Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Building the future

We need to build 250,000 new homes every year, probably for the next 20 or 30 years, if we are to address the housing crisis properly. The last Labour Government did not build enough homes. The present Government are building even fewer. 
If we are to build sufficient homes, it has to be through all-party agreement, because the construction industry cannot be turned on and off like a tap. And we need to train and keep construction workers to build those homes.
There is no single silver bullet; we need a range of different measures. We need the volume house builders to build more. In 2007, there were more than 5,000 firms building between one and 10 houses a year. Now, there are fewer than 3,000 such firms.
We must encourage and nurture self-building initiatives of the sort that have made a significant contribution in other European countries like Holland.
But we also need to build houses for social rent. There are people who not only cannot afford to buy, but cannot afford market rents. Since 2010, there has been a 60% cut in the funding for social housing. Some, if not all, of it will have to be restored if we are to build sufficient social homes in the future.
The Government’s right to buy policy envisages a one-for-one replacement. But, there’s no point selling a family home and replacing it with a one-bedroom flat. Like-for-like replacement is what is needed. If there is an acute shortage of social housing in some areas the right to buy should be restricted.
We have to ensure that development is on brown-field sites first. Why is the proportion of houses built on brown-field sites declining? But, we must also be honest with people. Even if we build on all the available brown-field sites, we will still have to build on some green-field sites in this country. So, we need to sign up local communities to recognise and accept some green-field, sustainable development. 

Over the past 30 years we have had a collective failure to build sufficient homes in this country. We need some collective agreement across the political parties about how we do build those homes over the next 20 or 30 years.

Never let the facts……..

Whenever you are trying to make a case for a particular policy, it helps to have some facts to support your case.

Of course, there are facts…….. and then…. there are facts. Or, as Mark Twain popularised it ‘Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics’.  Today, no-one is quite sure who said it first, nor who originally described witnesses in three classes ‘liars, damned liars and experts’. It is natural that people will try to promote the facts that best fit their story. In politics, as in business and PR, this is called ‘spin’.

I was recently reminded of ‘spin’ , when Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions made a big speech in support of his welfare reform agenda. On first reading, his list of statistics about employment, income and child poverty were quite impressive. That was until you looked at how time periods had been carefully chosen (and were different for each issue), changes in data methodology had been conveniently ignored, and relevant contextual data just forgotten.

Less surprising was that the bedroom tax, and its disastrous outcomes, was not mentioned. Neither was mention made that his Universal Credit policy is way behind schedule, way over budget and that HM Treasury has been simply unable to approve the business case for the policy ie IDS’s sums simply don’t add up.

Competition about facts, their interpretation and analysis, is at the heart of debate. One child’s kicking a football against a wall can be described either as ‘getting healthy exercise’ and/or ‘making an interminable noise’.

However, this is quite different from simply ‘making facts up’. Far too often, I hear or see assertions of fact about particular issues where it is clear that the said facts have just been invented. Rarely a day goes by when I don’t see an assertion which has no basis in reality. They are commonly found in letters to newspapers or postings on websites, and almost inevitably from someone remaining anonymous.

More worrying is when you see the same (un-true and un-factual) assertions being endlessly repeated. The House of Commons’ Library has received so many enquiries from MPs about the contents of some viral e-mails that it has now published some notes which contrast the e-mail claims and the facts.

Leaving aside economic statistics, it is not really surprising that, right now, the statistical divide between fact and fiction is dominated by international aid, immigration, and welfare and benefit entitlement.

So, if you’ve seen those e-mails that claim that the UK has given international aid of £351m to Hamas (actual = £0), £1.4bn to Haiti (actual = £3.3m in 2012) and many, many more….. or that every immigrant to the UK receives £29,000 in benefits in the first year…… can find out the truth for yourself at


Sport for all?

The Tour de France and Commonwealth Games have re-ignited many people’s interest in sport and the positive impact it can have on individual health and community participation – it’s fun!

Increasing participation is not something that can be dictated from central government.  What we need to do is agree on some long term set of objectives and then help everyone, nationally and locally, to play their parts in achieving them.

But, recently, we have gone backwards. For instance, in 2002, just 25 per cent of school children were taking part in two hours PE and sport each week. Because of the initiatives and investment by the then Labour government, this reached 90 per cent by 2010.  Unfortunately, Michael Gove, as Education Secretary, axed these two hours. He also axed School Sports Partnerships. It’s not surprising that activity has slumped.

In July, the Labour Party published a consultation document “More Sport for All” which makes proposals on how everyone, from children through to the elderly, both women and men, can be supported to do more sport and physical activity. 
The policy ideas, include:

                    ensuring the Premier League meet their commitment to give 5% of the revenue                  from the sale of their television rights to help develop grassroots football;
                    a new levy on sports betting to support community sport and help raise awareness              about problem gambling;
                    re-introducing two hours of sport for every primary school child;
                    adopting new targets for increasing female participation in sport and upping the                  women on the boards of our top sporting organisations; and
                    a ten-year National Strategy for Sport.

Obviously the media attention has been on proposals to levy the Premier League and sports betting to invest in grassroots’ sport, but there are many other policy ideas as well. I’d be interested to hear what you think.

You can read and respond to the consultation at

Different Class

In 1997, the in-coming Labour government inherited a legacy of rising class sizes, crumbling schools and poor attainment. Massive investment in new and modernised schools, more teachers and qualified teaching assistants, a phenomenal increase in books and equipment, and a determination to raise both expectations and standards saw a dramatic and continuing improvement in educational outcomes. I’m pleased to pay tribute to the role of my good friend and colleague, David Blunkett, in driving those changes.

In their 2010 manifesto, the Conservative Party promised to create "small schools with smaller class sizes". In the Yorkshire Post, David Cameron told us “the more we can get class sizes down the better”.

But in 2012, David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s government relaxed the rules on infant class sizes. Now, the number of infants taught in large classes of over-30 has spiralled by 200 per cent since 2010 – to over 93,000 children. Astonishingly, there are more than 40,000 children now being taught in classes of more than 36 pupils.

Since 2010, there have been big increases in the numbers of local children being taught in lasses of more than 30 children. I know about the increases in my own area, where Sheffield has seen a 147% increase. Parents and teachers are continually raising the issue with me, because not only have class sizes gone up, but an increasing number of parents are unable to get a place in their local primary school. 

But, Sheffield’s problem is small compared to Barnsley, up 553%; Doncaster, up 355%; Rotherham, up 688%. And both Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire have also seen big increases.

At this rate, in 5 years’ time, one in four infants – that’s 450,000 children - will be being taught in large classes of over 30 pupils.

The government has been quite reckless and irresponsible about its investment in new school places. David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Free School programme has diverted funding away from areas of need. 

According to the independent National Audit Office report published in December, two thirds of all of the places created by the programme have been created outside of areas classified as having high or severe primary school need.

It’s a new form of class war!