Boris’ relaxed attitude to National Security comes in for criticism

Is he becoming more like Trump?

“……It is the Prime Minister’s personal investment of time and authority that lends credibility to the NSC and its cross-government structures. Yet under the new system, the Prime Minister will spend roughly 65% less time in NSC meetings than under the previous practice of weekly meetings when Parliament is in session.

 In our initial assessment, therefore, this is a retrograde step that suggests a more casual approach to national security. However, we encourage the Government to return to a more open dialogue with us, sharing—in confidence as necessary—the information we need (and have previously received) if we are to make a constructive contribution to the reform of the UK’s national security machinery in this Parliament.”

These are the last few sentences from the summary of the House of Lords and Commons “Joint Committee on the national security strategy” published last week.

Don’t let Government muzzle charities – Good Law Project

Last weekend, the then Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden, announced his intention to muzzle the third sector. In his blog about the process for appointing a new Chair of the Charity Commission – the Government’s regulator of charities – he complained about “a worrying trend in some charities that appear to have been hijacked by a vocal minority seeking to burnish their woke credentials”. He said the Chair will be selected based on how they “rebalance” charities away from that agenda. And that Ministers will only appoint someone who does this.

One might assume from this that the previous Chair was a radical, activist earth-mother? Well… not exactly. The previous Chair was the former Tory Leader in the House of Lords. She was appointed contrary to the unanimous wishes of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, which raised understandable concerns about her lack of independence.

But apparently Government wants even more political influence. 

It’s a chilling thought. What would a politically motivated regulator mean for food banks who push back against policies that mean people don’t have enough to eat? What would it mean for a housing charity which challenges legislation that leaves people without a roof over their head?

What about charities that campaign against Government policies that could do untold damage by baking in racial injustice or poverty? Will these fit with the Government’s views? 

Good Law Project is well aware from actual cases that these are not idle speculations. 

Together, through our taxes, we subsidise the activities of charities to the tune of £2bn a year. We give them this relief because they exist for “public benefit”– various types of do-gooding which Parliament wants to encourage in the Charities Act.

These things are not the same as pushing the political agenda of the Government of the day. You don’t get charitable tax relief if your activities are “political” – a term which the Charity Commission defines as including “furthering the interests of a particular political party.” This need for charities to stand outside party politics is also embedded in legislation made by Parliament: for example, the Charity Commission should not be subject to direction by the Secretary of State. 

We don’t think it’s the Charity Commission’s job to muzzle or ‘cancel’ charities that want to tell the truth about Britain’s past. But Ministers want to turn Charity law on its head. Charities that help their political agenda will be left alone and charities that resist it will be punished. 

Our public institutions exist to serve the public good – not the political whims of passing Governments. Anyone accepting an appointment following this flawed process should be very clear – we believe it is unlawful and will ask for it to be quashed.

You can read our letter to Oliver Dowden’s successor, Nadine Dorries, that formally starts the judicial review process here

If you are in a position to do so, you can support the legal challenge here.

Calls for Labour to back reform grow as members back PR in record numbers

With Labour’s conference set to begin next week the debate on electoral reform looks set to be one of the big issues on conference floor this year.

Author: Jon Narcross, 

At least 144 constituency parties have called on Keir Starmer’s Labour to back a switch to proportional representation this year – more than have made a single demand on any other issue in recent conference history.

Nearly half of all constituency Labour Parties – 314 out of 648 have backed motions in support of the change in recent years with at last 144 making the issue their key policy priority for this year’s conference.

At Labour conference 2019, 135 motions were submitted on the Green New Deal policy and 91 were sent on Brexit. In 2018 the Brexit debate attracted 151 motions calling the party to take different positions on the issue.

Campaigners from the ERS backed Labour for a New Democracy coalition welcomed the “unprecedented demand” for electoral reform and urged the party to back members calls for a fairer voting system.

We’ve long known that support across the Labour membership was growing. Recent polling from YouGov found that 83% of members believe the party should support the introduction of a proportional voting system – with just 10% opposed.

Keir Starmer pledged to address the failings of Westminster’s warped voting system during the leadership contest arguing: “We’ve got to address the fact that millions of people vote in safe seats and they feel their voice doesn’t count. That’s got to be addressed by electoral reform. We will never get full participation in our electoral system until we do that at every level.”

The PR debate at this year’s conference is just the chance to do that, backing the overwhelming calls for political reform.

Until we see the end of Westminster’s broken voting system millions of voters will continue to go ignored each election – a far cry from the far fairer results in Scotland, Wales, the London Assembly and modern democracies across the world.

We don’t have to look far to see how FPTP is failing voters. The current government is able to push through dangerous legislation like voter ID and the policing bill on a minority of the public vote, all because of a broken one-party-takes-all voting system.

Labour could learn a lot from New Zealand, Germany, and Norway, where its sister party looks set to lead a progressive coalition into government, where proportional results are the norm and cooperation is valued.

Voters want political equality, and Labour should seize the chance to build a much better democracy. In the face of attacks on democracy and free elections worldwide, this would send a powerful message of hope.

An introduction to brownfield: the land that’s ripe for recycling – CPRE

All you need to know about brownfield sites – Owl

By Patrick Ford

At CPRE you’ll hear us talk about brownfield a lot; but what do we mean when we talk about this – and why do we think this often-neglected land matters so much?

Heard the term brownfield and wondered what it means, and what all the fuss is about? Here’s our potted guide to everything you need to know about brownfield land, and why it can form an essential part of future developments across the country.

What is this brownfield stuff, and why should I care?

Brownfield land is defined, in England at least, as ‘previously developed land that’s no longer being used’. Picture a disused industrial estate or an abandoned excavation site – it’s land that has previously had stuff built on it or that has been altered by human activity (but not including farmland). The term is used slightly differently around the world but has broadly the same meaning wherever you go.

‘It’s land that has previously had stuff built on it or that has been altered by human activity.’

Brownfield matters because it holds potential space for a huge amount of housing. Building on brownfield land directly reduces the amount of countryside that’s lost to development, meaning more green spaces and more space for nature to thrive.

Regenerating and renovating brownfield land can breathe new life into areas most in need. It’s the building equivalent of recycling – it’s better to use land that’s lying idle than to unnecessarily concrete over pristine countryside. Naturally, it’s not quite as cut and dried as this – more on that later – but at CPRE, we’re big fans of the principle of using recycled land, as you can imagine.

‘At CPRE, we’re big fans of the principle of using recycled land.’

Globally speaking, England is a relatively small country and land can be at a premium. We’re also becoming ever-increasingly aware of the indisputable importance of the countryside, not only for our physical and mental wellbeing but for nature, biodiversity and the climate. So, logically, it’s more vital than ever that we use land wisely, prioritising brownfield and protecting greenfield.

Is brownfield actually brown? And what’s greenfield, you ask?

Okay, maybe you didn’t ask. In contrast to brownfield land being essentially defined as ‘previously developed land’, it follows that greenfield land is defined as ‘land that’s not yet been built on’ – the idea being that a pristine, untouched field will be a vibrant green whilst land that’s been developed on may look a bit brown.

Of course, designating land into one of two categories – greenfield or brownfield – is arguably a touch simplistic, and, naturally, not all brownfield sites are suitable for being built on.

‘Despite not always being the most visually appealing, lots of brownfield sites harbour ecologically important habitats.’

This nomenclature also arguably does a bit of a disservice to brownfield, as by no means is all of it brown and run-down. Despite not always being the most visually appealing, lots of brownfield sites harbour ecologically important habitats, such as scrubby grassland, patchy pockets of water, and thistly weeds.

In fact, some sites are massively high in biodiversity, providing different ecological niches in which species, particularly invertebrates like bees, can thrive.

A slow worm, a legless lizard which looks like a brown snake, slithering out from brickwork

A slow worm, a legless lizard, emerging from a brick on a brownfield site | Tim Hunt / Alamy

For instance, Tata Steel in Scunthorpe provides habitats for species such as the hill cuckoo bee and snowberry. Sites like this must be protected for biodiversity to flourish.

‘Sites like this must be protected for biodiversity to flourish.’

Setting aside the areas with special ecological conditions, it’s generally better to build on brownfield land ahead of greenfield land (‘brownfield-first’). There can be big benefits to developing on brownfield land, such as the fact they’re often close to where people already live and work, as well as the additional benefits that we see from leaving greenfield sites alone to do what they do best.

As with everything, balance is key, and decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis.

Brownfield’s potential: land waiting to be unlocked

Brownfield land could provide an enormous number of homes – including the truly affordable homes that are so desperately needed – whilst allowing the countryside and nature to thrive. In fact, CPRE’s research shows that there’s capacity for well over a million homes on brownfield land – and that’s a conservative estimate.

‘CPRE’s research shows that there’s capacity for well over a million homes on brownfield land.’

It’s important not to conflate the argument of needing more housing with the argument for brownfield versus greenfield. At CPRE, we’re leading the call for an increase in affordable housing to allow for thriving rural communities.

Homes that people can actually afford and that work for people, nature, and the planet, are vital. So, whilst we have swathes of brownfield land available, why not use it?

Brownfield registers: on the hunt for hidden land

Brownfield registers were first introduced in 2017, following the findings of CPRE’s successful ‘Waste of Space’ campaign.

These registers require local planning authorities to provide a consistent, updated list of sites that they think are appropriate for development. The registers act as a ledger of land identified as being suitable for new housing once their environmental, amenity and heritage value have been factored in.

The introduction of these registers has given much more clarity and insight into the current state of the brownfield land that’s out there. Now we know the (huge) amount of land already available for building homes, a strong brownfield-first approach becomes even more sensible.

Why isn’t brownfield being used for new homes?

So… if brownfield land can provide space for over a million homes, why isn’t it being used? Well, this is where things get a bit more complicated.

Firstly, the identification and subsequent analysis of brownfield sites can be costly and complicated – although the registers help with this.

‘There really needs to be better funding from the government to make building on brownfield sites viable for developers.’

Secondly, there really needs to be better funding from the government to make building on brownfield sites viable for developers. There can be some extra costs attached to building on brownfield – such as cleaning the site, if it used to be a factory, for example – and at the moment it’s too tempting for housebuilders to avoid these sites and go for ‘easier’ greenfield options – or to try and pull back costs by only building more expensive houses on brownfield.

And we need to see more homes that are truly affordable. We mustn’t confuse regeneration with gentrification. Instead, we’ve seen cases of these high-priced, grander homes being built which, whilst some have their place, don’t do much to tackle the pressing shortage of affordable housing for people on low and medium incomes (that is, most people!).

A bright sunny courtyard with benches and grass with pale stone houses around

A view of the green courtyard of Goldsmith Street, Norwich, an environmentally-sensitive housing development built on a brownfield site | Jim Stephenson_VIEW / Alamy

At CPRE we strongly believe in the brownfield-first approach. For instance, Goldsmith Street in Norwich is a perfect example of how once-dormant brownfield land can be repurposed into providing high-quality housing, whilst still being respectful to nature and climate.

So what’s CPRE doing to promote the use of brownfield?

We’ve got a long history of campaigning on brownfield, and that’s not changing any time soon. We’re keeping our eagle eyes out to monitor the amount of brownfield land available in England – no mean feat. We’ll run a citizen science project with communities to identify brownfield land, too, which will help to increase the capacity in England. And we’ll keep pushing for a brownfield-first policy to be widely adopted.

‘Once home to much of the beating heart of the industrial revolution, the Midlands and the north have large amounts of industrial brownfield land.’

There are some areas where this makes extra sense. Once home to much of the beating heart of the industrial revolution, the Midlands and the north have large amounts of industrial brownfield land. We’re calling for changes to the funding for investment in housing to help regenerate these areas. Harnessing the brownfield here would be a huge bonus for areas of particular need of an extra boost.

Want to be a part of our work promoting recycling land? You can support us with a donation to keep us calling on the government to make brownfield-first the default, or become a member and connect with your local CPRE group to hear more about brownfield sites in your area.