Saturday, June 02, 2007

Housing Need According to Cruddas

Basildon and Billericay Constituency Labour Party has nominated John Cruddas for Labour deputy leader. This is interesting because he was a contributor to a furore around the the local election campaign here in Basildon. What happened was this: Basildon Council under its Conservative administration runs a policy whereby one of the criteria for obtaining a council house is having a local connection. This is very popular and features in Conservative election material, but during the campaign the Times newspaper picked up on this and tried to spin it as some sort of racist policy. It was an appalling article that used single and two word quotes taken out of context, they were actually from part of a leaflet on defending the Green Belt and nothing to do with housing policy, but it also contains a quote from one John Cruddas MP. At the time this caused a bit of head-scratching among local Tories, why would he be sticking his nose in when it's not his portfolio or constituency? Subsequent events suggest that the article and the nomination may not be unconnected. He's warmed to the subject since after trade minister Margaret Hodge suggested that UK nationals should have priority over immigrants for social housing, saying that "Housing is allocated according to need and it is disingenuous for Margaret Hodge to suggest otherwise". So, in Cruddasworld people don't 'need' to live in their own community or near their own family and such things should count for absolutely nothing when considering social housing allocation.

Thank God it looks like Benn

Friday, June 01, 2007

Not A Campbell

The Conservative Party has a new Communications Director, and he's a Wickford boy, educated at Beauchamps High School no less! Andy Coulson is the former editor of the News of the World, and, of course, that has led some so compare him with Alistair Campbell. All I can say is, God, I hope not. Campbell is a proven liar. He lied as a print journalist when I used to read him in Today, and he brought his poison to professional politics as Blair's éminence grise. Michael Howard efficiently filleted him on Newsnight a while back, when he said what most of us had been thinking for years.

The fiasco over grammar schools certainly shows that the Conservative Party needs a better grip on communications. What is doesn't need is another amoral spinner. Let's trust it hasn't got one.

Thursday, May 31, 2007


At last the government has decided on the Shellhaven port at Thurrock in Essex. Dubai ports wanted to bring £1.5Bn of investment to turn a disused refinery into a container terminal, with much associated commercial space. As you might expect, there was a lengthy planning process and much local activism, then the whole thing disappeared into the government machine, and everyone else waited, and waited, and waited. Now the news has come, the smoke from the chimney is white, and there will be a port.

To be fair, serious decisions do take time, especially when they have the potential to affect such a large community. A port will alter the area in ways that are difficult to determine, and it should be noted that towns with ports are often defined by those ports. It's just that this has taken such a long time, nearly 7 years from first announcement, that most of the locals will greet the news with something approaching exhaustion, no matter if they are in favour or against.

The recent Planning White Paper suggests that large infrastructure projects need to be decided quicker. Ironic, when you consider where most of the time is actually spent.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Peter's got Guts

Speaking as a straight, married with two kids sort of chap, I have got some admiration for Peter Tatchell. As most people know Mr. Tatchell is a long-standing campaigner for gay rights and in so doing he has occasionally been quite controversial. What he has never been, however, is a hypocrite. If someone or some group is homophobic then they get it both barrels, no matter how fashionable they may be. So, when the Left was cosying up to fundamentalist Islam because of a shared view on the Iraq war, Mr. Tatchell wasn't going to mute his criticism of the treatment of homosexuals in Islamic countries. Likewise reggae or hip-hop singers with homophobic lyrics are exposed and feeble attempts to defend their bigotry on the grounds or ethnicity or culture are, quite rightly, brushed aside. Now he has been to Moscow for a Gay Rights rally, which was predictably subject to violence by the local bigots. He knew what would probably happen, but he went anyway.

Peter Tatchell stood for Labour in the infamous Bermondsey by-election in 1983. It may be that they lost more then they knew when he was defeated.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Why no Houses?

The front page of the Telegraph castigates John Prescott for planning guidance that more homes should be built on less land, leading to an explosion of flat building at the expense of constructing houses for families. The idea of PPG3, as it is called, is to increase the housing density in town centres, which takes pressure off the Green Belt but has the effect on skewing housebuilders towards building flats. Now there is apparently an oversupply of flats and an undersupply of houses. Of course there is an undersupply of new homes in general, hence the current crazy house prices.

The Telegraph piece was right as far as it goes, but it totally missed the point when it comes to Prescott messing up planning. Land used to be allocated for building via an easy-to-understand and reasonably straightforward local plan process. Prescott replaced this with a process called the Local Development Framework, a hideously complex and enormously lengthy exercise that requires about an hour just to explain, with diagrams. Completing the framework takes years, and those Councils that have successfully negotiated the obstacle course have found themselves in the High Court because in addition to being complex and time-consuming the process is also badly designed and easy for interested parties to challenge.

Here in Basildon we are doing an LDF, which means we won’t be allocating any new land for housing until 2009 at the absolute earliest and it will probably be much later than that. Every local authority in the country is in the same boat, so next time you hear the government whinging about nimby local authorities bear in mind that the same government has added years to the process of housing land allocation. You could even suspect Machiavellian motives at this point: fewer new houses equals higher house prices equals economic growth pumped from remortgages.

Or maybe they just screwed up.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Liberal Democrat Rainbows

What is going on with the Liberal Democrats in Wales? First they are for a coalition with just about everyone who isn't the Labour Party, then they aren't, and a slightly bemused Rhodri Morgan becomes First Minister again, and now the coalition is back on. It's all a bit of a shambles really. Let us move smoothly to bottom lines: electoral politics is about power, because only if you are in power can you deliver your vision for the electorate. If you are serious about politics then you want to be in power. Only the ideologically blinkered prefer the purity of opposition to actually being able to do things. It seems, however, that the Welsh Liberal Democrat executive bottled it when their chance came and it took their wider membership to remind them that all of that campaigning was not just to keep their AMs in expensive-account lunches. So, we may yet have a rainbow coalition government in Wales. It's the sort of thing that occasionally happens in local councils, but that is about as far as precedent goes. The people of Wales seem doomed to live in interesting times.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

What's in a Name?

Basildon District Council's Conservative administration wants to change the name of the Council to Basildon Borough Council. This changes the Chairman of the Council to a Mayor, some stationary, and not a lot else. Total cost around £1000. So, why bother? Well, Basildon is surrounded by boroughs, they are pretty much the norm in Essex, and successive Chairmen of the Council have had to put up with being called the Mayor by, well, almost everyone outside of Basildon District. There is also another reason; Basildon proper was a New Town, but that was decades ago. The image the Council wants for Basildon District today is of a mature community, that no longer needs to be treated as a special case and which can compete with any of the Boroughs in Essex as a place to live and do business. Branding is important, and name is a key part of brand.

Anyway, to change to a Borough there has to be a two thirds majority for the motion at a Council meeting and then a petition is sent to the Queen. Pretty straightforward you would think, but no. The local Labour Party had the idea, pure genius this, of having a local referendum on the subject, and when that was refused their Councillors voted against becoming a borough. At once they decried the expenditure, wanted to spend a tens of thousands of pounds on a referendum, declared the matter unimportant, and put their opposition to it in their election material. Consistent they are not. Still, they like Gordon Brown.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Grammar Schools and Reality

David Willetts has been taking a bit of a caning over his comments on Grammar Schools. Well, frankly, he should have thought to put an exercise book down his shorts if was going to come up with lines like 'there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it'. The 'advantage' that grammars entrench is the one children get from having parents that care about their education. This trait is not just confined to the middle class; I have personal experience of working-class families that supported their children into a grammar school and university education and middle class families that 'supported' their children into leaving school early to work at a Tesco checkout. But in the midst of poor delivery and damaging the Party's standing with its core support, there is a serious point: grammars schools simply are not the answer to education as it has to function in the 21st century. Academic selection is very good at finding those with a particularly strong academic bent and grammars are very good at developing them to a high level. What is also required, however, is a system that takes the vast majority of children of average academic ability and equips them to function in a high-skill, knowledge-based economy. It is no longer good enough to sift out the top 10-15%, because a modern developed economy requires a much higher proportion of people with a good education to function. Grammars have their place, and Willetts was wrong to think that to suggest that they weren't all of the answer he had to rubbish them, but something else is also required.

The problem is that the Labour government took education backwards in scrapping the Conservative grant-maintained system that was starting to work very well indeed. Then they had an epiphany on school independence, gifting us academies and foundation schools. Willetts is right to seek to build on that, but it is poor politics to stir up opposition by ineptly articulating a position that nearly everyone agrees with anyway.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

No Contest

It's Brown by coronation. This is good news, for just about everyone except the Labour Party. A contested leadership election, even one as mismatched as the bout on offer, would have given Labour a rolling primetime six-week platform to lay out new policies and build new enthusiasm. Instead we got one press conference and a palpable sense of anticlimax. Brown looked smug, but already there are a few rumblings in the Labour blogsphere that this might have been a bit of an own goal by the great clunking fist.

Labour Party rules required that the MPs nominate candidates for the subsequent election. It did not require that they support the nominee, just that they nominate. However the PLP decided that getting in with the new boss was more important that little things like allowing the ordinary membership a voice, and it is inconceivable that they would have come to this conclusion unless it was also the view of Brown's campaign team. So, no election, which has a corollary of reduced legitimacy when the going gets tough, and the going is already pretty tough if you are a Labour MP in a southern marginal seat.

Democracy may be inconvenient for candidates to high office, but the alternatives can be far worse. Ask Nicolae Ceauşescu.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Wounded at Dunfermline

Labour got hammered in the Dunfermline and West Fyfe by-election. The safe Labour seat went Liberal Democrat, despite that party’s problems over the last few weeks and despite the close involvement of premier to be Gordon Brown. All are surprised, and the parties and pundits are grappling to discern the significance of the result. It’s a by-election, so nearly all explanations are valid: local factors; low turnout; voters knowing they wouldn’t change the government but wanting to protest and so on. In all of this some things are clear: people did want to protest and Gordon Brown is not the overwhelming force that Blair was at his height. Otherwise local difficulties could have been swept away by Labour chosen political message of government success now, and in the future with Gordon.

The problem for the government is two fold. In the short term bad by-elections make MPs nervous for their own electoral prospects. Now couple that with crunch votes in the commons on ID Cards and Terrorism this week and there is at least a small chance of a crisis. The longer term problem is Brown as Labour’s Plan A after Blair. Dunfermline might mean they need a Plan B.