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Bristol West needs a Liberal voice

June 6, 2017

I am standing for a third term as Bristol West’s MP. Theresa May called this snap general election for reasons of cynical party advantage. She thought Jeremy Corbyn would crash Labour straight into the electoral iceberg and that she would be Prime Minister of a Tory government with a commanding Commons majority. She might also have thought that she would act before the Liberal Democrat recovery strengthens. We shall find out in the early hours of Friday whether this calculation was right.

Yet she said the reason for calling the election is Brexit. She said it was to give her a strong hand in the negotiations that will start later this month. I think Brexit may well have been a strong factor in the calling of the election but not in the way suggested by May. For some time now people have been saying to me that I should stop fighting Brexit because “it is done” or “it’s been decided.” At the moment even many people who voted Remain think nothing can be done. Brexit is a becalmed debate.

This will surely change once the negotiations advance and people realise just how many rights and advantages are slipping away from us. By the end of this year the public are likely to be more concerned and the mood will be angry. Even many Leave voters will realise that a hard Brexit will damage their livelihoods and shrink their opportunities. Mrs May’s government would be in deep trouble. The Liberal Democrat clarity on the need for a negotiated soft Brexit and the deal to be put to a final public vote would have far more appeal than now.
In the meantime Bristol West needs an MP who will stand up, consistently, for the 80% of people who voted Remain in this seat. The country needs an opposition party that will stand up to the government, rather than stand aside and wave Brexit through by 2019. So I hope the voters of Bristol West give me the chance to serve them for a third time in Parliament. I hope also to be part of a large united Liberal Democrat Parliamentary force, challenging the government in the difficult years ahead.

As Bristol West’s MP I would also stand up for the NHS, schools and other public services. They need extra money and the Liberal Democrats are clear about how we would find the money. We all need the NHS and social care sometime in our lives so it is right that all income tax payers should pay a little more, according to their means. A rise of 1p in the pound on all three tax rates would raise an extra £6billion a year for the NHS and care. We would raise company tax by 1% to reverse school budget cuts and protect budgets in real terms over the next five years. I would also vote against divisive Tory education plans for a reintroduction of grammar schools and secondary moderns.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies has looked at the plans of the three main parties. It concluded that only the Liberal Democrat plans were credible, with their tax plans funding their spending commitments. The Labour pretence that everything can be found from the super-rich and large companies was found to be incredible. The IFS didn’t look at the Green Party. But their top policy of a four day working week, with everyone given £75 a week basic income (whether in work or not) would crash the economy. There would be little left for their huge tax rises to bite.

Bristol West is in the enviable position of being able to choose what sort of opposition MP it wants to represent its interests. Someone who can represent its progressive, internationalist and liberal values. In the last twenty years the seat has been evenly divided between Labour MPs and a Liberal Democrat MP, me. I am Bristol West’s most authentic liberal and progressive voice. Our city needs an experienced representative at this critical time in our history. I offer a clear vision of an outward looking Britain, trading and cooperating with our closest neighbours. A Britain that invests in the future through education and protects us all when we are sick or need care.

Please vote for me so that I can be Bristol’s liberal voice again.

Engaged and inclusive leadership – how I would act as West of England Mayor

May 1, 2017

I judge other politicians on whether they are pluralists or tribalists. Pluralists recognise that there are good people in all parties and in groups that operate outside party politics. Tribalists go beyond blinkered loyalty to their party, believing those not of their political colour to be the enemy, to be opposed at all costs. I am a pluralist. In my time as an Avon county councillor, Bristol city councillor, Member of Parliament and government minister I enjoyed the company of those from other parties and worked across party lines to get things done.

The office of regional mayor will require some skilled diplomacy and emotional intelligence to make a success of devolution. At the outset it will require the trust and confidence of the leaders of the three councils that make up the Mayoral Combined Authority. I would also want to make full use of the abilities of our 9 MPs to influence government and national agencies. I also see the 200 councillors and hundreds of parish and town councillors as community advocates whose knowledge about the needs of their residents will be invaluable in setting strategic priorities. I will also work alongside the Local Enterprise Partnership to hear the voice of local business leaders and entrepreneurs. Bringing together all of our local opinion formers will be of great importance to me, operating as a regional internal diplomat.

The regional mayor will also be the face of the region to Westminster and the rest of the world. I will be a strong voice for our region, to win business investment and further devolution of power.

A good leader should not fear robust scrutiny. The statutory requirement for scrutiny of the regional mayor is rather modest, requiring only a scrutiny committee drawn from the three councils. I want this committee to reflect the political balance of the three councils. I will go further than the statutory requirement and offer myself for regular question time sessions with all councillors. On a rotating geographical basis I will answer oral and written questions from councillors at full plenary sessions, where councillors from any of the three councils can attend. This will need amendments to the standing orders of the councils but I hope they will accept my offer in good faith. I will also open myself up to regular scrutiny by the local media and in public meetings.

I will be a mayor for both our cities, bringing Bath and Bristol closer together so we can be a world beating brand. I will also be a champion for all the towns and villages of north east Somerset and south Gloucestershire, protecting and advancing their interests when making spending and investment decisions. I will work on behalf of the whole region, together, with one voice.

My plan to protect the West of England from a damaging Brexit

April 30, 2017

I am a passionate internationalist. I have been a strong advocate of Britain’s positive membership of the European Union for the whole time that I’ve been involved in politics. When the Conservative government made the mistake of calling an unnecessary referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU I threw myself into campaigning for a Remain vote. I worked not just with my Liberal Democrat colleagues but was also a founder of the Bristol and South Gloucestershire branch of the cross party Stronger In campaign. I was pleased that the West of England voted clearly for Remain (56.3%) but disappointed that the rest of the country didn’t follow our lead. Since the referendum I have not given up the fight. I was one of the founders of the cross party Bristol for Europe group and have spoken at several public demonstrations of support for the EU.

As regional mayor I would stand up for the rights of the EU nationals who live in the West of England. Over 30,000 people work in some of our key industries, such as aerospace, or in the NHS and other public services. Our four universities have EU nationals among their academic staff and there are thousands of EU students at both undergraduate and post grad level. Many research programmes are dependent on this international mix of brain power. I will urge the government to guarantee their right to remain in Britain, irrespective of the Article 50 negotiations.

I will put together an evidence base for the impact of Brexit on the regional economy. Working with employers, the NHS, universities and the public sector I will present the findings to the Prime Minister.
We have two hard years ahead of us while the government negotiates with the EU. I will continue to strengthen and deepen cultural and economic links with our existing EU partners. Our relationships with our closest neighbours will still be the most important, whatever the outcome of the Article 50 discussions.

I will also lead regional trade delegations to our emerging trade partners in the rest of the world. There is an untapped resource here among our own population, many of whom have family links to south Asian countries. I will work with UKTI to maximise exports of locally owned BAME businesses to emerging markets.

Finally, this election is a straight political choice between me and the Conservative candidate who backs Theresa May’s plan for an extreme version of Brexit. I remain opposed to Britain leaving the EU and do not accept that Brexit is now inevitable. Even many of those who voted Leave did not expect Britain to be catapulted out of the single market and the customs union. Leaving either or both will be deeply damaging to the region’s economy. I support the Liberal Democrat demand for the public to be given a final chance to accept or reject the outcome of the government’s negotiations.

My plans for West of England skills for a thriving economy and cohesive society

April 30, 2017

The government will devolve the adult skills budget to the regional mayors in May 2018. In between then and now I will meet with employers, further education colleges and other skills providers to discuss the skills needs of our regional economy. In particular, I will seek to ensure that skills training and apprentice provision is matched to the strategic economic sectors set out in the economic plan in section 2 of my manifesto.

I will be a champion for local apprentices and will appoint an apprentice champion for each sector. The champions will showcase the opportunities available in each sector and will work with schools so that young people in their early teens appreciate the skilled path and rewarding career that is available to them through basic and advanced apprenticeships.

In line with my desire to make sure that our regional prosperity touches every community I will endeavour to take the skills and employment opportunities to every part of the region. This will involve intensive work with employers and skills providers in geographically discrete parts of the region where low skilled and low paid work is the norm. There is a social justice aspect to this work, ensuring that there are no gender or racial barriers to rewarding work.

The adult skills budget is not solely about employability. New skills offer opportunities for social interaction and social cohesion. I am particularly keen to make sure that women from newly arrived communities acquire strong skills in conversational English. This will not only enable them to access education and work. It will also help us build a more cohesive society.

I will encourage social enterprises to offer training and apprenticeships in some areas. For instance when I was Communities and Local Government Ministers I supported social enterprises with the budget for refurbishing empty homes. Some of the best social enterprises train the long term unemployed and those whose lives have followed a dysfunctional path. A virtuous circle of new homes and lives back on track can be created.

My plan for building affordable homes and sustainable communities

April 30, 2017

As a country and a region we have failed to build enough homes in the last 40 years. The rate of house building in the West of England has not been enough to cater for our growing region. This puts huge financial pressure on people. House prices in the West of England are on average 10 times the level of salaries, with the ratio worst in Bath. Private sector rents are among the highest in the country, swallowing up 40% of disposable incomes.

There is a draft “spatial plan” for the housing needs of the next 20 years, produced by the four local councils, including North Somerset. It is flawed and I will review it if I am elected. It puts a huge amount of pressure on the towns and villages of South Gloucestershire, the area that is already over-heated. The document is not integrated with the draft transport plan, also produced by the four councils. The draft spatial plan sets a target down to 2036 of just over 100,000 new homes (including North Somerset), which needs to be tested rigorously to make sure that it is adequate for our growing economy and demographic change.

The new Mayoral Combined Authority is an opportunity to plan holistically for the economy, housing and transport. As the spatial plan is the one area where unanimity is required between the regional mayor and the councils, I will work hard with local government colleagues to agree a way forward. In addition, I want the public sector to once again become an active player in the housing market. The rate of building required in order to stabilise prices and rents is unlikely to be achieved by the existing private volume builders. My guiding principles for the spatial plan and my other housing ideas are set out below:

• A presumption in favour of development first within our two cities and several towns on brownfield land. The remaining land that is available for development in our urban centres must be developed intensively. This means greater density of population, achieved either by building multi-storeys or by terraced homes. Special consideration must clearly be given to the World Heritage City status of Bath.
• Land set aside for housing should include a plan for balanced communities. Where the new build is by private sector developers the presumption must be that the units are of different sizes, to cater for people at various stages of life and income levels, with appropriate contributions to affordable homes and local infrastructure.
• I will establish a West of England Homes social enterprise, Bristol and Bath Homes Limited. This will build homes for sale and also purpose built blocks of flats for private rental. The surplus from these commercial activities will be invested in building homes of various sizes for social rent. I will seek power from central government to safeguard these social properties against the “right to buy.” While ownership and control of Bristol and Bath Homes Limited will initially be with the Mayoral Combined Authority I am keen to involve more people. Community shares would be a good way of raising more capital. I would also be keen to work with the emerging network of social capital providers.
• I will establish a Mayoral Development Corporation to assemble land where there are disparate land holding ownerships. I will seek additional borrowing power for the three local authorities in order to finance my proposed housing social enterprise. I established this principle when I was a DCLG minister, persuading Treasury colleagues to selectively raise the borrowing headroom for councils that were at their debt ceiling.
• I would prevent any urban sprawl of Bristol north of the M4. The green belt between city and country must be stoutly defended in that area. The green belts along the A4 corridor must also be defended. I will prevent any ludicrous proposal to merge Bath and Bristol into a West Megalopolis.
• Similarly, I do not want to see towns and villages blended into each other. For instance, Keynsham should remain distinct from Saltford and Coalpit Heath separate from Yate. The proposal for a new garden village of Buckover in the north of the region will be seriously flawed if it is planned to be built too near to Thornbury. This is not a city versus country issue. The character of our towns and villages is appreciated by Bristolians and Bathonians as much as it is treasured by town and village dwellers.
• New homes must be accompanied by enhanced bus and rail services to make the communities sustainable. This need is pressing in Thornbury, Yate and in the Filton Airfield redevelopment. The Somer Valley also needs better transport links and local jobs.
• I will also provide for a growing appetite for customised and self-build homes. Serviced plots will be incorporated into the spatial plan. Similarly, there is scope for more home building by community land trusts.
• I will continue my constructive relationship with private sector house builders. I am particularly interested in them embracing modular building techniques, in order to reduce the time taken to build a home. Off-site construction also helps ensure compliance with building regulations for home energy efficiency. I will also work with the sector to deliver my inclusive skills policy. I want to see construction apprenticeships taken up by more women and black and minority ethnic people.
• Bath and Bristol benefit enormously from our four universities. We already have high retention rates among graduates who decide to build their lives and careers in their adopted cities. Our thriving economy needs to attract and retain highly skilled workers from all over the world. Solving the affordability crisis is critical to our economic success. But the growing number of students has also put huge pressure on the local housing stock and led to the unbalancing of some communities. I will work with the universities to identify land for more purpose built accommodation for students. It is essential that this accommodation is affordable for students from low income families.
• I will also work with the private sector and use my proposed Bristol and Bath Homes social enterprise to construct purpose built accommodation for older people. High quality homes for sale or lease would give an opportunity for older people to “right-size” out of family sized homes.
• House building is not just about numbers; standards matter too. As the minister responsible for housing regulation I put in place new standards for room dimensions and for greater home energy efficiency. Home buyers want high standards and I will work with the sector to make sure our new homes are of the highest quality.
• I will also take an interest in the existing housing stock. The least energy efficient homes are those built more than a decade ago. As part of my economic plan to make the West of England a world leader in the low carbon economy I will bring together landlords, financiers, energy companies and others to plan for the retrofitting of older properties to increase insulation, reduce carbon emissions and eliminate fuel poverty.
• Finally, I have long taken an interest in the rights of tenants. As a minister I put in place various new regulations to protect private rental sector tenants. I will work with the local councils and various campaign groups such as Shelter and Acorn to make the West of England a fair and secure place to rent a home.

West of England Devolution – the next steps

April 30, 2017

Devolution is a journey, not an event. The settlement that come into effect in May 2017 is just a modest beginning for the rebalancing of power away from our over centralised government to our city sub regions. We have seen in the last decade that the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland and also the Mayor of London, have received greater powers. Greater Manchester, which has piloted the non-London city region deals, is to receive greater control of the regional NHS budget from May 2017, as well as the powers that are to be devolved here in the West of England.

I will put together an ambitious pitch to government for an enhanced devolution settlement for our region. Devolution is an opportunity to do things differently and there is no reason why the government should not grant us greater flexibility to deliver the responsibilities that will be devolved in 2016. My proposals for extra house building and improved air quality would be strengthened by a modest increase in our new powers. But there is also a major opportunity to ask for additional areas of competence to be devolved from 2021, or sooner.

There is a compelling case for our region being able to retain more of our tax base. We are a net exporter of revenue to the Treasury. When I make the case for more investment in local infrastructure I am not asking for subsidy. I am asking for us to have the ability to spend more of our own money. I would prefer this not to be a met with an additional hand out. Rather, it would be better to have full local control of council tax (which would help the three local authorities) and business rates. I also believe that the Mayoral Combined Authority should be enabled to test new taxes and levies. This should include a hotels tax (adding a small amount to nightly hotel bills) and the ability to levy a pollution tax on vehicles.

I will negotiate with the government a second devolution deal for the transfer of major new competencies in 2021, at the commencement of the second mayoral term. At this time I am wary of replicating Greater Manchester’s second deal, with a transfer of NHS powers. I believe such a transfer is fraught with risk, until there is a sustainable long term funding base for both the NHS and social care. I have advocated a hypothecated tax (based on the existing national insurance system) for the joint funding of NHS and Care.

I believe there is more scope for a devolution of powers from the Department of Work and Pensions. This would enable a joined up approach to tackling worklessness and poor pay, sitting alongside the skills powers that are being devolved in 2018. I am also interested in the devolution of some aspects of the Ministry of Justice, such as the education of prisoners and the operation of restorative justice and probation.

Several devolution options are possible. I will put together a cross party advisory group to consider the next steps on our devolution journey. This group will include MPs, councillors, business leaders and academics. I will take soundings from service users and advocacy groups as to how more local control could enhance public services.

Devolution – making the most of the opportunity

April 14, 2017

My first political act was to wear a “Yes” badge during the 1979 referendum on devolution to Wales. Prime Minister Callaghan’s plans for both Wales and Scotland failed. We had to wait until 1997 before any government tried again. The Blair government devolved powers to the nations of Wales and Scotland and also to Northern Ireland and London. But devolution to English regions outside London stalled. Worse, the Labour government continued the practice of its Conservative predecessors and emasculated and hobbled local government.

The Coalition Government began the reversal of this trend and localism was championed by Liberal Democrat ministers, including myself. A report prepared for the coalition recommended that the practice of central government handing out grants after a bidding process should end. The replacement would be a network of directly elected regional mayors, who would receive devolved budgets and spend them according to their local priorities. In the aftermath of the 2014 Scottish referendum the cabinet committee on devolution, of which I was a member, decided that solving the “England Question” was urgent.

England is the most centralised country in Europe. Paddy Ashdown used to joke that only Malta was under more central direction from its capital. In May 2017 that joke will be redundant. Most of the English city regions will elect a mayor, responsible for managing large devolved budgets and exercising strategic control over some key policy areas. This is an exciting opportunity for Bristol, Bath and the surrounding towns and villages in South Gloucestershire and North East Somerset. We will be able to shape our local economic development and crack some of the transport problems that have remained unsolved for decades. We will be able to plan strategically and holistically how to grow our communities, with new homes and places of work.

Our region may be small, compared to London or the West Midlands. But we pack a big punch. The West of England, centred on its cities of Bath and Bristol, is the most prosperous city region outside London. Our vibrant economy is a net contributor of taxes to the Treasury. Our products are consumed the world over and people from around the world visit us. Yet we are often over-looked by central government. Investment in public transport goes elsewhere. Our achievements in culture and technology are undersold compared to other regions, let alone London. Some of this neglect is our own fault. We haven’t shouted loud enough about our attributes. Our voice is muted as it has been so fragmented.

Once the regional “metro” Mayor is elected, this shyness must end. If I am elected I will bring our cities, towns and villages together and speak on their behalf with one clear voice. I will bring together the three local councils that make up the Mayoral Combined Authority. The role of regional mayor will require skills of diplomacy to bring people together to agree strategic solutions to our common problems. The mayor will also be the principal voice for the region in the corridors of power in London. The strength of that voice will be amplified if the mayors of all the city regions, including London, are able to collaborate. My experience as a councillor, MP and government minister means that I am strongly equipped to achieve effective collaboration.

I will use the mandate derived from the people of all our communities to bring together Bath and Bristol. Our cities have their own special characteristics but together they are stronger than their parts. I want to make Bristol and Bath a world beating brand, a favoured location to live, work, invest and visit. As Mayor I would build strong working relationships with all our English neighbours and put joint cases to London for investment in local transport. For instance the traffic congestion in east Bath requires action in Wiltshire on re-opening local rail stations. I will also seek to have a constructive relationship with the government of Wales on the significant number of cross border issues, such as rail electrification and the Severn Bridge tolls.

English devolution is now finally underway. I will make the best possible use of the powers that are being transferred in 2017. I will bring together all of the MPs and councillors, regardless of party, to make devolution work. I will consult them, the business community and the public as to how we want devolution to develop in the future. We are starting an exciting journey and our final destination must be the sort of local empowerment for both the councils and the region that our European neighbours take for granted.