Diversionary tactics

All the media attention is on the Conservative Leadership election and, de facto, the selection of the next Prime Minister by some 150,000 Conservative Party members.

Jeremy Hunt is calling on Boris Johnson to stop hiding from public sight, arguing, correctly, that he ought to answer questions about his policies.

Put to one side the questions about his character, although they are ones to which he should respond.  Conspiracy theorists might be tempted to believe that all the brouhaha, about what actually happened last week at his girlfriend’s flat, and which led to the police being called, is being stirred up by his supporters as a diversion from the serious policy challenges he should be facing.

But it’s Boris Johnson’s policies – or lack of them – on which we ought to concentrate.

For example, Boris Johnson asserted, yet again last week, that tariffs would not necessarily have to be paid if the UK left the EU without a deal because the UK could rely on the general agreement on tariffs and trade (GATT). Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England – a Canadian with no political axe to grind – had to go public, not for the first time, to confirm that the UK would be hit automatically by tariffs on exports to the EU in a no-deal Brexit, and that Johnson was simply wrong.

The more that Boris Johnson’s assertions are exposed to the white heat of scrutiny, the more that we shall see that his analysis and policies simply do not add up.

But the problem goes much deeper than that.

We know that Theresa May’s government is a front-runner in the ‘worst government in history’ race. We also know that, like David Cameron, Mrs May has used the UK employment figures, claiming ‘record highs’, to suggest that all is well with the UK economy.

Well, stop and think again.

Let me share some facts about our economy and the implications for households. And then just put this information in the context where, whatever the Brexit outcome now, we know that we are in for really rocky times in the next few years.

Household debt has been rising since 2016 and is forecast to reach 150 per cent of disposable income by early 2024. The Office for National Statistics UK household debt is the worst on record and amongst the worst of any Western economy.

For an unprecedented nine consecutive quarters, UK households have spent, on average, more than they’ve earned, pushing them into deficit for the first time since the 1980s. In other words, most households are maintaining their standard of living only by borrowing more. Is it any surprise that more than 8 million people in Britain are classified as experiencing problem debt?

And the problem is going to get worse.

The Conservative government has frozen in-work benefits at a time when food prices are rising and wages have not been keeping up. The Trades Union Congress economists – of which I was one, many years ago – are warning that the growth of consumer credit is a sign of fundamental problems in the economy, such as weak pay growth and low public investment. I agree.

After nine years of austerity, people are, on average, paid less than they were a generation ago. In relation to those on the lowest earnings, six million people are earning less than the living wage.

The continuing increases in household debt tell us that families are struggling to get by on their pay alone and that many are over-optimistic about their future earnings. At the same time, public and private investment growth are well behind the level of similar countries.

We need an economy that is fundamentally more prosperous and where prosperity is shared by all.

Boris Johnson simply doesn’t have policies which address these challenges. It is little wonder that he is ducking and diving to avoid being challenged about his policy agenda.

We should be afraid. Very afraid.

Up the High Street

Last week, in the House of Commons, I was able to speak about the recent report by the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on High streets and town centres in 2030. I thank everyone who contributed to our inquiry, including our witnesses. We took a range of evidence from retailers, councils, landlords, planners and academics.

The decline of the high street is a real concern to the general public. The change—the reduction in the number of people shopping, in some cases the empty shops, and in the worst cases the decay and deterioration across villages, small towns, larger towns, cities and district centres—is almost entirely down to online shopping.

Some 20% of sales are now done online: the highest percentage anywhere in the world. That has happened in the UK over a fairly short period—the past 10 or 15 years—and in many cases the use of shops and the reaction of councils and the Government have not kept pace with that very rapid change. As politicians, we cannot and should not want to halt it, but we must look at what we can do to mitigate its impact and address the situation.

We concluded that the days when the high street was 100% retail have gone. here now needs to be a strategy in each area, backed by the local community, initiated by local councils and supported by local traders, to create a different approach to the activities on the high street. We concluded that if high streets and centres are to survive and thrive by 2030, they must become

“activity-based community gathering places, with a reduced retail element and a wider range of uses, including green space, leisure, arts and culture, health and social care, and housing, with the community at its heart.”

Councils have a really important role to play in developing that approach, working with local communities and businesses. Business improvement districts can play an important part. It means that local plans

“must be forward looking, anticipating what will happen in five years’ time.”

We are pleased that the Government has now accepted that all local plans should be reviewed every five years, and that town and city centre strategies should be looking at least 10 years ahead. But that cannot happen given the 50% cuts in planning budgets resulting from government cuts.

The Government’s £675 million future high streets fund is helpful, but not enough. It cannot be a talking shop. Real, hard advice and learning from others must be at the heart of it.

In order to make things happen quicker, there has to be change in procedures for compulsory purchase powers. We were also clear that the government’s new permitted development rights should not be allowed to get in the way of a local plan that tries to change the fundamental land use of part of a centre.

It is unfortunate that government ministers have got their heads in the sand when it comes to the issue of business rates. Amazon pays 0.7% of its turnover on business rates while high street chains spend between 1.5% and 6.5% of their turnover on business rates; in other words, some high street businesses are paying 10 times as much as their online competitors. That simply is not fair.

We said that the government look at a number of options: an online sales tax, an extension to VAT, a green tax on deliveries, or anything to reflect changing shopping habits. But they came back and said no; they did not want to do anything at all. I say “Get real. It cannot continue like it is.”

But retail landlords also have to get real. We asked the government to look again at upward-only rent reviews, and they said, “No, we’re not going to interfere in contracts between landlord and tenant.” That cannot be. Putting the decision off only makes things harder.

There are big High Street challenges for councils, central Government, retailers and landlords. We concluded

“Unless…urgent action is taken, we fear that further deterioration, loss of visitors and dereliction may lead to some high streets and town centres disappearing altogether.”

It’s time for that urgent action.

Kick them in the ballot box

Following announcements this week, there is to be a new £3 a week tax for 1.7 million over-75s

Strangely, that’s not how the government described the decision to end free TV Licences for the over-75s. But that’s what it is equivalent to.

More than 4000 over-75s in my constituency – and more than 20,000 in Sheffield as a whole – will lose their free TV Licence.

And it’s yet another broken promise from this incompetent, shambolic Conservative government.

The Conservative Party Manifesto for the 2017 General Election stated

“We will maintain all…pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, eye tests, prescriptions and TV licences, for the duration of this parliament.”

There was no ambiguity. There are no ifs and no buts.

In one foul swoop, the Conservatives – including each and every one of those standing in the election to be the new Leader of the Conservative Party – have broken their promise to 3.7 million pensioners.

If those candidates can break one simple unequivocal promise with such a total lack of concern, why should electors put their trust in any of the other promises those candidates are now making…about Brexit, education spending, our NHS, or housing?

We all remember Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg’s broken promise on student tuition fees. This is on a par. What these two broken promises have in common is that they were made in full knowledge that they were going to be broken.

Is it any wonder ordinary people have become sceptical about what their elected representatives say? I’m ashamed of them. I may have many weaknesses, but I have never made a promise to my constituents that I didn’t intend to keep.

In abject dishonesty, the government has tried to blame the BBC for this broken promise. This was because the government had forced the BBC to take responsibility for Free-TVs in the negotiations about the BBC budget and the Licence Fee.

This week, in the House of Commons, I challenged the Conservative Minister, Jeremy Wright, about this broken promise.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab)

More than 4,000 of my constituents will lose their free TV licences. Will the Secretary of State explain to them ​simply and clearly how he expected to keep the promise made to them in the 2017 manifesto about their free TV licences? What mechanism did he intend to use?

Jeremy Wright

As I have said, the Government’s view as to what we expected of the BBC was clear. It was expressed clearly a number of times, including by me and indeed by the Prime Minister. However, the statutory fact of the matter is that this is a decision for the BBC to take. We made our view very clear, and other hon. Members made their views clear too, but it remains the BBC’s decision to take. I regret that it took the decision it did, and we must now speak to it about what more can be done.

https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2019-06-11/debates/C43F0B6F-CC9C-437F-879F-FED5FF929A1B/FreeTVLicencesOver-75S

So, just as bad as actually breaking the promise is the Ministerial confirmation that it was a promise that the Conservative Government was actually incapable of keeping.

But, instead of pleading guilty, all I got was mealy-mouthed words saying he regretted the decision that had been taken.

Of course, the BBC should never have been forced to take this responsibility and the BBC should never have agreed to become responsible.

But both knew where it would end up. As the former Minister (Conservative MP Ed Vaizey) said:

“The Government should either take back the policy or support the BBC changes.

They should not use weasel words to undermine the changes that the BBC has made.”

I couldn’t have put it better.

I hope 3.7 million over-75s take their revenge in the way they know best.

Kick them in the ballot box.

Long way to go

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower continues. Another flat-block fire this last weekend is just the latest reminder that the review of building safety is urgent and important.

The all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has been looking at improvements that can be made to regulations and rules on buildings and building safety to make other people safer in their homes and other buildings they are in in the future. We have had ‘robust’ discussions with Dame Judith Hackitt – leading the government’s review – and government ministers. We have had a very detailed exchange of correspondence with both and we’re still waiting for some answers.

Although the government has taken some action, overall the response has been inadequate or un-finalised.

It is a story about cladding, the requirement for unsafe ACM cladding to be removed, and it is a story of other materials that may be just as dangerous as ACM cladding. It is a story not merely of high-rise residential buildings, but of other high-risk buildings such as hospitals and old people’s homes. It is a story not just about new building, but also about existing buildings.

A year after the Grenfell disaster, the Government came forward with £400 million to remove the cladding off high-rise social housing. But there remains a real problem about private flats and the refusal of freeholders to accept responsibility.

The issue gets complicated because, in some cases, developers are no longer responsible for the buildings. It really is a situation that would never get resolved. Ministers have failed to face up to the reality.

Last July, we recommended that an immediate fund be established, initially at a very low rate of interest, at least to provide the wherewithal to get this work done, and we could argue about who would pay for it afterwards. We are still very much in that position.

The government has now announced a £200 million fund for private sector properties, but there are a lot of questions about it. First, who applies for the fund? Who ensures the work is carried out? Is there a timeline by which all this work has to be carried out? What happens if no one applies and the building is still there with this cladding on it? What happens to the local authority if it goes in and does the work in default: does it get the money back? What happens where a developer has already, rightly, paid for the work themselves: can that developer claim the money back from the fund, or does it apply only to work that currently has not been carried out? In the end, who is responsible for the work being signed off as satisfactory?

There are a lot of questions that need addressing and we are still waiting for ministers to answer them.

But, at the heart of the matter is making sure that materials are right and are properly tested. In the end, it is not even about the building regulations in relation to fire; it is about the building industry as a whole and how it operates.

This is about making sure not merely that the materials are right, but that the materials specified are actually used, that the buildings are properly signed off and that they are properly maintained and managed. This is a whole-system issue.

Currently, there are a whole series of conflicts in the process. Materials’ producers going around different testing organisations until they found the one that actually approved their material.  Fire authorities testing their own work and recommendations, which is wrong. This is also about the whole testing regime for products. Building inspectors being appointed by developers and then signing off the work of the people that have appointed them. This cannot be right.

The more we uncover, the more we realise that the whole construction industry is not fit for purpose. We need a fundamental review of how it operates, considering not just specifications, but including the management of projects and ensuring that people have homes and other buildings that are safe to live in.

Families at Grenfell lost their lives. Many who survived are still trying to re-build their lives. And thousands of leaseholders are stuck in homes which no-one is prepared to buy until the issues are resolved or are facing costs of tens of thousands of pounds in remedial works.

Landing in the right place.

For far too long, we have built too few homes at a price which people can afford.

As a result, homelessness, hidden homelessness, over-crowding, families and individuals occupying unsatisfactory housing or living in insecure tenancies have all increased. It has a massive impact on employment, on schooling, on social care and on the housing benefits bill.

We cannot, we should not, continue like this. It’s the mark of an uncivilised society.

To build new affordable housing – to buy and to rent – we need to address the availability and price of land. Over the last 20 years, the price of housing land has risen by more than 5 times, far in excess of general inflation.

Not only does this mean that fewer households are able to secure homes they can afford. It also means that we end up paying a higher proportion of the housing bill for the land, squeezing the money available for building standards (for example, rooms getting smaller and smaller) and community infrastructure (for example, schools, parks, roads).

Public and private money is going in to the pockets of a relatively small group of landowners who are simply benefiting from changes in the planning status of that land, mainly from agricultural to residential.

Last year, the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, published a report1 which highlighting how many other countries, for example Germany, use land to deliver high quality new homes, rather than preventing it as happens in England.

The scale of the suffering caused by a shortage of safe, secure and affordable homes should give any government the courage to take bold action, both to lower the cost of land and then to build the next generation of social homes that we so desperately need if we are to truly solve our national housing emergency.

Land value increases from the granting of residential planning permission are not small. Agricultural land granted planning permission for residential use increases in value, on average, around 120 times from £22,300 to £2.7 million per hectare.

Who should be the beneficiaries of these increases and in what proportion? Should it be the person who owns the land, but who potentially did very little to contribute to the windfall profit? Or should the community seek to claim the greatest share.

The present rights of landowners simply serve to distort land prices, encourage land speculation, raise house prices and reduce revenues for affordable housing, infrastructure and local services.

Think back to the first generation of New Towns. Development Corporations were empowered to acquire land at, or near to, existing use value and capture uplifts in land value from the infrastructure they developed and subsequent economic activity to reinvest in the local community. We need to apply these principles to all development land, enabling a new generation of garden cities, towns and villages.

There has been no sign in this government of this sort of bold thinking. None of the Conservative Leadership candidates has demonstrated a determination to take the necessary action.

We are in the midst of a housing crisis. It is vital that the government meets its target of building 300,000 new homes every year.

Reform of development land compensation and a new social housing programme to deliver affordable homes to buy and rent securely have to be at the heart of the response.

This week, housing charity Shelter has published its contribution – Grounds for Change – to the case for land reform. I am pleased to have been invited to contribute a chapter.

If you are not convinced of the need for bold change, please read this for free at:

https://england.shelter.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/1779418/Grounds_For_Change.pdf

1 Land Value Capture https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcomloc/766/766.pdf

Cyber shambles

Whenever a Minister in the current government states that a particular issue is a top priority and that the government is leading the way, you can almost guarantee that the opposite is the case.

Despite the occasional highly-publicised success in tackling cyber-crime, the harsh reality is that the vast majority of such crimes are not investigated, let alone brought to successful prosecution. Day-in, day-out, millions of people receive phishing e-mails and scam texts and learn that their data has been stolen or, even worse, heard that information about themselves that they had provided in confidence to a supplier of good or services had been sold to many others.

I predict that there are many more scandals to be revealed about global companies taking our data and records of our activities – without our permission – to be aggregated, profiled and sold for a wide variety of purposes. Targeted marketing may be the most innocuous of these. There is much more to be revealed about interference in elections and politics.

Of course, these cyber-security issues are those which mainly affect the individual. But there are big cyber issues which affect the security and defence of the state. Across the world, we have seen examples of hackers (whether state-sponsored or far-too-clever-for-their-own-good teenagers) taking control of, or disabling, key elements of infrastructure from power-plants to TV stations, from defence establishments to financial institutions.  Some defence analysts believe that we should drastically cut resources in traditional state security measures and invest those resources in cyber-security.

Last week, the government released its first progress report on its 2016-2021 National Cyber Security Strategy. This should have been the third annual report. Given the lack of progress, it’s no surprise that the government hasn’t wanted to be held accountable for it.

The report was an admission of failure by the government. It admits that 11 of its 12 strategic outcomes have not been met and are unlikely to be met by 2021. The Cabinet Office – the government department responsible for the strategy – has admitted that it has “low confidence” in the evidence used to assess progress against six of the strategic outcomes.

Also this week, the Public Accounts Committee has published its report on the cyber-security strategy. The facts speak for themselves:

  • Just nine percent of businesses are aware of the CyberEssentials programme, the government-backed scheme to protect against cyber-attacks;
  • Only 16% of FTSE 350 boards have a grasp of cyber threats;
  • Only 57% of FTSE 350 companies regularly test their cybersecurity incident response plans.
  • the proportion of UK firms reporting a cyber-attack has risen from 40 per cent to 55 per cent in the last year, and almost three quarters of firms were ranked as “novices” in terms of cyber-readiness
  • only 4% of businesses use government sources of information to protect themselves against cyber threats
  • a third (£169 million) of the Programme’s planned funding for the first two years was either transferred or loaned to support other government spending£69 million of this funding will not be returned to the Programme.

It’s little wonder that government ministers are divided and all over the place when it comes to making a decision about what, if any, place there should be for the Chinese company H in 5G UK telecoms infrastructure

This is despite the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre Oversight Board (HCSEC) finding critical cyber vulnerabilities that are not being adequately addressed and that Huawei’s approach to software development brought significantly increased risk to UK operators.

Does it fill you with confidence? No, me neither.

It’s a cyber-shambles.

Affording a home

I take no pleasure from having correctly predicted that every housebuilding promise made by Conservative and Liberal Democrat Housing Ministers since 2010 has been broken. Not one of the promises has come close to fulfilment and no apologies have ever been made.

So far as I was concerned, on an examination of the facts, those promises had as much credibility as claims that Brexit would deliver and extra £350m per week for the NHS and that, post-Brexit, securing advantageous trade deals across the world would be a doddle.

Boris Johnson now finds himself on the wrong end of a prosecution for his persistent repetition of the £350m per week claim.  His case is not helped by the revelation that he had been persistently told by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that his assertion was simply untrue.

So, you will not be surprised that I tend to rely on ONS data to look at historical performance about housing, including housing affordability.

One of the biggest tragedies of the last decade is to have seen young individuals and families squeezed out of the market to buy a home of their own and then be forced to live in insecure privately rented homes with exorbitant rents, which disable them from saving sufficient for a deposit. A large proportion of this generation may be excluded from home ownership for the rest of their lives.

It is interesting to note that the government has not made a new housing promise. Instead, it has set a ‘target’ of delivering 300,000 new homes per year by mid-2020.

Housing charity Shelter has estimated that more than 3 million new social homes (ie 150,000 pa) would need to be built over a 20 year period to address social housing need. However, the government’s target assumes that just 3% (ie 9000 pa) would be social homes built by local authorities. The gap is dramatically obvious.

In March, ONS produced its latest annual report on housing affordability in England and Wales1 .

Amongst other findings, ONS reported that:

  • On average, full-time workers could expect to pay an estimated 7.8 times their annual workplace-based earnings on purchasing a home in England and Wales in 2018.
  • This followed 5 consecutive years of decreasing affordability. [ie the gap between earnings and house prices got bigger each year.]
  • The London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea remained the least affordable local authority in 2018, with average house prices being 44.5 times workplace-based average annual earnings. [You will remember that Grenfell Tower is located there.]
  • There are 77 areas that became less affordable over the last five years -most were in London, the South East and the East of England
  • There was not a single area in England and Wales where affordability improved.
  • Despite all the Ministerial claims about the Help-to-Buy scheme helping young families on to the property ladder, newly-built dwellings were estimated to be significantly less affordable than existing dwellings.

Over the last decade, the construction of new social and affordable rented homes has stagnated. The number of new homes built in this sector has slowed to a trickle of a few thousand a year, while at the same time demand becomes greater and greater.

It is clear that social housing has been left to drift for too long and it appears that there are no coherent long-term strategies to put this right.

So, the House of Commons all-party Housing Communities and Local Government Committee, which I chair, has launched a new inquiry2to investigate the effectiveness of the Government’s current strategies to increase the numbers of social and affordable rented homes.

We will look at the adequacy of funding levels, as well as programmes and incentives for key stakeholders, such as local authorities and housing associations, to stimulate delivery. We will also look at the challenges facing different areas of the country and consider what lessons can be learnt from successful schemes in other countries.

For the next 6 weeks, we are inviting evidence for the inquiry.

If you have evidence or experiences or comments about these issues which you want us to consider, please submit it3 as soon as possible, and by 12th July at the latest.

1 Housing affordability in England and Wales: 2018

https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/housing/bulletins/housingaffordabilityinenglandandwales/2018

2 Inquiry into long-term delivery of social and affordable rented housing.

https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/housing-communities-and-local-government-committee/news/long-term-social-housing-inquiry-launch-17-19/

3 https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/housing-communities-and-local-government-committee/inquiries/parliament-2017/social-housing-inquiry-17-19/commons-written-submission-form/

Taxing times

I take a very simple approach to taxes. You should pay them.

I have no time at all for those individuals who, and corporations which, indulge in artificial schemes designed to avoid what they should properly pay.

Despite all the warm words and promises, Conservative governments have consistently been reluctant to legislate to close down loopholes and to pursue tax avoiders.

A report1 this week from the Tax Justice Network confirms the extent of the issue. It found that the UK has “single-handedly” done the most to break down the global corporate tax system which loses nearly £400bn to avoidance. The amount dodged globally each year is more than three times the NHS budget or roughly equivalent to the entire Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Belgium.

The UK is by far the world’s biggest enabler of corporate tax dodging, helping funnel hundreds of billions of pounds away from state coffers. Of the top 10 countries allowing multinationals to avoid paying billions in tax on their profits, four are British overseas’ territories. Tax haven territories linked to Britain are responsible for around a third of the world’s corporate tax avoidance risk – more than four times the next greatest contributor, the Netherlands.

At the top of the list are the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands – all British overseas’ territories. Jersey, a Crown dependency, is seventh while the UK itself comes in thirteenth. Yet, this Conservative government is still failing to take the measures required to ensure transparency in the UK and in the overseas’ territories and dependencies.

However, it has decided to pursue workers who entered into schemes of disguised remuneration over the last decade. Disguised remuneration is an aggressive and contrived form of tax avoidance that involves a loan, which there is never any intention of repaying, being routed via a low or no-tax jurisdiction and then back to the United Kingdom, to avoid income tax and national insurance.

Unfortunately, many low-paid workers in service industries were required or conned into these schemes by ‘tax advisers’ and bogus umbrella companies. If something looks too good to be true, it almost certainly is!

However, there were thousands of well-remunerated individuals who sought out these schemes. It is estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people were involved. Finally, HMRC woke up and, in 2016, the government decided to act on these unlawful schemes and require payment of the proper taxes and dues. More than £1bn has now been reclaimed – 85% of it from employers – but there is still a long way to go.

Generally, I support the approach that the government is now taking. However, I still have some concerns about how it is proceeding. There does need to be a differentiation between those people, mainly low-paid, who were conned into the schemes and gained little benefit from them – most of the benefit went to the agencies and employers – and those, mainly well-paid, who entered the arrangements in full knowledge of their gamble.

I have little time for those people who are now making a lot of noise because they are being told that they have to pay £500,000, £700,000 or even £900,000 that they avoided by their own actions.

1 https://www.corporatetaxhavenindex.org/

Be careful what you wish for

The people have spoken.

Well, more precisely, less than four out of ten UK electors voted in the elections for the European Parliament last Thursday. It’s difficult to be precise, but it appears that about half of those who came out to vote supported Brexit…and the other half supported Remain. Proportionately, it was more or less a repeat of the Referendum result.

The reality is that we have a nation which is dangerously divided and the prospects for reconciliation seem limited in the near future.

Since the Referendum, each and every day, our economic performance and prospects have been damaged. That is set to continue, irrespective of whether there is a negotiated or a no-deal Brexit.

Because Brexit has so dominated the political discourse, it has crowded out discussion and decision about domestic policy issues. I have given many examples of this before…adult social care, local government finance and funding, business rates and alternative taxes…

Last week we were given a sharp reminder of this when Philip Alston, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, said that, unless austerity ends, the UK’s poorest people face lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. He then warned that the worse could be yet to come “for the most vulnerable, who face a major adverse impact” if Brexit proceeds.

This isn’t an isolated warning. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), the UK is now second only to the US in terms of inequality among major economies in North America and Europe. The IFS found that average CEO pay among FTSE 100 companies in the UK in 2017 was 145 times higher than the salary of the average worker, up from 47 times higher back in 1998.

The entire board of the Government’s own Social Mobility Commission resigned in 2017, citing the Government’s lack of action in tackling social justice. The Commission, which suffered a near year-long delay in appointing replacements, warned last month that “social mobility has been virtually stagnant for four years”.

A total of 14 million people in the UK were in poverty in 2017/18. This includes 4.1 children, a rise of 500,000 since 2010/11. Two million pensioners were in poverty in 2017/18, up by 400,000 compared with 2010/11.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the key reasons for rises in poverty are

  • Cuts to social security
  • High housing costs – increasing numbers of people on low income are living in the private rented sector but housing benefit is failing to cover the cost of rents
  • People trapped in low-paid work

Health, education and housing inequality is at unacceptable levels. The gap in life expectancy between the poorest and wealthiest is getting wider. Healthy life expectancy at birth among the most deprived males in England is 51.9 years, compared with 70.4 years among the least deprived.

By eleven, (end of Key Stage 2), less than half (46%) of pupils entitled to free school meals reach the standards expected for reading, writing and mathematics, compared to 68% of all other pupils. Only 16% of those on free school meals attain at least two A levels compared to 39% of all other pupils.

Rough sleeping has more than doubled since 2010 according to Government figures, rising from 1,768 in 2010 to 4,677 in 2018. Over 120,000 children are recorded as homeless in temporary accommodation – an increase of 70% since 2010.

As the number of people working on zero-hours contracts rises each day, the number of working households living below the poverty line has increased. As social security cuts continue, food bank usage increases.

Wouldn’t you would think that these issues, rather than an ill-informed Brexit debate, should be at the forefront of our minds? Don’t bank on it.

Yesterday, Lucy Davies was elected as a Brexit Member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire and Humberside. Last year, in a TV interview1 , she confirmed that ‘leave voters’ like her wanted Brexit “at any cost”. She then admitted this could mean volunteering for “30 years of economic downturn”.

Is that what you really wish for?

1 https://twitter.com/femi_sorry/status/1129454458159665152?s=21

Knotty issues

In the mid-nineteenth century, some horticulturalists thought that Fallopia Japonica, a fast-growing plant with bamboo-like stems, would be an excellent ornamental plant in parks and large gardens.

Since then, millions of households have discovered that Japanese Knotweed (JK) is one of the most problematic plant species in the UK. It has been estimated that 1-2% of all residential properties and development sites are affected, and many more are drawn into the problem simply by being adjacent to an affected site.

There is a common perception that JK can cause significant damage to buildings, although there is surprisingly little research on this. It has distinctive extensive rhizomes (underground structures that resemble roots) which are difficult to kill.  Because it is so challenging to eradicate – requiring multi-year treatment with herbicide or excavation – there are some strict controls.

It an offence to plant JK or cause it to grow in the wild. However,

  • it is not illegal to have JK on private land
  • individuals do not have a legal obligation to remove or control JK on private land, and
  • there is no requirement to report that JK is present on the land.

Nevertheless,

  • allowing contaminated soil or plant material from any waste transfer to spread into the wild could lead to a fine of up to £5,000 or a prison term of up to two years.
  • affected parties, such as landowners of adjacent properties, might also seek damages if JK is allowed to spread onto their property
  • it is classed as ‘controlled waste’ and as such must be disposed of safely at a licensed landfill site, and
  • it is an offence to deposit, treat, keep or dispose of controlled waste without a licence.

That is why some mortgage lenders have strict no-JK policies. There is a specific question on JK in the Seller’s Property Information Form. This has caused problems for house- sellers and prospective purchasers. Claims for damage caused by JK are usually excluded on buildings insurance policies.

Over the last year, the all-Party House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has conducted an inquiry into Japanese knotweed and the built environment. It has now published a report1 of its investigations with a series of recommendations, including

  • national data collection of the extent and nature of JK
  • targeted research about the actual JK impact on buildings
  • looking at why other countries don’t see JK as such a big issue
  • reviewing the nature and extent of declarations on Property Information Forms
  • asking the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors to review its risk assessment framework
  • proposing that mediation is better than litigation for resolving disputes relating to JK between landowners.

The recommendations seem eminently sensible. We need to see what the government, the professional bodies, mortgage lenders and eradication contractors do with them.

But, if you suspect you have a problem with JK, do not just dig it up and throw it in the neighbour’s garden! That could be very costly indeed.

1 Japanese knotweed and the built environment https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmsctech/1702/170202.htm?utm_source=House+of+Commons&utm_campaign=707260266f-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_05_17_03_31&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_569847b89d-707260266f-97704763&mc_cid=707260266f&mc_eid=04f1d8f500