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Archives for November 2010

MP appointed to assist 'boomer' minister

John Hess | 11:31 UK time, Friday, 26 November 2010

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Sound wave c/o BBC Science Photo Library

Any perceived swagger about Anna Soubry at the moment can be forgiven. The Broxtowe Conservative MP has been given the nod to a possible ministerial role in any future Cameron government.

She joins a growing sisterhood among East Midland Tory female MPs. (See my past blog about Nicky Morgan and Jessica Lee).

She's been appointed by Number Ten as a parliamentary private secretary. Anna will be assisting the Health Minister and Essex Tory Simon Burns. It's a rather interesting combination.

Anna Soubry

The former TV presenter and defence barrister was described in one newspaper as having one of the huskiest voices on the backbenches; whereas, her new boss has a reputation for being a boomer i.e. he shouts a lot!

"I'm really delighted. But I may have to keep an eye on Simon," she told me. This may have less to do with his health brief, but rather his recent run-ins with the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow.

In the summer, Mr Burns clashed in the Commons chamber with Mr Bercow. The minister was heard to mutter that the Speaker was a "sanctimonious, stupid dwarf" and was forced to apologise.

Both Anna and Simon Burns have things in common. They're former journalists and both were born in Robin Hood country; Anna in Worksop and Simon in Nottingham.

And there's a third matter they also share in common. Anna is not slow in coming forward and can hit those high decibels when required. Does any know if the Speaker's Chair is sound proofed?!

Localism Bill is NIMBYS' charter, says Labour MP

John Hess | 22:47 UK time, Sunday, 21 November 2010

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New housing in the Midlands

So what's the height of political abuse these days? Derby North Labour MP Chris Williamson needs little prompting.

If he calls you a "NIMBY", then on the scale of political invective, you're are pretty low.

The former leader of Derby City Council has got it in for council leaders rushing to embrace the Coalition's "Localism Bill". It's due to be published shortly and will formally abolish the last Labour government's controversial targets to build new homes; 20,000 each year in the East Midlands alone.

The other week, the Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles lost a High Court hearing. It ruled that his announcement last summer to scrap Labour's housing targets was unlawful. So until the Localism Bill becomes law, those targets remain in force.

That's left some council leaders uncertain.

"In simple terms, we are in limbo land," Councillor Richard Blunt, the Conservative leader of North West Leicestershire told me.

"Eric Pickles is telling us the Localism Bill will change the world we live in... which I hope it will... but the decision means we are in the old world of Labour targets. The reality is that house builders and councils are caught in the middle."

That's why Chris Williamson, now one of Labour's local government shadow ministers, launched his broadside against NIMBYS.

"The Localism Bill is simply a NIBYS' charter," he says.

"It will allow Tory politicians to ditch plans for the new homes we actually need. The Labour government didn't always meet our housing targets, but we had a system which attempted to address the future demand for housing. At least is was open, fair and protected the green belt," he says.

It could be another year before the Localism Bill becomes law.

That worries Neil Griffiths, of the National Housing Federation in the East Midlands. His organisation represents housing associations.

"There'll be more uncertainty for builders and housing associations wanting to build new homes. They won't know where to build, what to build and when to build it," he told me.

"It's not ideal at all because it's getting more and more difficult for people to buy their own homes. With the recession, house prices aren't going up but they are still very unaffordable and people are struggling to get mortgages as well."

Ken Clarke's Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire felt the heat of public anger over controversial developments under Labour targets. It was over plans for 1,200 new homes near a local beauty spot - Sharphill Woods at West Bridgford. Despite the protests by residents, the developers secured the go-ahead on appeal.

Rushcliffe's Conservative leader Neil Clarke says Labour's targets foisted new houses in areas where they weren't wanted. He rejects the charge of being a " NIMBY".

"Eric Pickles has lost a little skirmish in the High Court. The Local Bill will be implemented and that will allow us to make our own local decisions without Labour's top -down targets."

"That's not being a NIMBY.That's representing the concerns of local people."

The East Midlands is the fastest growing region in England these days. As pressure grows for more land for homes, the political language might get very heated... with the air blue with talk of NIMBYISM.

MPs & Peers in good voice to remember the Blitz

John Hess | 10:55 UK time, Sunday, 14 November 2010

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Coventry Cathedral

In the aftermath of the expenses scandal in the last parliament, our MPs are having to sing for their supper. That's no problem for some of them; In fact, it's a joy. They are the members of a little pressure group at Westminster, the Parliament Choir.


They want more politicians to embrace the sheer pleasure of community singing... and every new parliament offers the choir a chance to recruit fresh talent. The Parliament Choir has been going for 10 years now.

One of its more prestigious bookings was in Coventry Cathedral this weekend. To mark the 70th anniversary of the Coventry Blitz, the parliamentary singers joined three other choirs and the Southbank Sinfonia in a particularly memorable performance.

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten's War Requiem had its world premiere in Coventry more than 50 years ago to mark the completion of its new cathedral. It was sung again to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of the city and the destruction of its original medieval cathedral.

Britten's music with words from the poetry of Wilfred Owen is totalling compelling and moving. Among more familiar faces in the Parliament Choir were Bernard Jenkin, an Essex MP and one of the Sergeant at Arms' officials, Milburn Talbot.

East Midland MPs are missing a trick here.

The Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman is also singer, an alto, but she sat out the Coventry performance. She was excused. As a local MP, she was accompanying the German Ambassador and various VIPs.

The Parliament Choir were in good voice. They are singing Brittten's Requiem in Westminster Cathderal on Wednesday (November 17). With so many MPs and Peers
signing their hearts out, they may attract the attention of Simon Cowell one day... unless the whips office get the hear of it first!

Will student tuition fee protests bridge the generation gap?

John Hess | 12:03 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010

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Student protest

Student protest at London's Millbank.

You couldn't find a bigger contrast. Walking into Westminster today, I noticed the debris of yesterday's student protest - rain-soaked leaflets and placards - had still to be cleared up.

Today, the streets around Parliament belonged to another and older generation. They were gathering for the two-minute silence outside Westminster Abbey, some of them hoping for a glimpse of the Duke of Edinburgh.

They were remembering friends and old comrades who died in past wars. After the two-minute silence was replaced by the roar of the London traffic, I asked an elderly couple their thoughts on the students' protest and the subsequent violence.

They were appalled at the images on the TV news of the disturbances, but surprisingly supportive of the students and their case against increased tuition fees.

That'll delight one student I met during the students' demonstration. She's Lucy Padolsey, a third year politics student from Loughborough University. She was one of thousands of students who would have marched passed Westminster Abbey during their lobby of Parliament.

She's orginally from Surrey and will be the first to admit, she's from a typically middle-class background.

"Students from middle-income families will be hit the hardest by these fees," she told me.

Under the Coalition government's plans, tuition fees will double to £6,000 a year - in some case up to £9,000 - from 2012.

Said Lucy: "I will have left university by the time the increased fees are introduced. But I've got a brother and sister who are coming through school and will want to go to university. It's going to be such a major issue for them and whether they can afford it."

"I think it's appalling. If I had been faced with such high tuition fees, I wouldn't have gone to university."

Coalition ministers insist there'll no upfront fees and no repayments until the graduate earns £21,000 a year. Students from poorer income families will get extra financial help. It's more progressive, say ministers.

I caught up with Lucy's MP. She's Nicky Morgan, a Conservative, whose constituency includes the Loughborough University campus. She's also a parliamentary aide to the Universities minister David Willetts.

"It was a great shame for the majority of students who wanted to demonstrate peacefully. I was shocked that there was a core who wanted to cause trouble," she told me.

"I accept there is a concern among middle income earners about the increases, but the government has some difficulty financial decisions to take. University funding is unsustainable and it has to change."

Outside Westminster Abbey, my elderly couple by the field of little wooden crosses never went to university. They told me it was never an option for them, but their grandchildren will.

Maybe that's why the tuition fees controversy links two very different generations, and why government ministers are right to be anxious about how this issue will impact in the polls.

Leicester to jump the gun for city Mayor contest?

John Hess | 12:55 UK time, Friday, 5 November 2010

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Mayoral chain

Leicester is the biggest city in the East Midlands. It's also one of the most culturally diverse in Britain. And it celebrates that with banners across the city.

"One Passion. One Leicester," says the slogan. So why not ONE person to run the city, a London-style elected Mayor, for example?

The idea attracts Ross Willmott, a former leader of the Labour-run City Council. He talks up the advantages of having an elected Mayor.

"Local people will see that one person is in charge and has the authority.They can be there to get some credit but clearly can be held responsible. And that's clearly lacking in the current system."

The current system he talks about is based on the majority party choosing the city's council leader.

Leicester has now been chosen by the government as one of 12 English cities to be run by a Mayor... if that's what voters want.

We'll get the details of the proposed powers of city Mayors and the referendum timetable in the government's Localism Bill, to be published later this month.

But Leicester's Labour Party has decided to jump the gun. Using existing local government legislation, it wants to press ahead with a London-style Mayor without the need for a referendum.

Leicester's Conservative leader Councillor Ross Grant isn't totally signed up to the Coalition's enthusiasm for city mayors... and makes this accusation against Labour in Leicester.

"I think it's a disgrace actually. If we're going to change the model of government for Leicester, then the people of Leicester should decide whether we have a mayor or not. Backroom deals currently going on among the Labour group about moving to a Mayoral system are outrageous."

It's 10 years since Tony Blair and New Labour first paved the way for elected Mayors for our big cities. But outside of London, it was down to towns like Mansfield in Nottinghamshire that actually embraced the idea.

Tony Egginton stood as an independent and won not once but twice. He saw off Labour's election machine; even a challenge from the town's Labour MP Alan Meale.

In Leicester, one of its Labour MPs is undaunted by the political risk of entering a Mayoral race. He's Sir Peter Soulsby, the MP for Leicester South and another former leader of the city council.

"If I am fortunate enough to be selected by my own party and backed by the voters of Leicester, I have no doubt that having an elected Mayor would be so much better for the city," he says.

But the prospect of an all-powerful elected Mayor alarms some Labour insiders.

"I'm worried really because I think it's a step back. I don't think it's democratic. The current set-up works very effectively," believes Councillor Paul Westley, a member of Labour's Cabinet in Leicester.

He'll be voting against moves for an elected Mayor when the issue is decided by the Labour group. It has the final say.

If Labour's ambitions in Leicester for a Mayor get the green light, voters will go to the polls next May to elect their councillors... and the person to run their city for the next five years.

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