Between now and May, unless the Labour filibuster in the House of Lords succeeds, there will be a campaign leading to a referendum on our voting system. In Warrington South members of all the three main political parties are supporting a YES vote to change our voting system to the fairer Alternative Vote. Below is a brief summary from the Yes to AV campaign about why the Alternative Vote is a better way of choosing our MPs in the future.
I have been challenged, along with everyone else who voted against a Council motion to send a letter to Vince Cable objecting to the Coalition government’s policies on student fees and educational maintenance allowance to explain my choice. What follows is an open letter to Tom Jennings a Warrington member of the national Youth Parliament explaining my position.
I am afraid it is a little lengthy – but these are difficult and important issues:
Thank you for your email concerning the Council vote on a letter about EMA and tuition fees. You will probably know that I both spoke, and voted against, the motion.
University fees are a matter very close to my heart as I taught at Manchester University for 30 years, am currently an Honorary Research Fellow at Manchester University and a Visiting Professor at Liverpool University. I have two daughters with student loans.
When I was selected to be a Liberal Democrat candidate for Warrington Borough Council, four and a half years ago, I was asked if there were any party policies I could not support. I declared then that I could not support the party policy of abolishing university fees because I felt the policy was undeliverable and unsustainable.
My experience, throughout my university career, was that funding for universities always loses out compared to other spending priorities for almost all political parties. I also found that there was generally little public support for funding students or universities.
As I believe that the opportunity to go to university for all those capable of benefiting is vital, that opportunity can only be offered if universities are funded. Universities also have the essential function of carrying out research and scholarship to generate new knowledge. This has to be funded too so that students can learn in an atmosphere of research; the essence of a university education.
The Labour Party soon found that to expand the opportunity of a university education, to allow up to 50% of young people to benefit, the only practical source of funding was fees. That is why Labour broke an election promise and introduced fees when they said they wouldn’t and then broke a second election promise to bring in top-up-fees which trebled the amount students were going to have to pay.
The Times newspaper, no great friend of either the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats, expressed the view, in an editorial, that Labour had been right to do this. It is in our interests as a country, and in the interests of students to go to university, so it is fair that the cost should be shared between the tax-payer and the student who will benefit either through higher earnings or through self-development.
The Liberal Democrats are a democratic party which adopts policy on a democratic basis. Grass roots members voted for our no-fees and no fee increase policies against the advice of some of those at the top of the party who felt the policy was unsustainable. Once adopted we all stand by a policy, even if we disagree with it. It is then up to our campaigns department how to present a policy. I think it is very unfortunate that so many of our parliamentary candidates agreed to sign the student fees pledge and that this was on top of a party political broadcast that said ‘no more broken promises’.
We asked for votes on the basis of what we would like to do if we were to win the election and form the government. We did not win the election, in fact we got 23% of the vote, an excellent result but we ended up in a good third place. Both the Conservative Party and the Labour party were committed to taking note of the Browne review, commissioned by Labour, to look at the future funding of universities.
Browne recommended taking the cap off university fees and allowing universities to charge what they wanted to. This was not accepted. Labour talk about the trebling of university fees, but the £9000 fee is likely to be exceptional and all universities charging more than £6000 will have to make far greater provision of bursaries for those from poorer households.
Only 26% or so of the electorate voted for parties (LibDem, SNP, Green) that wanted to get rid of fees. The remaining 74%, or at least 65% (Conservative and Labour) voted for parties committed to fees and to taking account of the Browne review. Liberal Democrats, as good democrats, have to take account of the fact that more than twice as many voters voted for parties in favour of fees, and likely to raise them, as voted for abolition.
So as the smaller party in the Coalition we have done our best to make the fees policy as fair as possible. Much is made of the debt burden students will leave university with. However this is not ‘debt’ in any conventional sense. It is a notional figure, based on the value or cost of the course they attended to calculate their graduate contribution. That graduate contribution:
• Will not start until earnings exceed £21,000 per annum
• It will be levied as a percentage of residual income – like Labour’s graduate tax
• It will not last forever, as graduate tax would
• It ends when the fees loan is paid off, or after 30 years
• Payments stop if earnings fall below £21,000
• Monthly deductions will be less than at present – £74 per month less at £21k
• …. but they will go on for longer
• As mortgages are based on take home pay after deductions, mortgages will be easier to get than for current students paying off Labour’s loans.
• Much greater provision will be made to give financial incentives to students from the least well off households
So I see the Coalition’s policy as fairer, and easier to implement, than the only alternative on offer, Labour’s graduate tax. While the details of that tax are not clear, it is clear that high earning graduates will be taxed twice on their good fortune, once because they will pay higher rate tax as any taxpayer does and a second time because they are graduates. This means that a high performing student, who does well at university and is rewarded for that hard work by earning more, has to pay more for the same education as a poor student who performs poorly on the same course and does not get any income premium. It simply doesn’t strike me as fair to charge good students more for their education than poor ones. Nor do I accept the argument that ‘poor’ students are simply students who were poorly taught.
Incidentally there is also an issue of government spending in general where Labour have been less than frank. According to Treasury figures Labour planned to cut the budget of the department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) by 25%, this is exactly the same cut that has been imposed by the Coalition government. BIS funds universities and science. Had students not been asked to pay more Britain’s science base would have been slashed, we would have to leave major international science projects such as CERN and the physical sciences including Physics and Chemistry would have been totally undermined. This would have a serious effect on Britain’s economic competitiveness.
Lobbying by the Royal Society and popular figures such as Brian Cox persuaded government that slashing science spending was simply too damaging. For that reason the coalition is moving to switch some of the cost of student fees from government to students. Before the 25% cut, under Labour, students paid 40% of their tuition costs the state 60%. Under the Coalition’s plans student will be paying 60% and the state 40% while science will be protected. I believe that this is the right choice. If you would like to argue that BIS should not be cut by 25%, you will find it hard to find any political party that agrees with you and you would have to decide what other budget that money should come from.
My feelings about EMA are less strong than those about university fees. However it is my view that more should be spent on the most educationally disadvantaged to help them catch up, rather than providing, what is sometimes no more than extra pocket money, to the 90%, or more, of students receiving EMA who would have remained in education without it. EMA is particularly problematic because it is already a means tested benefit rather than a universal one. However, I can see no appetite among taxpayers to pay more tax and to get some of it back in universal, or widespread, benefits. In these circumstances I would prefer to see help concentrated on those who really need it, rather than spread thinly on those who might be bribed to vote for you. That is clearly a political choice and I disagree with Labour’s position. It is a tragedy that after 13 years of Labour government the most educationally disadvantaged, because of home circumstances, have been helped so little to climb the ladder of educational opportunity while so many, who can do without the limited help that EMA offers, have received funding.
Cllr Robert Barr
Warrington Borough Council
Letter to the editor of the Warrington Guardian
I am very pleased that last week you marked the progress that has been made on Omega and celebrated the fact that work on the northern part of the site will start soon, bringing jobs and prosperity.
However, Helen Jones MP appears to have resorted to a straightforward untruth to slur Warrington Borough Council. In the Warrington Guardian she is quoted as saying “The council has sold the land to Miller to make a fast buck….”
WBC doesn’t and hasn’t owned Omega. It was acquired by the New Town Development Corporation, passed to English Partnerships which became the Homes and Communities Agency, all central government controlled.
So if anyone sold Omega land to Miller “for a fast buck”, it was her own government. She should feel ashamed and apologise.
She also chose to make another damaging and ill-informed attack on the Council’s record on housing and our intention to see a balanced offering of affordable and aspirational housing provided at Omega. The inclusion of housing and retail, in the scheme now proposed by the Homes and Communities Agency and Miller, will make for a much better balanced community in the area while not damaging the employment prospects across the site.
The public will have their say on the new plans and will note that the untrue scare stories, spread before the election by the two parliamentary Labour candidates (Helen Jones and Nick Bent), about an incinerator had no substance.
The truth is that an improved, sustainable and appropriate development is starting under a Liberal Democrat / Conservative administration which will complement the regeneration of the Town Centre and will benefit the whole of Warrington.
Over the years one of the more regular issues over which I have been contacted has been the aggressive clamping of cars parked on private land and the extortion of eye-watering “release fees”.
This ranges from supposedly reputable companies such as NCP clamping delivery vehicles which stop for a couple of minutes (and delaying deliveries to the Hospital for hours), to mothers picking up children from evening events in Warrington and being frog marched to a cashpoint to get the money to get their car back.
While it is legitimate for the owners of private land and car parks to be able to protect themselves against unauthorised parking, this important liberty has been totally discredited by the action of private clampers.
Their activities range from the legal but unpleasant to the totally criminal demands for money with menaces and effectively false imprisonment.
Most of those complaining to me did not object to being penalised for parking incorrectly on private land, what they objected to was the size of the fines, the immobilisation of their vehicle regardless of the circumstances and, on many occasions, the aggressive behaviour of the clampers and their employers. Most saw private clamping as a money making enterprise – not legitimate parking control.
Two Liberal Democrat ministers, Lynne Featherstone and Norman Baker, have now achieved a change in the law, to match similar regulations in Scotland, which will ban this practice.
A YouGov poll shows 87% of the public approve of the change compared to 7% who are against it.
I see this as a very welcome redressing of the balance of rights between the private citizen and businesses and landowners. However, I very much hope that all responsible motorists will take care not to abuse this ban. Alternative ways of keeping private parking areas private will have to be found.
Today, Nick Clegg, delivered a speech which has been praised by Professor Nick Bosanquet as “The best speech on social mobility since that given by Lloyd George in 1910”.
It is clear that the Liberal Democrat members of the Coalition government have more progressive and realistic ideas on making Britain fairer than any of the Labour leadership candidates, who, with the exception of Diane Abbott were deeply implicated in Labour’s failure to make progress, while bankrupting the country with overzealous “investment” programmes that failed to reap the dividends promised.
The LibDem influence in the government is allowing those who genuinely see themselves as progressive Conservatives to come out in a way that would have been impossible in a Tory minority or majority government.
British Telecom have anounced that they will be installing FTTC (Fibre To The Cabinet) fibre optic technology in Lymm by the end of March 2011. This will provide more reliable and faster broadband at up to 40 Mb/sec. This is not as fast as would be possible if fibre optic cables were connected into homes, but is a far less expensive option.
For parts of Warrington that are not covered by cable TV, originally laid by Nynex and now managed by Virgin Media, this is very good news.
Customers will not have to buy their broadband service from BT, as access to the new FTTC network will be made available to other suppliers who install their own equipment in the Lymm exchange (AOL, O2/Be, Orange and Talk Talk already have equipment in place using the existing copper wiring).
For those working from home and needing reliable broadband, as well as family users wanting to download video or use on-line TV services, the new services will be a great improvement.
Date: 21 July 2010
COUNCIL PLANS WIDER CONSULTATION ON WALTON
Council bosses are planning an even more extensive consultation on the future of Walton Hall and Gardens. This follows public concern about proposals for the Estate.
Executive Board member for Planning, Regeneration and Housing, Cllr Bob Barr said, “At its meeting in June the Council’s Executive Board agreed to a widespread and thorough consultation with the public on a plan for the Estate. This involved a hotel in the Hall and improvements to all the facilities and the gardens. It would bring in outside money, create up to 200 jobs and reverse a lack of investment over many years. Walton is a ‘jewel in the crown’ but has become somewhat tarnished and lack of investment could harm people’s enjoyment of the Estate for current and future generations.
But we have listened to what residents and campaigners have been saying. We welcome this democratic challenge and reflected on how we should take account of the strength of public feeling. There are concerns about whether or not we should have a luxury hotel in the grounds and the nature of the long lease being put forward. People are worried about possible limitations on public access to the grounds and what might happen to this in the future despite safeguards in any legal agreement. It is vital that the consultation process addresses all these concerns fully.
Executive Board member for Environment and Transport, Cllr Alan Litton added, “A more fundamental concern is that only one scheme had been taken forward for consideration. There is strong public support for considering other options that would allow us to take greater account of what the people of Warrington want for Walton. It is absolutely essential that any proposals must have the support of the citizens of Warrington. While no decisions have been taken about the future, there is a perception that the consultation would have no influence on an outcome which had already been decided. This is totally wrong but the perception is damaging.
We propose to set up an Advisory Group containing a range of interested parties. This Group would explore alternative options for regenerating and managing the estate on a sustainable basis. These options will then become the basis for the consultation exercise in which we hope as many people as possible will get involved.” Ends…
Warrington Borough Council has announced that work to resurface Cherry lane between The Avenue and the A50/M6 roundabout junction will take place starting on July 19th and last about 6 weeks. This will involve the closure of Cherry Lane, except for residents, and diversions.
The short term inconvenience will be balanced by the long overdue improvement in the road surface. The national speed limit review is likely to drop speeds on Cherry Lane from the national speed limit to a maximum of 50 mph. I will again be taking up the proposal for a weight limit which would restrict HGV access, as opposed to the current advisory signs.
Previously Macclesfield District Council objected to such a limit because traffic would be diverted onto the A50, a road much better suited to heavy lorries than Cherry Lane. I hope that Cheshire East will take a more sensible view which will give us some legal muscle to prevent the problems with HGVs at the village end of Cherry Lane.
At tonight’s Warrington Borough Council Executive Board the following two recommendations were unanimously approved:
“To agree the draft master plan and the details of the potential partners’ proposals as a basis for public consultation with the results of this consultation to be reported back to the Executive Board for consideration”
“To approve the continued discussion with the potential partners to ensure the Council obtains its desired regeneration outcomes within the regeneration framework”
These were amended from the full report
Below is the email I have sent to everyone who contacted me about Walton Hall:
I am writing to you because you all wrote to me expressing concern about Walton Hall and Gardens. I apologise for not getting back to you earlier but commercially confidential negotiations were going on and the Council was not in a position to correct many of the more alarming rumours that were circulating about the future of the Walton Estate.
These negotiations have concluded and a report will be coming to the June Executive Board. However, on Friday the Leader, Deputy Leader, three other members of the Executive Board and Andy Farrall, The Executive Director for Environment and Regeneration met with three representatives of the bodies campaigning for the retention of public access to the Walton Hall Estate.
The meeting was lengthy and informative and I hope that many of the concerns that have led to the campaign have been allayed. In short the proposals will improve, and increase, access to the Walton Hall Estate for the public. While it is proposed to convert the Hall into a Hotel, with the building restored to its original size and design, only a very small part of the surrounding garden will become private, while the public will get improved access to more areas of the Estate and gardens than has been the case so far.
The restored buildings will provide cafe, restaurant and toilet facilities which everyone visiting the park can use.
For the full statement please see:
Walton Update on Warrington website
The statement includes a link to the Master Plan which shows the areas of the Estate that will remain fully accessible to the public as at present and the small parts of the garden adjacent to the hotel which will be private.
I believe the proposals that will come to Executive Board will satisfy the very many friends of, and visitors to, the the Walton Estate who have been concerned. They offer a way of improving the park and restoring the buildings, which would otherwise be lost.
Please feel free to get in touch if you would like any more details.
With best wishes