Monthly Archives: September 2011

Jim Pickard

A little-known facet of the planning system is that scores of big decisions every year are taken not by locals but from desks in Victoria, London. The adjudications are nominally by Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities, although in reality they are quasi-judicial decisions worked through by officials.

Today I’ve number-crunched the data and worked out that 81 schemes have been adjudicated by Pickles since the last general election. That rate – about 5.3 a month – is roughly the same as his predecessor over a similar period. Read more

Helen Warrell

Number 10 may have been reluctant to comment this morning on revelations by the FT’s Chris Giles about a £12bn ‘black hole’ in the public finances but Lib Dems, cornered at their conference in Birmingham, were more open.

Senior Lib Dem MPs quizzed on Monday suggested they were not entirely surprised by the 25 per cent increase in the structural deficit, but not surprisingly, are still not in any mood to back further cuts to bring it under control. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Nick CleggThree days in to Liberal Democrat party conference, and the strain of endless speeches, fringe meetings and late night drinking is starting to show. Especially, it seems, for Nick Clegg, who gave a somewhat grumpy performance during a 45-minute long Q&A session this afternoon.

He began, quite early on, by mocking a lack of follow up questions to one of his answers, saying:

What docility! This is like a North Korean conference meeting.

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Elizabeth Rigby

Nestled amongst the yellow revellers at CentreForum’s Lib Dem bash late last night was none other than Greg Clark, the Tory localism and cities minister.

Mr Clark, enjoying a glass of red wine and chatting to adoring Lib Dems, had come up to conference to fly the flag of coalition – and take part in a CentreForum debate with Ed Davey, Lib Dem employment minister on ‘Next steps for localism’.

It was not entirely alien territory for the cities minister: Greg Clark used to be a member of the SDP – he went to the last SDP party conference 23 years ago. Read more

Jim Pickard

The pre-coverage of Vince Cable’s speech on executive pay – demanding an end to “pay-outs for failure” – seemed vaguely familiar. Yes, the business department issued a consultation on “The Future of Narrative Reporting” over a year ago; and the report (page 6) does home in on the links between “performance criteria” and “remuneration“.* And back in June the business secretary called on directors who set remuneration for their colleagues to show more backbone – and hinted that he wanted to expand disclosure so that it did not just apply to board members.

But I’m assured that Vince is set to put forward some new initiatives in his conference speech when he stands up in Birmingham in 10 minutes’ time.

They include:

a] Making remuneration of top executives less opaque so it is more comparable on an international basis.

b] Forcing companies to put in their annual reports if execs have missed performance targets.

c] Expanding disclosure requirements beyond board level (as has happened for the big banks) at all major listed companies.

The department will consult on where the threshold should lie, on the following lines. Will it be a certain number of people below board level? Or everyone earning over a Read more

Kiran Stacey

My Bloomberg colleague Rob Hutton got it right when we walked into a small side room at Birmingham’s ICC on Sunday to watch Hugh Grant (and others) talk about phone hacking. As we were greeted by an explosion of flashing lightbulbs, he turned to me and commented: “It looks like the ending of Notting Hill.”

Hugh Grant, Martin Moore and Evan Harris at the Lib Dem conference

Grant was impressive, his clear speaking (punctuated by plenty of swearwords) gave some relief to the political wonkery that usually characterises conference. But at times bluntness began to look like superficiality, such as when he turned on the Met for trying to use the Official Secrets Act to force the Guardian to reveal its sources:

For the [police's new investigatory team] to turn on fellow goodies in this battle is worrying and also deeply mysterious.

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Kiran Stacey

Lib Dem conference 2010During much of last week, senior Lib Dems were frantically trying to finalise their agenda for next week’s conference. One of the major sticking points was a proposed motion on the health bill, brought by Richard Kemp, Lib Dem leader at the Local Government Assocation.

Such a motion caused a serious headache for the coalition at this year’s spring conference, when Lib Dem members voted against the health bill. On that occasion, the vote was a spur to the party leadership to push for significant changes to be made to the bill. But this time, with Nick Clegg having chalked up those amendments as a win for the Lib Dems, party elders are loath to revisit the issue once again.

The leadership thought it had found a workable compromise when it downgraded the motion, which would have to be voted on, to a Q&A session, with a general debate afterwards.  Kemp appealed, but was defeated and so that Q&A session will be held on Tuesday. Read more

Jim Pickard

Today our political editor George Parker has penned a feature which captures the newfound mood of pessimism in the Treasury and Downing Street. In it he explains how many government insiders are now admitting that many of the working assumptions are now looking increasingly optimistic.

Ministers are no longer taking for granted 1] a rapid economic recovery;  2] the sale of the bank stakes during this Parliament to raise tens of billions of pounds; and 3] the idea that the second half of the parliament would be all about “spending the proceeds of growth”. It is an assessment shared by others; Lord Mandelson, in the “Purple Book” – a Blairite pamphlet published this week – predicts that the economy will not be growing quickly even at the time of the next general election. Read more

Jim Pickard

Lord Myners, former City minister in the last government, has today made a strong critique of the Independent Commission on Banking report, published this week. This was a very lengthy speech in the House of Lords but for once I’ve printed it in full for those interested in the subject.

Myners knows his way around the City, having chaired numerous companies including Marks & Spencer; thus he has a greater claim to understanding the Square Mile than many other politicians.

His words are an interesting contrast to Labour’s broad support for the proposals when they came out on Monday: Ed Balls’ only real criticism was that the implementation seems a bit slow. Read more

Jim Pickard

Over at the Daily Mail’s new political blog Kirsty Walker speculated this evening about who may be bumped out of the shadow cabinet in a reshuffle widely expected within weeks.

As Kirsty writes, the knives are already out for Meg Hillier, energy spokesperson, and Ann McKechin, shadow Scotland secretary. Neither are judged to have made an enormous impact over the last year. I’m told that Hillier, who has a young family, would not be entirely unhappy about the prospect.

My understanding is that there will also be movement in the House of Lords, where Ed Miliband wants Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor, to replace Baroness Royall. Falconer, who was heavily involved in the epic filibustering over boundary reforms back in the spring, is seen as an impressive political bruiser. He is also a Blairite, indeed a former flatmate of Tony Blair. Read more

Jim Pickard

Senior ministers insist they will not budge on planning reform, and that they are a key part of their economic policy. But there are clear signs of unease across the government with some ministers admitting that they could pay a political price* with rural voters for their unashamedly pro-development agenda. (David Cameron told PMQs today that he would make no apologies for wanting more affordable homes).

I’ve been forwarded a recent email from a senior figure at the DCLG (communities department) urging outside groups to come out in public and back its changes to the planning system. The email (replete with spelling errors) doesn’t quite smack of Read more

Kiran Stacey

Today’s unemployment figures gave Ed Miliband another opportunity to go after David Cameron at PMQs over the economy. Last week, he clearly felt blunted by the publication of Alistair Darling’s book, which said his own pre-budget report in 2009, the broad outline of which Labour still follows, lacked credibility.

This week, the attack worked reasonably well – Cameron only mentioned Darling once, and it didn’t elicit much of a response.

But Miliband’s wider problem is that while he is trying to create a narrative of a Tory prime minister out of touch with the country and indifferent to people losing their jobs, support for the cuts, while falling, remains positive. David Cameron’s response that the government had no option but to cut public spending to pay down the deficit still chimes with most people. Read more

Kiran Stacey

The storm might be starting to calm down – but make no mistake, Monday’s boundary review has got MPs really riled.

The consensus is that the commission was far more radical than anyone expected. County boundaries have been crossed, rivers run through the middle of seats and MPs may have to travel for up to an hour to cross constituencies. Read more

Jim Pickard

News from the backbench business committee, which has the power to decide which of the public epetitions will be debated by MPs. The group had a meeting earlier today.

It’s emerged that the two debates will not be on the return of capital punishment, as advocated in some quarters. Instead they will be on: Read more

Jim Pickard

The row over changes to the planning system has been both angry and loud, polarising opinion in a stark manner. On the one hand we have George Osborne, the DCLG, business lobbying groups and the property industry, all of which back the new National Planning Policy Framework.

Lined up against them are charities including the CPRE, Friends of the Earth and National Trust, who fear that the document – with its presumption for sustainable development - could provide a carte blanche for a wave of ugly developments across the countryside. Read more

Jim Pickard

This blog has in the past been cautious about the prospect of mass industrial action in the UK, given the tendency for union leaders to exaggerate their militancy – and newspapers’ love of a good “Winter of Discontent” headline.

But now the threat feels very real for the first time in months. When the likes of Prospect and the FDA are talking about strike ballots, there is a sense that more confrontation is inevitable; the only question is how widespread the actions will be, the level of support within the unions, and the timing. It is still not guaranteed that there will be a crippling universal action.

(Those unions who went on strike in June – the PCS, NUT etc – were not Labour-affililiated.) Read more

Jim Pickard

Banks must set up (quite flexible) internal ring-fences between retail and investment banking operations. The ring-fenced part must hold 10 per cent equity capital. The reforms will cost about £7bn a year. Implementation date: by the end of the decade.

Reactions are broadly predictable. The CBI says the reforms could be draconian. Unite says they are “weak” and push reform into the “long grass”. Read more

Jim Pickard

Donations from property developers to the Tories are very much under the microscope after the Telegraph - which is campaigning against the coalition’s planning policy - yesterday highlighted how many millions have been given to the party by the industry.

The newspaper has looked into “The Property Forum”, a (not secret) group of real estate executives who have breakfast meetings with Conservatives. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Caroline Lucas’ speech to Green Party members in Sheffield today was noticeable for its relative lack of focus on the environment.

Instead, she launched a broadside against the coalition, accusing the government of damaging the economy and exacerbating social inequality.

It’s a theme that chimed with the members themselves, who have been telling me that their absolute priority, much like the rest of the country, is the economy. Read more

Kiran Stacey

Parliament isn’t even in recess yet but already party conference season has begun.

Today, the Green party gathers in Sheffield for its annual get together. Why Sheffield? Possibly because it’s the (adopted) home city of Nick Clegg, whom Green leader Caroline Lucas intends to mock in her speech this afternoon, branding him “The minister for meeting angry people and getting shouted at”.

This is part of a concerted effort, it seems, to win over disaffected Lib Dem voters. She says to Lib Dem voters:

I have a special message for those of them who despair about the path their leadership has taken them down. If you became involved in politics to serve your local community, or to challenge the rich and powerful, or build a better future for the country, then join us.

 Read more