Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 15th September 2021

There are some facts people find it hard to accept. They are too painful to consider or we doubt what they mean, assuming that if they were really true then surely everyone would demand something was done about it. Yet, if the last century has taught us anything, it is that people are very willing to turn a blind eye to horrors when confronting the truth would make them deeply uncomfortable.

For instance, even before COVID-19, a third of Crawley’s children were growing up in poverty, the majority of whom living in working households. While many have taken the time to support a local foodbank or express their disgust at the Government’s attempts to remove free school meals from struggling families over the holidays, the reality is that while these things help to limit the consequences of poverty, none of them will actually help take children out of poverty.

Before the Conservatives came to power, child poverty was falling steeply and almost no family was forced to rely upon a food bank to survive. The situation we find ourselves in today is the direct consequence of weakening working conditions including pay, gutting the social security system, and shifting the UK’s tax burden from its wealthiest to its poorest citizens.

None of this is an accident, it reflects political choices taken by the party in Government. Doubt it? Well then ask yourself this question, will the Government’s decision to cut Universal Credit by £20 a week help to reduce child poverty or will it increase it? Here’s another one, will increasing employees’ National Insurance rates so that those on low incomes pay a bigger percentage of the country’s tax bill decrease child poverty or increase it? Also, will increasing employers’ National Instance rates so that it becomes more expensive to reduce unemployment as we emerge from the pandemic decrease child poverty or increase it?

Last one, if you vote for a party whose decisions consistently make the lives of the most innocent and vulnerable members of our community worse, are you responsible for helping to decrease child poverty or increase it?

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 8th September 2021

On Wednesday the Government announced plans to increase National Insurance contributions for those in work. The money is certainly needed, even before the pandemic the Government had cut public spending to levels not seen since before the existence the NHS and modern welfare state. The fact that throughout this period they cut taxes for those on the highest incomes certainly goes to just how little tackling public sector debt was their real priority.

Unfortunately, of the options for funding public services, National Insurance is a poor choice. While people like the idea that money raised through National Insurance has to go towards funding the NHS and benefits, the reality is these areas are subsidised so much from income tax the Government could both cut NHS funding and increase National Insurance without breaking any rules.

National Insurance hits those on the lowest incomes the hardest, particularly those in a generation already struggling with insecure work, unable to afford house prices, and with little chance of ever getting to retire. This is far from a new approach for this Government, with services once paid for by income tax increasingly transferred to taxes targeting low earners.

In contrast, by using income tax so that high earners cover a fairer proportion of the costs, the Government could ensure that the greatest burden fell upon those with the broadest shoulders. It would also enable all income to be taken into account, rather than prioritising some types over others.

In addition, National Insurance increases the cost for companies to create new jobs, making it harder to get people back into work. Before the pandemic Crawley was the densest centre of employment in the country outside of London and we have taken the biggest economic hit as a result of COVID, leaving many desperate for new work. The fact that it is coming at the same time as the Government are gearing up to take £1,000 from 11,440 Crawley families reliant upon Universal Credit while letting high earners avoid paying their fair share of the tax bill really does go to show what this Government’s priorities are.

Crawley Live Column, Autumn 2021

It’s with surprise I find myself now Crawley’s second longest serving council leader, the longest serving of course being the late great Alf Pegler, whose serving I doubt will ever be equalled. While the years have gone in a flash, it’s amazing to see how much we have had to weather in that time.

When I became Leader in 2014, the biggest question facing the council was if we could keep services running at all given the pressures we faced from the longest and hardest period of public sector cuts in the country’s history. We found a way and until last year we managed to maintain council’s expenditure at consistently the same level, while balancing the budget, and despite having the lowest council tax increases in the county.

Since then, we’ve had to navigate Crawley through the implications of Brexit on the ground and support the efforts of our NHS beating pandemic. COVID recovery will be the priority for the next few years. The council itself has already taken most of the hard choices on the budget last year, but we now face major challenges in the town.

Unemployment, the need to reskill for the jobs of the future, the mismatch between housing demand and its affordability, and the decline of retail on the High Street. Some new problems, some existing, all made far worse by COVID. It’s going to be a tough few years, but if looking back tells me anything it’s that any problem will eventually be overcome.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 1st September 2021

This Autumn, the UK is playing host to the UN’s 26th Conference on Climate Change. Earth is on fire, literally in some places, and we’re almost out of time to do anything about it.

Yet, despite almost everyone accepting that climate change is real, that speed is critical in limiting its impact, and that left unchecked it will be the end of our species, our behaviour rarely matches this understanding. One phrase I hear often when discussing proposals is ‘I know we need to protect the environment, but…’, before going on to utterly disregard it on the basis of something which has a minor impact on day-to-day life. If we’d fought WWII with that attitude the Nazis would have won, yet it’s all too common in the face of human extinction.

You can’t beat climate change without everyone making sacrifices. Vast public expenditure alone will have to be paid back some point in the form of more taxes or service cuts and governments’ can’t do it on their own when our individual emissions are such a major contributor to Global Warming.

Households will feel the impact in many different ways. From more expensive eco-friendly goods to underperforming pensions as companies undertake massive capital expenditure, from five-figure home improvement bills to using sustainable transport.

The last area tends to be one people get particularly hung up on. We all know we should try to drive less, but while Crawley is flat and compact enough to easily cycle around, busy roads put many people off. At the same time, West Sussex County Council’s temporary cycle lanes proved losing road space just creates gridlock.

That’s why we’re bidding for £45m to do the job right, creating a separate, integrated cycle network across Crawley so cars and bikes can get where they’re going without interacting with one another. Regrettably it looks likely this will fail due to West Sussex County Council and Crawley’s MP refusing to support the bid, a proposal which has nothing to do with politics. The Earth is on fire and unfortunately some people seem happy to just let it burn.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 25th August 2021

Councils are obliged house every local person who is ‘unintentionally homeless’. To be clear, that’s a legal definition, it doesn’t just mean rough sleepers, in fact the numbers with a roof for the night but lacking permanent places to stay is many times greater than those sleeping on the streets. Housing is not the main roadblock to ending rough sleeping, the catastrophic underfunding of mental health and substance misuse services and the weakening of social security under this Government play a far greater role.

To be ‘unintentionally’ homeless, you can’t have done something to deliberately try to get the council to rehouse you. Non-payment of rent or providing justifiable reasons for eviction both remove the right to council support under the law. The days when parents could ‘evict’ their kids to try to get them a council house are long gone.

The ‘housing options’ people will have are extremely limited. If you haven’t lived in a local authority long enough you’re required to go back to your previous council area to be housed. If you’re new to the UK, you don’t have any legal right to be housed at all, which just goes to show how many lies are told about migrants.

Most people are put into ‘temporary housing’: hostels, hotels and occasionally houses where the council meet their legal duty while trying to help people find somewhere permanent, typically private rented accommodation.
Due to the substantial growth in homelessness under the Conservatives, temporary housing has become Crawley’s biggest cost-pressure and far too many people have to be housed miles away. This takes money from other services and disrupts families, who struggle to get back to Crawley for school or work and are removed from networks of friends and family.

To tackle this, we are substantially increasing our temporary housing stock over the next few years, including introducing modular housing atop of some council-owned garages, saving money for local services, while ensuring residents are able to remain close to home. No doubt there will be disagreements over where housing is built, but ultimately the benefits will be felt by everyone.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 18th August 2021

Governments can fund spending on services in a range of ways. They can raise taxes, sell assets, borrow, even print new money. Each approach has its own pros and cons and due to the scale of Government spending in a modern mixed economy, the implications don’t just affect the public sector but the entire economy. So too do Government cuts, which can have a major supressing effect upon economic growth, that’s why austerity during a recession is always madness, it simply makes the problem worse.

Councils are far more limited. We can’t print new money, council tax increases are essentially capped at inflation and we don’t set business rates, we aren’t allowed to borrow to fund services, and even if we sell off assets, they can only be used to fund capital expenditure, not services.

Unlike central government, we’re also legally required to run a balanced budget every year, that means stating in our annual budget where every pound of revenue will come from to fund every pound of expenditure. If we fail to do so or if the assumptions we make are unreasonable the council’s Section 151 officer is legally required to inform the Government, who appoint commissioners to make the necessary cuts.

In February, when after a decade of austerity in which the council lost two-thirds of its revenue in real terms, due to the impact of the pandemic on the council’s income Crawley was forced to make its first cuts of my time as Leader.

We are the only council in the country which managed to avoid making any cuts over the previous seven years, due largely to Crawley Labour’s approach of generating commercial income to pay for services.

Unfortunately, the scale of the loss of income combined with our ways of generating new revenue all being suppressed at the same time made cuts unavoidable. Following the council’s largest consultation ever which determined what would be cut, the Budget was passed with cross-party support. None of us came into politics to make cuts, but for once it is genuinely true to say that there was no alternative.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 11th August 2021

We’ve probably all heard the story about boiling frog. Not the greatest image I’ll admit, but stay with me. The story goes like this, if you have a boiling pan of water and you throw a frog into it, the frog will hop right out. If, on the other hand, you put the frog into lukewarm water and gradually increase the heat, the frog won’t notice until it’s too late. The lesson is supposed to be this: if you want to do something and don’t want people to react, don’t do it all right away, do it gradually.

The chief problem with this story is that it isn’t actually true, at least when it comes to frogs. A frog will hop out well before the water reaches a temperature at which would kill it. Humans on the other hand, well we’d probably also get out of water if it got to hot, but when people change things in the environment around us and we don’t notice enough to do anything about it until well down the line.

Global warming is the most obvious example of this, but the same is also true when it comes to what is happening to public services. Back in 2010, there were lots of stories about cuts, but the reality is that it takes a long time for any decision in Number 10 to filter down to the ground, so for all the noise about austerity at the time, the truth is that many of the impacts are still making themselves known in harder to access GP appointments, councils closing down services, and no police being available when you call.

Children are suffering in our schools too. Right now, when we need more help for pupils to catch-up, we’re instead facing far larger class sizes. 14,044 kids in our area are now stuck in classes larger than 30, an increase of 22% under this Government. The Government’s own advisor on enabling children to recover quit over the dire situation in Education, with only Labour taking his advice on how to rescue the next generation’s future.

Crawley Observer Column, Wednesday 4th August 2021

Crawley’s economy has been harder hit than any other in the country by the Government’s Coronavirus restrictions. While these were necessary, by doing too little, too late, the UK has suffered both amongst the worst death tolls and worst economic consequences of any major industrialised nation. For the Government to now put Crawley at the back of the queue for investment to rebuild, really shows what they think of us.

The reality is building back won’t in itself be enough. Far too few benefited from economy growth, with household incomes stagnant for decades, and increasing numbers pushed into insecure employment. One in six families in Britain now lives in poverty despite going to work every day.

Everyone expects businesses to do what’s best for their bottom-line, it’s Government’s job to build a system which delivers for ordinary people, not just those able to afford expensive dinners for Ministers.

Good jobs are the bedrock on which people build their lives. This Summer, Labour are setting out how we can deliver decent employment again, based upon the five principles of good work.

First, security at work. Better, fairer workplaces with full rights from day one. An end to fire and rehire. A new right to flexible working and strengthened trade unions.

Second, quality jobs. A strong industrial strategy using government contracts to support British businesses, buying, making and selling more in Britain. Investing in high-quality, well-paid Green jobs in the industries of the future.

Third, a fairer economy. A level playing field on tax between multinational giants and high street businesses. An end to harassment and discrimination at work, so everyone can get on.

Fourth, opportunity for all. A guarantee of quality education, training or employment for our young people. By ending the Treasury’s raid on the apprenticeship levy we can create tens of thousands of new apprenticeships.

Finally, work that pays. Every job should pay enough to raise a family on. A real living wage of at least £10 an hour and more workers covered by collective agreements to boost pay.

I love our town and I hate to see just how much people are suffering, particularly when it isn’t inevitable. Labour has set out how we rebuild Britain for the better. Let’s see if the Conservatives are listening.