The Week, 13 May 2022

13 May 2022
By Sebastian Rees

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After a (relatively!) quiet period, Westminster was back in full swing this week. Tuesday saw the official State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s (Prince’s?) speech setting out the Government’s legislative agenda for this session. A lot of ink has been spilt on this already, but here’s a few quick takes from Reform...

🔥 The top line

Each year when the Queen’s speech comes around, industry and professional bodies, charities, media outlets, and trade unions clamour to ask why their special interest has not made it into the legislative agenda. But the point of setting out a legislative plan for the coming parliament is not to fix every problem of the moment. Legislation is often a very crude mechanism to solve policy challenges and governments can and should use other means to do so. So by all means, criticise the Government’s failure to go further in addressing the cost of living crisis or get on top of spiralling NHS waitlists, but (the top line) not tabling legislation is not the same as not acting.

👍 Good for

It’s great to see the Government legislating to protect renters and social housing tenants. The poor state of some social housing and more than a fifth of private rental accommodation is a scandal, contributing to ill health, economic precarity and low wellbeing. Strengthening the Regulator of Social Housing and providing stronger powers to issue fines, intervene in mismanagement and complete emergency repairs are all welcome starts. Legislating to abolish ‘no fault’ evictions and applying the legally binding Decent Homes Standard in the Private Rented Sector should also drive up quality and provide much needed security for renters.

It didn’t get as much pick up as it should but we’re also really pleased to see tabled reforms to the Mental Health Act (1983). The Act is the main piece of legislation which covers the assessment, treatment and rights of people with mental health disorders. Particularly controversial are those clauses which allow people experiencing mental distress to be detained against their will (so called ‘sectioning’).

Recent years have seen big increases in sectioning and there are particular concerns about ethnic disparities in the use of detention — Black British people are four times more likely to be sectioned than their White counterparts. Amendments would see criteria for detention tightened and give patients universal access to independent mental health advocates. These sensible reforms would shift the needle towards a system that increases choice and reduces compulsion.

👎 Bad for

It’s extremely disappointing that the Government has officially shelved plans to bring forward an Employment Bill. The bill, which is being delayed for a second year would have established a single enforcement body for employment rights to ensure worker protection did not fall between the gaps of different industry regulators, introduced a right for workers to request more predictable contracts, and extended redundancy protections to prevent pregnancy and maternity discrimination. Those reforms would have made a real difference to those on low pay and in insecure work. At Reform, we’ve long argued that building an inclusive economy cannot rely on legislation alone, but it’s frustrating to see sensible changes kicked into the long grass again.

⚖️ Jury’s out

The jury is out on the centrepiece of the Government’s legislative agenda — its Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. There’s some good stuff in here — putting the 12 levelling up missions into law and requiring an annual report on delivery provides much needed accountability for the Government’s flagship priority. But providing information to hold government to account is not the same as setting out a plan to deliver on big ambitions — we weren’t entirely sold on the Government’s Levelling Up White Paper in February, and not much has happened since to change our minds.

The announcement of a new Infrastructure Levy to replace Section 106 of the Planning Act also gets a big tick. As we’ve written about before, the current Section 106 system is administratively complex and often fails to achieve its purpose: to force developers to build quality community infrastructure in a timely manner. Introducing a nationally-set, fixed levy on development will simplify the system and encourage much needed development.

However, we’re not as convinced by the Government’s proposal to introduce ‘street votes’ as a part of its strategy to ease the housing crisis. Street votes allow residents to get together to write a plan containing a range of rules around local development. If the plan can secure overwhelming majority support among street residents, it becomes binding (for a good explanation see this piece by Tom Tugendhat MP).

The hope here is that when brought into the planning process more directly, residents may decide to do things like redevelop disused spaces or build additional stories onto houses to let out. We hope this one pays off, but it’s not clear that there are enough in-built incentives to encourage development. It seems more likely that residents vote to avoid the disruptive changes brought by development, or at best choose to set permissions that add value to their existing property rather than increasing the density of their streets. One to watch...

Here’s what we’d recommend reading this weekend...

First up is this data driven Bloomberg piece assessing how the levelling up agenda is going throughout the UK. The authors track progress across the 12 metrics set out in the Levelling Up White Paper across all 650 parliamentary constituencies and find that on 9 out of 12 metrics, the performance of most constituencies relative to London and the South East is now worse or unchanged compared to 2019. London continues to pull ahead of the rest of the country on these key indicators.

Closing the productivity and wealth gap between London and the rest of the country is a welcome policy priority. Which brings us to our second read.. the picture is not all rosy in the Capital as this Legatum Institute report makes clear. London continues to face the highest poverty rate of any region in the UK. During the pandemic (in Q2 2020), the poverty rate in London climbed to 29%. It has now likely settled at around 28% but more than 1 million Londoners still live in deep poverty (being more than 50% below the poverty line).