In 2015 the current system for setting rents in social housing comes to an end. We should replace it with a system which addresses need and tackles the abuse, epitomised by Bob Crow and Frank Dobson, of tenants enjoying below-market rents while earning enough to pay their way.
Currently, if you are a tenant of a Council or Housing Association living in “Social Housing”, you benefit from rent control. Your rent is set by reference to local values and incomes by a calculation of mind-boggling complexity to produce a “Formula Rent”, which can then only rise by inflation, plus a percentage, which varies depending on whether you are a Council or Housing Association tenant.
This springs from the Labour Government’s attempts to bring all social rents up to a similar level, whether your landlord was a Council or a Housing Association. (There is an excellent note on this from the House of Commons here.)
That process is supposed to complete in 2015/16, having been delayed slightly by Margaret Beckett, Housing Minister in 2009, fiddling with the increases that the then inflation figures would have given; Obviously nothing to do with the forthcoming election.
The complexity of the system is evident from the note. The Government set “guideline” increases then left it to Councils and Housing Associations to implement actual rises – and take the blame. If they
didn’t play ball, then they hit them with extra fees and charges through the Housing Revenue Account Subsidy system. The Coalition Government scrapped that. Now they need to scrap, “Formula Rents”.
Let’s start from first principles. What is “housing welfare” for? It is, I think we can agree, to provide a home for those who cannot afford to rent or buy one of their own. Next question; how long should people get that welfare support? Again, I hope we can agree that they should get it for as long as they need it. So why do Mr Crow and Mr Dobson benefit from housing welfare support?
The simplest thing the Government could do would be to end any form of rent control on social landlords, but with one caveat. Rents may not be more than one third of household income after tax and benefits, unless that would be lower than the current rent, in which case the rent should stay the same and rise only by CPI.
The largest single group of tenants in social housing are elderly single people and couples living off the state pension, perhaps a little private pension income and where necessary, getting a small amount of help from Housing Benefit to meet the rent. In most cases their rent would not change and the level of support they get from Housing Benefit would not change either.
So far so similar. The same story would apply to households where nobody is working, but as our friends on the Left regularly point out more than 60% of social tenants are in work. If they are and their
income rises, why shouldn’t their rent also rise until there is no further welfare support from a below market rent?
Where this has the greatest effect though is for those tenants whose incomes have risen to a level where one third of their take home pay exceeds the current rent. They would not be receiving Housing Benefit at that point anyway and whilst they might then see steeper rent rises than their neighbours as their income rises further, that is entirely consistent with the principle of withdrawing welfare as income rises. Potentially in the case of Messrs Crow and Dobson, rents would rise all the way up to market rent. (Though as good socialists, they might want to pay more, from each according to his means and all that).
The effect of this would be two fold. The “subsidy” implicit in below market rents – estimated at over £6bn per annum in the Hills Report of 2007 – would slowly be withdrawn. That money would not go back to the Treasury, but it would go to social landlords. That would allow the current £1.5bn of capital grant support to be withdrawn entirely, but still leave social landlords better off and could be used to support better repairs, redevelopment of poor quality estates and new building to address the continuing need for more homes.
I’m sure both Bob Crow and Frank Dobson would approve!
Last Monday, I saw a report in The Guardian of an assessment of the phonics check for six year olds, carried out in York by academics from Oxford and York Universities.
After all of the criticism of the test for allegedly distorting early reading teaching, the researchers found that it was valid, and correlated well with other measures of reading progress. Their comment that it was unnecessary, as teachers in York were already collecting similar information by their own methods, is beside the point - the check is a national measure, and assessment systems elsewhere may or
may not be as good as those the researchers found in York. The full study has been submitted to an academic journal, so we can't read it yet. No doubt whoever leaked it was hoping to embarrass the government.
Tuesday started with former minister Nick Gibb MP giving short shrift to NUT President Christine Blower as a taster to the GCSE announcements. Nick was clear, polite, tough-minded and purposeful, countering both his opponent's weak arguments and the interviewer's rather better questions succinctly, and hitting home the need for reform in the interests of the children. Definitely one of the best media performances by a Conservative politician since the election, leaving Ms Blower, late of the hardest of hard left in her union, floundering. Listen and enjoy.
When four Conservative councillors left their Group in Merton a few weeks ago, it was national news. It fed into a national narrative of Conservative loses linked to UKIP that was easy for journalists to
perpetuate. Yet, in London and beyond, it is Labour which is beset with stories of splits, divisiveness and strife.
In Harrow, the Labour leader of the Council, alleging discrimination and taking eight colleagues with him (including the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, two past Mayors and various committee chairmen), quit his Group and set up a new ‘Independent Labour’ administration. Recognising that no party had a majority on the Council, and that it would therefore be near impossible to get things done, we stepped in to prevent Labour sacking him as Council Leader. We now occupy two non-executive and
non-voting positions on Cabinet – allowing us to better scrutinise Harrow’s administration.
This split in the Labour Group was unheard of in Harrow’s history; the most sizeable shift in the political dynamic since the Liberal Democrats were all but wiped out in 2002 after incorrectly submitting their nomination papers. It also effectively wiped out 50% of Labour’s gains in council control made in May’s elections.
Northern Ireland Conservatives have unveiled our first tranche of Prospective Council Candidates (PCCs) this week, for local elections which are expected to be held in May 2014. It is almost a year since the party, which is now autonomous on issues devolved to Northern Ireland, launched at the MAC Arts Centre in Belfast. During those 12 months, policy groups have been working hard to assemble outline policies across the areas of responsibility for the departments at the Stormont Assembly.
A great deal of effort has also gone into grassroots campaigning, with council hopefuls getting on to doorsteps to pick up issues and build up their profiles. David Symington from Bangor, for instance, has become synonymous with a campaign to introduce ‘street fishing’ in the town, while Brian McBride, from Groomsport, is his area’s champion for faster internet, discussing the issue personally with Ian Livingston, chief executive of BT.
They are among the first tranche of PCCs and over the coming months many more will be introduced.
Next year’s elections will be the first to follow a sweeping Review of Public Administration in Northern Ireland. The plan is to reduce 26 current local councils to 11, and the new administrations will then
function in shadow form for 12 months, before replacing the old system. This new arrangement presents challenges, but it also provides opportunities.
In Northern Ireland council seats are contested on a proportional basis, with wards combining to form ‘DEAs’ which are represented by a number of councillors. A set of extensive boundary changes have been drawn up, but they are currently out to consultation. That means that there is an element of doubt about the composition of Electoral Areas, which could persist into the early months of 2014.
As part of the plan to reduce the number of councils and council seats, existing councillors are being encouraged to retire, with the promise of generous pay offs, which Northern Ireland Conservatives oppose. They are also entitled to quit before the end of this year and nominate replacements, who will carry the advantage of incumbency into the election; a scheme which is sure to advantage parties that are already strong in Northern Ireland.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that we badly need more efficient councils, responsible for larger geographical areas. There is a culture of over-government, waste and bureaucracy in Town Halls, which Northern Ireland Conservative candidates will challenge. We believe in providing
excellent services for the best value for money, helping local businesses to create jobs and encouraging a spirit of entrepreneurship in communities which need a buoyant private sector to provide employment and prosperity.
We’re also determined to challenge the outdated doctrines of orange and green, in order to focus on a genuinely shared future, with Northern Ireland voters playing a meaningful role in UK politics and enjoying good relationships with the Republic to our south.
With new councils and a new local government system, it’s an ideal time to introduce this fresh approach to local politics. Northern Ireland Conservatives are a vibrant, young party, which is building from the grassroots up. We’re excited to have some excellent, prospective council candidates already, with many more to come, and they’ll be working hard in their communities to offer something different for Northern Ireland.
There is a letter in The Observer this morning from a group of council leaders from different parties:
By the end of this parliament, councils' funding from central government will have been cut by 33%. In comparison, Whitehall departments will have faced average reductions of 12%.
That is a strong start. The letter goes on to imply, while not quite boasting, that councils have coped pretty well. They have the letter notes "saved hundreds of millions of pounds by teaming up to provide both back office and frontline services." The letter also makes a sensible call for "devolving budgets away from Whitehall to increase co-operation between public agencies, save money and improve services."
Then it all goes wrong. The intelligence of the Observer reader is insulted by the implication that while these huge cuts have been absorbed with great effectiveness any further cuts would be a disaster:
This pattern cannot be repeated without it having a serious impact on local services and people.
Local government bore the brunt of cuts in the last spending review. For the sake of the public it cannot afford to do so again.
To take just their chosen example of savings through shared services it is ludicrous to pretend no more can be done. Even my council - with a triborough arrangement with Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea - could and should be doing far more joint working - in areas including planning, housing and legal services. For most other councils progress might well be significant in ths savings achieved but still derisory in comparison to the potential.
The Comminities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has published new guidance explicitly states that Councils should allow the public to film council meetings.
There is a new guide which gives practical information for the public to attend meetings of a council’s executive and how to obtain council documents. The Government has changed the law to allow citizens to report, blog, tweet and film council meetings in England. It also outlines the assorted rights that taxpayers’ have to access council papers and documents.
However, many councils across the country are still refusing to allow people to film public council meetings. Wirral Council used "health and safety" to justify a filming ban last year.
The new rules from Mr Pickles do not apply to Wales, as they have not been introduced by the Welsh Government who have devolved responsibility. This led to the situation of a blogger being arrested and handcuffed by the police for filming a council meeting in Carmarthenshire. Wrexham council also banned a journalist from the Daily Post from tweeting a council meeting.
Grindon Hall Christian School is located in one of the most deprived parts of Sunderland, a stone’s throw from the state secondary school made infamous in Lord Adonis’ book on academies where he was told that, on leaving, pupils would “turn left for the shipyards and right for the coal mines”.
Formerly an independent school with a Christian ethos, last year it became one of the fifteen schools which have so far switched sectors when it achieved free school status.
The principal, Chris Gray, is passionate about small class sizes and traditional teaching and what the school lacks in facilities it makes up for in standards, regularly topping the city’s league tables.
Although pupil numbers had been falling - from 342 in 2006 to 241 in 2011 - the school insists that conversion was a genuine mission to provide education without charge rather than an economic necessity.
Watching the US film Waiting for Superman I was struck by how similar much of the education debate is in America to hear. There is the desperation of parents who can't afford school fees to have the choice of a good school for their children. It takes particular graphic form there with the lottery as you see the faces of triumph of despair when a number comes out. There is the ferocious opposition of the teaching unions to reform and their determination to prevent bad teachers being sacked. Also the positive message that failure is not inevitable.
Since the film came out school choice in the US has been on the advance in various forms - vouchers, tax credits, Charter schools, home schooling, online learning. In Milwaukee school choice has been operating for long enough for its benefits to be established. Not least as the competition forces bad schools to close and drives up the standards in the state schools.
A National School Choice Week takes place with thousands of schools participating to celebrate what is being achieved.
These reforms are also taking off in other countries:
There are plenty of other examples of school choice being successfully applied - notably in Canada and Sweden. Most of this predates the reforms of our own Education Secretary Michael Gove. However I do think that Mr Gove's efforts will be of interest to other countries.
Will we one day speak of Goveism in respect of school reform. The success of Thatcherism was brought home to me in I think 1993 when I went along to an international privatisation conference in Westminster. There were ministers from eastern and central Europe, Africa, Latin America. All very keen.
Will we one day have education ministers from around the world turning up in London to find out about school choice?
I'm sure Mr Gove would point out that the thinking preceded him. But then Lady Thatcher said the same about Thatcherism. Speaking to Scottish Conservatives she said:
I'm sometimes told that the Scots don't like Thatcherism. Well, I find that hard to believe—because the Scots invented Thatcherism, long before I was thought of.
It is more than two hundred years since Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Fergusson and others first set out their ideas of a world in which wealth would be generated and spread ever more widely.
They saw that it's not Government which creates wealth—it's people. That People do best when they pursue their own vision. And that a wise Government will harness the efforts of individuals to improve the well-being of the whole community.
So they proposed to restrain Government and to liberate men and women.[fo 3]
Mr. President, those are the ideals I hold most dear. And they had their origins in the Scottish Enlightenment.
School choice was part of Thatcherism unfinished business - it is a Scot who completing the task.
These are challenging times for local councils. They are subject to significant reductions in funding from central government due to the Spending Review while still facing pressure from local residents to do the right thing and reduce council tax.
Over the next few years councillors will have to decide how to adjust to this new funding reality at the same time as maintaining the level of service expected by local residents and protecting those most in
It is tempting to think that the only solution is for local authorities to cover the gap in their income by raising council taxes or slashing spending on core services like street cleaning or rubbish collection. This need not be the case.
The Tiger Primary free school in Maidstone has a strong focus on teaching Mandarin. A survey by the British Council earlier this year found that only 3% of primary schools offering any Mandarin teaching at all. Those that do it's usually a few classes from the age of seven.
The Tiger Primary School is much more keen:
All children will learn Mandarin from Reception class up and in the future use Chinese abacuses to master numeracy. We believe it is extremely important to expose children to other languages and cultures at an early age, with children already introduced to the language at the Trust's existing nursery.
NLL Academy, where Tiger is based, is one of 272 Confucius Classrooms, established in 88 countries across the globe, making it a Centre of Excellence for the teaching of Mandarin. Being able to utilise Academy resources means that pupils will have three Mandarin lessons each week with tutors from NLL. Research suggests that Mandarin supports the development of both sides of the brain and the Abacus technique makes pupils more adept at mental arithmetic and embeds numeracy in children's minds.
There are other distinctive features to the school. There is an extended school day but the extra hours are optional. There is also a school farm:
We have a superb school farm on site with a range of animals including sheep, donkeys, pigs, goats, cattle, rabbits, ponies, ducks and chickens. Frequent supervised visits to the farm and walks through our woodland will add enormously to our children’s learning and enjoyment of their curriculum.
Great. But it's probably the Mandarin that will of the greatest importance in competing in the global economy.