin or two. But, it’s definitely not down the back of the sofa.
Cast your mind back to 2002. Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, was determined to give an incentive to encourage parents to start saving for their children’s futures. Given the size of deposits to rent, let alone buy, a home, this seems to have been extremely prescient.
Every child received a £250 voucher (£500 if the family was in receipt of Child Tax Credit) to put in a Child Trust Fund. Even if parents – or other relatives and friends – have not added a single penny saving in the interim, those who received the higher amount, because of growth and interest, might find that their accounts are worth as much as £2000 today.
Gordon Brown was very keen that children would establish a savings habit and build up a financial cushion to help them manage their money in adult life. Taking stock today, you can see how important that initiative was and how foolish it was for the Coalition government to end the scheme.
The share of income UK households save is now at its lowest 2017 since records began, as expenditure outstripped inflation-eroded pay over recent years. Earlier this year, the Office for National Statistics reported that the full-year household “saving ratio” fell to just 4.9 per cent in the year, down from 7 per cent in 2016, the lowest since 1963.
Meanwhile, the total household debt-to-income ratio rose again to 133 per cent and is still rising. The ratio had fallen steadily in the wake of the financial crisis, after peaking at 150 per cent in 2007, but has been rising again since 2015.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that six in 10 of the poorest fifth of households had no savings at all, while a further one in nine had savings less than £1,500. In other words, a relatively small thing – like the washing-machine breaking down and needing to be replaced – could be the genesis of real financial difficulties for a family. Without a small financial cushion to fund the essential replacement, families would be forced to resort to ludicrous-interest ‘payday’ loans or in to the arms of retailers and catalogue companies charging exceptionally-high interest rates.
Back to Child Trust Funds (CTF). More than 6 million accounts were opened, but official figures show that almost a million accounts are now classed as ‘addressee gone away’, meaning they’ve been forgotten about.
The amount in each account varies from about £320 to more than £2000, but it is known that a high proportion of the forgotten accounts had the higher initial deposit.
Luckily, it is fairly easy to track down your CTF. You have to make a request to HMRC via the gov.uk website. This means you need a ‘government gateway’ ID, which can take a few days to set up, then you can submit your request. You should hear back within 15 days.
Once you’ve found your child’s CTF you have options, dependent on your child’s age. After 16, the child controls what happens, although they can’t withdraw it until they are 18. After 18, it is entirely up to the child to decide what to do.
Probably, the best advice you can give is for them not to go and blow it on a big party, although a small toast to Gordon might be appropriate.
Better to place it in a safe place - that’s not down the back of the sofa – providing the best return you can find and keep it there for use on that inevitable rainy day, preferably adding to it on a regular basis.