Grenfell Tower And Westminster’s Assault On Local Democracy

Kensington and Chelsea town hall

The latest casualty of the Grenfell Tower fire is local democracy

One of the key ideals of democracy – only ever half-heartedly observed in the United Kingdom – is the principle of subsidiarity, the notion that higher levels of government should take on only those duties which cannot be performed at a lower level by local officials more directly accountable to local people.

Most people would agree that local people are best placed to make decisions that directly affect them and their communities. Of course, in Britain this is balanced out by our terror at the thought of a “postcode lottery” when it comes to public service provision, that gnawing feeling that someone, somewhere might be getting a better deal from the government and that it would be far better if we all resign ourselves to the same low standard of uniform mediocrity than witness excellence in some places and failure in others (see the Cult of the NHS). But generally speaking, the principle of subsidiarity makes sense to people when it is explained in abstract.

It is sad, then, to see that the latest victim of the Grenfell Tower fire is (thankfully) not another person, but rather the ability of local councils, elected by local people, to manage their affairs in the way that suits them best. This was manifested today by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid’s request that the CEO of Kensington & Chelsea council submit his resignation as an act of public contrition for the council’s chaotic and disorganised response to the disaster.

From the Guardian:

The chief executive of Kensington and Chelsea council, Nicholas Holgate, has resigned after being asked to do so by the communities secretary, Sajid Javid. In a statement Holgate said that Javid “required the leader of the council to seek my resignation”.

His resignation comes after a tide of criticism of the council, not only for the way it responded to the Grenfell Tower tragedy but also for historical neglect of poorer residents of the borough and a neglect of social housing.

Holgate said: “Serving the families so desperately affected by the heartbreaking tragedy at Grenfell Tower remains the highest priority of the council. Despite my wish to have continued, in very challenging circumstances, to lead on the executive responsibilities of the council, I have decided that it is better to step down from my role, once an appropriate successor has been appointed.

He added: “Success in our efforts requires leadership across London that sustains the confidence and support of central government. There is a huge amount still to do for the victims of the fire, requiring the full attention of this council and many others. If I stayed in post, my presence would be a distraction.”

The local council has instead been instructed to “work in a new way with different partners” going forward until the disaster relief efforts are concluded.

In some ways this speaks to the urgent need to reform Britain’s lacklustre civil contingencies protocols, which (as this blog discussed yesterday in detail) were proven not fit for purpose, with contradictory guidance about who has ultimate ownership for disaster recovery and unclear lines of communication between local government, national government and the emergency services.

But more worrying, from a democratic perspective, is the fact that the Communities Secretary has the power to unilaterally intervene and demand that a local council fire one of its own officers – for any reason, let alone mere bad optics.

Personally, I have never seen the great wisdom in councils hiring Chief Executives to effectively run their jurisdictions. One wonders what the job of councillors is supposed to be, if not that very thing. Far better to have directly elected mayors with real executive responsibility – and in the case of London, powers should either be vested in the office of Mayor of London or in elected mini-mayors for each individual borough – who are then responsible for running the machinery of local government.

To separate out the roles of political leadership and administration is itself to subvert the democratic process, as elected councillors are essentially divesting themselves of any direct responsibility for running their own fiefdoms while giving considerable power to a typically overpaid and unremarkable individual who is not directly accountable to voters. This gives local elected officials “plausible deniability” when anything goes wrong – including disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire. Rather than holding local politicians to account for their failures, instead the unelected CEO is offered up as a sacrifice to soak up the public rage while elected officials serenely glide on as though nothing had happened. This is no model for democracy.

But even though the CEO model is clearly flawed, it certainly should not be any business of central government in Westminster how the people of the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea manage their affairs. If people were politically engaged and had the will to do so – and if local elections were more than a glorified opinion poll in the gaps between general elections – then the local people could demand that the council dismiss their chief executive, or else punish the ruling party at the ballot box. But because we in this country look to central government to solve literally every one of our problems (and central government happily grants itself the authority to try), most people don’t care how their local government is organised. Turnout figures for any local election make this immediately plain.

Ultimately, there are two dangers here. The first is that by forcing the resignation of the Kensington & Chelsea Council chief executive – a huge overreach of authority by an already overcentralised Westminster government – we essentially paper over all of the cracks and flaws in our emergency response protocols. Rather than asking deep and searching questions about what went wrong at every stage of the process, we instead simply pat ourselves on the back for having forced one particular figurehead (or scapegoat) to resign and congratulate ourselves for a job well done.

But the second danger is the continued, seemingly limitless growth of the state. What is the point in having local elections or having a layer of local government if its decisions and appointments are to be arbitrarily second-guessed and overruled by Westminster? Sajid Javid is accountable to nobody in Kensington & Chelsea, and yet he saw fit to dismiss a local official whom local officials had entrusted with the running of the borough. This is appalling, and people should be outraged.

Never mind that the mere presence of an unelected borough chief executive is itself a shameful abdication of responsibility by local politicians and one of the key reasons why there are so few opportunities for elected officials to gain real executive experience in local government before seeking higher office. Ultimately, if Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council want to run their administration in this ludicrous way and the people are lethargic enough to allow it to continue, then Westminster has no business meddling in their affairs and picking and choosing who should be allowed to perform that role.

Some aspects of government – such as emergency response and disaster recovery – clearly require the close interaction of different levels of government and a variety of different agencies. But who Kensington and Chelsea council choose to keep in the position of chief executive should have absolutely nothing to do with Sajid Javid, Theresa May or anybody else in central government.

When it comes to designing protocols and procedures which clearly spell out how these different levels of government and different agencies work together during the emergency response and disaster recovery phases, there is clearly a vital role for national government. That is exactly the kind of high-level central planning that national government is designed to do. But when it comes to deciding who can and cannot serve in a position reporting to local government, Westminster needs to butt out. It sets a terrible precedent and undermines what little local democracy we actually have in Britain.

We are all outraged by the Grenfell Tower fire and we all want to see tangible actions taken to hold those responsible to account and prevent future occurrences. But mindlessly clapping along as the state makes yet another power grab and undermines the very idea of local democracy even further is not a sensible response to last week’s tragedy.

Theresa May’s beleaguered government has enough to be getting on with at the moment, without acting like a glorified parish council on top of everything else. We must stop encouraging Westminster to do so, and demand a revolution in local government instead.

 

Kensington Town Hall Protests - Grenfell Tower

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A State Of Unpreparedness: Lessons In Disaster Recovery From The Grenfell Tower Fire

Grenfell Tower fire - disaster relief - Red Cross

The chaotic government response to the Grenfell Tower disaster has made it worryingly clear that despite extensive legislation and incredible local spirit, Britain’s civil contingencies and disaster preparedness protocols are not fit for purpose

“The Government’s handling of risks and emergencies in recent years has failed to inspire public confidence. In a range of crises, from the Foot and Mouth outbreak through to the grounds for war in Iraq, official predictions or capabilities have been found wanting. The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 tenders reassurance by the promise of systemic planning and activity in civil resilience, though defence lies beyond its scope. The wide-ranging powers in the Act have the capability of delivering on the promise. But, as shall be revealed [..] efforts will be hampered because the legislation is hesitant and uneven.”

– Clive Walker and Jim Broderick, The Civil Contingencies Act 2004: Risk, Resilience and the Law in the United Kingdom

And so, on Sunday, the inevitable happened: the government took over direct control of the Grenfell Tower disaster relief efforts from the beleaguered Kensington & Chelsea borough council, following days of disturbing reports about a lack of proper coordination on the ground.

At the government’s request, the British Red Cross has now expanded from providing psychosocial support, fundraising and donation processing services to being the primary coordinator of the community assistance centre, distributing donations and being the single point of contact for anybody needing help. While organisations like the Red Cross had been on-site in some small capacity even while the fire still burned, they are now to significantly step up their presence and the type of support they are offering.

The Times reported:

The British Red Cross was drafted in to help with disaster relief in west London last night after Theresa May admitted the initial response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy was “not good enough”.

The charity, part of the International Red Cross, which is more usually deployed in war zones and after natural disasters in the developing world, was recruited to give “psychological support” to survivors and the emergency services.

May praised the response of the fire brigade, police, NHS services and the local community as “heroic”. But in her first admission that the official response failed survivors and relatives of the dead, she added: “Frankly, the support on the ground for families who needed help or basic information in the initial hours after this appalling disaster was not good enough.”

Senior staff at Kensington and Chelsea council were ordered to stay at home yesterday after ministers decided they were not doing a good enough job.

Instead, officials with crisis experience were sent in from Westminster and other councils as well as Whitehall departments.

More disquieting accounts of the local council’s failure to get a grip:

A senior government source said Kensington council had been “decapitated”. Ian Austin, the Labour MP, said: “Isn’t it a good job that we’ve got charities and aid workers ready to step in when one of Britain’s richest councils can’t sort its own mess?”

While Paul Waugh provided this rather more encouraging update on Tuesday:

At last, the authorities seem to be getting some kind of grip on the response to the Grenfell Tower disaster. The PM chaired the first taskforce meeting yesterday and last night had some stats that showed progress, with £200,000 being distributed yesterday from the £5m emergency fund.

The Grenfell Response Team – a pan-London, Whitehall, police and British Red Cross effort – said 78 families were on course to be rehomed locally by Monday night. And 126 hotel places have been found. DCLG expected all councils to tell it by last night how many tower blocks needed extra safety checks.  Testing of samples of cladding begins today with all councils told to assess their building materials.

It is heartening to see the situation finally being stabilised, but it is also slightly worrying that it took a Cabinet-level intervention – with the prime minister taking personal charge of the taskforce only to delegate the heavy lifting to the Red Cross – to bring what is effectively (considering all of the worse possibilities lurking in the shadows) a mid-sized disaster relief campaign back under control.

But at this point they had no option. It has become increasingly clear since the Grenfell Tower fire that while our emergency services are incredibly brave and well-trained, there is no similarly disciplined and well-equipped group able and fully prepared to step into the void to help deal with the humanitarian consequences of a disaster once the first responders have done their job.

Frustratingly, it quickly became evident that the huge outpouring of public support for the survivors and bereaved was not being effectively harnessed and proactively directed to those in greatest need – not through any absence of goodwill but because of a failure to properly plan and delineate responsibilities.

And as the days wore on following the tragedy, there grew a disquieting sense – first highlighted on this blog, and later expanded upon – that our civil contingency procedures are not working properly, and that ultimate responsibility for dealing with the aftermath of a mass casualty incident with major damage inflicted is currently falling down the gaps between central government, local government, charities and private citizen volunteers, none of whom have an incentive to take ultimate ownership or be the public face of the response. And so a giant flaw in Britain’s emergency planning measures revealed itself.

The lynchpin of Britain’s emergency response protocol is the Gold-Silver-Bronze (or strategic, tactical and operational) Command structure, which was designed to coordinate the response of emergency services to a serious situation but which in actual practice is also used to organise preparedness for other events such as football matches and concerts.

But the Gold-Silver-Bronze Command structure – established after the 1985 Broadwater Farm riot, strengthened by the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act and invoked as part of standard practice in response to the Grenfell Tower fire – is clearly inadequate to dealing with the aftermath of a disaster from the point when the “blue light agencies” (fire, police, ambulance) have brought the immediate issue under control.

The Gold Command structure is useful primarily for coordinating the activities of first responder agencies from a strategic and tactical level. It has far less applicability when it comes to dealing with the human aftermath in the event of displaced or homeless people, where the police have only a limited role and the fire and ambulance services almost no role. The British Red Cross, for example is not wired in to this command structure as a matter of course, even though it has become evident that no other British agency possess the expertise and experience in dealing with the humanitarian aspect.

This is a design flaw that has lurked unnoticed for a long time. The vast majority of incidents in which the Gold-Silver-Bronze command structure is utilised, from football games to terrorist attacks, do not take place in residential settings – so once a situation has been brought under control and the locality is cleared, non-injured people can be reasonably expected to find their way home and fend for themselves. There is no humanitarian aspect, so to speak, as soon as the last victim has been put in an ambulance and carted off to the hospital or coroner.

But in the event of a disaster such as Grenfell Tower, where domiciles themselves were destroyed, there is often no home or alternative shelter to go to. After the fire, people found themselves homeless and in the well-meaning but erratic initial care of various community groups, religious organisations and the local Kensington and Chelsea council, outside any formal command structure overseen by government.

Unfortunately, the council’s role in coordinating the response and the amount of effort required on their part was not properly spelled out in advance in our emergency planning laws. Ironically, the level between Gold Command and Central government, which once defined the role of regional government offices in responding to a disaster, was abolished under the previous Conservative-LibDem coalition government.

Thus, in yet another example of the gross overcentralisation of all aspects of British government, local councils were effectively cut out of the loop when it came to disaster response, at least formally speaking. This is probably why it took the better part of a week – and was trumpeted as a huge achievement when it finally happened – for Kensington & Chelsea council workers assisting in the relief effort to even be issued with official council staff vests so that people could easily identify them and seek assistance.

From the Guardian:

At the Westway centre where the relief effort is being coordinated, there appeared to be evidence of much greater efficiency in efforts by councils, the Red Cross, the NHS and other officials to help residents after days of chaos. For the first time employees of Kensington and Chelsea were visible wearing nylon vests marking them out as council staff.

This, apparently, is what happens when you cut an entire layer of government out of emergency planning and disaster preparedness protocols without properly thinking through the consequences. Even wearing matching clothes becomes a challenge. We should be glad to hear that the relief effort is now finally being coordinated more effectively, but one wonders what is the point of local government if it is to have no formal role (let alone overall responsibility) for keeping citizens safe and ensuring their welfare following a disaster?

It need not be like this. When I first flagged concerns about the Grenfell Tower disaster relief operation on this blog, I recounted my experience of watching state government, local government and voluntary aid organisations working seamlessly together following a deadly tornado in Missouri:

I happened to be living in the American Mid-West when a huge tornado ripped through the town of Joplin, Missouri back in May 2011, killing 158 people and levelling entire neighbourhoods. Driving into town two days later, it looked for all the world as though an atomic bomb had gone off. Whole blocks of houses were reduced to matchsticks. Big box retail stores had been blasted away so that only their steel frames remained standing. Even big, solid buildings like churches and a concrete-constructed hospital were damaged beyond the point of repair.

And yet within almost no time, there was real organised and disciplined aid on the ground, delivering help and comfort to people who needed it. Charities like the American Red Cross and Samaritan’s Purse sent convoys of trucks with aid and facilities such as washing machines and tumble driers so that people suddenly made homeless could do their laundry. Medical trucks administered tetanus shots to people, like me, who mucked in to assist with some of the repairs. The insurance companies sent mobile offices on the back of trucks to process damage claims. Churches organised the making and delivering of meals to those who needed them. And crucially, mobile command centres helped to coordinate the response, so that the appropriate help reached people who needed it while avoiding duplication of effort wherever possible. Honestly, the response was a sight to see and something I’m not likely to ever forget.

And all this in a town of little more than 50,000 people, far away from any real centre of political power or commerce in America. One shudders to think what might have happened if the Grenfell Tower fire had taken place somewhere further from the beating heart of our own democracy, perhaps in Sheffield or Newcastle or Glasgow.

In some ways, perhaps, the response might have been better – with fewer local resources to be brought to bear on the challenge, more may have been sent by other regions and leaders may not have been so quick to assume that somebody else was taking charge. Equally, the Grenfell Tower response may have suffered because people assumed that being in London, the logistical and welfare planning would take care of itself.

Ironically, the government’s own document – “Emergency Response and Recovery: Non statutory guidance accompanying the Civil Contingencies Act 2004” – discusses at length the importance of this phase. They even give us this helpful Venn diagram:

Civil Contingencies - Disaster Recovery - Grenfell Tower

 

There is no lack of consideration given to all of the aspects on which a proper Disaster Recovery plan should touch – see page 83 onwards in the report.

But the guidelines also go on to give these instructions:

5.2.1. The local authority is the agency responsible for planning for the recovery of the community following any major emergency, supported by other local partners via the Local Resilience Forums (LRF). In most cases, it will be sensible for top tier local authorities to lead but all local authorities and Category 1 responders should input. If there is more than one top tier local authority in the LRF, they should work together to co-ordinate recovery planning.

5.2.2. Following an emergency, the local authority will usually co-ordinate the multi-agency recovery process, including by chairing and providing the secretariat for the RCG, with support from the full range of multi-agency partners as necessary.

5.4.1. Activation of the Recovery Co-ordinating Group (RCG) is initiated by the local authority, usually following a request by / agreement with the Strategic Co-ordinating Group (SCG). An important part of the work of the RCG during the response phase of an emergency is to develop a recovery strategy (see paragraph 5.4.4) and inform the SCG of this strategy to ensure decisions made by the SCG do not compromise medium to long term recovery.

So the local authority – in the case of Grenfell Tower that would be London’s Kensington & Chelsea borough council – is nominally responsible for the “recovery of the community”, yet was partly cut out the direct interface between national government and the emergency services (through the Gold Command structure) when regional government offices were disbanded following the Coalition reviews.

To make things even more confusing, this document was produced by a group called the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, established in 2001 as a department of the Cabinet Office tasked with overseeing emergency planning in the UK. And we learn from the Metro newspaper that in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, Police and Fire Minister Nick Hurd “chaired a meeting of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat” to “coordinate the response to the disaster”.

So who was really in charge of the disaster relief response effort? Nick Hurd, in his role as chair of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat meeting following the fire? Katharine Hammond, director of the CCS since 2016? Theresa May, for ordering that the CCS convene in the first place? Kensington & Chelsea borough council, in accordance with the leadership role assigned by the CCS’s own guidelines, published in 2005 and updated in 2013? Central government, in its role as the “platinum” COBR level sitting above the Gold-Silver-Bronze command structure? Piers Morgan? Bigfoot?

It seems that we have protocols in place that are not worth the paper they are printed on – guidelines which foresaw a potential role for local Tourist Boards and even English Heritage in disaster recovery protocols, and yet failed to anticipate the degree to which the Grenfell Tower survivors and bereaved relatives of the victims would come to rely on the Red Cross and an army of disorganised but good-hearted independent volunteers to pick up the government’s dropped ball.

If the British Red Cross (rather than local government) is to be called upon to take operational control of the recovery process following any disaster with significant humanitarian implications then this should be clearly specified and written down in procedures, both to avoid confusion and duplication of effort but also to give the Red Cross a fighting chance of being ready to step into this role in the many various potential emergency scenarios tracked by the government.

In many ways, this would be a brilliant and quintessentially conservative solution – rather than forcing the state to duplicate services and expertise already provided by the charitable sector, instead we formalise their role and integrate them more tightly into our national emergency planning protocols. Rather than seeing the horrific Grenfell Tower disaster as an opportunity to expand the boundaries and competencies of the state even further, instead we formally recognise that voluntary organisations are best equipped to translate a huge and overwhelmingly generous public response into meaningful assistance for disaster victims.

But even if we don’t adopt this approach – even if we create a new government Disaster Recovery Agency to do the same job – at this point we just need to make sure that somebody, anybody is clearly given ownership of this phase of the emergency response process, as well as the authority and resources required to do the job.

Ultimately, it should not have taken the national government five days to recognise that our existing disaster recovery processes – in this case, seemingly half-heartedly managed by a local council whose role in the process was made murkier, not clearer, by recent guidelines – are inadequate to even a medium-sized incident in the heart of our capital city.

The Grenfell Tower fire had exposed serious failures, not just of political leadership (which this blog has covered extensively here, here and here) but crucially of planning and organisation. And we do not live in the kind of quiet, uneventful era where such government confusion and incoherence, broadcast to the entire world on television and the internet, can be permitted to continue.

This is a national security issue as much as an humanitarian one. And the worrying gaps in our civil contingencies protocol must be filled, quickly.

 

UPDATE: 21 June (15:55)

In her Commons speech following the Queen’s Speech, Theresa May finally acknowledged some of these failings:

 

The prime minister also stated that in addition to the judge-led inquiry the government would also consider implementing a Civil Disaster Response Taskforce to look at how disaster recovery processes can be strengthened and improved.

From Hansard (my emphasis in bold):

I would also like to say a few words about the disaster at Grenfell Tower. The whole country was heartbroken by the horrific loss of life and the utter devastation that we have seen. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the friends and families of all those who lost loved ones. Today, we also think of those who survived but lost everything. One lady I met ran from the fire wearing no more than a T-shirt and a pair of knickers. She had lost absolutely everything.

Let me be absolutely clear. The support on the ground for families in the initial hours was not good enough. People were left without belongings, without a roof over their heads, and without even basic information about what had happened, what they should do and where they could seek help. That was a failure of the state—local and national—to help people when they needed it most. As Prime Minister, I apologise for that failure and, as Prime Minister, I have taken responsibility for doing what we can to put things right. That is why each family whose home was destroyed is receiving a down payment from the emergency fund so that they can buy food, clothes and other essentials, and all those who have lost their homes will be rehoused within three weeks.

There will also be an independent public inquiry, chaired by a judge, to get to the truth about what happened and who was responsible, and to provide justice for the victims and their families who suffered so terribly. All those with an interest, including survivors and victims’ families, will be consulted about the terms of reference, and those affected will have their legal costs paid. Because it is clear that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has not been able to cope with the scale of the tragedy, we will also develop a new strategy for resilience in major disasters, which could include a new civil disaster response taskforce that can help at times of emergency. We must learn some of the lessons of this and previous disasters when bereaved families have not had the support they need.

Good. This is exactly what needs to happen – a thorough review of the way that Britain’s emergency services, voluntary organisations and different layers of government respond to the aftermath of any incident with humanitarian implications.

This blog’s concern would be that Theresa May’s instinct for authoritarianism and centralisation makes it more likely that we will see an entirely new agency created as an outcome of this review, paralleling much of the work already done by voluntary and charitable organisations such as the Red Cross. We should actively guard against this approach during the Taskforce once it is established.

But duplication of effort and concerns over the size and scope of the state must take a back seat to public safety. First and foremost, local and national government should be empowered to keep the people safe and provide for their welfare in the event of disaster through the application of clear and realistic protocols. Following the Grenfell Tower fire, these protocols were found wanting. Hopefully now we will take the action needed to make them fit for purpose.

 

Grenfell Tower fire - disaster relief - Red Cross - 3

Top Image: British Red Cross

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Separate But Equal, Part 1

Instituting a new series to examine disturbing cases of deliberate self-segregation of “marginalised” communities carried out in the name of social justice

Forget “the only gay in the village” – Manchester City Council is putting forward plans for a majority-LGBT housing community for people aged over 50. In this socially engineered ghetto, eligibility to live would depend not on one’s ability to afford the rent but one’s ability to satisfy the diversity checklist of a local government busybody.

Once again, the best intentions of the social justice community result in the most extreme and counterproductive of solutions.

From the Guardian’s report:

Manchester city council has announced plans to create the UK’s first retirement community aimed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

According to the local authority, the city is home to the country’s largest number of LGBT people outside of London and is due to see a rapid growth in the number of LGBT residents over 65 in the next two decades. More than 7,000 over-50s living in Manchester identify as LGBT.

A recent report by the Manchester-based LGBT Foundation, commissioned by the council, revealed that older LGBT people experience higher levels of loneliness and isolation.

Many were fearful of discrimination in existing accommodation and there was a desire for affordable LGBT-specific housing where people could be open about their identity in later life.

The extra care scheme – a targeted development for older people – will house a minimum of 51% LGBT residents, but heterosexual people will also be welcome to apply to live in the accommodation.

The housing will have specially trained staff based on site and pets will be welcome. As well as the LGBT Foundation, the project is being supported by Stonewall Housing and the Homes and Communities Agency.

As one sceptical interviewee in the BBC report wisely asks:

The issue we are going to come up against along the way is that we’ve fought for equality. Do we need a separate space?

Quite.

Of course, the gimlet-eyed do-gooder at Manchester City Council responds, patronisingly:

It’s not necessarily about ghettoising particular communities. It’s offering people who want it that opportunity to spend their time with people who they know will understand them.

Ah well, that’s fine then. If people want to withdraw from wider society into strongholds (weakholds?) where fragility is pandered to rather than resilience developed, of course it is the sacred and noble duty of local government to assist them in their folly at every turn. Who are the guardians of the public purse to question the latest social justice orthodoxy?

Some may say that this is a local decision for local communities, and ask what standing a writer from London possibly has to weigh in on a decision made by Manchester City Council? And I would be amendable to that argument if it were actually the people of Manchester on the hook for this experiment in social divisiveness. But of course they are not.

In overcentralised Britain, the dominant single source of local authority funds – 40% in the case of Manchester – are disbursed by central government after having been raised through general national taxation. And besides the obvious social folly inherent in creating fragile, unresilient and homogenous minority communities in the name of social justice, the fact that all British taxpayers are funding this folly makes it directly my concern, and that of everyone else.

If a private developer wants to create an ethnically, gender or sexuality-based homogeneous environment for private tenants or homebuyers then that is a separate discussion fraught with its own parallel legal questions about discrimination and equality. But in the case of a public initiative and social housing, the government has absolutely no business discriminating along these lines, setting quotas or engaging in any other form of naked social engineering.

We should not be unsympathetic to some of the stories of older LGBT people featured in the BBC News report – being ostracised by friends and family of one’s own generation after coming out must be incredibly hard, particularly in older age. But it should be for institutions of civil society to step in to address these real social problems, and we must get out of the habit of immediately pivoting to local and national government for a solution to each and every problem – especially where the mitigation involves the use of general taxpayer funds.

Heavy-handed governmental interventions such as this only serve to crowd out independent solutions from civil society, and reinforce the expectation that government must play an active, watchful part in nearly every area of our lives. And no matter how well-intentioned individual schemes may be, British taxpayers should not be left on the hook for implementing a social justice revolution in Manchester or anywhere else.

 

Separate is NOT equal - Stonewall - segregation - LGBT

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A Third Runway At Heathrow Or Fixing Potholes In Roads? We Need To Be Bigger Than This In The Age Of Brexit

aviation-airplane-on-tarmac-at-airport

It is Westminster politicians and journalists, not Brexiteers, who have been short sighted and parochial

The Telegraph’s James Kirkup poses an interesting question about the expansion of Heathrow Airport and other national political priorities in the post-Brexit world:

Almost 70 per cent of commuting is done by car so roads are clearly of interest to voters, never mind the wider economics.   But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that big shiny infrastructure projects like runways and high-speed railways are simply more glamorous and interesting to politicians and, yes journalists, who spend more time in London (where most people commute using public transport) than stuck at a roundabout trying to get onto a bypass.

Airport expansion is about international trade and competitiveness, our national self-image and our global role. All the important things that important people in London spend so much time talking about, in other words.  And rightly so. We should have another runway at Heathrow, and one at Gatwick, come to that: the more competition the better

But then our leaders really should start talking about things that are actually important to the people they work for: clogged roundabouts, congested junctions and potholes.

Earlier this year, the Treasury gave councils £50 million extra to fill holes in roads. Councils reckon they need £12 billion more to fill them all. That’s close to the £16 billion that might need to be spent on new roads around an expanded Heathrow. Which would voters choose in a referendum?

Read the whole thing – it is a thoughtful piece. And of course James Kirkup is right to point out that key national infrastructure projects and local community investment need not be mutually exclusive.

Personally, I make no apologies for firmly supporting the expansion of Heathrow Airport, as well as new runways for Gatwick Airport any any other airport which wants to expand to the benefit of our aviation sector.

As this blog previously ranted:

Air travel is great. It takes rich tourists from wealthy countries and brings them to poorer countries where they boost the local economy with their money. It keeps the wheels of business turning, from the CEO flying from New York to London for a meeting, the office worker commuting to Berlin every week for a project, to doctors and scientists gathering for international conferences.

Air travel bridges the distance between our towns and cities and helps knit the planet together through a web of far-flung family members, friendships and business relationships. And in doing so, the aviation industry helps to foster trust and understanding, bridging cultural divides and doing more to affirm our common humanity than any third-sector institution or political movement.

And yet we seem intent on attacking aviation, thwarting its growth and choking the life out of the industry with punishing airport taxes and insurmountable barriers to expansion. And for what? So that human beings can creep meekly across the surface of the planet, apologising for our very existence and ostentatiously offsetting the carbon dioxide we emit whenever we open our mouths?

But I must admit to bristling a bit at Kirkup’s analogy comparing Brexiteers to downtrodden locals worried only about potholes in their roads, while the Remain-supporting establishment are cast in the role of far-sighted metropolitan elites who alone acknowledge and face up to the long term problems facing our country.

If anything, it is actually the other way around. By continually divesting Westminster of more and more decision-making authority through successive EU treaties and agreements, it is the British political class who effectively dragged the level of our political discourse down to the level of squabbling about NHS waiting times, train delays and potholes in the roads. When all of the consequential decisions – like trade, and increasingly foreign relations – are taken at the European level, all that’s left for British politicians is to squabble about whether the BBC should be forced to up its bid for The Great British Bake-Off.

That’s why we now have a wishy-washy parliament and civil service which is having to rebuild atrophied trade negotiation competencies almost from scratch, while we look to our prime minister less as a world leader or person of real consequence, and more as a glorified Comptroller of Public Services, someone to moan about on social media when the local library closes or the street lights don’t get repaired quickly enough.

The British people instinctively realised this, too, when they voted in the EU referendum. They realised that they only way to even begin to regain control over the full range of domestic and foreign affairs which trickle down to impact their lives was by leaving the failing supranational, federalist experiment known as the European Union.

Kirkup suggests that our leaders “our leaders really should start talking about things that are actually important to the people they work for: clogged roundabouts, congested junctions and potholes”. Well excuse me, but I specifically do not want the prime minister of my country to be wasting her time fussing over potholes and traffic jams. I want the political leadership of this country to set its sights on higher matters for once. In fact, the rule of thumb should be that Westminster only takes an interest if a decision cannot be fairly and responsibly made at a lower level.

And as for Kirkup’s fact that £50 million was given by the Treasury to local authorities to fill in potholes, this is simply more evidence that all government in Britain is vastly overcentralised – that the work of constitutional and governance reform must continue well beyond Brexit. Why not vastly reduce the amount of personal income tax or VAT claimed by central government, and devolve increased tax-levying powers to the counties instead? That way, the people of Liverpool and Bristol can pursue policies which work for them, while the people of rural Essex or Cambridgeshire can do likewise – whether they choose to prioritise filling in more potholes or attracting new investment by slashing taxes or offering incentives to business.

The real danger of Brexit is that nothing much changes and we fail to rock the boat; that we fail to properly grab this once-in-a-lifetime chance to critically re-examine the way in which we govern ourselves and make important decisions at a personal, community and national level. Securing an economically stable secession from the European Union should be the minimum requirement, not the grand prize. Why go to the effort of leaving the EU simply to return to being governed by the same set of domestic institutions which orchestrated our national decline prior to joining the European Economic Community, and then gave away more and more power to EU institutions once we were inside?

Ultimately, the media does us a disservice by framing idiotic questions and false choices like whether we would prefer a new runway at Heathrow Airport or for the potholes on our road to be fixed:

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Ask your average group of people whether they want to see enacted a policy which benefits them personally or one which has larger but more disparate benefits spread among a much larger population, and a majority will vote with their own immediate self interest – 67% to 33% as it currently stands on the Telegraph’s online poll.

Does that mean that this is the better policy? Absolutely not. There are times when we are one nation and must subordinate the narrow interests of certain interest groups in order to further the national interest, and there are many other times when we should be able to organise ourselves as communities and regions without the heavy-handed interference of Westminster. And while central government should absolutely be rolled back in many areas, subjecting new airport runway capacity decisions to a citizen’s pothole veto is precisely the wrong way to run a country or frame important strategic decisions.

We need to up our game. Politicians, journalists, ordinary citizens alike, all of us need to try harder to live up to the momentous times in which we find ourselves.

If we stop shooting for the middle and actually try to make the most of the historic opportunity afforded by Brexit then in a decade’s time we might witness a rebirth of local democracy and improve citizen participation in the democratic process at all levels. Better still, we might stop behaving like such dependent children, looking petulantly to Westminster for solutions to every issue we face. And if we stopped demanding that the same people who deal with matters of war and peace and the economic stewardship of the country also ensure that the Number 12 bus runs on time then maybe, just maybe we might improve both the quality and speed of critical decision making in this country.

And yes, maybe then there will finally be a gleaming new runway at Heathrow Airport, and at Gatwick too. Because voting for Brexit was the far-sighted, responsible act of enlightened citizens, not grumbling, parochial NIMBYs. And it should be the first of many such acts, not the last.

 

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Top Image: Michael Gaida, Pixabay

Bottom Image: LadyDisdain, Pixabay

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How The Corbynites Would Behave In Government – A Lesson From The 1980s

Conservatives should not feel smug about the hard left takeover of the Labour Party. History shows us that these people are tenacious and capable of inflicting real damage on people and communities in pursuit of their warped ideology, from the lowest seats of power

What would Jeremy Corbyn and the hard left of the Labour Party do if they actually gained political power? It is a question we tend not to ask ourselves or discuss, the possibility seeming so laughably remote that we naturally fixate more on what the Conservative Party is likely to do, given a small majority in government but no real organised opposition.

But it is a question that we should ask ourselves. This blog has been unashamedly supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, not because I agree with his ideology or any Corbynite political positions but because Corbyn represents (together now with Brexit) one of the only agents for breaking British politics out of its current stale, centrist consensus.

The managerial, technocratic politics of the last twenty years has alienated people and drives them away from political discussion, essentially boring them to death while the two main parties squabble over relatively trivial differences in attitude toward taxation, regulation, culture and foreign policy. The 2010 general election, taking place at the height of the Great Recession at a time when bold and original thinking was most needed, hinged on a puny £6bn difference in big spending commitments between Labour and the Conservatives. And though the EU referendum and the subject of Brexit divided the country in half, every political party but one came down hard on the side of remaining in that sclerotic and anti-democratic union.

There is not nearly enough choice in British politics. Being a centrist Labour MP today means broadly accepting the status quo on nearly all fronts while droning on continuously and sanctimoniously about “equality” and “fairness” to anyone who will listen, while being a typical Tory means waxing lyrical about personal freedom and responsibility while doing nothing to shrink the state or bring an end to government paternalism. Even the third parties, so long a pressure release valve, tend to fall in line with the consensus. The SNP is nothing but a slightly more authoritarian and social democrat-leaning Labour Party with a sprinkle of anti-English resentment, while UKIP seems to have betrayed its roots as a radical right-wing party in favour of appealing to disaffected left-wing Labour voters.

In this bland, homogenised context, anything which offers people real choice – a real varied palette of political colours to choose from – can only be a good thing, if for no other reason than that bad ideas will fester and grow out of sight of the country at large unless they are regularly expressed, challenged and defeated. So for all of these reasons, having a genuinely left-wing leader of the Labour Party again is not only jaw-droppingly obvious, it is also essential for the renewal of our democracy.

And yet…

One must also consider what ideologues actually do when they are in power. The Left in particular love to use the Thatcher government as a bogeyman and an emblem of everything evil about conservatism as an ideology, while conveniently glossing over the fact that Britain was a terminal patient receiving half-hearted palliative care before Margaret Thatcher gave the economy and the country some painful, revolutionary but absolutely necessary shock treatment.

But what do the ideological Left do when they are in power? Well, thankfully they have never grasped the reins of national government – the suffocating bipartisan post-war consensus was bad enough. But the hard left do have a track record in local government, and it is not a pretty one.

And that’s where this video comes in – kindly shared with me on Twitter by @eddiecoke. It is about fifteen minutes long, and well worth your time. The video is an excerpt from a 1980s American documentary about the behaviour of the hard, ideological (or “loony”) left in British local government. And some of what you see is quite shocking.

Of course, I knew about all of this in theory. Writing daily about politics, one hears about Red Ken and the GLC, or Derek Hatton and Liverpool City Council. But for early millennials like me, born when Thatcher was already in power and coming of age during late Blairism, the antics of the loony left are often now understood only in theory, while it takes seeing them in practice for the mind to recoil.

Watch the whole video.

What do we see?

Council censorship committees literally going through library books and purging those which do not convey a Social Justice message (in one case a picture book is banned because a white girl character has the temerity to tame a black horse with the aid of sugar cubes).

Snow White and Dr. Doolittle similarly banned.

Beauty and the Beast, Rupert Bear and Thomas the Tank Engine, too.

Replaced by books which go far beyond encouraging tolerance and equal rights, with one book for five-year-olds featuring a section entitled “Masturbation (Touching Yourself to Feel Good”.

The phasing out of competitive sports at school, replaced with open-ended games in which there are no rules, no score is kept and everybody “wins”.

Emboldened Marxist history teachers indoctrinating children with unashamedly pro-communist, anti-American diatribes.

The Brent African Women’s Council being invited to suggest changes to the school lunch menus, and then filibustering a meeting when okra soup and plantain were found not on the menu every single day.

A school governor bragging that he has effectively banned the police from setting foot on his school campus by threatening the headteacher’s job.

Social Justice pantomimes, with the traditional stories modified to shoehorn in messages of liberation and equality (because leftists can’t leave a good story unmolested).

Efforts to get schoolchildren to draw comparisons between the introduction of legislation to crack down on militant trade unionism and the Holocaust.

Viewing this litany of crazy, authoritarian leftist social engineering programmes run amok is quite sobering. And it does make one reconsider whether supporting Jeremy Corbyn and the ascendancy of the Labour Left is the right thing to do. After all, they have unleashed horrors like this on ordinary citizens while controlling only local authorities – how much more harm could they do if unleashed again, or (heaven forfend) on national government?

The answer: a lot. They could do a lot of harm. But that is no reason to recoil in horror at a democratic decision made by ideologically fervent members of the Labour Party. The correct reaction is to ensure that conservative thinking is similarly renewed and emboldened so that it presents an attractive alternative to voters.

Conventional wisdom says that this is already the case – that the UK electorate would pick Theresa May to stay on as prime minister over Jeremy Corbyn in a heartbeat, and that all the Tories need to do is remain as blandly inoffensive / desperately boring and unambitious as possible, so as not to spook voters into reconsidering.

I think this is dangerous complacency. After the past year in politics (on both sides of the Atlantic), nobody has any business making confident predictions about what will or will not happen, or to declare the status quo to be a cast iron certainty forever. Politics at its inclusive and inspiring best is about convincing people to consider new or different ideas, including ones which they had previously rejected. The Leave campaign would never have prevailed in the EU referendum had many people who were ambivalent or even warmly disposed towards the EU persuaded that Britain’s future would be brighter outside. Jeremy Corbyn is asking the British people to consider a radically different political settlement too, and while it is highly likely that the people will tell him to take a hike, it cannot be guaranteed.

Smug right-wing columnists may chortle that Jeremy Corbyn will never see electoral success, but they don’t know what economic or geopolitical shocks lie in await around the corner, or how those will impact British politics. Neither can they guarantee that the British political Right will not undergo a similar schism as is now taking place on the Left, instantly making everything competitive again.

It is not enough for small and large-C conservatives to sit back complacently and laugh at the Labour Party’s turmoil, while doing absolutely nothing to revitalise our own thinking and policymaking. It is not enough to assume that the country knows that conservative solutions are inherently better and more in tune with human nature than socialist dogmas.

If we really are about to enter a new political age where ideology actually starts to matter again, then conservatives should be worried, because we have been caught by surprise. The left’s answer was clearly to re-awaken the socialism of the 1980s and the GLC. What is our answer to be?

Hopefully Theresa May will spell out some broad strokes during the upcoming Conservative Party Conference. But I wouldn’t hold out much hope – the government has its hands full trying to deal with Brexit, and Theresa May’s reputation is that of an authoritarian traditionalist, not a small government, pro-market radical.

And until we conservatives can come up with a coherent and appealing vision for what small government conservatism should look like in 2016 (rather than the post-Cameron fudge we are currently presenting to the public) then our best defence – our only defence, really – against the Corbynites will be their own appalling record in government, going back some thirty years.

 

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