We in Cambridge have until 4pm on the 11th of May to decide who we want to have on our ballot papers for the general election. Then on the 8th of June 2017 (or any time over about two weeks before for those with postal votes) we get to decide who to send to represent us in Parliament.
Now is also the time to think about what we want our next representative in Parliament to do.
Making it so people can find appropriate places to live at an affordable price should be high up on a new Cambridge MP’s list of things to tackle. People spending long hours commuting or living in shared housing far longer than they’d like, or having to spend half, or more, or their income on a place to live, has huge impacts on people’s happiness, ability to perform at work or freedom to start a family.
A lot of attempts to address the problem with the affordability of appropriate housing are tinkering at the edges. I want to see a focus on the fundamentals of the housing market – it’s the price of flats and houses as a multiple of average incomes which is the fundamental measure needs to be reduced; that will have knock-on benefits for those who rent. We need to focus on reducing the price of houses and flats as a multiple of average income. We need to put the conditions in place so developers build more houses, increasing the supply of housing for those working in Cambridge, by expanding the area within which it is pleasant, affordable and practical to travel to work. Reckless lending needs to be curtailed and regulated – there’s a public interest both in the affordability of house prices and in the stability of our banks.
Shared ownership schemes appear to push prices higher and can be an expensive way to live; savings schemes appear to result in public funds being directed towards those who are already relatively wealthy. These are examples of the tinkering which I think our elected representatives need not to be distracted by.
We should reduce costs for those who want to build new homes, we should stop taxing developers and requiring them to fund things like art and public infrastructure which are often not even on the sites of the new developments themselves; we shouldn’t be putting these costs disproportionately onto those who need somewhere to live; we should all be contributing. I want new developments to be pleasant places with green space and quality architecture and we can insist on that through the planning process rather than taxes on new homes.
The counter-argument to my suggestion is that people will make too much money from new development if it is taxed less. I think my proposals will encourage developers to get building.
We shouldn’t be building new commuter towns and suburbs around Cambridge which are just housing estates; we need to make it attractive and practical to base businesses and other organisations in the new developments too. Benefits of proximity to Cambridge can be achieved without daily commuting by staff. Particularly in the more rural areas, and in the rest of the country, the highest quality internet is vital to both enabling people to fully participate in the modern world and enabling working from home and reducing the need to travel.
Building more council housing, or other forms of social housing, is often presented as a means of addressing our lack of affordable housing. I’m very wary about that; I’m concerned that having more people renting homes from the state will increase the division in our society between those who are wealthy and own property and those who do not. Council housing has its place, and we should give the strongest protections older people and those with illness and disabilities with permanent tenancies; but council should be free to use council housing assets to house people in the way that suits the needs of their population.
Councils should, as they are, be free to act as developers, but we need really intelligent, questioning, councillors who prepared to act with a degree of caution appropriate to dealing with public money if they are to take on huge loans to build homes. Proposals need to be made public, so everyone can scrutinise them and councillors need high quality advice.
Education is vital to prepare people to contribute to our society; it’s also vital to have an educated population so our country and economy can thrive in the future. Health education in particular has the potential to be a great leveller and equaliser – education is much broader than the academic.
I want to see public resources focused on helping people start, or re-start their lives, so free university education for those in a position to benefit from it is something I strongly support.
What makes no sense though is what we’ve been doing over recent years – increasing the fraction of people going to university without improving the performance of our schools.
Access to education alone isn’t sufficient to provide access to professions; we still have a country where far too much depends on who you know.
One thing I would specifically like to see is see safeguards for whistleblowing students and time-limits and better oversight of disciplinary proceedings so speaking out about corrupt and dangerous practices ceases to become a bar to entering professions. We have protections against unfair dismissal of those in work; but lack analogous protections for those in training. It doesn’t help our society if those in positions of influence and power are those who keep their heads down and nod along with the status-quo; we need people who are willing to challenge, question and improve.
Transparency, enabling many people to see what’s happening, spot problems and suggest solutions is the tool I’d use to drive improvements across our public sector, from schools, to courts and the health service.
It is currently far too hard to follow what’s going on in our courts, with full court lists not being openly published online; and there are far too many vital areas of public life still operating in the shadows. I think it’s particular important that we all see what is being done on our behalf in the justice system, where people’s freedom is curtailed. Transparency in the courts also enables more informed scrutiny and engagement with policing.
School inspections should be carried out with no notice and inspectors should aim to see business as usual – as they do in other sectors – education is an anomaly here.
I’d like to see an MP for Cambridge seeking to empower our local councillors and revitalise our local democracy. Our country is far too centralised with local councillors having hardly any influence over strategic decisions taken by our local hospitals, clinical commissioning group, mental health care trust, ambulance trust and other bodies. In Cambridge despite our healthy local democracy, with contested council seats, our councillors aren’t even trusted to make changes to paths or play areas on the commons without the permission of the secretary of state, and planning decisions taken by local councillors are routinely appealed to central government.
We need to simplify our local government in Cambridge. Dealing with the City Council, City Deal, County Council, parish councils in the surrounding areas, and now the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority as well as the Police and Crime Commissioner and Fire Authority is too complex and gives too much scope for bodies to either pass the blame for things to each other, or for failures in co-ordination; the latter being most clearly seen when Cambridge City Council planners lack appropriate input from those with responsibility for roads and transport from the City Deal, County Council and soon the Combined Authority.
I want to see empowered local councillors and one council for Greater Cambridge.
I would like to elect an MP who respects, and sees the value of people’s individual freedom and sees the state as the provider of what people can’t, reasonably, provide for themselves, such as health services and roads. I think we need to be really cautious about the growth of the state, and increases in state interference in people’s lives, and elected representatives seeking to take ever increasing slices of people’s income and assets. I want to see tax levels set at such a level that we can have the best public services, the best health services, the best roads, but I don’t want to see an ever expanding public sector. Now, as we are borrowing to support public spending we should be particularly restrained, we should have a moratorium on on non-essential spending on luxuries until we have a balanced budget.
It’s really important that we tax those who can afford to pay; which is why I prefer income tax to council tax for funding the increasing demands on health care. We need to give local councillors the freedom to solve problems locally, such as enabling those providing care, or other services such as meals and cleaning which help people continue to live in their own homes, with significant, but easy to fix challenges such as parking.
Inheritance tax (on large estates, not set at a level which takes a modest family home away from someone who has lived with and cared for their parents) is a fair tax; we we should I think be using the tax system to seek to equalise the opportunities people have in life, particularly through education and healthcare.
A benefits system is a crucial part of a civilised society; I want us to provide a safety net for those who find themselves unable to support themselves for a time, with that help focused on helping people get into a position where they can support themselves; and rather distinctly, for those who can’t support themselves due to long term illness or disability, I think we should be providing not just a safety net, but the resources necessary for a quality, fulfilling, life.
We couldn’t have carried on with the European Union as it was, pushing towards ever greater union between the member states; we’d lost control of too much of our spending and too many of our laws to a distant body it was all but impossible to hold to account. I want a Cambridge MP who will work maintain, and expand beyond Europe, reciprocal freedom of movement to work, travel and study that benefits the city’s universities, public sector and companies. I think it’s important, and perhaps difficult, for a representative of a city like Cambridge, where immigration is entirely positive, to appreciate the experience isn’t the same elsewhere, where for example large numbers of people seeking asylum are placed in an area.
Having a communicative MP who explains what they’re doing, and why, is really important. Many people don’t have time to continuously follow their representative’s activity between elections, so it’s important not to carefully consider how much weight to put on the views of those lobbying between elections. In particular there’s a need to appreciate that consultations are not referenda but opportunities to collect more information about a subject before taking a decision.
While there are significant problems in our country, with housing, education and the health service when writing about plans to improve things I think it’s important to explicitly recognise that so much of our society is working well; our supermarkets are full of food, there’s drinkable water in the taps, we have a functioning banking system, the electricity grid is working, the country is relatively safe and we’re living in a time of peace in Western Europe. All those things need maintaining, we can’t just assume that will always be the case though and we need to elect an MP who will ensure that threats to our way of life are headed off, thinking about how we’re going to continue fulfilling our basic needs in the future, and addressing risks which emerge. We delegate a lot of our thinking about what could go wrong, and how to plan for it, and respond, to our elected representatives so they need to make sure they are doing what most of us are not.
Cambridge’s MP has a special role in advocating for the city; and ensuring people in Cambridge can continue making their contribution to the country, and humanity. Our MP needs to play their part, along with local councillors, in ensuring the city supports the endeavours of those individuals and institutions based here. While the city’s MP doesn’t hold the transport powers, they do have a role in leadership, coordination, and making the case for national investment in and around the city and ensuring national bodies such as Highways England and Network Rail meet local needs. One specific job for Cambridge’s next MP will need to push for the city’s new stations to be served by more, appropriately timetabled, trains.
Being Cambridge’s next MP, being the person we send to take part in running the country on our behalf is a massively important job. We’re lucky to have some fantastic candidates emerging in Julian Huppert and Stuart Tuckwood; I hope we get to find out more about them, and their plans, in the coming weeks.
If there are areas I’ve not addressed, or you think I should expand, or change, do let me know in the comments, or by getting in touch directly.