Monday, 11 January 2016

We need to be on a different track

Since 2010, rail fares have rocketed by 25 per cent – three times faster than wages.

Strangely, George Osborne never explains that he is forcing a 40% rise in the cost of some season tickets so that he can cut taxes for millionaires. Commuters have consistently been told that higher fares would fund investment, but vital projects have been delayed for years and passengers are paying ever more to travel on increasingly overcrowded and unreliable trains.

Out of touch Conservative Ministers talk about ‘fair fares for comfortable commuting’ and insist that most rail fares are ‘quite cheap,’ while commuters pay ever higher prices to travel on unreliable and overcrowded trains.  They’ve clearly never travelled on trains in South Yorkshire.

Commuters are paying ever more to travel, even though passenger satisfaction ratings and service punctuality have deteriorated since 2010. Essential upgrade and maintenance works have been put on hold. We’ve seen the promised electrification of the Midland Mainline pushed back again. What a surprise that David Cameron could keep repeating his promise to deliver…until just after election day, when the promise, like so many others, was quickly ditched.

While regulated fare rises have officially been capped at the rate of inflation, across the country passengers have been hit by ‘stealth fare rises’ instead – including increases in the cost of evening travel in the North of up to 162%. There are serious doubts over the affordability of the Government’s pledge to cap increases to rail fares over the whole Parliament, and Conservative Ministers have refused to say how the policy will be funded. Will this be the next broken promise to passengers?

Under the fragmented structures created by the Conservatives, 3% of the cost of tickets are taken as train companies profit, and our network is up to 40% less efficient than the best performing European railway systems.


There is an alternative plan for rail that would extend public ownership to rail services, put passengers first and address the rising cost of commuter travel. The sooner we move in that direction the better.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Waste of space

Successive UK governments have signed up to agreements with other European countries to increase recycling and to cut waste, especially waste going to landfill.

Under the last agreement, the UK is required to recycle at least 50% of its waste from households by 2020 – a target we’re on course to miss at current rates of progress. Failure to meet those targets can result in sizeable fines.

After 2000, there were years of large annual percentage increases in recycling rates, but they have been plateauing in recent years. Under the coalition government, UK recycling rose by just 2.5% in 2011, 1% in 2012, 0.2% in 2013 and 0.8% in 2014. The 2014 data has only just been published, as the Cameron government has decided to delay the publication of lots of bad news until the 10 days before Christmas in the hope that it will not get much media coverage.

Of course, this abysmal performance was entirely expected as Conservative Secretary of State Eric Pickles wasted £250 million in a completely futile gesture on weekly general bin collections – fewer households had one at the end of the programme than at the beginning – instead of focusing on waste minimisation and waste recycling.

The European Commission (EC) published its latest package on 2nd December. The proposals include increasing the preparing for re-use and recycling target for municipal waste to 60 per cent by weight by 2025, and 65 per cent by weight by 2030. This is estimated to deliver savings of €600 billion (or 8% of annual turnover for businesses in the EU) and reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 4%.

In contrast to Wales which is making real progress on this agenda, England does not really have a strategy for meeting the targets by making this transition to a more resource efficient economy. The last government waste policy statement ‘Government Review of Waste Policy in England’ was published in June 2011.


So, the government is making no real progress on waste minimisation or re-cycling rates. It won’t meet the targets it agreed and, therefore, faces big fines. And, it has no coherent strategy for the future.  A waste of space really.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Housing Policies Which Should Make Us All Worried

I was on record as being critical of the new house-building record of the last Labour government, but at least they could point to the huge Decent Homes' programme that ensured 1.4million homes were made fit for the 21st century. Without that significant investment the housing crisis would be even worse than it is.

The five years of failure with the coalition saw rising homelessness, falling home-ownership, escalating rents, deep cuts in investment and the lowest level of house-building since the 1920s. Even in its worst-performing year, Labour built more homes than in the coalition's best year.

Now, with the election of a Tory majority government, we see a fundamental shift in policy. A complete withdrawal of all Government funding for the provision of new social housing and the transfer of all resources to deliver 200,000 so called starter homes during this Parliament.

Not merely is there is to be no government investment in council or housing association homes to rent but the discount for housing association tenants who are to be given the right-to-buy is to be funded by forcing councils to sell the highest valued council homes as they become vacant. Forget the image of some large penthouse flat in Westminster, in most of England this simply means the selling off of the few remaining, good family, semi-detached houses that are still council-owned.
Then there are the starter homes; not new building at all but replacing the rented homes previously built as part of section 106 agreements with developers. In the past 10 years 250,000 new rented homes have been built in this way, funding which the government will now end.

So with no money for new rented homes the message to those tenants in council flats – ordinary working families who don't earn enough to buy – will be just forget the transfer you've been waiting years for. For those waiting for their first council or housing association property, the wait could literally go on for ever.

Then, for the diminishing number of council and housing association tenants, there will over time be pressure to increase rents to bring them in line with 'market rents'. There is a mythology of 'subsidised council rents'. The problem is not that council rents are too low, it is that private rents are too high.
For those fortunate enough to get a new council or housing association property the Government now propose to take away their security. Even if you have been a brilliant tenant who has always paid the rent on time, kept the home and garden in good repair and been the best neighbours anyone could imagine you could be forced out after a maximum of five years.

This is not just an attack on people's homes it actually undermines the ideas of neighbourhoods and communities where people put down roots. It disrupts family life. If you have to move home your children have to move school.

Taken together these measures amount to the end of social rented housing as we have known it. Housing in which many of us grew up, affordable, secure, with family stability and good communities.

So what is the Government's plan to deal with the housing crisis?

A few weeks ago David Cameron proclaimed his intention to deliver one million new homes this parliament. Yet, within weeks, my questions to the Housing Minister confirmed that this wasn't a promise, not even a goal or a target, but 'an ambition' which looks increasingly unrealistic.
In practice the plan means owner-occupation for those who can afford it – perhaps 60% of households – and private renting for almost everyone else.

Who can complain about an aspiration for owner-occupation? Certainly not me. Yet the housing charity Shelter has calculated that the government's so-called 'starter homes' will require an income an income of £50,000 and a deposit of £40,000 outside of London, and an income of £77,000 and a deposit of £98,000 in London.

Each and every day these housing policies mean that more and more young people will never reach the first rung of the ladder. Housing and land prices continue to rise faster than general inflation. Far from getting those prices down the intention will be to subsidise them for some. Meanwhile, the big house-builders sit on 600,000 plots with planning permission.

So, what are the prospects for the new households – who will not be able to climb on to the ownership ladder? For some private renting will be an acceptable and adequate alternative. For others, especially families with children, it will be years of struggling to pay ever rising rents in sub-standard accommodation with no certainty where you will be living in a few months’ time.

My forecast is that by the end of this Parliament there will be a lower percentage of homes that are owner occupied, there will be fewer social rented properties, there will be more insecurity and pressure on family budgets and we won't have built the million homes the Prime Minister promised.

We should all be very worried.

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post on 6th January 2016 - 

Drowning, not waving

It’s difficult to believe that, whatever the investment, flooding could have totally been avoided when record amounts of rain hit the UK during December. 

However, it is almost certainly the case that many thousands of homes and businesses would not have been left under water, many schools would not have had to close or hospitals stop operating, nor bridges washed away if investment had not been cut.

I thought that everyone had learned some big lessons from the floods of 2007 when parts of NE Derbyshire, Rotherham and Sheffield were so badly hit. A national political consensus was built around the need for a flood prevention investment strategy, which was then implemented. Unfortunately, that consensus didn’t last long.

As soon as Cameron and Clegg took control, their warm words of re-assurance were not matched by their deeds. They cut £115m from the flood defence budget in 2011/12 and cut again 2012/13. Cuts planned for the next year were temporarily halted by the 2013/14 floods, but were quickly resumed.
It has now emerged that, in October, Conservative Ministers rejected the advice of the Committee on Climate Change to develop a strategy to address the increasing number of homes at risk of flooding.
In last month’s Autumn Statement, George Osborne announced £2.3 billion capital funding for a 6-year flood programme. Superficially, this longer term approach is welcome. However, this will protect just 300,000 homes when the Environment Agency estimates that 2.4 million properties are in areas at risk of flooding from rivers and the sea and a further 2.8 million properties are at risk of surface water flooding.

Close examination of the figures reveals that, this year, Cameron and Osborne are once again slashing funding with a 14% real terms cut of £115 million. Despite the increasing flood risk, spending this year will be lower in real terms than it was in 2009/10.

Given the weather forecasts of increasing extremities – temperatures, droughts, rainfall, wind speeds – many communities must expect to find themselves drowning and not waving for the foreseeable future.


Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Sanity required

In 1997, the in-coming Labour Government inherited an NHS and mental health system that was falling apart. They were turned around with record levels of investment, more doctors and nurses and record levels of public satisfaction.

A National Service Framework for mental health was introduced, which improved standards. It created three new specialist service models for people with severe mental health problems: crisis resolution and home treatment teams, assertive outreach teams for community support and early intervention teams for young people with first-time psychosis.

An additional £173 million was invested over three years to enable the development of psychological therapies to those experiencing mild to moderate depression and anxiety. This made a significant improvement in the range of options available to GPs for responding to their patients who were experiencing anxiety, which was often quite debilitating and affecting their working lives.
Far from building on this significant improvement in mental health services, the coalition government went into reverse. It cut mental health services 20% greater than other health services. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a crisis with service cuts, staff shortages and vulnerable people being let down.

A recent report, ‘Mental Health Under Pressure’ by the independent and highly-respected Kings Fund, highlighted widespread evidence of poor-quality care. Only 1 in 7 patients said that they received appropriate care in a crisis. Increasing numbers of patients are reporting a poor experience of community mental health care.

The lack of psychiatric beds has led to significant increases in out-of-area placements. Last year, there was a 23% rise in the number of patients sent out of area for treatment. Some patients were sent more than 300 miles for in-patient treatment. Yet these out-of-area placements are costly, have a detrimental impact on patients and are associated with an increased risk of suicide. Suicide rates are increasing; it is the biggest killer of young men under 45.

In 2014, the government promised a new five-year national strategy for mental health covering care and support for all ages by autumn 2015.  However, the report is still not published and George Osborne has pushed it back into 2016.

After considerable pressure, David Cameron promised an extra £250m to community mental health services this year. However, like most of his promises, it hasn’t been kept and he has been forced to admit that the government will only spend £173m, some 30% less.


There is an urgent need for this government to change tack. It’s a matter of sanity.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Devolution

Devolution will happen; it’s on the agenda, and there is a good deal of cross-party support for it. Although I have reservations about some aspects and details of the government’s proposals, the direction of travel is essentially right.

But we need a dialogue and debate about two important issues.

The first is the importance of codifying the powers of local government and its relationship with the centre. Currently, there is a real danger that some powers and aspects of policy will be devolved to local councils, but that other powers will be removed from local councils, and more controls introduced in their place.

For instance, at the same time that parliament is considering The Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, it is also considering a Housing and Planning Bill which expropriates a large number of planning issues from local decision-making and gives them to Whitehall.

In the last parliament, the government portrayed the stand-alone housing revenue accounts as a major mechanism of decentralisation—a means of devolving power to local councils—but has now announced measures about rent-setting and determination which reverse devolution and move back to a centrist approach.

My point is that we need a time of reflection, with a discussion between Government, local government and this House about the framework for the constitutional relationships between the centre and local authorities of whatever kind, including combined authorities, so that we can look at the balance of powers and perhaps put down some markers or mechanisms for ensuring that the devolution we all support today is not taken back tomorrow. We need something of that kind. A constitutional convention has been mentioned—the Government may not like those words, but we need some mechanism to enable that to happen.

My second concern is about fiscal devolution. Last year, the Select Committee I chair produced a report on an all-party basis. It was overwhelmingly supported by the London Finance Commission, the Mayor of London and London boroughs, and the core cities. But it was dismissed by the government as something that it didn’t want to pursue.

However, the government is now pursuing the total localisation of business rates, but proposes to retain council tax capping and control by referendum. No other tax requires a referendum on any increase. I no more agree with this policy now than previously. Further, it is ludicrous that there has been no revaluation for council tax purposes for 25 years. And the government is simply refusing to consider any localisation of stamp duty or other property taxes or of income tax.

We need a serious look at wider fiscal devolution. Ultimately, simply giving to local councils the power to spend money that has been handed out from the centre is not real devolution at all.

Note: This is a summary of some contributions I made to the debate on the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. You can read more at:
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm151117/debtext/151117-0003.htm#151117-0003.htm_spnew17

Monday, 16 November 2015

Last chance!

It’s countdown time. On the 21st November it will be too late.

If you are not on the electoral register before then, you won’t count when changes are made to election boundaries in 2016. If you, or your family or friends aren’t on the register by then, when you do get organised to get on the register to vote, your vote will have less value than it should.

So, what’s going on? And why do you need to act this week?

The new system of Individual Electoral Registration (IER) changes how you register to vote. In the past, electoral registration was the responsibility of ‘the householder.’

But, things have changed. Now, you need to register yourself. The problem is that the Conservative government have rushed these changes through and have not properly informed voters.  They think it is in their interests not to have a comprehensive electoral register. As a result, up to a million people may not have even realised what they have to do.

Young people and students are amongst the groups worst affected, alongside people who live in private rented accommodation, those who move frequently.

We can’t sit by and watch this many people lose the right to vote. That’s why this week is crucial. We must do everything we can before the deadline to make sure that everyone who wants to vote in future elections can.
If you are not on the register, you not only lose the right to vote. You may also find that you are denied access to a range of services or products that most people take for granted. Not being on the register will almost certainly stop you opening a bank account or getting a mortgage, credit or a loan, except at an extortionate rate.
So, you have to act this week to ensure you get counted on the 1st December electoral register.

And, it’s not just you. Please spread the word. Ensure your family and friends know just how important this is.

It's actually really easy to register, just visit www.gov.uk/register-to-vote and in three minutes it will all be done.

Crunch time for housing



We have a rapidly growing housing crisis. 

I had to remind the Conservative Secretary of State this week that I had been previously been critical of the former Labour government for not building enough homes, but that the biggest problem was that this last Conservative-led coalition government had built even fewer. 

David Cameron has promised that 1 million new homes will be built in this parliament. Let me tell you that there is not a cat-in-hell’s chance of that happening unless the government does a complete u-turn and invests in new social housing for rent, by councils or housing associations. There is no sign of that happening.

Owner-occupation is falling rapidly. The proportion of households who can actually afford to buy is falling rapidly. The number of people in their 20s and 30s who are staying home with their parents is rising day-by-day. Homelessness is on the increase. Low income families are being forcibly re-housed from higher rent areas, away from their jobs, their children’s schools and their families. On nearly every indicator, the problem is getting worse each and every day.
So, what is David Cameron’s response?

First, he has stopped councils from requiring developers to include affordable homes in new build schemes. He has replaced this policy with his Starter Homes’ initiative. And, do you know the price of these Starter Homes – up to £450,000 in London and £250,000 in the rest of England. Anyone who thinks most young families can afford £250,000 let alone £450,000 has simply lost touch with reality.
Second, he has taken decision-making, about where these homes should be, away from local communities and councils and moved to Whitehall. So much for localism!

Third, he’s introduced right-to-buy for social housing tenants, but it is absolutely clear that there will not be one-for-one replacement, and the discounts are to be funded by forcing councils to sell more homes. Even Conservative MPs are lining up in droves to object, asking for exemptions for their communities; those in rural areas say this policy will lead to the end of any affordable homes for rent in vast areas of the country.

Fourth, Cameron is imposing new rent control arrangements on both councils and housing associations – tearing up existing arrangements without notice – which will cut the number of new homes they can build by thousands. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) now says that most social housing tenants would not benefit from any rent reduction, but the policy will benefit the exchequer. 

The consequence on new house-building is also dramatic. The government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicts that 14,000 fewer social sector properties will be built between now and 2020–21 as a consequence. Locally, Sheffield Housing will lose £27m over 5 years and South Yorkshire Housing Association will lose £7m.

And, just to rub salt into the wounds, Cameron and Osborne have now confirmed that they believe that two hard-working adults each earning the Living Wage is to be defined as having a High Income for which it should be rewarded with a significant increase in rent.

From April 2017, social housing tenants with household incomes above £40,000 in London, and above £30,000 elsewhere in England, will have to pay more rent. IFS estimates that more than 250,000 households will be hit. The details are yet to be revealed, but we could see some households getting a £1 annual increase in income being forced to pay a £1000 or more in additional rent.
It’s crunch time for housing. Far from addressing the challenge, Cameron just keeps adding to the crisis.


Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Rising to the challenge



We have a housing crisis. On just about every indicator, the direction of travel is wrong.
Housing costs as a proportion of earnings remain unsustainably high. We are spending 1.4 per cent of UK GDP on subsidising housing costs, compared with 0.14 per cent in Germany. UK housing benefit has doubled in a decade to £24.2bn.

Last week, Conservative Housing Minister Brandon Lewis claimed that his Housing and Planning Bill will  kick-start a national crusade” that will “get one million homes built by 2020” and “help deliver the homes hard-working people rightly deserve, transforming generation rent into generation buy”. 

It’s nonsense. You should put even less faith in Lewis’s claim than that of his predecessor, Grant Shapps, who told me in 2010 that “Building more homes is the gold standard upon which we shall be judged”, before going on to deliver a post-WW2 record low of 135,500 new homes in 2012/13.
Meanwhile, David Cameron proudly proclaims his new Starter Homes’ initiative. These are set to cost no more than £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 within London.  Starter homes at £450,000? Cameron thinks that this is ‘affordable’? Only on Planet Eton! It’s no wonder that ordinary people think politicians are out of touch.

Cameron and Lewis have plucked a promise of “1 million new homes in this Parliament” out of mid-air. Let’s be clear; there is no chance of this being achieved, let alone the 250,000 minimum housing starts required each year, without a significant investment in social housing which is essential to meet housing needs as well as economic objectives. But Cameron, for ideological reasons alone, has set his face against social housing with his latest hugely subsidised right-to-buy scheme for housing associations. 

Tackling the housing crisis requires some radical interventions. Simply building more homes will not redress the problem of absurdly high house prices fuelled by the absurdly high cost of land.
Where planning permission is given for housing, it’s the public purse which should benefit from increase in value. This principle was enshrined in the 1947 Planning Act. The landowner would receive the current use value plus a helpful top up but not the windfall bonus of today’s system.
Denmark and Germany have led the way in addressing the challenge of brining housing land in to use at lower prices, using land value taxes and planning powers. It’s little wonder that they can deliver house-building rates double or treble ours, whilst cutting the cost of housing. If they can do it, so can we.

Building enough new homes is a huge challenge. Getting a fair deal for taxpayers is an even bigger challenge. Land value reform now has to be on the agenda.