By Tim Montgomerie
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Owen Paterson is missing his daughter's 21st birthday today and will, instead, be meeting regulators, retailers and food suppliers for a summit meeting to reflect on and investigate the horsemeat scandal.
The Secretary of State for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs called the meeting after telling the BBC that "either criminal activity or gross negligence" appeared responsible for the scandal. Although there are no current suggestions that anyone's health is in danger Mr Paterson is nonetheless angry at consumers being sold lies. He wants to use today's summit to establish whether these incidents are isolated or the tip of an iceberg. Some fear that unscrupulous suppliers across Europe may have been cheating supermarkets and consumers by abusing a system that appears to be based on trust rather than inspection. He has told Downing Street that he will be taking the lead in investigating this matter after concerns that the independent Food Standards Agency was a little too pedestrian in pace.
We might be at the beginning of a period when food prices and food quality becomes a big public issue. Labour's Mary Creagh - Shadow DEFRA Secretary - seems to think so and has been recognised as The Sun's hero of the week for criss-crossing the media, speaking up for worried shoppers. At the heart of the issue is that food is forecast to consume a larger share of household budgets over the next few years as food prices rise and family incomes remain flat. The temptation, fears Tory MP Laura Sandys, is that budget supermarkets will still offer families a 99p cottage pie but that that cottage pie won't have such good ingredients in it - or, worse, the supply chain will become corrupted in the process of delivering that 99p price tag.
By Paul Goodman
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Policy Exchange's housing plan might have been written to offend vested interests...
In our Comment Section today, Alex Morton of Policy Exchange urges the creation of a Secretary of State of Housing in the coming reshuffle, so that this new Cabinet appointment can drive through radical planning reform. He also argues that the current centralised system has failed and that localism will succeed: under his scheme, set out in the think-tank's paper Cities for Growth and in previous Policy Exchange papers, planning would be taken away from local councils and given to local communities.
In short, these would vote on development proposals for their own backyards, and yes votes would bring compensation for those affected. NIMBYs would thus have an incentive to become YIMBYs - Yes-In-My-Back-Yardies. Local plans would be stripped down. Section 106 agreements would go. Quality control would be more about local material, less about high density and zero car spaces. When supported locally, building would be easier on brown field and green field sites - but there would be a green belt improvement levy to improve the parts of it that aren't built on.
By Matthew Barrett
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A new blow has been struck against the HS2 scheme. George Osborne's Treasury has been reluctant to approve new spending on the project, the Sunday Telegraph reports. The newspaper says that there is a “major risk” that the Bill to introduce the scheme will not come before Parliament by the end of next year: the deadline Ministers have set.
Last year, a number of Ministers, including the Chancellor, sounded positive and supportive of HS2 - using it, and a change in planning regulations, as evidence the Government was "unashamedly pro-growth", or words to that effect. However, anti-HS2 campaigners pointed out that, even though initial cost estimates for the scheme were high enough, they would soon increase and, in any case, the benefits HS2 offered were not worth the outlay. The Sunday Telegraph reports that since last year, "the official cost benefit analysis has twice cut the expected economic benefits of the line". That gap between potential cost of the scheme and the possible benefit derived from it appears to have seriously damaged HS2 in the eyes of the Treasury.
Last weekend, another blow against HS2 was struck. The Sunday Telegraph revealed that the project had a “red amber” rating in a report from the Cabinet Office’s Major Project Authority, meaning "successful delivery" of HS2 "is in doubt, with major risks or issues apparent in a number of key areas. Urgent action is needed to ensure these are addressed, and whether resolution is feasible." That Cabinet Office report, which is protected from freedom of information requestions for two years, should be released to the public, according to David Lidington, the Europe Minister (and the MP for the HS2 target of Aylesbury), who wrote a letter to Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, saying: “My constituents have expressed their concern that this does not allow those with an interest in the proposals to review the MPA’s findings and contradicts the Government’s commitment to be transparent”.
By Matthew Barrett
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There's a section of James Forsyth's Mail on Sunday column that's worth noting:
"George Osborne regards forcing through changes to the planning rules as one of his most significant Budget measures. They will now be published on Tuesday and, in the words of one Government source, will be "unashamedly pro-growth’" Downing Street knows the reforms will be controversial, but believes they are crucial to the economic recovery. But it seems the effects of these changes might not be anywhere near as dramatic as intended. Lawyers at the Department for Communities and Local Government have already told officials in other departments that they do not expect the new system to have that much impact."
Can you guess why the planning reforms won't be "anywhere near as dramatic as intended"? Europe! Forsyth continues:
"The problem is that Whitehall lawyers believe the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into English law could stymie the changes. They expect residents opposed to developments will attempt to use the Convention’s stipulation that people have a right to a "family life: to prevent building near them."
This is yet another area of Coalition policy where some Labour-implemented or invented layer of government pops up to interfere and stop growth. Whether it's quangos, domestic human rights lawyers, or some European resolution/convention/court/directive, there are very few policies the Coalition has been able to get on with and carry out without a strange, unaccountable, and often foreign body intervening.
By Matthew Barrett
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Today's Sunday Telegraph carries the following Boris quote:
"I am not viscerally hostile. I am a passionate supporter of HS2 in principle, but it has to be right for London. And there are important aspects of HS2 which are not right. This is not the end of campaigning against HS2. This is not even the end of the beginning. This is the beginning of the middle of the beginning. There is no point spending this much on something which doesn’t work properly. The business case needs to be properly made out."
This seems to be Boris' first major assault on HS2 since last summer. It's a fairly reasonable one: HS2 is expected to cost every family in the country £1,000 (but expect that to creep up every year construction goes on), it is expected to provide limited benefits for a relatively small number of passengers, and it won't be open for several general elections. The TaxPayers' Alliance says (pdf) it will cost £500million per minute saved on the London-to-Birmingham journey.
By Joseph Willits
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In an article for the Daily Telegraph today, Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has written of the need to be "realistic about the challenges" and problems faced by rural communities and businesses. Such challenges, she said "have been exacerbated by over a decade of neglect". She wrote about the Government's pledge to fix both the north-south divide, and equally as important, the imbalance between rural and urban areas. The Government, she said, would "stand up for those communities that have found it difficult to have their voices heard until now".
Spelman attacked Labour's legacy in rural areas, citing the examples of "five rural post offices a week closed under the previous Government" and a 12times hike in fuel duty "hitting rural communities twice as hard as urban ones".
Writing ahead of the second day of the Oxford Farming Conference, Spelman said the Government would announce 14 Rural and Farming Networks each "creating a rural hotline straight to the heart of Government":
"These networks will give rural business and community leaders a direct link to me and my team to tell us their problems so we can find ways to help. This will give rural communities a clear say on how policy is developed so our most remote towns and villages can grow stronger and thrive. Real people, with real, practical, local knowledge, will have direct access to ministers, something sorely lacking over the last decade, and for which communities have suffered as a consequence."
By Tim Montgomerie
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In an interview with The Times (£) Greg Clark MP attempts to take the heat out of the controversy surrounding the Government's attempt to introduce a presumption in favour of sustainable development. Dr Clark is proposing to sit down with critics of his plans and consider all reasonable amendments that will protect the environment but will still address the need for more housebuilding and other jobs-creating developments.
Speaking to Radio 4's Today programme he said that countryside groups like the National Trust had been very "abstract" in their criticisms so far and he noted that their campaign had featured a photograph of urban sprawl in Los Angeles as if that would happen in the UK. He said that it was time for the Trust to become "forensic" and say specifically how they think the Bill might be improved.
In yesterday's Telegraph Clark explained that the "presumption" is a mechanism that will ensure all "proposals that don’t present problems should be approved promptly." Controversial proposals will still need local consent but uncontroversial developments shouldn't get bogged down in red tape.
By Paul Goodman
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The Independent reports this morning as follows:
"Sometime very soon the Prime Minister has to take a decision – if he hasn't taken it already – which will be immensely unpopular with a large section of British society, and which may even lead to problems of public order. He has to decide whether or not to kill badgers.
He will have to sign it off; in essence, he will have to take the decision upon himself, just as he has already done twice this year with two other contentious Defra proposals – the public forests sell-off, and the banning of wild animals in circuses."
The paper goes on to say that "the possibility of a third such Defra disaster with badgers is concentrating ministerial minds, not least with the Liberal Democrat members of the Coalition, whose supporters are not temperamentally suited to shooting things."
As it points out, Cameron will be "damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't". It would be simplistic to label this as a town v country issue, but Tory activists in the countryside are likely go one way and urban floating voters the other.
The farmers and their friends are usually far better informed, but one thing is certain. The decision will arouse more passion and provoke more division than any media misdeed or Government enquiry. MPs and staff: prepare to sink beneath a blizzard of e-mails, phone calls, letters and surgery visits.
By Jonathan Isaby
Today's Daily Mail splashed on the "betrayal" of consumers by Defra Secretary Caroline Spelman for "sabotaging attempts to regulate or mark food from clones and their descendants" at a meeting in Brussels yesterday.
The Mail website is now carrying this opinion piece from a very angry Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative MP for Richmond Park, who says:
"This is an extraordinary turnaround for a Government whose pre-election pitch placed so much emphasis on sustainable food and farming, and on consumer choice... Certainly, the Conservatives never hinted before the election that they intended to permit the sale of meat from the offspring of cloned animals
"Meanwhile, the one protection that seemed to be guaranteed by the party – that of consumer choice – has also evaporated. The Conservatives’ ‘honest-labelling’ campaign was our flagship food policy in Opposition. But when it comes to something so many of us actually care about – cloning – we are to be given no choice or information at all."
By Jonathan Isaby
I regularly ask Conservative MPs what issues are preoccupying them as they go about their business. And over the last few weeks the answer which has come back almost to a man and woman has been: "Forests".
Most MPs have each been receiving literally hundreds of emails and letters each week protesting against the possible sell-off of state owned-forests, with a very well organised campaign against changing their status having help create that deluge of mail.
And this morning Caroline Spelman has signalled at least a partial retreat on the plans, issuing a statement indicating that she is putting the proposed sale of 15% of England's publicly-owned forests announced in last year's Spending Review on hold. This will allow for the criteria for selling them to be re-examined, incluing a review that will "significantly" strengthen the protections given to the woodlands:
"In light of the Government commitment to increase protection for access and public benefit in our woodlands, the criteria for these sales will be reviewed so that protections are significantly strengthened following the inadequate measures that were applied to sales under the previous administration. Pending this review, no individual woodland site will be put on the market."
There have been differences of opinion on the Tory benches on the issue: some agree that there is a perfectly good case to be made for much of what Defra has been wanting to do; whilst others believe that the status quo should be maintained.
But whatever their view on the substance of the matter, they are united on one thing: that the whole issue has been monumentally badly handled by the Government.
So what lessons ought to be learnt for the future from what I would term the "forests fiasco"?
Here are some thoughts as to how similar questions might be handled better in the future, based on a large number of conversations with Tory MPs over the last few days.