Friday, 26 August 2016

How do we fix the housing crisis?

One of the greatest challenges that the Cameron/Osborne years struggled to get to grips with is the crisis in home ownership. With home ownership in England now at levels not seen since 1983, it is time to address one of the greatest social problems of our age.
Over the past 20 years, a multiplicity of factors have conspired to breed this problem, including familial changes, people living longer, and of course immigration, creating 3.3 million extra households. And, while it is true that we have failed for many years to build enough homes to keep up with demand, it may surprise you that the number of homes has actually risen at almost exactly the same rate – this crisis is not simply driven by numbers.
This article originally appeared on ConservativeHome (24/08/2016)
The Cameron government took steps to intervene in the market with a range of policies from Help to Buy to Stamp Duty changes and the impact of these is yet to been seen. But undoubtedly more needs to be done for a truly long-term solution.
This is a problem we need to get to grips with, and quickly. Partly because creating a sustainable and stable housing market is critical to our future as a party of government; but mostly because failing to tackle the issue now could prove devastating to the long term social cohesion of our country.
It is unacceptable that in Great Britain today, millions of hard-working, aspirational people, remain unable to realise their dream of owning their homes. A Tory dream our party has always championed. It is disastrous that millions have abandoned hope of ever doing so. That’s not the country I want to live in. The country I do want is one where future generations retain both the aspiration and the ability, to purchase not only a “decent” homes, but crucially, homes which are desirable. Well-located homes, at prices they can afford.
If that sounds like utopia, it needn’t. Theresa May has already called attention to the “housing deficit,” and she has highlighted that young people are finding it “harder than ever before” to own their own home. The real challenge, though, will be creating a sustainable housing market that works in the long term, during uncertain times and when economic conditions are stable; and to do that, I believe we need to reach for bold and creative solutions.
That is why I am leading a call for evidence from the Tory Reform Group looking for a new approach to housing policy. We’re canvassing the whole political spectrum for the best and brightest ideas, and I am already encouraged by the level of responses. What is increasingly clear is that we need different solutions for different parts of the country. This crisis is not national, it is local.
Consider this: the most expensive borough to live is Kensington and Chelsea, where the average house costs £1.27 million; by contrast, in Burnley the average house is 18 times cheaper at £69,000 and prices fell five per cent last year. And, while private rents in London continue to increase at inflation busting rates, in Wales and Scotland they have begun to fall. For most, £69,000 would be considered an affordable home, but with average first time buyer in London paying £385,000 can a national solution really be the answer?
While it would seem to make sense to increase density in London, does changing the rules to achieve that work if it leads to more new builds in Stoke-on-Trent? Do we need to rebalance our population away from the South-East; what role does government have in delivering this? Should we continue to protect green belt at all costs, or just seek to prevent ribbon development, by re-designating green belt in areas with the most pressure?
With a population growing at 600,000 a year, the equivalent of a new Glasgow every year, we must surely need at least one new town? Connected via one of the great transport links already in the underway – Crossrail 2, HS2, – but making the best of global technology solutions to not only be an eco-town but a desirable place to live and a practical place to work with the fastest of super-fast broadband, great schools, outside space, shops and community facilities? Can that be delivered without central government imposition?
Some would argue that we simply need to build more homes, “whatever the tenure”. While it is true that we have failed to build quickly enough, we can’t fall prey to a crude numbers game.
Planning regulations, skills shortages and financial restrictions are all holding up building, but there are other complex factors at work. Yes, we need to build more homes. But we also need to ensure those homes meet people’s needs. Homes people can take pride in, and enjoy living in. Desirable homes, in desirable places.
And what about saving that crucial deposit? The Lifetime-ISA (LISA) is an innovative way of helping ‘young’ savers, but falls woefully short of the challenge faced by many in their first years of work – paying off student loans, facing extortionate rents, being encouraged (and now forced) to save for retirement – a triple whammy that puts today’s graduates in the position of an additional 13 per cent marginal tax before they even begin saving for a home. One solution might be to allow first-time buyers to use their pension pot as a security deposit to buy a home, allowing the incentive to save, but not – as the LISA does – wiping out retirement saving at the point of purchase. But I’m keen to hear more ideas to solving the deposit conundrum.
So, this call for evidence is a chance to draw on the work of experts, and ideas of individuals, to create concrete proposals that offer practical solutions to deliver affordable home ownership, decent rental accommodation, and a sustainable housing market fit for the 21st century. The aim is to help establish a long-term housing plan that delivers not only for today, but for generations of home owners and happy renters.
Please, get involved in shaping that output. If we can get it right, then generations of voters will back us. Get it wrong, and millions will never forgive us.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

With Labour lurching to the left, now is the time for us to hold firm on the centre ground.

There are few genuinely momentous moments in politics, but no one could deny that we are living through one now.
During his decade-long tenure as leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron has rediscovered the compassionate Conservative ethos which beats at the heart of the party in our One Nation doctrine. By delivering a historic Conservative-majority Government just a year ago, he has anchored the party in the centre-ground, and proven that this is where we need to be to win elections. Now is not the time to abandon his legacy or the manifesto on which we were elected to serve, but a time to embrace and build on it.
The leadership election is as much about how we deliver our 2015 manifesto as it is about the kind of party we want to be heading into the next general election. This leadership contest is not a time to re-run the referendum, nor to pour salt into the wounds of a bitter debate that divided families, colleagues, friends and our party. We must reunite and bring our country back together.
On the steps of Downing Street, Cameron rightly claimed his legacy as rebuilding the British economy, but also reforming education, revolutionising welfare to deliver record employment, increasing aid spending, building the Big Society, and legislating for equal marriage.
There are some in our party who would seek to reverse or denounce that legacy, and take the opportunity of a divided opposition to abandon the centre-ground in favour of what they perceive to be ideological purity. We must resist this temptation at all costs.
Ironically, the vote for Brexit that put an end to Cameron’s premiership was strongest from those he had done most to help – older people and voters with lower educational attainment. In protecting pensions and pensioner benefits, reforming welfare and education, delivering the national living wage, and increasing the personal allowance, he protected those in our society who are most vulnerable, and arguably most likely to suffer as a result of Brexit.
The task for our next leader must be to redouble those efforts to govern in the interest of One Nation; to reach out to communities right across our country and to regain their trust. We must build a party that once again speaks to every part of our great country and every community within it.
In doing so, we must govern in the best of Conservative traditions while understanding modern Britain. We must deliver our 2015 manifesto and continue to govern in the interest of One Nation. We should seek to reduce taxes on employment, providing employers with security and the incentive to retain jobs in the UK, and build on the legacy of record employment, and in parallel, invest in enforcement to ensure the benefits of the Living Wage reach the pockets of workers in every town across the country.
We must reform business rates to support smaller firms and our high streets in competing in a modern economy.
We should continue to meet our election promise to increase funding for the NHS, not least because voters in the referendum expect it; but we should direct investment towards social care and health prevention, including redoubling effort to tackle type 2 diabetes, revisiting funding for treatments like PrEP, and investing in mental health.
We must boost the Foreign Office with an army of negotiators, and a council of business leaders, to deliver the free-trade deals we need around the world, and to guarantee access to the Single Market.
We need to build more homes – a lot more homes – which will mean releasing more land, liberalising planning and providing housing associations greater flexibility to borrow and build.
We must deliver greater reform of the prison system, including tackling sentencing, to ensure we break the cycle of criminality with investment in education and training and incentives for businesses to take on ex-offenders.
We must retain our commitment to the world’s poorest, spending 0.7% of GNI on international aid, ensuring that we focus on priorities which help the world’s poorest, and enhancing global security by directing money to priorities which help build global security and the UK’s international trade links, providing opportunities for young people to travel the world in the process.
We must press ahead with building HS2, explaining airport capacity, investing in infrastructure to deliver the Northern Powerhouse, and extending local devolution through City Deals.
We must look again at major projects, like the Severn Tidal Barrage, to secure a renewable future, while exploiting shale gas to deliver energy security and transitional reductions in carbon emissions.
We should push ahead with greater freedoms for academies and free schools to ensure young people have greater opportunities at the start of their lives, and forge lasting partnership between local employers and academies to deliver the skilled workforce we need.
And we need to keep the public finances on track, so we do not burden the next generation with yet more debt. Radically simplifying the tax code and cracking down on avoidance will play an important role, as will keeping corporate taxes the lowest in the G20, but to deliver a surplus some taxes may have to rise especially if the market uncertainty around Brexit translates into the real economy.
So in this leadership election, let’s not look backward to the referendum, but forward to how we build on David Cameron’s One Nation legacy and cement ourselves in the centre ground. We have an opportunity and a duty with a weak and divided Labour Party to speak up for everyone and every community in our nation to ensure we capitalise on our position and build our majority in 2020 – or whenever the next election may be.

Friday, 4 March 2016

FOI reveals true scale of Labour hypocrisy as public sector funds 85% of 'cost cutting' advertising

The hypocrisy of Labour-run Lambeth council continues this month as a series of new posters appear across the Borough bemoaning cuts in the council’s government grant. At the same time, council leader Cllr Lib Peck states in the £250,000-a-year taxpayer funded Lambeth Talk:

“There’s nothing like the January bills to emphasise the post-Christmas pinch. The pressure on Lambeth Council’s funding is considerably more than a pinch – more like a throttling, with 56 per cent of our main funding cut….”
Cllr Peck goes on to claim that the council is:
“…always looking for new ways to use our resources and assets wisely.”
Well here’s a tip, Lib – cut the propaganda rag and taxpayer-funded political ads.
I’ve written before about the huge waste of cash that is Lambeth Talk, and Lambeth’s repeated claims about the cost of their cuts posters being just £600, ignoring the opportunity costs of Lambeth not selling on their ad space. But a new Freedom of Information request has revealed how Lambeth Labour are taking taxpayers for an even bigger ride.
The council have always claimed that advertising revenues off-set around 25 per cent of the cost to taxpayers of the monthly magazine, and that in recent years that advertising revenue has risen, nearly doubling this year to £54,319.
However, as Lambeth’s response to my FOI shows, a whopping 85 per cent of advertising in Lambeth Talk that is designed to offset the cost to taxpayers is in fact from other public sector bodies and 13 per cent is the council’s own advertising. Private enterprise has no interest in advertising in Lambeth’s unnecessary propaganda rag, so the council have resorted to pushing taxpayers money round in circles in an attempt to cover up their scandalous waste of residents’ money.
Let’s hope Lambeth Labour will follow colleagues in Tower Hamlets and finally take the axe to Lambeth Talk.

First published on Conservative Home (03/03/16)

Monday, 31 August 2015



The Conservative Party is holding an online primary to select its candidate for the 2016 London Mayoral Election. Anyone in London who is on the electoral roll can register to vote to help the party choose who will stand for the Conservatives in the election next year.

The current Mayor of London Boris Johnson was selected as the Conservative candidate in 2007 using a primary and the party is again giving all Londoners the opportunity to be involved in the process.

Four candidates have been shortlisted to stand in the primary. Andrew BoffZac GoldsmithStephen Greenhalgh and Syed Kamall .

Voting will take place online during September following an official hustings, with the result announced at the end of September, ahead of the Conservative Party conference. 

The election for Mayor takes place on Thursday 5th May 2016.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Is Corbyn a gift for the Liberal Democrats? #ToriesForCorbyn be careful what you wish for

There are two big ‘ifs’ in this political equation, (i) if Labour are actually fool-hardy enough to reject the idea of pragmatic politics in favour of permanent protest by electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader, and (ii) if the Lib Dems have the fight to get back in the game.

Putting aside that the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader would be a disaster for the Conservative Party, not the great gift the #ToriesForCorbyn would have you believe, a Corbyn victory could be a gift for our old coalition colleagues in the Lib Dems.

An extreme left-wing Corbyn Labour opposition not only risks allowing the Conservative Government to drift back to an unelectable comfort zone on right, it also runs a very clear risk of a loony-left Government come 2020. The old adage that Government’s lose elections, oppositions don’t win them exists for a reason.  

In dragging Her Majesty's Official Opposition to the unionised fringes of the left wing extreme, Corbyn would undoubtedly attract a gaggle of new lefty-lovies, but in doing so he will abandon the centre-ground on which almost every election has ever been won. The instant Conservative poll bounce that would likely should not be seen as a reason for our party to make the same mistake and abandon the centre, we would do so at our peril. Yellow Peril.

Having just evicted 49 Liberal Democrats MPs from Parliament, moving away from the centre ground would leave a gaping hole through which they could return and challenge us. Not only could our old coalition friends rebuild with their ever reliable tricks in the inevitable by-elections that will test our tiny majority, but in the 2020 marginals as left-wing liberals who abandoned the party in favour of Labour come looking for a new home as they escape the socialist ideology of Corbyn Labour. There may yet be a second Liberal surge.

Even if, as I hope we do, we take this opportunity to make a true One Nation Conservative claim to the centre ground, Labour’s own leftward plunge has opened a gap on the British political spectrum, on which any savvy Lib Dem strategist should be setting up tent. The centre-left, arguably the place they have always felt most comfortable, is looking like fertile territory for a party in need of an identity.

So let’s be careful what we wish for and not allow #ToriesForCorbyn to give the ultimate prize to the Liberal Democrats. 

Sunday, 2 August 2015

The NHS: leading the way in transparency for taxpayers

My article for Conservative Home with Cllr Jonathan Glanz.

Earlier this month, the government announced a significant but under reported change in the way the NHS in England will issue prescription medicines. From next year, medicines that cost more than £20 per pack will have the indicative cost, alongside the words “funded by the UK taxpayer” printed on the pack.

This is a welcome and bold move. It takes another step in the direction of empowering people and providing them with more information about the public services they use. We have written before about the importance of users of all public services better understanding the cost and value of those services. Not only does this help greater understanding of the politics and economics of public services, is also gets over the something-for-nothing culture that often prevails.

It would be madness not to look at the £14.4 billion cost of prescription drugs to the NHS, which rose 7.6 per cent last year, at a time when the NHS needs to find £22 billion of efficiency savings over the next five years. These savings need to be made even while NHS spending as a whole is protected and will in fact rise by £10 billion.

In an article in September 2012, we argued:

To rebalance the economy and restore a rational state, the Government needs to act boldly and remind taxpayers just what it is they are paying for… following a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Ben Gummer MP, Osborne took the next baby step in the transparency agenda and adopted individual tax statements… but tax statements are only one side of the coin… What is also needed is a personalised statement of services to be issued alongside your tax statement… to break the cycle of dependency and deliver a smaller State, we need everyone to be more connected to what we get and what we pay for it.”
The move by Jeremy Hunt to inform patients of the costs of medicines dispensed on prescription is another very welcome step along that pathway to better transparency and understanding. Let us also take this opportunity to remind ourselves why this is needed. As it stands, we are expected to deliver a budget deficit of £69.5 billion in 2015/16, that is spending £1,000 more than we raise in taxes – this year alone – for every man, woman and child living in the UK. With Government departments needing to find 40 per cent savings in order to plug that gap and deliver balanced books, we need to bring public opinion with us when cutting the size of the state. The easiest way to do that is to show people exactly what it costs.

And there is plenty of evidence to support the case. In Wales where prescriptions are free, Paracetamol – which costs as little as little as 23 pence over the counter – is prescribed on the NHS at the rate of more than 1 million prescriptions a year. In fact, doctors in Wales wrote more than 74 million prescriptions for free medication last year. The statistics published by the Welsh Government reveal that the number of prescription drugs being issued is now 52 per cent higher than a decade ago. This is a scandalous waste of public resources. Simply reminding people (and doctors) of the cost to their purse and those of other taxpayers would have a behavioural impact on demand that could reduce demand by at least 20 per cent.

Take another example, there have been numerous studies on the cost of pathology tests and how simply changes to request forms or making doctors aware of the cost of tests dramatically reduces the number of unnecessary tests carried out. Replicating this across all public services is a sensible approach to reduce waste and manage costs.

In making this simple change, Jeremy Hunt is seeking to tackle the level of prescription waste, which costs the NHS £300 million a year. He is beginning to broker a new deal between the citizen and State and in so doing will reaffirm the value of public services received.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Osborne should raise fuel duty by 50 per cent next month

Yesterday I wrote a piece for Conservative Home on fuel duty, reproduced below:

The days and weeks after an election win are critical for any Government. Five weeks in to the first Conservative Government in 18 years, the narrative looks dominated by Europe.
That is a narrative that can only last two years at most, but as George Osborne prepares to deliver his first Conservative-only budget on July 8, there is a once in a parliament opportunity to be bold and set a clear direction of travel which can shape the economic narrative over the whole parliament.
The Chancellor should act now to shift the burden of tax from income to consumption, setting a course for a radical reshaping on the tax debate that embeds fairness, efficiency and environmentalism at the core of our economic plans.

In his Budget of 2011, the Chancellor announced a long overdue plan to scrap the fuel duty escalator introduced by Gordon Brown and cut fuel duty in order to help hard pressed families. Inflation was running at close to five per cent and it was the right time to act.
Huge credit must go to the brilliant campaigning by Robert Halfon in putting an end to the escalator, and ensuring the Conservative Party in government acts in the interest of hard-working Britons.
In place of the escalator – which saw fuel duty rise by a penny a litre above inflation – the Chancellor introduced higher charges for oil companies who were benefiting from bumper prices: the so called fuel duty stabiliser.
Announcing the change in his Budget speech, George Osborne said:
“We can introduce a Fair Fuel Stabiliser. From tomorrow the supplementary charge levied on oil and gas production will increase from 20% to 32%… That will raise £2 billion additional revenue. But… if the oil price sustains a fall below $75, and we will consult on the precise figure, we will reintroduce the escalator and reduce the new oil tax in proportion.”
This was not a new idea. In fact it was a proposal he first made in 2008 as Shadow Chancellor, when as part of his justification he highlighted the need to stabilise the price of carbon and encourage investment in new low-carbon technologies: “In the case of fuel duty this works mainly by encouraging a long term shift towards lower emission vehicles and alternative methods of transport that do less damage to the environment.”
But what has happened? An unforeseen fall in the global oil price led to changes in the North Sea tax regime to support investment in new fields, but now oil has traded below $70 a barrel since September and there has been no increase in Fuel Duty. It looks like the fair duty stabiliser has been abandoned.
With the UK expected to be the fastest growing economy in the G7 for the second year running, employment at record levels and inflation tipping into negative territory, there is an opportunity now to be bold in championing workers by cutting the jobs tax.
So in his first all-Conservative Budget, the Chancellor should consider a hefty rise in Fuel Duty to fund a tax cut for working people.
one pence per litre hike in petrol and diesel duty raises £250m a year. For every penny hike in Fuel Duty you could raise the point at which we start to pay National Insurance by £104.
A 24 pence rise would allow the NI threshold to rise to match the Personal Allowance, taking around three million of the lowest paid out of this tax.
To ensure such a rise does not penalise communities who have little choice but to depend on their car, an adjustment can be made to the Rural Duty Relief Scheme.
Not only does such a change in taxation demonstrate our commitment to ensuring work always pays, taking the lowest paid out of the Jobs Tax meets our manifesto pledge to prioritise the lowest paid for tax cuts.
It is also delivers the Conservative plan, championed by Cameron in opposition, to shift the burden of tax from income to consumption. Doing so is greener and fairer, and more effective in raising tax and tackling avoidance.
It is also electorally essential. More than a million votes going to the Green Party in England and Wales at the General Election – 171,000 of those in London where we will need second preference votes to win in May 2016.
Now is the time to step up to the challenge and wrestle the environmental mantle back from the left by delivering ‘green’ policies in an economically Conservative manner.
With petrol prices down from their peak at over 140 pence a litre and currently averaging 116 pence per litre, the Chancellor could put fuel price back to where they were when he cancelled future rises by abolishing the escalator and deliver a £300 income tax cut to workers across Britain.
Post-election, riding high in the polls, this is the time to make bold decisions.

Monday, 22 June 2015

£12bn of welfare cuts can be matched with £12bn of tax cuts

Emerging from the General Election with a somewhat unexpected majority, the Chancellor now has two tasks in hand – the most talked about is finding £12bn of welfare cuts, but an equal priority for a Government wishing to create a “high wage, low tax, low welfare" economy must be to deliver tax cuts to low and middle income workers.

Perhaps the Coalition Government’s most popular tax policy was raising the personal allowance which will have given the majority of low and middle earner a tax cut of £825 a year. At the election, the Conservatives pledged to go further, pledging a “Tax Free Minimum Wage” and a personal allowance that would, by law, rise every year in line with incomes. This is a commendable aim, based on the Government delivering above inflationary increases to the NMW, reaching £8 by 2019, and a £12,500 Personal Allowance.

The cost of delivering a £12,500 allowance is roughly £12bn.

Giving workers £12bn of their hard earned money back, while at the same time seeking to find £12bn of savings in welfare. This should be a sign of joined up Government, not coincidence.

However, where Governments have failed in the past is to cut their cloth at the same (or faster) rate than they wish to cut taxes. Gordon Brown created a complex system of Tax Credits that are near impossible to unfold in any straight forward manner, he chose to do this rather than cut the taxes of same people who funded his spending sprees to allow him to take with one hand and give away with the other wasting our money on Government machinery along the way.

With the recent increases in the Personal Allowance – and those proposed over the next 5 years – allowing people to keep more of their own money, there is a diminishing need to continue the supply of Tax Credits to State-subsidise wages. But unless we reform both tax and welfare at the same time and in near equal measure, we will never be able to successfully remove the give-and-take welfare of the Tax Credit system.

In taking this step, which reduces the tax base – both in number of taxpayers and revenues – the Government must also make inroads into working welfare. According to the Treasury, about 4.5 million families received child and working tax credits in 2013-4, around 70% of those families are in work. Tax Credits which cost £28.6bn last year, and are forecast to rise to £35.4bn by 2018/19. That is a massive subsidy to employers of workers on the low pay.

I am instinctively a low tax Conservative. Whenever and wherever we can, we should seek to cut tax on income, especially those on the lower pay. Equally, in a globalised world where shifting income out of the grasp of the tax man is ever easier, I favour moving the burden of tax away from income towards consumption, as both a more effective way of raising revenue and reducing avoidance loopholes, as well as driving behaviour change for social, economic or ecological reasons

With the need to cut £12bn of welfare and £12bn of taxes the Chancellor is presented with a unique opportunity. If he fails to take on the challenge head on an unwind Gordon Brown’s disastrous legacy of Tax Credits, he will almost certainly come to regret it.