Liberals need to get off the floor and fight

8 Oct

ForkRoadEven by the low standards of the last couple of years, this has been a pretty grim week to be a liberal in Britain. Not content with embracing an economically destructive hard Brexit agenda, it seems that reducing immigration has become the overriding, obsessive objective of this government. Fresh restrictions on ‘foreign’ workers, students and academics are being advanced, that bring to mind the 1930’s. All this is pursed not only at huge cost to our economy, but our social and moral fabric.

A lot of nonsense was spun about May’s speech reaching out to the centre ground. Populist rhetoric hinting at (though not outlining) knee-jerk market interventions may make Ed Miliband look economically credible, but that is not my idea of centrist politics. Peel back the veneer of English suburbia, and May is offering an ugly hybrid of Gaullism and Peronism.

Then to top it off, UKIP MEPs – the political group given the largest mandate from the British electorate in 2014 – moved from verbal aggression to physical. Just imagine how this is perceived by our European partners. The same people we are about to embark on a testy negotiation with, while holding a transparently very weak hand.

And meanwhile single party nationalism remains rampant in Scotland, offered the Brexit gift of a reasonable case for another referendum on separation…

And yet, as a Lib Dem, I sense an opportunity here. For over 25 years, the liberal wings of the Labour and Tory party grand coalitions has been in the ascendancy of one or both of them. Not anymore. English nationalism now dominates the Tories, with Osborne & Co banished, business maligned and advocates of the single market silenced.

Whatever you say about Jeremy Corbyn’s (lack of) leadership skills, he now has an overwhelming party membership mandate to pursue a socialist (aka economically illiberal) agenda. I’m convinced that would be as bad for the economy as Brexit and the British electorate shows no signs of reversing its historical aversion to it. Meanwhile, Labour is incoherent and split on the nationalism/liberalism axis that is now dominating British political debate. The so-called moderate – sometimes, but sadly not always, liberal – side of the party has been comprehensively defeated this side of a general election.

It’s all too easy to over-interpret the referendum result as an expression of intense anger with, and a coherent rejection of, liberalism. I’m not convinced. It gave a small majority of people an apparently cost free opportunity to express discontent with the EU status quo (an issue that was low on most priority lists) without them being given a realistic account of what the alternative looks like. There are difficult debates ahead about the right balance between controlling immigration and economic growth, but let’s not pretend we have had an honest, conclusive one.

Liberals shouldn’t throw in the towel on Brexit, or indeed on the broader direction of the country. But we need to recognise we are in a tough fight against nationalism and regroup for that fight. And this time, the Lib Dems are the only party that will offer an economically and socially liberal alternative. I just hope liberals in other parties will join us, improve us, strengthen us and help us win this fight together.

Protect Alexandra Place from HS2 lorries

10 Apr

AlexandraPlaceLorryLocal residents are fighting to stop, or at least mitigate, Government plans to construct the High Speed 2 railway under Kilburn and South Hampstead. In particular, the construction of a vent shaft at the junction of Alexandra Place and Loudoun Road could be a nightmare, with up to 100 HGVs per day inching round and spewing out pollution.

Kilburn Liberal Democrats are working with SHOUT2, a local campaign group which put evidence to a committee of MPs about the negative consequences of HS2, including on air quality.

We are now calling on Camden Council to support SHOUT2 proposals to close Loudoun Road, and use it as a base for the construction lorries, rather than Alexandra Place. An independent air quality report commissioned by SHOUT2 concluded that using Loudoun Road for the HGV movements would have a much lesser impact on local residents in terms of nitrogen dioxide emissions.

Further, SHOUT2 have discovered that HS2 Ltd plan to erect a two storey Portakabin outside Alexandra Place estate, abutting the wall and blocking off the steps. This will block out light from bedrooms and living rooms for years. HS2 Ltd also plan to have ‘material’ dumped outside the (only) air intake for the offices in the basement of Alexandra Place.

Meanwhile, Historic England has recently granted listed status to the Loudoun Road housing, shops and craft workshops that HS2 Ltd want to demolish and replace with the vent shaft. This further highlights that the plan is flawed and needs to be rethought.

Kilburn Lib Dems continue to oppose the construction of HS2. But if MPs insist on spending billions on constructing HS2, we need to do all we can to reduce the impact on local residents. Alexandra Place is a narrow residential side street and should not be used as a construction site for HGVs.

It’s concerning that Camden Council has stayed silent about the SHOUT2 ideas for traffic management, if a vent shaft is imposed on Alexandra Place. Even HS2 Ltd told MPs that the Council would have a big say on this, so it’s about time they stood up for residents in our area.

Switching the construction site to Loudoun Road could at least contain the impact on hundreds of residents who live in Robert Morton House, Dinerman Court and Alexandra Place, and those who use this entrance to Rowley Way.

I’ve set up an online petition calling on Camden Council to work with HS2 Ltd to agree alternative traffic management proposals, which do not involve HGVs using Alexandra Place as a construction site.

You can sign the petition here or email me on jamesrobking@gmail.com if you agree.

It would be mad to clad Mortimer Estate

23 Aug

MortimerMortimer Estate in Kilburn is a bit special. It was built in the early 1950’s with a distinctive, high quality design. It complements the neighbouring buildings and the nearby St John’s Wood conservation area.

Mortimer’s architect – Sir Robert Matthew – was Chief Architect and Planning Officer to the old London County Council and is renowned for his social housing schemes. It is clear that much care was taken in the design of Mortimer e.g. the curved buildings match the curved pavements.

Camden Council should be proud and protective of this heritage. But they are currently advancing ‘one-size-fits-all’ proposals for external wall insulation – cladding – which suggests they just don’t get it.

It would be a travesty if most of the buildings in the estate were covered in uniform cladding and the unique look of the estate was lost.

Ironically, the Council recently published new planning guidance on design which is very sceptical about cladding. The guidance (p28) states:

Painting, rendering or cladding of brickwork will normally be resisted, as it is often unsightly and can damage the appearance of a building by obscuring the texture and original colour of the façade. Painting, rendering or cladding may also trap moisture, which can cause major damp problems in the masonry.

The addition of cladding to Mortimer Estate would indeed be unsightly, and would spoil the texture and original colour of the façade of brickwork.

Carlton HouseThe concerns of many residents about this application are exacerbated by observing similar external insulation schemes in Camden and neighbouring boroughs e.g. Kilburn Gate; Carlton House (pictured) in Kilburn (Brent).

Other schemes have left council housing blocks looking ugly and dirty within months of the work being completed, with rust showing in some cases. In addition, if the estate is cladded it will be much more likely to attract graffiti than the current brickwork.

There are significant reasons to have reservations about the cost/value of the project. The Council’s own (questionable) figures suggest it will take four decades before the cost of the project per home will be recovered by the predicted reduction in energy bills. There is also uncertainty about whether the Council will receive a Government grant for these insulation works, given recent changes of policy in this area.

Furthermore, there is a risk that external cladding could cause internal condensation/damp, as is acknowledged within Camden’s policies quoted above. The Council should perhaps pursue internal insulation initiatives, such as condensing boilers, which could be equally as effective in reducing carbon emissions, without the downsides of external cladding.

It would be wholly unacceptable for the Council’s planning decision-makers to put aside its own policies and normal resistance to cladding of brickwork because the application relates to one of the Council’s housing estates. Lets hope the Council listens to the objectors, reads its own planning guidance and thinks again.

1/11/15 UPDATE – I’m delighted to say that Camden Council has finally listened to residents and withdrawn its plans to impose cladding on the Mortimer Estate and the Hilgrove Estate in Swiss Cottage. Well done to leaseholders and tenants on both estates (and neighbouring streets) who worked together to expose flaws in the Council’s claims about the environmental and financial benefits of the schemes. It became clear that many residents value the unique design of Mortimer, and they campaigned hard to stop the Council from covering it up in cladding. I hope the Council will learn some lessons from this episode and adopt a partnership, rather than a confrontational, approach to developing housing projects. But for now, well done to residents for protecting our social housing heritage.

Lamb for Lib Dem leader

29 Jun

lambforleaderlogoI’ve decided to vote for Norman Lamb as the next leader of the Liberal Democrats.

It’s not an easy choice. Tim Farron has many qualities and if the party as a whole opts for him, I’m confident he will inspire us to bounce back. He’s a strong orator and an energetic campaigner. I’m particularly enthused by his emphasis on fighting for affordable housing, and his genuine commitment to local government as an important end in itself, not just as a stepping stone to winning parliamentary seats. He’s a true liberal and, win or lose, a central part of our recovery.

But I want a clear strategic direction for the party. We didn’t always get it right during the coalition but we achieved so much too. We should aspire to government and influence, not to the purity of opposition. Lets not look back on the pre-coalition years with rose-tinted glasses – we made mistakes on tuition fees in 2009 as well as in 2010, and we should learn from that. I don’t want to be part of the ‘soggy, split the difference centre’. But nor do I want to drift to the left and the comfort zone of opposition, defending every penny of state spending and appearing indifferent to the private sector.

Britain is a liberal country and as I set out in another blog I believe that a party that clearly commits to both economic liberalism, and liberalism on social issues, can grow and attract people who voted Tory or Labour in 2015.

I would like Norman to set out more of his thinking on the economy and tax. But this Liberal Reform interview suggests he is the candidate closer to the economic centre ground of fiscal responsibility, supporting enterprise and employment, fairer taxes and delivering good quality public services. If you don’t think these issues are important when it comes to winning elections in the UK, then look at the Labour party.

As liberals, we should put forward ideas on the reform of public services, focusing on specific outcomes that improve people’s lives, rather than just on pouring more money in at the centre and assuming it will get results. Norman’s record and passion on improving mental health services is a great example of this.

Despite some of the noise in this campaign, I don’t doubt that Tim leans liberal on social issues. But Norman has committed more clearly to an exciting new radical liberal agenda, such as reform of drugs laws and reducing the prisoner population. I also like his enthusiasm for communicating liberal values, tackling injustice and trusting people.

Norman conveys and combines authority with accessibility, decency with determination. I’m impressed by the breadth of his supporters and advocates both inside and outside the party. I will be backing him as our next leader.

Be bold and liberal – from the centre

25 May

ForkRoadIf I learned one lesson on Friday 8th May, it was never again write a blogpost 48 hours before polling day. My predictions of 30+ seats for the Lib Dems and a hung Parliament did not take long to look dated.

But my final observation in that post – that we might be fighting for the very survival of liberalism at Westminster by 2020 – looks to have been five years ahead of its time. And it is with some relief that we can get on with the Lib Dem #fightback now, rather than wait until after a second coalition had fully sapped all our support.

In the last couple of weeks, much good stuff has been written by Lib Dems about lessons from the election, and ideas for the rebuild. I want to reiterate a few fairly basic observations about where we are and where we should be going.

Our core vote is not big enough – Having recorded just 5-10% in a whole series of elections in the last few years, we need to recognise that the number of people who identify with the Liberal Democrats as ‘their’ party is not large enough. Even if we are very disciplined in our targeting, such a small base of support will never deliver many seats in first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections. Even worse, it doesn’t deliver many seats in proportional representation (PR) elections either (see the European elections in 2014). This is why we need to build support and loyalty to liberalism, our core values and key policies. It is clear that we rather neglected the vision thing in recent decades as we focused on winning elections at the local level. Now is the time to be bold in our liberalism, making the case for immigration and an open Europe, and in our opposition to English and Scottish nationalism. The amazing post-election surge in membership suggests there is a real appetite for this, and it provides the building block for extending our core vote. Fortunately, we have three PR elections next year – in Scotland, Wales and London. If we can increase our national vote share to 10%-15%, we can start to reap the rewards of more seats in 2016.

Our potential vote is a lot bigger – I’m confident that while not many people have been voting Lib Dem recently, lots of people might yet vote Lib Dem if we can get our message over. The numbers of people who always vote Labour or Conservative continues to fall, and our politics is all the better for that. Research suggests the UK is becoming more small ‘l’ liberal on social and economic issues, particularly among younger age groups. Our brand was tarnished by tuition fees, but the underlying product appeals to many people. If we talk about supporting small businesses and self-employment, improving mental health services and giving much greater priority to housing policy, I’m sure we can build our support from a larger core liberal base.

Be bold in a crowded market place – While many people might vote Lib Dem, there are many other options and a lot of noise. Already, we are getting squeezed as UKIP get the attention on electoral reform, while the SNP are attracting headlines for their opposition to Tory plans on the Human Rights Act. The next Lib Dem leader will need to have something distinctive to say, and will need to speak with authority. The template here is Paddy Ashdown’s efforts between the dark days of the 1988 merger and the Eastbourne by-election in October 1990, when he dragged us back from the brink. We should all re-read his diaries, but Paddy’s positions on foreign affairs (Gulf War 1, Hong Kong post-Tiananmen etc) were critical in building his profile and getting the party back on the airwaves. Pushing for the UK to take a lead in taking refugees from Syria might be one place to start in 2015. A much louder campaign for drugs law reform is another way to stake out some distinctive territory.

Target swing voters in Tory seats – We lost seats to Labour, SNP and the Tories. Realistically, the Tory facing ones are the most likely to come back our way next time. There will be exceptions (Cambridge, East Dunbartonshire perhaps) but trying to outflank Labour to the left looks like a dead end (particularly with competition from the Greens) while there has probably been an enduring electoral realignment in Scotland. So we need to focus on attracting people who voted Conservative in 2015, as the least bad option relative to Ed Miliband/SNP. There will be opportunities – the Tories face a huge internal divide in the run-up to the EU referendum and their £12bn welfare cuts will go too far for some who gave them the benefit of the doubt. We should target ‘liberal conservatives’ and people who are willing to vote for any of the main parties (there are more of these voters than most commentators think). So while we need a radical edge, we shouldn’t abandon our credibility on the economy/deficit, become hostile to business or producer-led on public services. Labour now need to learn these lessons all over again – I hope we will not make the mistakes that Ed Miliband made.

Community politics still matters – I’m all for reinvigorating the national and international dimension to our liberalism. However, that shouldn’t become an excuse for ignoring our local roots. This is partly about policy – while Nick Clegg had many strengths, an interest in protecting local government and promoting localism was not one of them. It is partly about pragmatism – if we want to win again at the parliamentary level, we need to do better in local elections again. But it’s about more than the powers of local councils and electing more councillors. I want us to reach out to the chair of the tenants’ association or the local community gardening club. People who care about their area and take responsibility for making their locality a better place to live should be liberals. They might not be that interested in the civil liberties debate, or avid users of social media, so we need to connect to them in other ways. This it is not just a means to an end – community activism is a liberal end in itself. We should proudly embrace it, and seek to rebuild and broaden our party from people living in their communities.

Conclusion

Much of the post-election debate in Lib Dem circles has focused on whether we should be positioned within the centre of British politics, or as a radical liberal alternative. I want the best of both worlds – bold liberal vision and ideas, while sticking to the centre ground on the economy. In addition, I want us to be a strong local community campaigning force again, in addition to sharpening our national offer. I haven’t yet decided how I will vote in the forthcoming leadership election, but at least writing this gives me a framework for making my choice.

The case against coalition becomes clearer

5 May

Three months ago I set out a Lib Dem case against Coalition 2.0. As Parliamentpolling day approaches, I believe that case has grown stronger.

I’m still hopeful the Lib Dems will hold on to more than 30 seats (and gain one in Watford). Our message is finally getting some cut through, Nick Clegg has fought a strong campaign and we have many excellent MPs who are worth saving.

But we are now only speculating about whether we lose a third or half of our seats. We may well lose our status as the third party in the House of Commons (to the SNP) and in the popular vote (to UKIP). That alone ought to give pause for thought before contemplating a return to government.

And then there is the maths. It now looks a very long shot that we will have enough MPs to make up a majority with the Conservatives or Labour. A three party ‘majority coalition’ appears out of the question, given that the SNP, UKIP and the Greens (or their potential partners) have all ruled it out.

So that leaves the possibility of a ‘minority coalition’ – Lib Dems in government with either Labour or the Tories, but looking for more partners to get each piece of legislation through the Commons. That doesn’t sound like much fun to me. If, for example, we come 4th and form a coalition with the 2nd placed Labour Party, imagine how difficult it will be to get agreement on deficit reduction within Government and then to seek the votes of the ‘anti-austerity’ SNP. The Lib Dems would carry the blame for the unpopular tax/spend decisions that a Labour-led government would finally have to face up to. This will leave the SNP well-placed to posture and publicly exert concessions as the price of their support.

A few days ago, Clegg went someway to rule out this most likely variant of a minority coalition, by stating that he wouldn’t want a Lib Dem/Lab coalition to be on a life support machine, reliant on the SNP. He then extended the same stance to a Lib Dem/Tory government, held to ransom by UKIP. This all felt rather clumsy to me, particularly the messy references to the legitimacy of SNP MPs. It also left unanswered questions about where we stand on any minority coalition which is reliant on the support of the socially conservative DUP. Or Plaid and the rest.

Far better to adopt a clear stance that a ‘minority coalition’ is not workable. So if the electorate (or our electoral system) delivers that type of parliament, with a significantly reduced Lib Dem influence, we will respect their wishes and return to opposition.

Now, that doesn’t mean we should behave irresponsibly. We should explore the scope for a confidence/supply arrangement with both the bigger parties. I can see a scenario where a Labour minority government might agree to address Lib Dem priorities on education spending and boosting mental health services, paid for by wealth taxes and not cutting welfare. We could outvote the Tories on the budget and reduce the reliance (real and perceived) on the SNP for holding sway on English public services. But there will be times when such a government pursues initiatives which we shouldn’t support (Labour have form on illiberal home office legislation, for example). We will make clear our opposition, forcing them to seek their majority by getting votes from Conservative or SNP MPs.

A more flexible approach to exercising our influence on the next government would give us both space and independent voice. We need to regain the trust that was lost with tuition fees; to rebuild our local government and membership bases; and to sharpen our liberal identity. We need to push once again for political and constitutional reform from within a hung parliament (which will still not resemble how people voted) where the case for change will be obvious.

There is a growing battle between nationalism (English, Scottish and far worse extremist variants in other parts of the world) and liberalism. That will last longer than one parliament and we must be ready for that. But if we enter another coalition from a weaker position – particularly one that doesn’t have the benefit of delivering the stability of a majority in the House – I fear we will be fighting for the very survival of liberalism at Westminster by 2020.

Will Labour listen on Liddell Road?

14 Feb

Liddell Road pic

Camden Council has been talking about developing the Liddell Road industrial estate for a long time now, but it still amazes me that it could put forward such a flawed scheme.

In the Council elections last year, Camden Labour made all sorts of promises to build thousands of new houses – yet they are now proposing only a handful of affordable homes in this major development. The Council doesn’t own many sites like Liddell Road, so it would be a scandal if it was sold off without making a significant contribution to tackling the housing need in NW6.

Meanwhile, there are still unanswered questions regarding the impact of the Council’s ‘split-site’ model for Kingsgate primary school, as I pointed out in a previous post almost a year ago. The Council has only just got round to consulting on the implications for the admissions criteria for Kingsgate of the proposed Liddell Road site – a decision that could really matter for kids in Kilburn.

The deadline has just closed for comments on the two planning applications in relation to the development, so I have pasted below the comments submitted by Kilburn Lib Dems.

There are lots of objections from local community groups and individual residents. However, the Labour councillors representing West Hampstead and Kilburn wards are largely silent about the Liddell Road development. Lets hope they are in listening mode at last.

Main application

We strongly object to this application. The provision of only 4% social housing is a clear breach of Camden Council planning policies and the well-advanced West Hampstead Neighbourhood Plan. It also runs completely contrary to the pledges made by the Camden Labour party in the local elections last year.

The redevelopment of a light industrial site owned by the Council offers a unique opportunity to make a significant contribution towards addressing the shortage of affordable housing in West Hampstead. West Hampstead ward has one of the lowest proportions of social housing units in Camden borough, and there is also an acute need to offer shared ownership housing options to young families who are currently unable to secure a property in the area.

The financial information in relation to this application is opaque, but the Council has previously stated that its political objective is to raise £3m profit from the scheme to fund unspecified purposes in relation to schools across the borough. We disagree with the notion that this excuses the absence of social housing provision in NW6 and consider it to be totally inconsistent with Council planning policies to address the need for affordable housing.

We believe the application should include significantly larger numbers of both social and intermediate (part rent, part buy) housing units. If this application had been received from a private developer we would expect the development control committee to turn it down on these grounds, and we urge the committee to do the same in this case.

We add that vague talk from Camden Labour councillors about an intention to meet policies in relation to the provision of affordable housing in a potential future application to redevelop the Council’s site at 156 West End Lane (which has already been left dormant for over two years) are irrelevant to the committee’s considerations in relation to this application. We trust that this will be made clear when the committee makes its decision. 

School application

We have consistently campaigned for the provision of a new primary school for Kilburn and West Hampstead. However, the Council’s proposed approach to this development is not in the best interests of parents and children.

Instead of facilitating a new choice of school, the Council decided instead that the new Liddell Road building should be a second site for an expansion of Kingsgate school. We are concerned about developing a new school building designed for infant children only, on the basis of pursuing this unusual split-site model. Parents with children at both sites will face a walk of over 20mins, including negotiating the very busy West Hampstead interchange when dropping off and collecting their children.

In addition, we note there is continuing uncertainty regarding the impact of a second site on the admissions policy for Kingsgate school. The Council has only recently included a question about Kingsgate in a consultation about admissions policy for Camden schools.

This is a very important issue for Kilburn parents and the Council’s position on admissions should have been made clear before it made decisions about the split-site model and put forward a planning application on that basis.

It seems the admissions point for Kingsgate school might move north to the new Liddell Road site. We are worried this could make it more difficult for parents in the ‘southern’ parts of Kilburn ward – such as the Alexandra/Ainsworth, Abbey and Mortimer estates – to secure a place for their kids at Kingsgate.

We suggest the committee should postpone making a decision about this application until the outcome of the admissions policy consultation, and the implications for Kilburn parents, have become clear.