Matt Hancock’s NHS plan must be opposed

Letters www.theguardian.com

I am worried that the Guardian has not understood the significant danger that the government’s white paper for NHS reform poses to the health service (Matt Hancock lays out plan for reorganisation of NHS in England; NHS and social care blueprint; Editorial, 11 February). The proposals will facilitate – by the removal of “irksome bureaucracy” – the direct awards of contracts without tender. Since the market model with purchaser-provider split is to remain, what is effectively going to happen is an unregulated market, with a reduction in the transparency and accountability of the contracting process.

In addition, there are plans for providers, potentially private for-profit, to be on the boards of the new integrated care systems (ICS) and to play a significant role in needs assessments, despite their obvious conflicts of interest. The role of councils is diminished, and there is still no duty on the government to provide key services throughout England and to everybody. Each of the 42 ICS areas can decide their own priorities, heavily guided by providers and distanced from local community input.

It is vital that opposition to this white paper builds rapidly, as negative impacts are concealed by the easily approved concept of “integrated care”. The Guardian needs to help, and the opposition needs to do more than complain about the timing.

Dr Pamela Martin

London

• Jeremy Hunt is right that “NHS restructuring rarely works out as intended” (An NHS shakeup could be revolutionary – but only if staffing levels are boosted too, 16 February), but wrong if he sees integration with the NHS as a solution to the social care crisis – a crisis created by his party.

The English local authority in which I worked in the 1990s had more than 30 care homes for elderly people, a thousand home carers and a wide network of day centres. Staff had good terms and conditions, were well-trained and morale was high. There was fair means-testing for clients, and nearly all assessed need was met. We were ready to meet the challenge of an increasing elderly population. Integration with the health service was neither wanted nor needed. We talked to colleagues from housing authorities and the voluntary sector – informally on an almost daily basis, as well as in monthly joint planning meetings. It was a system that worked well, until the Conservative party dogma of market forces, privatisation and financial cuts destroyed it.

For social care to be incorporated into the NHS would create an overcentralised, bureaucratic service, subject to constant reorganisation and the vagaries of changing ministers. Social care should once again become a service, rather than a business, managed by local councils and assured of the necessary funds.

Mel Wood

Dublin

• Your editorial suggests that the largest example of the fragmentation of the health and care system is “the relative neglect of care homes in relation to hospitals”. It isn’t. It is the fact that we have an almost wholly socialised state healthcare system operating alongside almost wholly privatised social care provision. Until social care is removed from the market, any notion of integrating it with the NHS is utterly meaningless.

David Hinchliffe

Former Labour MP and chair of the Commons health committee

• Jeremy Hunt tells us that our NHS is facing a big challenge from workforce shortages. Could this have anything to do with frozen NHS wages, the removal of nurse training bursaries and the imposition of inferior contracts on junior doctors – all under his ministerial watch?

Steve Smart

Malvern, Worcestershire

Cut VAT for green home improvements and repairs, MPs urge

Ministers should cut VAT on repairs for electrical goods and green home improvements, to help people reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their everyday lives, an influential committee of MPs has urged.

Fiona Harvey www.theguardian.com

Funding for green home grants to install insulation and low-carbon heating, should also be restored to kickstart a “green recovery” in the UK, said the environmental audit committee in a report on how to “grow back better” from the coronavirus crisis.

Philip Dunne, chairman of the committee, said ministers must do more to generate a green recovery. “The jury is still out [on whether the government will manage a green recovery],” he said. “Last spring was about keeping the UK economy in aspic, with emergency measures and funding. Now, there is more time to put together measures for the next phase. We need to see that aligned with the objectives of net zero emissions, and that remains to be seen.”

He called for the chancellor to lay out clear plans in next month’s budget to spur low-carbon growth in the runup to the vital UN climate talks, called Cop26, in Glasgow this November. “The eyes of the world will be on us for Cop26,” he said. “Rather than just preaching to other countries, we need to be seen to be taking action.”

In its report “Growing back better: putting nature and net zero at the heart of the economic recovery”, published on Wednesday, the committee said: “We recommend that the chancellor of the exchequer bring forward proposals to reduce the rate of VAT on repair services and products containing reused or recycled materials to increase the circularity and resilience of the UK economy. The government should also reduce VAT on green home upgrades to incentivise more people to install low-carbon technologies and improve the energy efficiency of new homes.”

Cuts to VAT on green goods have long been advocated by green campaigners, but VAT exemptions were limited under EU rules. Since Brexit, the UK can set all of its own VAT rates, but the government has made little indication it intends to use this to meet its net zero emissions target.

In October 2019, the government increased the VAT rate from 5% to 20% on installations of a range of low-carbon goods including many solar panel installations, especially those with batteries, as well as domestic wind turbine systems, heat pumps and insulation materials. The higher rate is charged where the cost of materials exceeds 60% of the installation cost, with exemptions for some cases of social need, such as care homes.

The committee’s recommendation is meant to correct the disparity between the zero-VAT rate on new construction and the full rate charged on retrofitting a property. However, the committee stopped short of recommending an end to VAT on all green goods, from solar panels to bicycles, called for by some campaigners.

Chris Hewett, chief executive of Solar Energy UK, a trade association, said: “Scrapping VAT for low-carbon technologies such as solar and batteries is a simple and effective way to make green home improvements more affordable for everyone. It would boost uptake, create new jobs and drive growth in Britain’s retrofitting market, which is a vital pillar in the UK’s efforts to decarbonise housing stock.”

Jenny Holland of the UK Green Building Council, said: “For too long, our VAT system has incentivised new-build over retrofit and refurbishment. Rewarding the use of recycled and reused materials will also tackle the problem that producing virgin materials is currently often cheaper than recycling or reusing products.”

Dunne said an overhaul of the green homes grant – a subsidy for retrofitting houses with insulation and low-carbon heating – was also a matter of urgency. The green homes grant was announced last summer, but the scheme has been dogged by problems, as the Guardian has revealed, and only about 5% of the £1.5bn allocated for the period to March 2021 has yet been spent. Last week, the government indicated that the unspent money would not be rolled over into the extension of the scheme for this year, prompting outrage.

Dunne called for the unspent cash to be made available in this parliament, so that at least 600,000 homes could be retrofitted to a low-carbon standard under the scheme.

Nina Skorupska, chief executive of the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology, said: “The sudden removal of funding for the green homes grant would not only severely impact consumers and businesses in the short term, but would also damage confidence in future announcements. The problem with the scheme hasn’t been a lack of demand, but a combination of Covid and an administrative system which has been beset with problems.”

The committee also called for the government to begin work on a carbon tax, which would create incentives for people to choose low-carbon alternatives, and carbon border adjustments – tariffs or other barriers or penalties to the import of goods that have been manufactured with high carbon emissions overseas. The MPs also said that the Bank of England should require companies seeking bailouts to disclose their climate-related risk, and called for the Bank to align its corporate investments with the Paris agreement, but stopped short of calling for stringent green conditions to be attached to loans.

Caroline Lucas, the Green party MP, said: “The key message in this report is that investment in a green economy must be front-loaded. The government can’t keep putting off the critical policies and actions in the Micawber-like hope that something will just turn up. We need to see the investment now, and it must be in line with the temperature goals of the Paris agreement, and protect and restore nature. The forthcoming budget will be a key test of whether ministers intend to close the delivery gap between their fine words and real action.”

A government spokesperson said: “We’re committed to building back better and greener from the pandemic. We continue to bring forward bold measures to cut emissions, with plans to invest £9bn in improving the energy efficiency of buildings forming part of our wider commitment to end our contribution to climate change by 2050.”

The government’s relentless push for development is destroying rural England

“Even after a backbench rebellion and a rethink of the algorithm used to calculate housing targets, the housing secretary still wants to impose a controversial American system of zoning along with a presumption in favour of development.” 

This needs to be read in conjunction with the answers you make to the EDDC Local Plan consultation closing date 15 March. – Owl

Ros Coward

It would be easy to imagine the English countryside is a lovely place. Everyone has been talking about discovering the wonder of nature during lockdown and there are constant reports of droves moving out of towns and cities for more pastoral locations.

In many ways, however, the opposite is true. Look around and you’ll find local actions groups protesting, petitioning and even praying to save precious stretches of countryside from destruction. If you are one of the escapees from town, I’d check your new view isn’t earmarked for development.

We have already seen an orgy of eco-vandalism as a result of the HS2 rail project: heartbreaking images of wrecked nature reserves, magnificent old trees felled and ancient hedges bulldozed. But HS2 is only one in a vast catalogue of destructive developments. In Greater Manchester, for example, Friends of Carrington Moss are fighting a massive housing project planned on green belt that is also precious peatland. Meanwhile there are countrywide protests against the government’s road building spree. The Wensum link in Norfolk; the Stonehenge tunnel; the Lower Thames Crossing; and major roads in sensitive open countryside in Lancashire, to name but a few.

Kent is particularly badly hit – not just by Brexit lorry parks. Housing developments are everywhere, Graveney marshes have been designated for industrialisation, and now another ecologically important marsh at Swanscombe is targeted for a vast theme park billed as “the UK’s answer to Disney World”.

Protest groups fighting these developments are usually made up of inexperienced, previously apolitical, locals. Out of necessity they fight separate local campaigns. But the current level of destructive development is a nationwide problem requiring a nationwide response. Taken together, these developments are changing the character of the countryside towards urban sprawl. They are inflicting irreversible damage on wildlife.

What’s enabling this destruction is the national planning system, which ought to protect local communities, but now disempowers them. Planning has been hijacked by two doctrines. One is that pouring concrete will get us out of recession, the other that there’s a general housing crisis rather than an affordability crisis. Local challenges to these views are steamrollered as merely nimbyism.

Since the coalition government introduced the national planning policy framework in 2012 the planning system has increasingly favoured developers. That legislation insisted councils set housing targets but they lacked land to meet those numbers. Local authorities were forced to redefine green-belt areas as “available for development”. It was the beginning of a land grab. The Campaign to Protect Rural England states (in 2018’s The State of the Green Belt report) that since 2013 “huge amounts of greenfield land designated as green belt has been released or included in councils’ local plans”.

Robert Jenrick’s so-called planning “reforms” now go a lot further. Even after a backbench rebellion and a rethink of the algorithm used to calculate housing targets, the housing secretary still wants to impose a controversial American system of zoning along with a presumption in favour of development. The proposals are scarily anti-democratic. Housing targets will be imposed by central government and local input sidelined. Yet the housing developments championed by Jenrick do nothing to increase the number of affordable homes. Developers don’t want to build cheap starter homes. They prefer five-bedroom, low-density housing – hence the hunger for greenfield sites, especially those near beauty spots, which are massively more profitable. Meanwhile developers shun available brownfield sites that CPRE estimates could support building 1m new homes.

The National Infrastructure Commission’s assault on local democracy is even more blatant. The NIC is truly a wrecking ball to the countryside. Alongside HS2, think Minsmere, the RSPB’s jewel in the crown, threatened by Sizewell C, or the proposal for a million houses on “the Oxford-Cambridge arc”, most of which would be on green belt. And let’s not forget Guston lorry park, dumped on the unsuspecting residents of Dover. Local opposition is virtually irrelevant in NIC hearings. I know this first-hand having attended one such inquiry where local experts were openly mocked by some of the developers present. It felt like a sham of democracy.

Boris Johnson sometimes claims to care about biodiversity and speaks of supporting nature’s recovery and protecting green belts, digressing once about families picnicking in “wild belts” amid flourishing flora and fauna. But he also loves putting on hard hats for photo ops, promoting “build, build, build” and saying he won’t let “newt counters” get in his way. If “green” Johnson was the real thing, he would insist Robert Jenrick consider planning alongside environmental ambitions. And he would push through the much delayed environment bill, which could provide a framework for joined-up thinking on the environment. Instead he presides over a tsunami of destruction.

There are glimmers of a national fightback. The nationally coordinated Transport Action Network has just challenged the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, for rejecting environmental impact assessment in his road building policy. And CPRE is coordinating other green groups to put forward a democratic, ecologically aware vision of what planning could do in a post-pandemic world. The local groups waging their lonely battles need this national cooperation if the fight against the Tories’ eco-vandalism is to succeed – we need it before it is too late.

  • Ros Coward is professor emerita of journalism at Roehampton University

Community Infrastructure Levy: Coronavirus. Simon Jupp asks a question.

Photo of Simon JuppSimon Jupp Conservative, East Devon

To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, what plans he has to amend the Planning Act 2008 to allow Town and Parish Councils to support emergency covid-19 community groups with funding that has been received through the Community Infrastructure Levy.

Photo of Eddie HughesEddie Hughes Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

The Neighbourhood Share of the Community Infrastructure Levy ensures that up to 25 per cent of levy revenue is passed to a parish council in the area that development occurred, and provides considerable flexibility over the use of the funding. Parish councils can use the levy to fund anything concerned with addressing the potential demands that development places on their area. This includes provision which may respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as medical infrastructure.

More generally, the Secretary of State has written to principal authorities asking them to work closely with parish councils in order to ensure that the funding support provided to principal authorities has the maximum effect where it is most needed. We continue to encourage parish and town councils to work with their principal authority where they are delivering vital services that have been affected by COVID-19.

Does this answer the above question?

Conviction for forgery of signatures on Conservative nomination papers

www.markpack.org.uk 

The BBC reports:

A woman has been given a suspended sentence for forging a council candidate’s election nomination papers.

Amanda Wycherley added eight people’s names without their knowledge and forged their signatures so Conservative Jonathan Liam Jones could stand in a Neath Port Talbot council by-election…

Mr Jones finished fourth in the May 2019 Resolven by-election, securing 34 votes in a ballot won by independent candidate Dean Lewis.

Wycherley later pleaded guilty to offences under Section 65 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 and was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, suspended for 12 months.

She was also ordered to undertake rehabilitation, 180 hours of unpaid community work as well as paying £2,366.40 in costs.

Nearly two years from the election the court case, note. Another example of how slowly electoral justice often moves.