Friday, 25 March 2016

It’s quite outrageous

I recently described the government’s housing policies as having moved from disastrous to catastrophic. It has the wrong strategy, the wrong policies and dreadful outcomes.

The government is busily stuffing millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into the hands of a relatively small number of house-buyers – thus maintaining artificially high land and house values – whilst the proportion of families from this and the next generation who can actually afford to become house-owners shrinks every day. Disparities in wealth between the nation’s children and grand-children are to be determined by who can and who cannot afford to get on the house-ownership ladder.

At the same time, homelessness is increasing daily; more households are living in temporary accommodation; new social housing is coming to a halt; private rents are continuing to rise faster than inflation, and the government is prioritising big taxpayer subsidies to the relatively small number of already well-housed social-rented tenants to persuade them to be the next generation of right-to-buy lottery winners. It is madness.

Meanwhile, the government is now proposing to open the back door to corruption in the planning system by allowing developers to choose their own planners to advise local planning committees. It says this is because the planning system is holding back new housing development. This is nonsense.
Just consider for a moment why housing developers are making record profits and their share prices are going through the roof when development activity is at such a low level. The reality is that they are restricting the supply of new houses to keep prices artificially high.

The latest figures show that nearly half a million homes in England have planning permission but have yet to be built. The length of time it takes for developers to complete a house has jumped from 24 to 32 months. Some developments received planning permission more than 10 years ago, but are not complete.

In 2012/13, the total of unimplemented planning permissions was 381,390. In 2013/14 it was 443,265. In 2014/15 it had leapt even further to 475,647 homes in England which have been given planning permission and are yet to be built. The number is increasing daily.

it is clear that the big developers are building at a rate to maximise their profits rather than addressing the country’s housing needs.

Of course, their shareholders will be delighted.

But, it’s not in the nation’s interest, it is not in the people’s interest.

It is simply ludicrous that the government is subsidising and supporting this with its policies.


It is really quite outrageous.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Cops down, crime up?

Last year, I was one of those who campaigned to get George Osborne to change his mind about the scale of his proposed additional cuts in police budgets. He had intended to announce another 20% cut over the course of this parliament, which would undoubtedly have led to further big cuts in police numbers, on top of the 18,357 police officers (including more than 12,000 on the frontline) who have gone since David Cameron became Prime Minister.

With great fanfare, in the Autumn Statement, George Osborne announced that there would real-terms protection for police budgets over the next 4 years. Of course, when the dust died down, it was clear it wasn’t true. Osborne assumed that in every area there would be a 2% increase in the precept (part of your council tax). But, even then, that would only produce the same cash nationally, meaning a projected real-terms cut of up to 10% by the end of this parliament. Further, the real-terms cuts would be most pronounced in the poorest areas and regions of England.

In South Yorkshire, since 2010, the number of police officers has already fallen from 2953 to 2494 now. By 2020, that is projected to fall further to 2379. Incidentally, I’m very pleased that our excellent South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Alan Billings, has committed to maintaining the number of PCSOs, who local communities often see as being in the frontline on dealing with anti-social behaviour.

But, what might these additional cuts in police numbers mean for our community safety?
First, crime is not falling – for the first time this century. Crime is changing. Whilst burglary and car-crimes continue to fall, internet crime is increasing rapidly. At its crudest, when six million cyber and online crimes are included in the official crime statistics, crime will near double.

Second, demands on the police are increasing, especially because of an aging and increasingly vulnerable population. Other agencies are struggling because of their own cuts, leaving the police as the last resort.

Third, I welcome the significant improvements that have been made in efficiency in back-office functions. However, those continuing improvements will not fill the budget gap.


The time has come to cut crime, not cut cops. But, as George Osborne prepares to tell us that he is missing all the latest financial and fiscal targets he set for himself only last year, I rather suspect that we shall see fewer cops and more crime.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Not adding up

The Conservative Education Minister told the all-party Education Select Committee that there was no problem with teacher recruitment, despite the fact that half of all schools had unfilled positions at the start of this academic year. In the same week we learnt that some pupils are now having to travel to other schools for their maths and English lessons due to teacher vacancies at their own.

Last year, in our area, many schools failed to receive a single suitable application for particular teaching vacancies. It isn’t just state schools, academies or even free schools that are having recruitment problems. Last week, private school heads were bemoaning the shortage.

School spending on supply teachers rose 42 per cent last year. Academies and Free Schools spent nearly £180 million more on supply teachers than the previous year. The head of Ofsted has said teacher shortages are a serious problem; yet Ministers continue to say that everyone concerned about teacher shortages is “making it up” or “scaremongering”. Schools, children and parents know this is nonsense.

Against advice, Ministers changed the way in which teachers are trained. The number of new teachers trained and retained dropped, thus creating the shortage in supply. Rather than address the problem, Ministers artificially changed the statistical process to make comparisons with previous years more difficult to draw.

Almost 50,000 teachers quit last year, the highest figures since records began. This year more teachers quit than actually entered the profession, at a time when pupil numbers are rising. Applications to teach are falling in every region and are down in key subjects such as English, maths and ICT.

Standards are being threatened as schools are forced to turn to unqualified staff, temporary supply teachers, non-specialists, and larger class sizes to cope with the chronic shortages in the profession. Meanwhile, the Government botches teacher recruitment, misses its own targets year on year, and stores up further trouble for our schools.

The reasons for these problems lie at the Secretary of State’s door. It’s time she explained what she is going to do about it?

Friday, 18 March 2016

Fares please

George Osborne has pursued a strategy of cutting public expenditure but forcing increases in fees, charges and taxes to mitigate the service impact.

Early in his reign, he pushed VAT up to 20%. This year, he has told councils to additionally increase council tax by 2% specifically to pay for adult social care and he’s told police commissioners to increase their precept by 2% to partially stem the cuts in police numbers.

With other services, Osborne has cut resources, reduced service provision but forced increases in charges every year. Bus services are a good example of this. Budgets for bus services have been cut in this region by 31%, and bus fares have risen by 27% since David Cameron came to power in 2010, whilst general inflation (RPI) has increased by 19%.

Margaret Thatcher effectively privatised bus services in 1985. Most bus routes run on a commercial basis, with the bus operator setting the fares and timetable. Since 1985, local bus passenger journeys (outside London) have fallen by nearly 40%; which partly explains the significant increase in congestion. Nowadays, one-third of all local passenger journeys are concessionary (elderly, disabled and youth).

Where no operator is willing to run a ‘commercial service’, the transport authority can fund services. Since 2010, more than 2,400 of these routes have been totally or partially lost as budgets have been cut. Local authority supported bus mileage (outside London) fell by 75 million miles between 2010 and 2015. On these routes, bus fares account for about 59% of the income (78% if concessionary income is included) with the rest being subsidy.

As budgets have been cut, young people have been hit badly in some areas. Seven authorities have already removed all fare concessions for young people and a number of other authorities have announced that they will have to remove them in the light of Osborne’s announcement in the December local government settlement that funding will be cut by a further 25% in real terms over the next 5 years.

Locally, in the Sheffield City Region, the first moves in moving to a different model of regulation were not managed well by either the transport authority or the bus companies. Hopefully lessons will have been learned.

Meanwhile, the largest bus operators continue to report significant profit margins: for example, last year, Stagecoach reported a 13.5% operating profit margin on its regional bus routes. This has been achieved by what the Competition Commission called ‘geographic market segregation’ and where ‘head-to-head competition is uncommon’; in other words, the bus companies act as oligopolies which have carved the market up between themselves.

The key challenge locally will be to see whether, through local innovation, the continuing decline in bus usage can be reversed.

Annual Bus Statistics

Public Transport Fares

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