‘Your Questions’ at Haybridge High School

I was invited to attend ‘Your Questions’ event at Haybridge High School, based upon the  BBC ‘Question Time’ programme. It was the culmination of a two month political literacy project, organised by students with the support of staff, the Parliamentary Education Service and CCE.  The aim is to get the students to understand politics and prepare them for voting in the future.

The event had an audience of students, parents, teachers and guests from the wider community. The panel consisted of myself, Sajid Javid (Tory PPC), Sam Burden (Labour PPC), Prof. Antonia Payne and Chair Dr David Nichol. Some of the debates got quite heated, and the students asked some very good questions.

A few things stood out, and good pointers for everyone:

  • Always talk in simple terminology, for example “quango” was not understood, so if necessary explain what you’re talking about.
  • Young people want to be talked to, not talked at
  • They can cut through waffle better than adults, so just be straight with them.

Highlight of the night for me apart from seeing so many young people there, was one student who said he came from a Labour background, was a party member but is going to support the Lib Dems from now on!

The Liberal Democrats actually have a policy paper specific for young people called “Free to be Young“. Let me know your thoughts on the policies, many are designed by young people for young people. 

Note: Jacqui Smith taught Business Studies at Haybridge High School before becoming an MP, joke is she may go back there after the next election…

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A.E. Housman’s birthday celebration

On Friday 26 March I was fortunate enough to attend the birthday commemoration of poet A.E. Housman, Bromsgrove’s most famous son and author of “A Shropshire Lad”. The invite was courtesy of The Housman Society.

A.E. Housman

The event is important as it reinforces to people what Housman contributed to the Arts, but also why so many places in Bromsgrove are called “Housman….”. I know that it’s not always obvious to people. 

Other examples around the country are “De Montfort” (Midlands), after Simon De Montfort, considered “Father of Parliaments” from the 13th Century; and “Hogarth” (Chiswick), famous painter and cartoonist of the 18th Century.

A Budget Bore for All

Yesterday’s Budget from Labour was another non-event, it offered a little bit for businesses and first time buyers but was effectively an hour long political speech

What is lacking from both the Labour and Conservative Party is how the huge deficit would be cut. Lots of rhetoric and wait until after the election, but it’s not being very straight with the electorate who are expecting some kind of action.

The Liberal Democrats have identified £15bn of cuts already, which doesn’t go all the way, but shows we at least have a plan and we’re telling the electorate up front. This will come from ending government contributions to Child Trust Funds to removing the top 20% of claimants from the tax credit system, cancelling the ID card programme, no like for like Trident replacement and abolishing the Government Offices for the Regions.

The other notable absence in the Budget was any plans to deal with the banks, which are fundamentally still operating in the same environment as pre-credit crunch. The Liberal Democrats would split every day retail banking from casino investment banking and protect the voters savings and investments. Yes retail banking will be very boring, low margins and pretty risk averse, but it’s important that people can trust where they put their hard earned money.

In an IPSOS MORI poll Vince Cable was seen as the most capable Chancellor of the Exchequer, followed a long way back by Alastair Darling and George Osborne bringing up the rear. You can decide for yourself if you watch Channel 4s “Ask the Chancellors” Monday 29 March 8pm

Lib Dems believe in power at a local level to the people

I was watching Michael Portillo’s Power to the People , which was on over the weekend and he was advocating giving more power to local people and also for increased accountability. Not sure if Michael’s become a Liberal Democrat but that’s what we’ve been saying for years. I almost fell off my sofa when he even advocated “a local sales or income tax” to replace the council tax (Portillo was famously the Minister in charge of implementing the Poll tax).

Lib Dem measures to empower local people would be:

  • Local authorities to have the ability to set their own local income tax (in place of council tax) and keep the revenue.
  • Local authorities to set their own business rates, not have it set nationally, and also to keep the revenue. 
  • Locally elected health boards and police authorities so these services deliver what you need.
  • Allow local people to have a say in planning decisions and have the right of appeal.
  • Protect local shops and pubs, by cutting the business rate if they are the last one in the village.
  • Ability to sack your MP if they have done something wrong. Power should be in the hands of voters at all times, not just on Election Day.

Glee Club

Like Clement Attlee I get driven around by my wife (Vicky), which suits me as I can read or sleep, however, this does mean she controls the radio and on Sunday’s its BBC’s Radio 1 Chart show.

I’d noticed that there were a lot of covers being sung in the charts and I found out it was from the programme “Glee”, an American musical comedy-drama television series on E4 it focuses on a high school glee club called “New Directions” at the fictional William McKinley High School.

Glee Club US style

Never seen the programme but for me Glee Club only ever triggered off hazy, alcohol tinted memories of the after conference party where members and MPs do silly sketches and sing satirical songs. I’ve only been to two but apparently Paddy Ashdown always does the same joke!

Lib Dem policy on greenbelt and affordable homes

The surrounding parishes of Bromsgrove are full of greenbelt, and there is a lot of pressure for affordable homes, as Bromsgrove is the 2nd most expensive area for homes in the West Midlands after Solihull. A challenge for policy makers, and specific planning decisions are generally a local authorities decision not one for local MP.

On a personal note though I would like to see more joined up planning decisions from the authorities, parish councils and residents associations across the whole District, not just for each specific development.

My argument for that is development plans are decided piecemeal which makes for easier objections and no proper planning of where /which sites are best for development. Poor planning can adversely affect developments, such as the Oakalls estate in Bromgrove which has 700 homes, but no local shop or community facilities and only now 10 years after being established a bus service (though one at 1 an hour…).

Specific to greenbelt protections though the Liberal Democrats would:

  • Scrap Labour’s Planning Act and return decision making to local people, scrapping the Infrastructure Planning Commission and giving people the right to appeal against decisions in favour of development. We will create a new designation to protect green areas of particular importance or value to the community. We will define gardens as Greenfield sites in planning law so that they cannot so easily be built over.
  • Rebalance VAT on new build and repair on an overall revenue neutral basis. Currently new build properties incur no VAT, but refurbishments of existing properties do. There are over 70k empty or derelict homes in the West Midlands (700k nationwide) reducing VAT on refurbishment and placing it on new builds will bring a significant proportion of derelict properties back into use. This will reduce the pressure to build homes on greenbelt and regenerate urban areas nationwide.

Obviously these measures are not enough by themselves, for affordable homes, but that’s why it’s even more important for local authorities to work together with local people strategically on this (emotive) issue.

Requests from lobby groups and charities

No one had ever mentioned, though I should have guessed, that once you become a prospective parliamentary candidate the amount of literature from lobby groups and charities is enormous. Most are fine and well intended, but you still have to read everything and then decide if personally I, as well as the party, should be signing up to their causes. 

I’ve so far been very supportive of most of the charities, yet to respond to some of the industrial groups, but I’ll get round to it.

Update n.b. I should add that none of the lobby groups are doing anything other than telling me what they stand for and would like to see e.g. the Forum of Private Business.